Nose Art in RAF Bomber Command, 1939-1945
Eleni Eldridge-Tull | University of Birmingham
Modern bombers go into battle with emblems and mottoes painted on their sides, in the same way as the knights of old used to decorate their shields.
The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 8 October 1941.
Nose art, a popular practice amongst flying personnel in the Second World War, is part of a long tradition of modifying and personalising weaponry. In addition to official markings or insignia, airmen would often decorate the nose of an aircraft with images to honour fellow crew, family members, and partners. Crude images about the Nazis were also a popular choice. Nose art, however, was more than simply humorous images. Choosing a mascot or emblem to illustrate romantic, familial, or national identities was often a collective process for aircrew and one which could speak to the individual’s experience of RAF culture, camaraderie, and superstition.
Whilst as Simon MacKenzie (2017) has noted, the painting of the fuselage was more common in the United States Army Air Force, there remains considerable evidence of this practice amongst RAF Bomber Command in newspapers, oral testimonies, and personal photographs. In the Royal Canadian Air Force, Caitlin McWilliams (2010) argues nose art functioned to improve morale, as a ‘tangible product of camaraderie’, or as an expression of ‘defiance towards the enemy’, she convincingly demonstrates the significance of nose art affirming a distinct national identity for Canadian airmen and civilians. In RAF Bomber Command, parallels are found in the assertion of national identity and are intrinsically bound up in notions of morality and ethics. This article sheds light on the kinds of aircraft artwork present in the British context, and furthermore, the ways such practices existed as a means to express the complexities of the airman’s wartime experience and identity.
Operating under inherently modern, technological conditions, the men and women of RAF Bomber Command experienced unique and overwhelming psychological and physiological stress. Airmen existed at the interface of magic and reason, embodying romantic ideals of chivalry, whilst engaging in a total, technological war. In this operational climate, historians have frequently perceived superstition as a by-product of stress and the desire for control. Mark Connelly (2001), for instance, observes how airmen ‘clung to animal-like rituals to appease the gods of war’. Likewise, Simon MacKenzie (2017) and Vanessa Chambers (2007) each consider superstition in the context of the search for control and agency as a direct consequence of the overwhelming stresses facing aircrew. Whilst for some this was undoubtedly the case, this approach serves to discredit superstition as ‘otherwise rational men’ ‘succumb[ing] to magical thinking’ (MacKenzie, 2017). More than simply the desire for control or a way to impose order upon chaos, it is important instead to recognise superstitious beliefs and behaviours as genuine attempts to make sense of the unknown, express one’s relationship with spirituality, or articulate feelings of morality.
There was no singular process, meaning or experience to nose art. Although crews were not exclusively paired with a singular aircraft, they often grew to have favourites and even observed an informal sense of ownership over particular vessels. As such, I argue that nose art functioned in part as a kind of a cultural tool or language through which to engage with discourses of the morality of warfare. Whilst Martin Francis (2008) has suggested that ‘bomber aircrew had little opportunity or desire to visit the issue of air power ethics’ during the conflict, nose art explicitly demonstrates that this was not the case. Nose art enabled airmen to reflect, individually and collectively, on their actions and express notions of bombing as just. For some, this was the assertion of the economic necessity of their targets or a sense of pride in their craft, and for others, it was simply an expression of relief at their survival.
The presence of national and moral sentiments is often found in the naming or decorating of aircraft in line with its phonetic label. Each aircraft was coded with a letter, which aircrew would use to subsequently ascribe their aircraft a mascot, animal, or slogan in line with the corresponding meaning in the phonetic alphabet, such as ‘S’ for ‘Sugar’. Lancaster ‘K’, for instance, was dubbed ‘Killer’ and sported a fist breaking a swastika in two with a dagger, alongside seventeen smaller daggers denoting the number of operational flights undertaken. Symbolic of the bombs breaking down the Nazi regime, the fist, whilst anonymous, thus ascribes human agency to the actions of RAF Bomber Command. The choice of a handheld weapon, a dagger rather than a bomb, positions the airmen as connected to his actions and his national cause and taking ownership of them by proudly striking the Nazi symbol in the heart. Similarly, the artwork on the Halifax dubbed ‘London’s Revenge’ (fig. 1), brings together notions of nationalism, chivalry, and morality. The choice of a cartoon lion depicted with mythical wings and its tongue out, flying and holding a bomb, exhibits a sense of playfulness at the airmen’s task and a British national identity. The name ‘London’s Revenge’ incorporates righteous, retaliatory sentiments. By expressing the idea that the actions of Bomber Command were ‘revenge’ for the bombing of London, their actions were coded as moral and just.
