Aeroretronautics

Furies, 43 Squadron, 1939

All the cool kids are talking about How to be a Retronaut -- well, they were a month or two ago, I confess it's hard to keep up. How to be a Retronaut is a blog which tries to engage your sense of anachronism to try and shake your assumptions about the past. As the Retronaut puts it:

The power of anachronisms
Its all to do with the power of anachronisms – things which seem to be in the wrong time. They can be objects, words, phrases, technology, ideas, fashions – anything we associate so strongly with one time that it seems wrong in another

Wrong associations
And its that word “associate” – that’s the powerful one. Because the strange thing is, real anachronisms do not exist. They can’t. A “thing” belongs to whatever era its in. Its not the “thing” thats got it wrong, its us, and our associations. Time to change what we believe.

But in that tiny, tiny moment, just before we grasp the fact that our beliefs are wrong, we get to be a Retronaut.

One of the main ways How to be a Retronaut achieves this is through the use of colour photographs taken in periods we don't normally associate with colour photographs -- 1913, for example.

The photograph above struck me with this anachronistic force. It shows RAF biplane fighters which are quite typical of the interwar period, except that they are camouflaged where I would expect them to have a bare metal finish. That's how they typically are seen, both in contemporary photographs and surviving examples. The camouflage patterns these aircraft are sporting are more appropriate to the Second World War. They look a little bit like Hurricanes with slipwings, actually, but they are in fact Furies of 43 Squadron, one of Hawker's long line of fighters. The photograph was taken in 1939, which would explain the sense of anachronism: the RAF didn't start camouflaging its aircraft until the Sudeten crisis in 1938; and aside from the Gladiator, it had mostly phased out its biplanes from frontline service by the time intense fighting began in 1940.

But this also shows how fragile this sense of anachronism can be. If I was more familiar with RAF aircraft in this period before the outbreak of war, this image wouldn't strike me as strange at all. Nor would it strike me as strange if I knew less; it would just be a bunch of old aeroplanes.

Image source: Flight Image Archive. However, I have my doubts about the caption:

A nice line abreast formation of camouflaged Hawker Fury I of 43 Squadron, Sept 1939. Note that several aircraft do not carry the squadrons 'Fighting Cocks' badge which otherwise negates the camouflage.

I can't get a straight answer as to when 43 Squadron switched from Furies: the RAF says 1939 (to Hurricanes), Air of Authority says January 1939 (to Spitfires), another site says November 1938 (to Hurricanes). Since other images from the archive put the Munich crisis in 1936, there's room to doubt the veracity of the caption!

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17 thoughts on “Aeroretronautics

  1. The RAF didn’t start camouflaging its aircraft until the Sudeten crisis in 1938

    Interesting. Was the decision technical or political i.e. had they always known that they ought to camouflage their aircraft, but hadn’t gotten around to it until jolted by crisis in Europe? Or was there a difference of opinion about the merits of camouflage that one side won?

  2. Erik Lund

    I’ve recently been reading Antonio Sagona and Paul Zimansky, _Ancient Turkey_ (London: Routledge, 2009), to give a veneer of scientific responsibility to Chapter 1 of the Unsolicited Manuscript of Doom. There, I’ve encountered the Late Chalcolithic ceremonial Building complex of Arslantepe, in south-central Turkey’s upper Euphrates valley. Arslantepe is associated with the Uruk Expansion, in its most grandiose reading a prehistoric Mesopotamian empire lasting from c3800BC to 3000 or thereabouts.
    In the late phases (3200BC?), Building B of Arslantepe was a storeroom of various items, securely fastened in various ways –including rooms locked with pin-and-tumbler locks! They were made of wood, to be sure –this is pre-Bronze Age, after all– but they are still recognisable as Yale locks!*
    How’s that for an apparent anachronism?** (I guess the keys have been misplaced, though. Maybe they’re with the High Priest’s sunglasses.)

    *[Sagona and Zimansky, 2009]: 159, 161.

    **One thing that is not anachronistic: it is hard to believe that a Routledge imprint would be so poorly copy-edited before the 2000s.

  3. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    The series of Fury photographs taken for Flight was on 2nd February 1939. This was basically the final formation flight of the Furies. The first Hurricanes arrived in November 1938. Information from ‘No. 43 Fighting Cocks Squadron’ by Andy Saunders in the Osprey Aviation Elite series.

  4. Post author

    Christopher:

    Thanks for the gen!

    Alan:

    I don’t know the answer to that, but the implication is that it was due to the European situation (and perhaps due more to Czech crisis than the actual Sudeten crisis, as I have it above — at least some aircraft were wearing their war paint earlier in 1938). But the Air Ministry did carry out experiments on camouflage in the 1930s so it could have been technical. The Flight online archive would be a good place to look but it’s been broken the past couple of days.

    Erik:

    Cool! But the Antikythera mechanism is always the anachronism which floors me the most.

  5. Our book on the Hawker Fury & Nimrod by Alex Crawford says:
    “During November 1938 43 Squadron started to receive Hurricanes and
    their Furies were soon passed on to second line units. The last six Furies were
    transferred to Kemble in February 1939.” I think Alex was working from the Squadron Operational Record Book (ORB), but I can ask him if it’s of interest. Visits by photographers from major (or aeronautical) press units were sometimes also recorded in the ORBs as well.

