Anyone who has watched a WW II film or visited a war museum such as the RAF museum will have noticed that there are a few main themes running through the nose art movement. The most popular types of decoration being the ‘Pin up girl’, flashy full body paint jobs, satirical and patriotic slogans and the humourous cartoon character. It is the last of these I want to talk about now…

Having driven an ambulance in France during World War I, I’m sure that Walt Disney himself would have seen early examples of nose art up close. In 1939 he was asked by the United States Navy to design a crest for their new fleet of Mosquito boats and his team went on to create around 1,200 aircraft insignia over the next 6 years. Many Disney characters over the years have been copied and used to decorate the noses of great crafts such as the Lancaster and the Mustang. As the late Jeffrey Ethell (author and aviation enthusiast) states “The Disney industry were pervasive in American culture and it influenced nose art in a number of different ways. Combat crews copied Disney cartoon characters because they were suitable subjects for humorous and patriotic themes. Disney’s influence also included studio artists, who joined the military and then contributed their talents to the creation of nose art…Disney raised the spirit of the troops when he transformed the ‘once staid military heraldry format created during World War I’ into inspired designs. By the end of World War II, Disney’s five man staff assigned to insignia completed over 1,200 unit insignia, never charging a fee to the military”.

Walt Disney during WW I

The insignia created by Disney for the Mosquito boats

A very famous example of a cartoon character depicted on an aircraft is that of Donald Duck adorning the nose of the Mustang P-51. The P-51 Mustang VF-B 413317 was regularly flown by renowned fighter pilot Donald Emmerson. The whimsical but fearless and fighting mad image of Donald Duck matched its pilot no end and not just in name. Donald (the man, not the duck) said he was “fighting so dreams could come true”. This impressive aircraft and most importantly its famous nose art are currently housed at the RAF museum in Hendon, London for all to see and appreciate.

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Not that America were the only people doing this… very like and quite possibly in reference to, Disney’s Mosquito boat insignia, The famous De Havilland Mosquito ‘F for Freddie’ also sported a ferocious caricature of a mosquito. In this example rather than holding the bomb in its many legs it is seen to be dropping the 500 pound bomb on a running scared Hitler. The Mosquito LR503 was made at the famous De Havilland plant in Hatfield in 1943 and flew her first operation on May 28th 1943 with 109 squadron. She was flown by many different crews, flying her last operation on April 10th 1045. unfortunately she crashed in Calgary Canada on May 10th 1945, a month to the day of flying her last operation. In its last outing it performed a display in celebration of the end of the war. For some it was a chance to view this magnificent aircraft and for others it was amazingly a chance to buy a bond and sign their name on the aircraft in chalk. How exciting and impressive, to go down in history as having your name grafitied on the body of such a beautiful example of aviation. What I wouldnt give to have my name written on a mosquito…

And it appears we are still following the decades old decree that everyone loves a cartoon character. For the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, aircraft restorer Clive Denney from Vintage Fabrics Ltd based in Saffron Waldon Essex, lovingly and painstakingly recreated the livery of 617 Squadron Lancaster B1, DV385, dubbed Thumper Mk III. The caricature is of Thumper from the 1942 Disney feature-length cartoon Bambi. It features the well known rabbit holding a pint of beer and sitting on a patch of flowers. The aircraft was one of a fleet of new Lancaster’s supplied to the squadron in 1943 after the dam raids. Its impressive wartime pedigree included taking part in the first Tallboy bomb raid on the Saumur railway tunnel in France, two missions against German battleship Tirpitz and attacks on V rocket sites. Yet when Mr Denney received the brief all he had to go on was an old black and white photograph. In an interview with the Lincolnshire Echo in 2012, Denney described how the art came about ” Unfortunately, the nose art is a very poor impression of the cartoon character Thumper, but then again, it was originally done by a member of the ground crew. My brief was to copy the original, not improve upon it. But even doing that was quite was quite a challenge. The BBMF sent me a black and white photograph of the original artwork and that was all we had to work with at first. You know that grass is green and what Thumper looks like so you go with that but we had no idea what colour the flowers were supposed to be. The we found the colour guide through a modellers website which showed some yellow flowers so we knew we had the right colour. It was a real pleasure to work on such a fantastic aircraft”. This paint job recreation took two days to complete and was carried out in a hanger at Humberside Airport. The work which went in to it goes far and above the original effort purely due to the effort required to copy the work of the original artist rather than ones own interpretation. A 617 Squadron historian, Jim Shortland of Sleaford was impressed with the work and was quoted as saying “In my opinion, the nose art of Thumper Mk III is an excellent choice for the BBMF Lancaster. DV385 has a great operational record, flying 50 ops and dropping 15 Tallboys and 5 12,000 high-capacity bombs”. Yvonne Masters, spokesperson for the BBMF added “We are absolutely delighted with the new nose art, it’s so striking”


 Photograph from the Lincolnshire Echo September 2012
As I have previously discussed, the reasons why pilots and crews decorated their aircraft were many and I personally think that the use of cartoon characters tick many of the boxes. The whimsical and childhood connotations would have made them think of home, of better days, remind them what they were fighting for and as we all love a good cartoon would have bought the men together.