LONDON – They drew cartoons, graffiti, murals, glamor “pinups,” combat scenes, mission records and maps. U.S. servicemen at bomber and fighter bases in central and eastern England between 1942 and 1945 created a huge but largely unrecorded body of wartime artwork, some of which has survived more than 70 years in collapsing and overlooked buildings.
As the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches, a “last chance” search is under way to find and record the scattered vestiges and fading memories of the largest air armada ever assembled — before decay, demolition and redevelopment remove the final traces.
New research might also offer clues to the fate of the “Sistine Chapel” of wartime air base artwork in Britain — a large mural by the celebrated British cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, painted at a U.S. base in Northamptonshire in 1944. The 30-meter mural, in part depicting a ship bringing GIs back to New York, has not been seen since the 1950s.
The U.S. air assault on Europe began on July 4, 1942, with an attack on targets in Holland, 2½ years after the first RAF raids. The buildup to D-Day and its aftermath gave rise to the largest body of combat aircraft assembled on one front — 28,000 Allied bombers, fighters and transport planes.
Wartime air base art will be surveyed with surviving military buildings and runways as part of The Eighth in the East, a social history project focused on the region from which the U.S. Eighth Air Force operated — the East Midlands and East Anglia. Small museums devoted to the air war are dotted across East Anglia, but The Eighth in the East is the first time a large-scale study of the effects and legacy of the U.S. military presence has been attempted.
The artworks and graffiti offer a poignant glimpse into the lives of aircrew, mostly between the ages of 20 and 23, who were unlikely to reach the required 25 completed missions allowing them to return to the U.S. As the war progressed, the number of completed missions entitling crew to leave combat duties — and gain membership of the Lucky Bastard Club — was raised to 30, then 35. Film stars James Stewart and Walter Matthau served with U.S. bomber crews during the war, flying from Old Buckenham Air Base in Norfolk, England. Stewart became a highly decorated colonel.
The Eighth in the East will explore the sociological and cultural impact of the sudden arrival amid rural communities of hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemen and women and tens of thousands of aircraft. By D-Day the Eighth Air Force was using 70 airstrips and 200 bases, mainly in Norfolk and Suffolk, flying daylight missions over Europe while the RAF took to the skies by night.
In the run-up to the invasion, the Eighth Air Force was joined by the largest air force ever assembled, the Ninth — 250,000 personnel, 3,500 aircraft — which was based across southern East Anglia and made use of dozens of air bases extending to the outskirts of London itself.
The U.S. air offensive in Europe claimed the lives of 26,000 Eighth Air Force personnel, with 18,000 wounded.
“Second World War archaeology is a fairly new discipline,” said Hannah Potter, community archaeologist for The Eighth in the East. “It’s a wholly different approach than that for ancient archaeology. We have photographs from the time that can be matched with what’s there now. Artworks in the bases will be gone soon. Even now you can visit a mural which, when photographed in the 1980s, was brightly colored, but now I find they’ve gone. The buildings weren’t meant to last, so it’s a challenge to preserve them. All you can do is record them. We’re asking for public help with identifying and recording their own local buildings from the war, but a lot are on private land. This is a huge part of our history.”
Several hundred unrecorded buildings are thought to survive in East Anglia and the Midlands. Few, if any, will have statutory protection and they are being lost. But the sites of old air bases are attracting a new kind of visitor.
“We’ve been pestered by people interested in ghosts, who want to spend evenings here for the atmosphere, just to listen,” said Ian Hancock of the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, at the wartime Flixton Air Base near Bungay. “But there are so many explanations for noises, the creaking, that you do get. Now a lot of the aviation museums do nighttime opening, just for the feel of it.”
Said Potter: “We are on the edge of this period becoming history. We’re losing so many veterans now, and we’re at the limit of what we can do. But we’re having a lot of people coming to us who were children at the time. For them, it was a hugely exciting time.”
Finding the Bairnsfather mural, though not an aim of The Eighth in the East, would restore a missing chapter in the story of one of Britain’s greatest soldier-artists. Bairnsfather’s Old Bill character — a stoical, mustachioed old hand of the Western Front — became a World War I symbol. During the World War II, Bairnsfather served as official cartoonist to U.S. forces. Stationed at Chelveston Air Base in Northamptonshire, he created several large artworks there during 1944 and 1945. All have vanished.
“The mural is a great missing piece of his work,” said Mark Warby, chairman of the Bairnsfather Society. “It would be fantastic if anything could be discovered.”
For the dwindling number of veterans, the old bases stir acute memories.
“We were frightened when we were flying — all of the time, all of us,” recalled Clarence Rowntree who, as a 20-year-old gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, was based at Kimbolton Air Base in Cambridgeshire. Now 90, he completed 30 missions in a bomber named Mairzy Doats after the 1940s hit song, and thus joined the Lucky Bastard Club. A later crew on the same aircraft were not so lucky when it was lost over the North Sea in August 1944.
“But it wasn’t that tense on the base, when we weren’t flying,” said Rowntree. “They used to put on a lot of boxing competitions to keep us busy. But, yes, when we were flying we were frightened.”