A picture is worth 1166 words, and here’s my attempt at explaining one with them…
This is my favourite picture of all time.
It shows three aircrew from No 19 Sqn RAF and was taken during the height of the Battle of Britain, when 19 Sqn was deployed forward at Fowlmere from it’s home base of RAF Duxford. It forms part of a set of pictures, where the photographer moves around the three aircrew immediately after their return from a sortie in the heady days of 1940.
Why do I like this picture so much? It’s the history. It’s the way it encapsulates the great events that are taking place right then. It is war photography at it’s very best. I can identify two of the aircrew; the Squadron Leader facing directly at the camera is Brian ‘Sandy’ Lane, and the Flight Sergeant looking at him with the cigarette in his mouth is George ‘Grumpy’ Unwin. I have written about both a lot in the past, as they are both such heroes of mine.
The one thing I want to re-iterate though is that Brian Lane is just 23. Yes you read that right. 23. Not a typo. The strain of the battle is etched deep into his face…the fact that he’d just been given leadership of the squadron after the original CO had been killed can only have added to that strain.
You can see that they have just returned from a flight by the fact that Brian’s Mae West life jacket is still done up. The first thing he has wanted to do is get a cigarette on. It appears to be the most important thing. He seems to register the photographer, but is content to stare through him. His mind is clearly on matters in the air, and not on the ground. I wonder if he is actually listening to whatever it is that Grumpy Unwin is actually saying.
Grumpy was a bluff Yorkshire man and a proud NCO-aircrewman. He has joined Brian late and hasn’t even lit his cigarette yet, or else is going through the process of putting his cigs away if he has. What that paper in his hand is, who knows, but the image of him there is stark in my mind. His silk scarf is evocative of a typical fighter pilot of the time…and Brian’s spotty scarf, tied as a cravat…both of them hiding the fact they very probably had the top buttons of their shirts undone. This is forbidden in dress regs, of course, but was a necessity in the war as often they flew in the standard issue shirts with – like all shirts at that time – button on collars. These collars were heavily starched and had an unfortunate way of contracting quickly when wet. So if a pilot was shot down and ended up in ‘the drink’ – the sea – then if his shirt top button was done up, there was a great chance he would not drown but instead be strangled by his shirt.
This picture also shows that aircrew chose what they want to wear – Brian’s jacket is markedly different to Grumpy’s. In fact Grumpy’s is actually a No1 Dress Uniform Jacket. I had always been confused why, in vintage pictures of the RAF, personnel used to wear their No 1 Jacket. So confused and interested I actually asked an old RAF man a few years ago.
He told me that the Battle-Dress jackets they were given to wear were very uncomfortable. And to make matters worse they were to be worn in such a way that their jacket was to be buttoned to their trousers – almost forming a makeshift set of coveralls, but with the problem that the cut of the jacket and the way it was pulled down by the trousers meant that the wearer didn’t have full range of movement when raising his arms. Obviously this is bad thing for a fighter pilot as if he was in trouble he might need to raise his arms to pull the cockpit cover back…and if his movement was restricted…So to get round this personnel would get hold of an old No1 jacket and wear that instead.
Looking at the picture you can see that Grumpy has recently had a haircut, whilst Brian is more unkempt and has the look of hair that has recently been hidden under a close fitting hat – a flying helmet. This is not in shot and must be back in the cockpit of the Spitfire that the ground crews will be working feverishly on to turn them round for the next scramble.
But it is the most obvious thing in the picture that strikes me deepest. It is Brian’s Mae West. How creased and crumpled it is. How this flimsy and lightweight item would be his last line of safety equipment should he be shot down. Should he then manage to get out of the Spitfire – which had it’s petrol fuel tank right in front of the cockpit – an almost crazy but necessary design, and should he be high enough to be able to jump from his aircraft and then pull the cord to deploy his parachute and should that open safely and he land in the sea. It would be this that would keep him afloat and alive until he was rescued – hopefully be an RAF rescue launch…Not for these fliers was there the ‘luxury’ of being able to pull a handle and an ejection seat would launch them to safety automatically.
It is all this that makes me love this picture. It is Brian’s look almost through us as we view it that reminds us that when people talk of the Battle of Britain they mention the Spitfires and the Hurricanes. The waves of enemy bombers. They mention the dogfights and the Blitz. And they might mention ‘The Few’. Well this picture shows a couple of those Few. And it shows what war is like. It shows what war was like then and yet…if you look at pictures of today’s wars. Pictures of combatants in Afghanistan, you can see a similar look in some of their eyes. You can see that they have customised the kit that they are wearing and they have tried to make themselves more comfortable with their clothes. They maybe have broken a dress regulation or two, but in a combat situation, who really cares about dress regs. And you can see that today they have their last time of safety kit still, but instead of a life jacket for in the water they are wearing combat body armour.
Wars change. Clothes change. The combatants change. But the soldiers, sailors, airman and marines who fight in those wars still face the same fears, dangers and strains of fighting as they did then. But this picture reminds me that that hard work that all of us in the forces put in is worth it. To be the best at what we do. And that’s why these two are such heroes to me. They inspire me today to try to do what they did then.