Identity in the Air: The Nose Art of the Royal Canadian Air Force by Caitlin McWilliams

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I first became intrigued with the concept of nose art when the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s B-25 Mitchell bomber “Grumpy” visited my hometown of Windsor, Ontario, about eight years ago for an air show. Like you may expect, her name alluded to the most ill-tempered of Snow White’s companions and the design showcased the dwarf in a blue outfit with thick white beard. The fairy tale character’s testy demeanour seemed fitting for the aircraft’s growly engines. Yet in May 2009, after years of being “Grumpy” she became “Hot Gen.” Apparently the aircraft had spent a long period under “Hot Gen” before her more recent Disney inspired stint. For the museum, then, returning to the old adage was an ode to an aviation legacy; but for me, the discovery that “Grumpy” had not always been “Grumpy” was disheartening. Changing the nose art not only changed the look of the aeroplane, but it also seemed to give the aircraft an entirely new personality. Since then, I have wondered if nose art existed for practical reasons, perhaps providing airmen a sense of fondness to their aircraft in a similar way as what I had experienced myself. At the same time, I have struggled to comprehend the appeal behind something so temporary and ephemeral, yet so evocative. This dichotomy, combined with an affinity for vintage aircraft, led me to focus my Masters research around the concept of Canadian nose art and the bomber crew mentality of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the contingent of fourteen Canadian bomber squadrons formed to serve within RAF Bomber Command.

The practice of decorating and naming instruments of war predates recorded history, evolving through cultures as both a ritual of personalization and a tactical device. While this military tradition began in the First World War for practical reasons as a way to identify friendly aircraft, it grew during the Second World War to such a degree the era has been deemed the “Golden Age” of military nose art. In a general sense, it has been accepted that nose art functions as a morale device, encouraging camaraderie and a bond between men and their aircraft. Yet popular imagination of this trend often recalls American bombers or British fighters showcasing busty pin-up girls or Betty Grable-esque movie gals done up in bright colours with flirty faces and showing plenty of leg. Indeed, images of scantily-clad women were the most common topic chosen by the young men, and the nose art found on 6 Group aircraft certainly followed this trend:

From centerfold to nose art: 1) Varga pin-up from the January 1943 edition of Esquire magazine 2) NA-S “Sugar’s Blues” of 428 Squadron as she appeared in November 1944. 3) Replica of “Sugar’s Blue” by artist Clarence Simonsen.

The flying ladies have been a focus for aviation enthusiasts for decades and will likely continue to intrigue those interested in masculinity during wartime; yet, with my research I hope to contribute more to this more common approach by looking at the practice of nose art from a different perspective. I considered the unique circumstances placed on the young men of 6 Group and the possible ramifications on morale in the post-1943 RCAF overseas. I then reflected on the growing status of aviation consciousness on the Canadian home front and the growing civilian intrigue for the air war. When I began to look through the 400 or so examples of nose art I had collected, I noticed a trend. Not only did a great deal of the designs evoke a sense of a national or even regional connection to Canada and Canadian culture, but they also showcased individual squadron mottos, nicknames, and symbols in the nose art. As I researched further, I realized that the majority of these designs were actually reflecting on the 1943 campaign in Canada to name and adopt the newly amalgamated squadrons of 6 Group.

As Canadianization took effect on 1 January 1943 and Canadian airmen were shuffled into squadrons to serve under the RCAF, a campaign to link regions and cities with the converted RCAF squadrons swept across the nation. Though it was not part of official RCAF policy, the RCAF Overseas section allowed and facilitated the naming and adopting of squadrons believing it would encourage a Canadian espirit de corps. Under the War Charities Act, clubs, cities, regions, and associations could choose a single squadron and “sponsor” it by sending overseas various amounts of funds, comforts, and foodstuff for the airmen. This program grew to forge a valuable link between Canadian airmen overseas and Canadian civilians on the home front. By the end of 1943, all the squadrons of 6 Group could claim to be supported by official sponsors residing all over Canada. The interconnectedness of both fronts and the constant correspondence between civilians and airmen- overseas and homefront- is evident through the success of this sponsorship campaign and the amount of nose art which links a squadron to their adoptive cohort. An examination of these designs offers greater insight into the link between home and abroad, and is part of my Masters research project on the promotion of the air war in Canada.

