Article: Aviation Artwork

  • Image of crew with Gallopin' Gerty, Halifax Mk. III

    by Clarence Simonsen
    Winter, 2008, Altitude


    This is an edited version of an article Clarence Simonsen wrote for the WCAM Aviation Review Vol. 19, No. 4, December, 1993 and entitled A Short History of Nose Art. He offers a Canadian perspective of an international subject.


    Although Canadian aircrew in WWI and WWII operated within the command structure of the British, and found themselves often overshadowed by the size of the U.S. military effort, Canadians, nevertheless, were able to make their own unique and distinctive contributions to aircraft insignia and nose art.

    While the full story of aircraft insignia and nose art, being such a vast subject, cannot be covered here, it is important to give the Canadian context of that story and to show where Canada fits into its development.

    Italy was the first country to use aircraft in operational war flight, spotting Turkish troop positions on October 22, 1911. A week later, Italy began dropping bombs from aircraft. Over the next two years organized squadrons began painting squadron unit markings in black paint on the clear varnish fuselage as well as white “wound” stripes for each bullet hole an aircraft received.

    On the eve of WW I, Britain was the greatest naval power but France was the centre of world aviation. In 1912, the French initiated a system of tri-coloured roundels of the four wing positions (two upper and two lower) and equal-width stripes (bleu, blanc, et rouge) on the tail rudder. This was the very first form of aircraft identification for other pilots and ground troops.

    On August 11, 1914, the first Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aircraft landed in France to join the British Expeditionary Force. Other than the addition of factory serial numbers, little else was applied to aircraft fabric until the Royal Marines fired at their own aircraft. The need for identification became instantly apparent to British pilots and the first markings appeared in the form of Union Jacks before the end of that month.

    On December 11, 1914, the RFC adopted the French roundel, but reversed the colours.

    Soldiers in the French Motor Transport Corps were the first to paint an art form on the canvas covering their truck boxes. This personal art form, particularly those on the sides of ambulances, were very well painted depicting soldiers, Indian heads, nurses and cartoon characters. The art form was soon transferred to the air arm. French air aces were national heroes and many painted distinctive individual markings on their own aircraft, in forms similar, if not identical, to the ambulance art.

    The British seemed to have little use for individual markings and the best they could show were the names painted on presentation aircraft. British unit markings were not introduced until April 1916 and were very simple lines or devices in yellow, red, black or white. On the other hand, the Belgian, Italian, Russian and French aircraft were a colourful variety of emblems. One Russian fighter painted a nude lady as individual art.

    Canada went to war with Germany on August 4, 1914, but had neither a pilot nor aircraft in the armed forces. The Canadian Aviation Corps was formed on September 16, 1914, and was staffed with two officers, Capt. E.L. Janney of Galt, Ontario, and Lt. W.F. Sharpe of Prescott, Ontario, and one mechanic Staff/Sgt. H.A. Farr of West Vancouver, B.C. One aircraft was purchased in Massachusetts and shipped to England. Canada’s first military aircraft had no markings and upon arrival in England was placed in storage; it was later sold as scrap. Capt. Janney, with no aircraft to command, resigned and returned to Canada. Lt. Sharpe transferred to the RFC for pilot training and was killed making his solo flight in February 1915. The Canadian Aviation Corps ceased to exist on May 7, 1915.

    It was a short and not a very glorious existence, but it was long enough to score one important point: The Canadian Aviation Corps in its short history had designed and used a cap and collar badge that featured the Canadian “maple leaf.”

    Even though there was no Canadian Aviation Corps, hundreds of young Canadians still aspired to become pilots, either in the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service. Volunteers were first required to attend a civilian flying school at their own expense, and then proceed to England. Between 1915 and 1916, more than 40 officers of the famous No. 3 Naval Wing were Canadians.

    No. 10 Naval Squadron was formed in February 1917, and a month later it was stationed on the Flanders coast. In April, they moved inland where each flight decided to add some colour to the fuselage, cowling and wheel discs of their aircraft. “A” flight picked red, “B” picked black, and “C” picked blue. The newly promoted F/C of “B” flight was a Canadian, Raymond Collishaw, from British Columbia, who picked four other Canadian pilots to follow him in battle. Collishaw ordered his flight to paint their machines black. The pilots went a step further and selected names beginning with Black. Thus Ellis Reid of Toronto became “Black Roger”; Gerry Nash of Hamilton, became “Black Sheep”; J.E. Sharman of Winnipeg, was “Black Death”; Mel Alexander of Toronto took the name “Black Prince”; and Collishaw, took the name “Black Maria.”

    The famous named “Black Flight” became a familiar sight over Flanders and during June and July 1917, it destroyed 87 enemy aircraft. Their skill in combat is recorded forever, but they should also be remembered for giving Canadian squadron art to British aircraft.

