How to intimidate, identify, endear.
The paint job of a military vehicle serves a practical purpose. It can identify the side and unit via markings or patterns and it can be used as camouflage to make the vehicle harder to spot or target. Most paint schemes are decided by high-level military planners but today we are going to take a look at a more personal kind of decoration: the nose (and body) art on planes.
Custom schemes appeared alongside aerial combat in World War I and had a number of causes. First, a pilot’s plane was a very personal thing both for him and the ground crew servicing it; so allowing some customization had a positive effect on morale. This was also the important reason why bomber crews, who tended to suffer heavy casualties, were allowed to decorate their planes later in World War II. Interestingly, while some pilots were very keen on having their own paint jobs, the majority of Great War nose art was conceived and painted by the ground crews.
A second reason was the need for identification. Lacking radios, World War I pilots had to rely on visuals to identify their squadron mates and their leader, which squadron-wide insignia and personalized paint jobs made a lot easier. Identification was also important for getting kills credited, especially for the Germans. One of the criteria for accreditation was that another person had to have seen the kill. A pilot with a unique paint job was more likely to be confirmed by a comrade or somebody on the ground than one who looked just like everyone else.
The third reason was a prime example was Richthofen’s famous all-red triplane, which earned him the nickname “the Red Baron.” An extended version of such intimidation was Richthofen’s elite fighter wing JG1, which was named “the Flying Circus.” in part because every member flew a brightly painted plane.
Sometimes such fame could also backfire. World War II German ace Erich Hartmann had an abstract black tulip motif painted on the nose of his plane. This became so feared by Russian pilots on the Eastern Front that they often turned and fled when they spotted the design. At first this seemed like a good thing and Hartmann lent his plane to novice pilots who could use it in relative safety. However, he soon realized that the enemy fleeing meant he wouldn’t be able to get any more kills, so he had it removed.
Such bravado could also take a humorous turn. In World War II, German ace Ernst Udet had the words “Du doch nicht!!” painted on the tail of his plane. The phrase is hard to translate into English but it roughly means “Certainly not you!!” a message that whoever was behind him will not get to shoot him down.
In World War I, full-fuselage paintjobs were generally restricted to Germany, while French and British planes were limited to personal insignia, a few of which survived their owners. The black stork of French ace Georges Guynemer became the symbol of the Spanish Hispano-Suiza engineering company. An even better-known figure is the prancing horse of Italian ace Count Francesco Baracca. He adopted it from his family’s coat of arms and it survives to this day as the emblem for Ferrari.
One of the best-known pieces of nose art is the famous shark mouth. It was first spotted on both German and British planes in World War I, then appeared again in World War II, on both sides. It was made famous by the First American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers, who fought for Nationalist China against the Japanese. It survives to this day on such planes as the Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthog and it was even used on some ships and submarines.
The true golden age of nose art came with World War II. Though the Navy forbade its use and the British and the Canadians discouraged it, bombers of the USAAF more than picked up the slack. Nose art wasn’t only painted by talented ground crew; professional civilian artists were also hired to do the job.
Pin-up girls became a ubiquitous sight, with a peculiar detail: the further away a bomber unit was from headquarters or civilian eye, the racier the girls generally were. For example, the girls of Pacific bomber units were generally more scantily dressed and more provocatively posed than European ones.
Other popular themes, also already present in World War I, were depictions of luck through dice or cards, along with the Grim Reaper to intimidate the enemy. Cartoon figures were also frequent and the 834th Bombardment Squadron was consistently decorated with images of the zodiac.
A special subset of art is the recording of kills or missions. On Allied planes, swastikas and rising suns represented German and Japanese planes shot down. However, a much more complex, though not centralized system, was also developed which could relate the entire career of a plane. A great example is the reproduction of the mission marks of Johnnie Walker, a Lancaster bomber from No. 9 Squadron of the RAF.
In addition to the figure and the motto taken from the scotch brand, you can see ribbons for the Distinguished Flying Medals and Crosses awarded to the aircrew. The chevron indicates a year of active service, the three lines below it three wounds suffered during mission. Below those is a ribbon for the campaign medal awarded for serving in World War II, a swastika representing a downed enemy fighter and a searchlight that was shot out with machine guns during a low-level flight. Each bomb represents a bombing mission, most of them at night. The black bomb with a “D” stands for a day mission and the extra-large bomb for a Tallboy superheavy bomb dropped on the German battleship Tirpitz. Under the word “strong” a red star commemorates a visit to the Soviet Union.