Amongst the most common forms of nose art were rows of bombs or swastikas. These symbols were commonly used to create tallies denoting operational flights and can also be found to be marked with pints of beer, ducklings, or boomerangs. Tallies were also marked with additional symbols, perhaps distinguishing the time it was carried out, its success, or location. One of the most fascinating examples of the operational tallies comes in the form of a ‘pictorial logbook’ (fig. 2) of one crew’s operations over occupied territories. Whilst most aircrew used a singular image to note their operations, this crew marked different targets with different symbols. This included Iron Crosses for Berlin, a Lifebuoy to indicate participation in an Air/Sea Rescue Search, a Dunlop Tyre and French Flag for the Montlucon Rubber Works, a train to mark railway objectives at Modane, crowns for Hanover, a Dachshund for Frankfurt, a castle for Kassel, and a women’s shoe for Dusseldorf. Each image is a deliberate and considered marker of their objective. Whether this was the work of a single airman or a collaborative effort by the crew, each time the aircraft was used or the artwork was updated, airmen would repeatedly engage personally or collectively with this artwork and continually reflect upon its representations.
Moral and national sentiments extended into the representations of women’s bodies and pin-ups in nose art. Whilst the pin-up style is most closely associated with American nose art, it was also prevalent across RAF Bomber Command. Noting that bombers might ‘paint the name of his sweetheart’ on the fuselage, The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail also observed that airmen were just as likely to paint ‘a plump woman with a bomb under each arm’. Beyond associations with heteronormative and homosocial bonding, representations of women’s bodies on aircrafts were, therefore, coded with ideas of morality. When recalling his time as ground crew, for instance, Harry Hodgson stated that he would ‘paint these lovely girls on the aircraft…which kept all the boys happy’. Whilst illustrating how nose art could be a light-hearted or humorous tool to improve morale, this also speaks to the notion of sex and women’s bodies as a reward for martial service.
One Halifax crew even depicted the Christian figure ‘Eve’, from the story of original sin, (fig. 3), as a pin-up. Portraying Eve as a curvaceous brunette, entirely nude apart from a leaf to cover her crotch, this crew entangles virility with the righteous morality of the bomber’s task. As Eve raises her arm behind her head, she emphasises her bare chest and actively invites her onlookers. By owning her sin, the crew imposed a sense of irony to the religious figure, invoking pride in the idea of sin, and applied this to the act of Allied bombing. Another crew explicitly used Eve to speak to the morality of their national cause. Here, the crew explicitly subvert the Christian story by showing Eve alongside an apple tree, throwing a bomb towards a serpent wearing the Nazi swastika (fig. 4). This crew portrayed Eve holding the apple to distract the serpent, offering an ode to the use of decoy bombing raids. In this case, Eve becomes a symbol of the Allied cause, and illustrates their ability to make Nazi Germany (the serpent) vulnerable. By extension then, the subversion of the story of original sin invokes the idea that the Allied actions were retaliatory. Eve is responding to the work of the serpent, rejecting sin, and thus suggesting that the Allies, too, were acting in retribution. In doing so, this implies a sense of national and religious morality: the actions of Bomber Command were righteous and just in the eyes of the nation, and God.
By analysing just a fraction of the nose art in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War, the possibilities of nose art as a tool for individual and collective expression becomes clear. Able to represent a number of facets of the flyer’s wartime experience and identity, these images were used to represent ideas around nationality and morality. As a tool unique to airmen, nose art could function as a collective language to express complex feelings about their roles. The process of decorating an aircraft, and the repeated process of visual engagement, meant that airmen continually reflected on their wartime actions. To conclude, therefore, the meaning of this artwork not only comes from being observed; airmen could also use nose art as a collective language to process and to express complex facets of their wartime experience as it occurred.
 Velasco, p.120.  IBCC Digital Archive, ‘Lancaster Nose’, available online at https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/22682 [accessed 12 August 2021].
 IBCC Digital Archive, ‘Interview with Harry Hodgson’, (23 July 2017) available online at https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11113
G. Velasco, Fighting Colors: The Creation of Military Aircraft Nose Art, (Tennessee, 2010).
S. MacKenzie, Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II, (Kansas, 2017).
M. Wells, Courage and Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War, (London, 1995).
M. Francis, The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945, (Oxford, 2008).
C. McWilliams, ‘Camaraderie, Morale, and Material Culture: Reflections on the Nose Art of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force’, Canadian Military History, 19, 4 (2010), pp.20-30.
V. Chambers, ‘‘Fighting Chance: War, Popular Belief and British Society 1900-1951’, (PhD Thesis, University of London, 2007).
Eleni Eldridge-Tull is a third year PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham. Her research explores the subjective experience of masculinities, selfhood, and spirituality within the Royal Air Force in Britain during the Second World War. Her research has also been awarded the RAF Museum’s Henry Probert Bursary.