    The idea of forming all-Canadian squadrons was suggested by England in 1915, but was not acted on until 1918. Nine days after the WW I November 11th armistice, No. 1 Squadron (Canadian) was formed, followed by No. 2 Squadron (Canadian) on November 25th. Four months later No. 1 Wing was created to administer the two squadrons.

    Because the Canadian government decided not to keep a peacetime air force, these units were disbanded on August 9, 1920. For the second time in history, our Canadian Air Force was gone, but not without recording an important “first.” For the first time, Canadian aircraft carried the distinctive “maple leaf” on the fuselage and tail as aircraft identification.

    Image of crew with Jumpin' Jupiter, Lancaster bomber

    At the same time that Canadian pilots were painting the first maple leaf on their aircraft, a young American lad set foot in France. Walt Disney was born in December 1901, raised on a farm in Missouri and by 1910 was living in Kansas City. When WW I began in August 1914, Disney was working on his father’s paper route and each morning he read about the war in Europe.

    In 1917, the Disney family moved to Chicago where Walt attended the Academy of Fine Arts where he took a course in cartooning. At the time, young Disney’s main wish was to join the American Expeditionary Force in France. At 15 years of age he was too young to enlist, and instead he was able in 1918 to sign on as a driver for the American Red Cross. He arrived in France days after the November 11th armistice. Over the next 11 months, Walt drove every vehicle from ambulance to five-ton truck. One can only guess the effect French motor transport canvas art had on Walt, but he painted a little soldier on his own ambulance. Disney was earning $40 a month, but soon found he could make extra money by painting the Croix de Guerre, a military honour the French established in 1918, on the back of the leather jackets at 10 francs per jacket.

    On his return from France, he found employment as a commercial artist in Kansas City and soon applied his creative genius to animated films. His feature films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Fantasia (1940) – changed the entertainment landscape and set a standard of excellence that few would equal or surpass.

    Disney continued to contribute graphics during WW II. Beginning with a request in 1939 from a U.S. Navy officer, Burt Stanley, who asked Disney to design a unit insignia for VF-7, even though the U.S. was still officially neutral. The insignia was completed and sent to the Navy unit. Then in March 1940, another Naval officer, Lt. E.S. Caldwell, asked Disney to design insignia for the new patrol torpedo boats or “Mosquito Fleet.” In April 1940, the new crest appeared on the new PT boats, but was also picked up by Popular Mechanics, Life magazine, and Mechanix Illustrated. Soon Disney received hundreds of letters not only from American units, but also from Canadian and British units. The workload became such that Disney assigned a five-man staff so his firm could keep up with the demand. Disney insignia eventually appeared across Canada from Coal Harbor, B.C. to Camp Alexander, Newfoundland.

    To understand why unofficial Disney insignia had such a large impact on Canadian aircraft you must go back to April 1, 1924 – the date when the RCAF became our fifth Air Force organization.

    The RCAF adopted the Royal Air Force command and control structure plus the use of official badges. The RAF devised a standard frame for use of all unit badges in January 1936. It featured the king’s crown above and a scroll for a motto beneath, with the approved unit badge in the middle. Any unit could submit a sample drawing for approval by the Royal Air Force Badges unit. The RCAF adopted the same format and expected units to get the approval of the inspector of RCAF Badges.

    When war began, in September 1939, many RCAF units were formed almost overnight and did not have the time to seek unit badge approval. In fact, many units have no recorded official badge or a badge approved in 1944 or 1945.

    From the outbreak of WW II, British aircraft were subject to several changes in camouflage, national markings, unit code letters and serial numbers. Individual markings were not officially permitted, but names, swastika victories and bomb silhouettes were accepted by some units before the Battle of Britain.

    The Battle of Britain was one of the most important battles of WW II. It was also an important period in the development of individual art on British aircraft. During the battle, five Hurricane squadrons joined the RAF, these were – No. 302 (Polish) WX, No. 303 (Polish) RF, No. 310 (Czech) NN, No. 312 (Czech) DU, and No. 1 (Canadian) YO. Some of these aircraft had small individual names and markings when they arrived, but the units wanted to show the country for which they were fighting.

    In August 1940, the RAF officially allowed the five Hurricane units to paint national emblems on the fuselage side close to the pilot position. This emblem was not to exceed 100 square inches in area. The rest is now history as all forms of individual art began to appear under the pilot position. (The July 5, 1941, Star Weekly is a perfect example of the correct location and type of the art that began to appear.) By 1941, the art had moved forward on the aircraft and “nose art” became its nickname.

    Image of cover of Star Weekly magazine, July 5, 1941

    I have read in American aviation magazines that there was no nose art of any sort until the American 8th Air Force arrived in England. After 20 years of research on the subject, I can state that is FALSE. At least 20 months before the first U.S. aircraft arrived in England, the British, Czech, Polish, Australian, Free French and Canadians had painted some form of nose art on their aircraft.

    This story originally appeared in the Winter, 2008 edition of Altitude.

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