Article by Rich Thistle ©

Tough & Ready the Memphis Belle by Rich Thistle ©
The Americans are good at symbols and I, for one, give them full credit for it. The American Eagle, Uncle Sam, the Stars and Stripes. These are images, universally recognized, around which Americans have rallied under the worst and best of circumstances.

If there is an aircraft which successfully symbolizes the American war in the air in World War II, it would have to be the Boeing heavy bomber, the famous B-17. Although perhaps inferior in some ways to some of its contemporaries during World War II, the 'Flying Fortress' became a true legend in her own time. Whether legend and fact actually coincide in every way is somehow unimportant. But the symbol remains etched in collective consciousness. The B-17 embodies the tough, rugged spirit of those who fought in her. Those examples which remain, flying and in museums, commemorate the resolve and sacrifice of a whole generation.

During World War II, the frontiers of flight knowledge receded at an unprecedented rate. The aviation industry was in overdrive: more speed, greater reliability, higher altitude, bigger bomb load,increased range, heavier armament. For an aircraft to remain in service for the entire war was reasonably rare, and a testament to the quality of its design. First flown in 1935, and, admittedly, somewhat obsolescent by 1945, the B-17 suffered few growing pains during its development into a very formidable aircraft, a symbol of Allied determination and strength.

Model 229, the original prototype, was Boeing’s response to a May 1934 Army Air Corps specification for a multi-engined, anti-shipping bomber to defend the nation against enemy fleets. Described by a Seattle Daily Times reporter, who was fascinated by the prominent gun positions, as “a 15 ton flying fortress”, Boeing later adopted the moniker.

With its origins in the US Army Air Corps’ doctrine of high altitude, precision daylight bombing, the new aircraft was designed to carry a load higher and faster than its contemporaries. Although the prototype, a graceful, clean, all- metal, four-engine monoplane crashed on takeoff on October 31, 1935, when someone failed to release the elevator control locks, the aircraft was so promising that an evaluation batch was ordered in 1936. By August, 1937, these 13 Y1B-17’s were delivered for evaluation and development of operational techniques. Just 23 B-17’s were in service with the Air Corps when war broke out in September, 1939. Early in 1941, 20 B-17C’s were given to Britain under the Lend Lease agreement and entered service in the daylight bombing campaign where they took a beating, as did every other type. Quickly withdrawn, the few remaining were transferred to Coastal Command.

Following Pearl Harbor, and America’s entry into the war, the United States Army Air Force entered into a period of unparalleled expansion, and soon the area of England known as East Anglia experienced the initial build-up of what was to become the largest air armada the world had ever seen. Beginning in the spring of 1942, the 8th Air Force began to gather what would eventually become a force of 3500 fighters and bombers flying out of 130 airfields carved out of the prime farmlands of south-east England. Their objective was straight forward. Over the next four years they were to hit Germany where it hurt by attacking and destroying military and industrial targets with precision, high-altitude, close-formation, daylight bombing. It was a tactic which proved to be much less successful than originally predicted, and much more dangerous than anyone could possibly have imagined.

In the early days of the daylight bombing campaign, the heavily-armed B-17 Flying Fortresses, flying in stacked-box formation, were thought to be so strongly armed as to be able to fly unimpeded to and from their targets, impervious to defending fighters. However, the British in their C’s had discovered early that the heavily-armed Fortress was still susceptible to attack.

The new B-17D’s would carry improved defensive armament, and added armor plate and self-sealing fuel tanks. Having noted the RAF operational reports on their B-17C’s, a completely new Fortress became operational as a result. The B-17E had the enlarged tail which would improve high-altitude bombing accuracy, a deeper rear fuselage section, and the defensive armament increased again, including the addition of a tail turret and the Sperry ball-turret under the belly. Another crew member - a gunner - was added, bringing the full compliment to 10.

The B-17F, with its frameless Plexiglas nose and other improvements was the first mark to be built in significant numbers (over 3400 were built by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed Vega). However, the definitive Flying Fortress, bristling with thirteen .5in Browning machine guns, was the B-17G, with its distinctive chin turret to deter head-on fighter attacks. By war’s end, 8,680 G’s were built. Usually left unpainted to save weight and material, these later marks, now escorted by long-range fighters right to the heart of Germany, finally came close to fulfilling the late 30’s doctrine espoused by the Air Corps.

Crews in early daylight missions had a one-in-three chance of not returning. But even during the last six months of the war, there were often desperate battles, with the “Mighty 8th” armadas facing a host of new weapons and tactics including the rocket-powered Me 163 Komet and the Me 262 jet flown by the Luftwaffe’s best. By the end of the war, Fortresses had dropped a full two fifths of all ordinance delivered to the Reich by the US Army Air Corps and Air Force. A high price was paid. Casualties were severe. The 8th Air Force alone suffered 18,000 wounded, 28,000 POW’s and 26,000 killed in action.

My painting TOUGH AND READY THE MEMPHIS BELLE represents a very famous aircraft. This B-17 F was manufactured by Boeing in late 1941 as #124484. The Belle flew in the 91st Bomber Group, 324th Bomber Squadron, out of Bassingbourn, north of London. Her pilot was Captain Robert Morgan. Memphis Belle commenced operations on November 7,1942, target Brest, France, and finished its 25th mission on May 17,1943.

Although they may really have been the second bomber crew to finish 25 trips, the Belle and her crew were officially the first, and became the stars of a famous Army Air Force propaganda documentary, ostensibly representing their last mission. The film was apparently created from a compilation of footage. Memphis Belle and her crew were sent home to raise funds and recruits for the war effort. The original aircraft survives to this day in an American aviation museum.

In the 1990's, the Memphis Belle came before the public again in Hollywood’s version of that momentous time fifty years before. The movie impressed me, and the vets I talked to said the flying sequences were realistically portrayed. When I decided to paint the Memphis Belle, I chose to paint her close up, “right in your face”. Although it made painting the famous nose art a little more difficult, I feel this view captures not only the pugnaciously aggressive spirit of the aircraft, but also suggests the elegance and power of its design. From behind the reflection on the nose glazing, a visible crew member scans the skies for enemy fighters.

This painting was on the cover of AVIATION HISTORY magazine, Leesburg VA, Sept. 2003

Note: Sadly, Bob Morgan, the pilot of the 'Memphis Belle' in WWII died Saturday, May 15th, 2004. He had been in critical condition for several weeks following a fall which broke his neck.