1) QO-L “Leaside Lulu,” who looks like she’s about to undress, represented the town of Leaside, Ontario in none other than 432 “Leaside” Squadron. 2) The City of Kingsville, Ontario adopted 408 “Goose” Squadron. Lancaster EQ-G was named “Miss Kingsville.” Her name was written on the nose alongside an elaborate painting of 408’s crest. Above “Miss Kingsville,” an RCAF roundel, and at the brink of the nose the identification “G for George” has turned into “G for Goose.” 3) 428 “Ghost” Squadron was adopted by the Imperial order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) representing Toronto, Ontario. The crest of the organization can be seen on the nose.

One example of squadron sponsorship I have investigated extensively is the adoption of 424 “Tiger” Squadron by the city of Hamilton and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. Founding my research on an 258 page unpublished scrapbook maintained by the Chamber allowed me to delve into a comprehensive collection of correspondence between the squadron, its airmen, city residents, and Chamber members. I found it intriguing to corroborate the information found in the scrapbook with actual newspaper coverage published at the time in the Hamilton Spectator. In this way, I was able to trace the adoption process as a proposed idea on 3 November 1943, to the naming of “Tiger” squadron, as it manifest into an actual movement on 23 May 1944 with the creation of the Hamilton Tiger Squadron Fund on 15 June, and as it sent monthly parcels of chocolate bars, gum, Lifesavers, and cigarettes until 21 November 1944. Letters from airmen themselves and family members spoke of the kindness of the Fund, while letters sent in return from the Chamber were gracious for the squadron’s sacrifices. The process, in the words of 424 Squadron’s Commanding Officer, made it “difficult to determine who plays the most important part in this war effort- the morale builders at home, the boys who fly on operations, or the people who keep the aircraft serviceable.”  (Click Here Article written for the Hamilton Spectator by Squadron Leader T.C McCall, published on 2 November 1943. What resulted from this article was the adoption of 424 Squadron by the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario.)

An examination of 424’s nose art demonstrates this notion of self-reflection and a mutual appreciation. Since they shared the tiger motif, 424 and the Hamilton Flying Wildcats Rugby-Football team quickly became affiliates. For this reason, a Lancaster coded QB-A’s “A-Train” was inspired by the Flying Wildcats and featured a rendition of the Wildcat on its nose against a maple leaf background. In another attempt to draw attention to the Tigers, Ferguson also painted a sort of “aircraft graffiti” on a 4000 pound “cookie” bomb for 424 Squadron to celebrate its 2000th operation. On 21 March 1945, “An Easter Egg for Hitler” debuted to the public in the newspaper photo showing the crew of “V for Victor” huddled around the decorated bomb. It was later dropped on an oil refinery near Heide, Germany, by their Lancaster “Victorious Virgin.” Events like these offered a chance for the squadron to relay their accomplishments back home and show their sponsors what their money, time, and efforts were making possible. The nicknaming of the squadron as “Tiger” squadron also emphasized the groups own personal sense of self, as much of their nose art focused on the tiger symbol.

1) Nose art painted by Leading Aircraftsman Matthew Ferguson, who also drew designs on various 424 Squadron aircraft. It featured the Wildcat team logo in the appropriate white, black, and yellow. 2) “Cookie bomb,” art depicting a winged tiger. 3)“The ‘Ell Cat,” also by Matthew Ferguson, showcased a yellow, white, and black, almost comical version of a tiger. He holds a single bomb as a red and green maple leaf serves as his background. The image is fitting with the squadron motto: “We chastise those who deserve to be chastised.”

