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Sunday, 13 October 2013


 14 snapshots of World War 2 aircraft from Canada
 “If I had to choose, I’d rather have birds than airplanes”
Charles Lindberg
 “There are only two emotions on a plane: boredom and terror.”
Orson Welles

Back in the dark days of World War 2 children, by which we mean boys, were urged to learn to identify planes by their silhouettes. This made a lot of sense in England or France, where distinguishing a Messerschmidt from a Spitfire could be a matter of life or death, but the practice extended to the Australian wheatbelt, where schoolrooms had posters showing German planes, as though the arrival of a squadron of Stukas on the horizon was imminent. Of course, the Government would be remiss if it told everyone out in Merredin they were safe, especially after the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942, but one effect of all of this is that men in their seventies and eighties can still identify aircraft they haven’t seen in the sky for decades. We youngsters can’t tell the difference between a Lancaster and a Manchester but there are people who can not only read the silhouette, they can remember the precise sound each plane made at night.

These snapshots of aircraft were bought in one envelope in Canada. There are three sizes; the square format, the rectangular 120 format and the slightly larger prints that could be enlargements from a 35mm camera. The difference is important because each has its particular look. The photos from the last category are studies of aircraft; those from the more typical 120 format images have more action in them. This suggests there were three photographers at work and later someone collated all the photos into one album. 

Most of the planes carry the typical Allied insignia of the tricoloured roundel though two have the American symbol of the star within stripes and one is of a German plane. Some of them could have been taken post-war, when air forces around the world were on medium alert. It’s times like these I wish I had the skills of an old plane spotter, or at least the Observer Book of World War 2 Aircraft on hand. The Internet is becoming increasingly useless, jammed up as it is with E bay sales, advertising and irrelevant sites that use a popular algorithm, so it takes longer to find that actually useful site that has clear images and information. 

This plane, for example, looked very familiar. I could tell it was a small transporter or a trainer but I couldn’t quite identify it and I got bored filtering out the dozens of E bay pages advertising photos of World War 2 aircraft. Then, in that state of mind that is part boredom, part curiosity, I wondered if I could identify it from its serial number. At once I was taken to a site listing as many serial numbers of Canadian military aircraft as the owner had found. I had no idea there is a subculture of ‘aeronumeralists’ around the world who collect this information. Thanks to R.W. Walker I was not only able to identify this as a Cessna Crane (Mark 1) but I found out that in early 1942 it was based at the No. 15 Service Flying Training School at Claresholm, Alberta until it sustained damage. After repairs it was sent to the No.2 Air Command near Winnipeg, Manitoba. I found an aerial shot of the training school at Claresholm. Unfortunately there aren’t enough background details in this photo to confirm or refute that this was taken there.

It took a bit of luck but I can say, almost for certain, this rather excellent shot is of a Hawker Tempest taking off or landing. Notice the light outer band on the roundel. This was a type A-1 roundel, used on all aircraft painted with camouflage so that friendly pilots could identify them as RAF. It was one thing for a boy to spot an allied plane from the ground, quite another for a pilot in battle, particularly on aircraft like the Tempest, which has that classic streamlined ‘fighter’ look shared by Focke Wulfs that could easily be misjudged in a dogfight.

This of course is the Spitfire; the plane that won the Battle of Britain, as the English will know. Even people who have absolutely no interest in World War 2 or aircraft know the Spitfire. Though this image doesn’t show off its best side, it was a beautiful looking machine. An interesting aside about the Spitfire: there are various accounts of squadrons of perfectly good Spitfires that in 1945 were dismantled, packed in grease and buried in the Burmese jungle, on Pacific islands and the Australian desert. Men have devoted their lives to reading every skerrick of information they can find and scraping together the funds to mount expeditions in search of them. Disappointment drives them harder. The stories may only be legend but they tell us something about the mythic status of this plane. It’s hard to believe anyone would get that excited over any other aircraft.

The Stuka; the scourge of the skies as any young lad reading comics in the 1940s well knew. It was a dive-bomber, designed for striking at small targets like farmhouses or convoys and it had a sinister attachment, a siren that picked up volume as the plane descended and terrified anyone within range. A captured Stuka like this would be cause for celebration. There’s a bit of history to this scene. Underneath the plane is a placard that is mostly obscured but what can be read is French. Given the photo was bought in Montreal, it would be logical to assume that was where the photo was taken, and a bit of research reveals that during the war a Stuka was parked outside the grand Sun Life building on Dorchester Square and used as an attraction to raise war bonds. Meanwhile, three floors down in a high security vault lay Britain’s gold reserves. Once again: the Internet may be a pain if you want to identify a plane but excellent for discovering trivial yet vital bits of information. 

