Article by Don B. Smith

I

mmortalized in books, movies, and song, the practice of applying illustrative graphics to aircraft during wartime has existed almost since the Wright Brothers took to the sky at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, and J.A.D. McCurdy piloted the Silver Dart off the icy surface of Bras d’Or Lake at Baddeck, Nova Scotia in 1909.

During the First World War the French ace Georges Guynemer named his SPAD S.VII “Old Charles.”

American Captain Eddie Rickenbaker flew with the 94th Fighter Squadron, famous for the “Hat in the Ring” symbol painted on each of the squadron’s aircraft. Canadian ace Raymond Collishaw commanded “B” Flight of No. 10 Naval Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service. Known as “The Black Flight,” each of its Sopwith Triplanes was painted black, and black was used as the first element in the name of each plane. Collinshaw’s aircraft was “Black Maria,” in stunning contrast to the flamboyant all-red Fokker DR.1 Triplane flown by Baron Manfred Von Richtofen and Herman Göring’s all-white Fokker D.VII.

The practice of painting distinctive art on aircraft reached a peak in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Begun almost as soon as war was declared in September, 1939, nose art was not officially recognized by the Royal Air Force until about a year later. Initially, nose art was limited in size to a ten-inch square, small even on fighter aircraft, and scarcely visible on a large four-engine bomber. As losses mounted, nose art was seen as a morale-booster for the crews who flew over enemy territory almost nightly and size limits were allowed to expand beyond the original ten inches on most bombers.

The creativity of the bomber crews, fighter pilots, and members of the ground crews who serviced and maintained the aircraft was exceptional. Starting out as a chalk outline and painted free-hand, nose art was as varied as the artists who created it and the crews who flew the aircraft. Often humorous, even witty, at times menacing and insulting to the enemy, at other times poignant reminders of home, nose art often defied conventional boundaries. Slightly rebellious against authority and the social values of the day nose art was, first and foremost, an inspiration to those who flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force, a way of removing the anonymity of their jobs and of shouting to all, “We are here!”

Generally the artistic interpretation of emotional concepts as diverse as love and threats of death from the skies, and the application of a name or other identifying symbol to an aircraft, created a personality, and gave the aircraft an identity as unique as that of the pilot and crew who flew it. It became an extension of themselves, individually or collectively, and their own special way of bonding as none other for their own survival.

Some aircraft remained anonymous, others were simply adorned with the names of their wives or sweethearts, or with the names of the men themselves, at or near the positions the crewmen occupied in the aircraft. In one example the crew positions were marked by the nicknames of each crewman. “The Head” represented the navigator’s position, “The Voice,” that of the radio operator; the pilot and flight engineer’s places were indicated by their nicknames “Romeo” and “Doc” respectively. In almost all cases operations were marked as a record of operations completed, and a reminder of those yet to come. These “tallies,” one for each operation flown, were marked by small symbols indicating night or day flights, sea-mine operations or supply drops. While small bomb symbols were the usual method of recording operations, tea-cups, beer mugs, palm trees, hatchets, and other images related to the name or nose art of the aircraft were used. Air gunners also decorated their positions with “kill marks,” indicating the number of attacking enemy fighters shot down.
Most of the aircrew who flew nightly over enemy-occupied Europe and other theatres of war were young, with the majority being between the ages of 19 and 22. While displaying a strong sense of duty, determination and courage, these young airmen were also highly creative in their approach to the art that adorned “their” aircraft. It was the machine on which their lives depended as much as the training and skill they had acquired. The personalization of the aircraft was a decision they made as one. For many crews a simple name sufficed, or the image of a fantasy girl that, as young men at war, they could all share. Pin-up girls such as those found in Esquire magazine were highly popular icons; at the other extreme were Walt Disney characters such as Goofy, Bambi, and Donald Duck, or a symbol of nobility and virtue, such as Joan of Arc. Characters in newspaper comics or Saturday afternoon movie “serials,” like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, also found their way onto aircraft at war. Al Capp’s L’il Abner, with its rich collection of hillbilly characters, and E. C. Segar’s Popeye, with the hamburger-eating J. Wellington Wimpy, were popular, especially with those who flew the twin-engine Vickers Wellington bomber, affectionately known as “Wimpy.” Some crews chose their squadron symbol, while others selected a hometown or a geographic region, or a sponsoring organization that had perhaps raised funds for the production of their aircraft. One plane carried an illustration of a stork delivering a baby in a diaper, with a bomb in each talon, a comment perhaps on the youthfulness of the crew. Most showed a maple leaf, symbolic of Canada, integrated into the art or placed nearby on the aircraft.

Although never designated as an official military occupation, as many as 35 Canadians were recognized as “Nose Artists.” Most served on operational squadrons overseas with No. 6 (RCAF) Group, stationed at air bases throughout Yorkshire in north-east England, although a few were with fighter squadrons overseas or at schools of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. Several of the artists were ground personnel, whose trade skills at servicing and arming the aircraft were equaled by their artistic talents. Of operational aircrew a full third were officers, with the highest ranking being a Squadron Leader! All had a deep commitment to each other, their unit, and to their aircraft. Some artists worked for beer at a local pub, or for a small monetary reward, others for packs of cigarettes. Most, however, did it for their craft, an expression of the times, of who they were and what they did, and the aircraft and service they represented.

Mindful of the youthful exuberance of young men at war, many squadron commanders turned a blind eye to some of the more suggestive illustrations, although some squadron padres were less forgiving. It seems odd that at a time when the overall objective of the bombing campaign was the destruction of the enemy in an effort to bring the war to an end — an effort that took the lives of approximately ten thousand Canadian crewmen in Bomber Command alone — censorship should become an issue. At the end of the war in Europe, a Canadian-built Lancaster Mk. X bomber (KB895) of No. 434 Squadron, “Lady Orchid,” flown by Flying Officer Ronnie Jenkins of Calgary, Alberta, featured a nude woman with a six-gun in each hand, astride a falling bomb. Lest the naked breasts of the young woman displayed on the nose of the Lancaster bomber offend the sensibilities of Canadians at home, two maple leaves were strategically added before the aircraft returned to Canada.
After the end of the war in Europe in early May, 1945, bomber or fighter aircraft were no longer needed. Many were returned to Canada and sent to storage depots until their fate could be determined. A small number of Canadian-built Lancaster Mk. Xs were refurbished as maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and served into the late 1950s and early 1960s on Canada’s east and west coasts. The remainder were destroyed shortly after the war or sold privately for their tires, wiring, or the fuel in their tanks. In England, thousands of aircraft were flown to disposal sites, stripped of useful parts, bulldozed into large pits, burned and then buried.

Of all the aircraft flown by members of the Royal Canadian Air Force overseas during the Second World War, only fourteen pieces of original nose art were salvaged and returned to Canada. They are on semi-permanent display today at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A large collection of replica nose art paintings, completed by Albertan Clarence Simonsen from photographs of the original aircraft “skin,” is held by the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta.

Don B. Smith is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the University of Prince Edward Island, and Saint Mary’s University. A consultant in the planning and design of exhibits for military museums, he resides in White Point, Nova Scotia

This superb crest illustration on the nose
of Halifax “Ville de Quebec” is touched up by a member of the crew.
Credit: DND CFJIC Neg.
No. PL-43952.