In the words of Flying Officer Jack McIntosh of 419 “Moose” Squadron, who designed a unique piece of Disney nose art for his crew, “the name and nose art made it feel she was ‘our’ aircraft and would always bring us home.” The significance of nose art as a moral device is clear; yet, besides fourteen panels on display at the Canadian War Museum, vintage nose art does not exist today in its original form. This is partially because nose art was adaptable and accommodating, there when the airmen needed it but gone as soon as the war was finished. All we have today are replicas, a selection of pieces salvaged from scrapyards, and period photos to remind us that nose art even existed as a form of material culture. As I continue my research on Canadian aviation culture during the Second World War, I hope to expand my focus to situate the practice of nose art within the larger context of the air war. In this way, nose art can be viewed both as a cultural practice and as a lens through which to better understand how Canadian airmen viewed themselves as bomber crews, as civilians, and as Canadians.

A selection of the fourteen panels of nose art on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, along the hallway leading to the LeBreton Gallery. At war’s end many aircraft were sent to scrapyards for disposal; luckily, an RCAF Flight Lieutenant named Harold H. Lindsay managed to save these pieces of nose art from Handley-Page Halifax’s. They are the only known pieces of authentic Canadian nose art in existence.

Further Reading:

Canadian War Museum, “Democracy at War,” http://www.cwm.gov.ca.

John Armstrong, “RCAF Identity in Bomber Command,” Canadian Military History, (8:2, Spring 1999), 43-55.

Steven Fochuk, Metal Canvas: Canadians and World War II Aircraft Nose Art, (St. Catharines: Vanwell Publishing, 2000).

Jeffrey Keshen, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004).

Clarence Simonsen, RAF and RCAF Nose Art In WWII. (Winnipeg: Hikoki Publications,  2002).

Jonathan Vance, High Flight: Aviation and the Canadian Imagination. (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2002).

* Photos taken from Clarence Simonsen, RAF and RCAF Nose Art and my personal collection.

Caitlin McWilliams is finishing her MA at WLU and is a student associate of the LCMSDS



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7 Comments

  1. Chris Insoll -  May 12, 2012 - 11:31 am 588

    My mother R M Barry nee Elias later Insoll may have been part of the ground crew for the Easter Egg for Hitler as I have A photo of it taken by her. Is it possible to verify this. I have other photos which include her.
    I hope you do not mind this enquiry,
    Best wishes …Chris Insoll

    Reply
  2. Rob Campbell -  May 27, 2012 - 3:29 pm 648

    Very interesting site. I too have had an interest in noseart for sometime. I would be interested in knowing if in your collection of photos if you have one of 424 Squadron QB Y known as “Bombing Yokum” depicting Mammy Yokum from the Lil Abner comic strip? My father took QB Y to St Leu d’Esserant on 5 August’44. Can you tell me if the scrapbook from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce is available for viewing? lastly as a note, QB A “the A Train was not a lancaster but rather a Halifax Mark III. Dad was the skip of QB A the night it was lost on operations returning from Braunshweig 12/13 August’44.
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon. Rob

    Reply
    • Elizabeth -  November 8, 2012 - 5:25 pm 1389

      My father was Eric Brown F/O J24772 and he piloted Bombing Yokum which was shot down June 28th, 1944 over Reims in France… so if this is the plane you are referring to it was not still up in the air by August… ??? I may have photos…we did a reconstruction of the logo for T-shirts for my Dad on one of his anniversaries… using his instructions it turned out quite well…. we then also had it added onto a large painting of a Halifax… which now hangs in my niefew’s living room

      Reply
    • Willi Reichert -  December 18, 2015 - 6:09 am 28486

      Hello Rob. Your old e- mailadress at the university doesn´t functionable. I have found you know here in the form. I Hope my message is coming on well by you.Hello Rob. In the last weeks I have often remember me about the Halifx crash from your father. Weeks ago here in the near was another shotdowncrash in the second world war a story in the newspaper. People in Fischerhude have made on this place a remembering point. I will also made this in Riepholm. What do you think. Is all ok. by you and your family? many greetings from Willi

      Reply

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