Aircraft were first used for fighting in the First World War; something you can safely assume everyone knows. Less talked about were the British exercises in Waziristan in the early 1930s, when the Empire decided to train its pilots by having them bomb villages in Afghanistan. Of course this wasn’t genocide. The British weren’t trying to wipe out the Waziris, merely see if bombers could accurately pinpoint a home or a schoolhouse in a raid. Behind their thinking was the inevitable war with Germany and from about 1935 onwards a massive amount of funding and research went into air war technology. For those of us who like to think we know something but can’t call ourselves experts, it’s surprising how far research into aeronautics was before the war. Jet aircraft were practicable and so was the idea of massive aircraft carriers transporting hundreds of planes. Folding wing airplanes like this one that could take up less space on a carrier were being designed as early as the 1920s. Had war been delayed for just a year it is likely it would have been conducted under entirely different terms.

One of the technologies being worked on prior to the war was this curiosity, the Cierva C.30 autogyro, or to give it the British name, the Avro Rota. We have to do that because the inventor, Juan de la Cierva, wasn’t too bothered who bought his patent hence there were British, French, Russian and German variants. Unlike helicopters, autogyros had a rotor at the top and a propeller at the front. Their actual use in the war isn’t clear but they only needed a short runway and were probably useful for low altitude reconnaissance, including photography. Although governments bought and manufactured quite a few they weren’t often used, which explains why they are more common today than some more famous aircraft.

I didn’t need a reference to tell me this was a Mustang. Any boy who wasted a good part of the early 1970s reading Commando comics and watching Richard Widmark turn Japanese jungle hideouts into smouldering ruins would recognize it at once. It was the American fighter, what the Spitfire was for Britain, the Zero for Japan and so on. So it’s a little disconcerting to discover that the US was selling the Mustang to Britain in 1940, two years before it entered the war, and that, while the British thought it good, it wasn’t until they replaced the American engines with their own that it actually became useful. Tell that to the Marines.

The Lockheed Electra: the plane that Amelia Earhart flew partways over the Pacific before she didn’t. Really, I don’t like to excoriate our American friends (not when they are doing a good job of that themselves right now) but when you consider those iconic machines of the 1940s, the Pontiac, the Harley Davidson, the Lockheed Electra, there was always a foreign make that was faster, more fuel efficient and manoeuvrable or, in other words, better. I don’t think you’d call the Electra a beautiful plane the same way you would the Spitfire or the Mustang but it looked rugged and most of the time it was dependable. I imagine Ms Earhart climbed into her particular plane confident it would get her across the Pacific; not realizing it had a weak ticker. 

I’m stuck trying to identify this plane but it’s a good image. It reminds me a bit of Gustave le Gray’s famous photos of the French army doing manoeuvres one misty morning in the 1860s. The figures are just close enough to be definable but too distant to make out exactly what they are doing. It’s hard to say what kind of plane it is. It looks like a Douglas DC3 or a Dakota though the tailplane is noticeably tilted upwards. Let’s just say it’s one of those snapshots that has numerous flaws yet couldn’t be improved on.

Another aircraft an amateur enthusiast could probably identify in a flash, as would a young boy in an Australian wheatbelt town 70 years ago. While this set of images might have been used for some form of government record, it’s worth noting that the photographer made a point of showing the planes best faces, as it were. This makes me think he or she might well have been someone on ground crew who loved the planes for their beautiful design. Who can blame them? The war might have been hell but its technology was something to admire. That said, it’s a bit odd that someone would be allowed to freely photograph around airbases in the middle of a war. What looks to us like innocuous details in the landscape may have been valuable information for German saboteurs.

 One of those details we can easily overlook is that most of the photos we have of the wreckage of aircraft from our side – whether we were Allies or Axis – come from landings on home ground. Well, when a British plane crashed in Germany it was difficult to go over to the other side and get the evidence. Ten airmen were killed in flying accidents at Claresholm, including six Australians and three British. This might well be the wreckage from one of those flights. 
Clearly, far from answering questions, a set of photos like this only provokes them. One thing that might help would be to return to the flea market and buy the rest. Maybe an answer lies with them.  


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