I call this the Ghosts of ’43 for reasons I hope become obvious. Astute, and regular readers will already know of my interest in military history and the study of war. I have been interested ever since I was a kid. Modern warfare, the First and 2nd World Wars especially fascinated me.
One of my particular areas of interest was the strategic bombing campaign of WWII, particularly the daylight campaign waged by the US 8th AAF, in their Flying Fortress B17s an their Liberator B24s, not to mention the fighters, the Thunderbolts, the Lightnings and the ubiquitous Mustangs. I have spent many an hour visiting old WWII airfields from which these aircraft flew. There are literally hundreds of them scattered around eastern England, from Essex to Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, with a massive concentration around Suffolk and Norfolk. Indeed, Duxford is one of the most famous of all, having first been commissioned 100 years ago, for the RAF and now has a reputation as one of the finest air museums in the world.
Of course, many of the bases have been destroyed, or repurposed. A large number are now “industrial estates” or farmland or warehouse storage, but the landscape of East Anglia, where these fliers were based is ideally suited. Very flat, open terrain with often a stiff breeze coming in from the north sea, providing lift to the overladen “ships” of the Mighty 8th.
Many of you will already be familiar with the film Memphis Belle, but if you’re even a little bit interested, do try and see the original documentary by William Wyler, and the excellent 12 O’Clock High, starring Gregory Peck (written by Bierne Lay, who was a Lt Col in the 306th BG.)
This painting is a view I took… oh it has to have been back in the very early 90s.. if memory serves, it was Rackheath in Suffolk – part that hadn’t been redeveloped. It was very overgrown, weeds breaking through cracks in the concrete and the expansion joints awash with grasses of all sorts. It was colourfully drab. I remember standing out there and wondering what it must be like to have lived and flown from that base – and of course we shouldn’t ever forget the ground crews, medical staff and administrators who also worked to keep the bases working, often preparing planes for “maximum effort” after “maximum effort.”
When I painted this, I remembered the colours. My original photo was rather beaten up and never extremely high quality. But as I painted it (it took me a few afternoons) I felt compelled to watch 12 O’Clock High again and then put in the planes as an afterthought. I chose Liberators, rather than Fortresses because I’ve got a soft-spot for the Lib. To me, they are the unsung hero of the world’s greatest bombers – some 12,000 units were produced, more than any other bomber in history but they have been overshadowed by the B17, despite performing equally as well, if not marginally better.
Having opted to put the planes in, I felt the need to evoke something of the landscape… the dreary abandon… and I immediately imagined them coming home from a raid over northern France or maybe Bremen or the Ruhr valley. Returning planes would land in order of need. Those with wounded took priority over those with mechanical damage and those with both substantial damage and wounded would get first opportunity. They would signal their need by firing flares as they took up landing positions, red for wounded, white for damage. You can see the lead ship has big trouble, only one wheel down and wounded aboard. She’ll get priority and landing a Lib on “one leg” is a greater challenge than with a Fort, due to the high aspect wing. We don’t know if she’ll make it but we do know that every person on that base will be watching and praying she does.