Article by Rich Thistle ©
Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang, Typhoon. Machines of beauty and danger. These were some of the legendary fighter aircraft flown by Canadian fighter pilots in World War II. Even the names carry an electrical charge,recalling events of heroic proportions. In my paintings I am often inspired to catch the irony - the beauty and the danger - of the fighter aircraft of World War II. I am inspired too by those who flew and maintained them. It would be difficult not to be.
Canadian achievements in the air in World War II equaled, or perhaps (for our size) surpassed, those of any Allied country. Developing from the smallest of Canada’s three services in 1939 to the fourth largest air force of the Allied powers in 1945, the accomplishments of the RCAF were legion.
Well over one quarter of a million young Canadians took part in every major air theater of operations overseas and undertook the mammoth tasks of training Allied air crew and the protection of shipping and transportation. Canadian air personnel were also involved in defense of Canada on two long coastlines. They flew and maintained every kind of aircraft under questionable and sometimes downright impossible conditions. They were ordinary men and women asked to do the extraordinary. And,as a Canadian, I am proud to say they did it all extraordinarily well.
Some Canadians are familiar with the names of a few of our own fliers who rose above the rest in their accomplishments in the air. But even names such as George “Buzz”Beurling, Canada’s ranking “ace” of WWII, with over thirty-three victories, or Richard Audet, who, in a Spitfire on December 29,1944, became an instant “ace”, downing five German fighters on one sortie, are probably unknown to most Canadians.
But, for each air accomplishment of heroic proportions, there were thousands of “ordinary” pilots who flew, outside the glare of publicity, day after day, with quiet, resolute determination. Most of their stories will never be written or celebrated. Although my World War II paintings sometimes focus on heroic deeds done by famous fliers, I also want my work to successfully depict the stalwart flying service of those “ordinary” airmen like my good friend Len Wilson, of Stratford. It was he who inspired my painting 442 SCRAMBLE BENY-SUR-MER.
I met Len one evening in 1988. He came to my house along with some other former RCAF types who had been “recruited” by another friend to share with me their memories and expertise about wartime service. To say the least, it was an interesting evening. To a man, I was impressed with their humility and their unstinting willingness to assist me in any way they possibly could.
I was especially impressed with Len. This first meeting has blossomed into what I consider a very special relationship. My father, Cal, served briefly in the RCAF in 1943, until his father who was working the family farm (minus his three sons who were all in the service) suffered a stroke. As the youngest brother, my dad had to leave the air force and come back to the farm. Since my father’s death in 1986, Len has generously taken up some of the slack. I consider myself very fortunate to have such a friend.
Leonard Hardie Wilson was born and raised in Stratford Ontario. While finishing high school in 1941, he was working as an office boy at the CNR Station. In 1942, after first applying for the navy, he signed up with an RCAF mobile recruiting office which had come to Stratford, quickly joining thousands of other like-minded young men at RCAF Manning Pool in Toronto.
The next few months at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan bases at Dunnville,Goderich, Toronto and Uplands (Ottawa) were filled with the training and schooling required to become a proficient combat pilot. Lots of marching,lots of math, and lots of flying. Len flew DeHaviland Tiger Moths and North American Harvards and was posted to a home defence Eastern Air Command Hurricane squadron,No. 127,at Dartmouth NS in November 1943.
By early 1944, he was in Britain undergoing operational training on Spitfires and Hurricanes. On July 13, 1944, D-Day plus 31, he boarded an Anson for the over-the-channel hop, joining No. 442 Squadron (RCAF) to fly Spitfires from the forward airfield at Ben-Sur-Mer. He was 21 years old. Two days later he flew his first four operational sorties patrolling the invasion area, beginning the long march to Germany. Flying patrols, armed recce’s, top cover on daylight raids and ground support missions, Len finished his tour on North American Mustang Mk.IV’s with 1 damaged and a shared victory over a FW-190. After the war Len acquired his teaching degree, but rejoined the RCAF when the Korean conflict began, and remained in the air force until 1970 flying Mustangs and Canada’s long-range maritime patrol aircraft of the day, the Argus.
Len’s story is, no doubt, fairly typical of thousands of young men who flew fighter aircraft during World War II. Each could probably tell a story filled with moments of high adventure and low despair, moments of intense activity and mind-numbing boredom, moments of friendship and loneliness, all punctuated by moments of near terror. Air combat is often characterized as a confusing, abrupt, 300-mph adrenaline rush with the flavor of bedlam, tempered by the ever-present instinct of self-preservation.
To come out the other end was by no means a certainty. Moreover, if they were fortunate enough to make it through a 200-hour tour (averaging 100-150 sorties) many of these pilots may have found a “nil” in their victory statistics. I was recently privileged to read a letter written to Len by a former squadron mate, bemoaning - good-naturedly or seriously, I’m not sure - the fact that he had accumulated no victories over hostile aircraft. Furthermore, he complained, he had never even had contact with the enemy in the air.
Len’s answer to him made good sense. He pointed out that there were many fliers who scored “zero”. Many of them flew “number two” to a ranking or senior pilot and were ordered to stick like glue (cover his anterior) while their “number one” searched the sky for “Jerry”. It took so much attention simply to fly “number two” that chances of being shot down were consequently much higher, and of engaging the enemy in the air much lower.
In fact a few famous “aces” were quite notorious for losing wingmen. Flying as their “number two” would not be a sought-after honor. It was also well known that a few “aces” were not team players, but “loners”, who would ignore orders and search out action sometimes to the detriment of their own squadron mates.
My painting 442 SCRAMBLE BENY-SUR-MER is a tribute to fighter squadrons who spearheaded and supported the final campaign to liberate Europe from the German yoke. It depicts three Spitfire Mk IX’s scrambling from a forward, “meadow” airfield in France in the busy days after D-Day. It’s generally common knowledge that by this time in the war, aircraft no longer flew in elements of three, but in two’s and four’s (two elements of two aircraft). The fact that only three (a pleasingly aesthetic number by the way) are shown may mean, from the artist’s point of view, that the fourth was a bit down field, out of the frame of reference. But, as Len tells it, from the fliers point of view, the fourth pilot might well have been temporarily incapacitated.
Here’s how Len tells it. He says a pilot he “knows intimately” was suffering from dysentery,the curse sweeping through the ranks at the time. Squatting down behind a bush on the periphery of the airfield, he was startled to look down field and see an element of three Spitfires taking off. “I wonder who the fourth is supposed to be,” he thought casually to himself. Suddenly the jolting answer came to him. “Oh my gosh, it’s me!” Talk about being caught with your pants down! NOTE:
Len Wilson died in 2012. I will miss him until the day I sail off to Valhalla.
The painting 442 SCRAMBLE BENY-SUR-MER was published as my first limited-edition reproduction, and I’m proud to say that each print was co-signed by F/O Len Wilson. 442 SCRAMBLE BENY SUR MER
- limited edition lfine-art print available in catalog