    As for Brett’s thought provoking as ever post, I’ll save comments on the colours and anacronisisity-ism for later.

  6. Post author

    Now that the Flight archive is back up, it’s time for some corrections! The photo can’t have been taken any later than November 1938, because one of the same series appeared in the 24 November issue. (Which squares with JDK’s info — if 43 began to re-equip with Hurricanes in November 1938 and lost its last 6 Furies in February 1939, it’s unlikely to have been able to fly Furies in formation strength that same month. MMP Books 1, Osprey 0.)

    The RAF did not start camouflaging ‘its aircraft’ in the Sudeten crisis, as I wrote in the post, or even 1938; this seems to apply only to fighters (maybe). Flight had an article on 29 April 1937 about the RAF’s switch to ‘shadow shading’, a scheme ‘lately evolved’ by Air Ministry experts, for heavy and medium bombers and army co-operation aircraft. (It’s interesting in terms of the anachronicity discussion that the article describes the appearance of aircraft with shadow shading as ‘bizarre’, when it now seems natural.) Examples from later 1937 issues show a Whitley and a Battle. No reason is given for excluding fighters at this time, but there is a photo of Hurricanes of 3 Squadron in the 26 May 1938 issue with shadow shading. So the switch for at least some fighters was made much earlier than the Sudeten crisis.

  7. Just to be clear – I’m not aiming to score points off Osprey – or my friend Andy Saunders! I suspect the difference may be down to (quality of) source data. I’ll ask Alex what his statement was based on.

  8. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    I’m going to stick my neck out here an recommend A Scale Aircraft Monograph (No. 2 The Battle of Britain). This has a history of camouflage development which started in 1933. Definitive bomber camouflage designs were ready in 1936 and fighter designs by 25 March 1937 (Air Diagram 1160). Earlier schemes seem to have been trialed in Januray 1934 with Nos 4 and 111 Squadrons but not Hurricanes. Camouflage was first used in 1935 during the Abyssinian crisis when aircraft sent to the region were painted at Malta. Hurricanes themselves were receiving camouflage in early 1938 and were being delivered in camouflage. This subject is actually rather confused and unclear as to when things happened.

  9. Alex Crawford

    Hi,

    JDK has asked me to help clarify when 43 Squadron last used Furys. My info comes from The K File by Air Britain. This book contains most of the info that is held on the aircraft movement cards for all aircraft in the ‘K’ serial range.

    As an example Fury K1930 was delivered to 43 Sqn on 15 April 1931. It then passed to Home Aircraft Depot on 19 October 1935, 3 ASU 19 April 1936, 25 Sqn 1 July 1936, 43 Sqn 29 July 1936, 5 Maintenance Unit 6 February 1939 and finally as an instructional airframe 2196M on 29 August 1940.

    So from the above it may be safe to assume that K1930 was still with 43 Squadron up until 6 February 1939 when it was taken on charge by 5 Maintenance Unit.

    Operational Record Books don’t always give details on aircraft movements to and from the squadron. When a squadron received new aircraft the old machines were still to be found with the squadron for a few months longer.

    Pilot log books would give a better indication on how long the older aircraft lingered on with a squadron. Some would be used as hacks while others were still used to give flying hours to new pilots.

    Last year I had the first volume of a two part book on the Hawker Fury published by Phil Listemann, which is an expanded version of the book I wrote for Mushroom Model Publications.

    Regards,

    Alex

  10. Post author

    JDK:

    I know you weren’t scoring points, I was on your behalf :)

    Christopher:

    Thanks. I have no problem going to ‘hobbyist’ works, especially if it’s an area that professional historians aren’t interested in. There are often interesting devils in the details.

    Alex:

    Thanks very much for that. It seems like an appropriate method to use. In fact the ex-physicist in me is thinking of ways to plot the data graphically …

  11. To may knowledge, during the Sudeten crisis the RAF issued a general order to camouflage all first-line aircraft, not only fighters. The initial instructions called for two-tone (dark green & dark earth) upper camouflage on monoplane aircraft and “shadow shading” four-tone on biplanes (dark green & dark earth, light green & light earth on lower plane). In the event shadow-shading doesn’t seem to have been used very often.

    Martin, post-blogging the Battle of Britain at
    http://spitfiresite.com
    The Spitfire Site

  12. Just a passing comment on ‘shadow shading’ as Martin’s mentioned. The documentation of lighter green and brown on lower wings of biplanes in practice is thin, often misunderstood from interpreting contemporary black and white photos (the very nature of the effect striven for meaning it was hard to discern) and seems to have faded (hem) out later in the war as stocks of monoplane darker colours were used rather than the rarer lighter biplane-lower-wing-only paints. That said, many researchers miss that the RN and later RAF Supermarine Walruses usually *did* have shadow shading, with a divide halfway up the hull (when the sides were camouflaged with the upper colours). If you know what you are looking for you can see it, but it’s subtle.

    Also my understanding has been that ‘shadow shading’ was a specific part of the use of ‘disruptive camouflage’ not the use of two form-hiding upper surface colours.

  13. OK, to get back to the topic of Brett’s post! I’d agree that they look odd – and thus anachronistic.

    Furies indeed rarely wore camouflage. Apart from the illustrated example, there were a couple in camouflage in the Spanish Civil War (one serving on both sides) while the South African Air Force used them in North Africa in W.W.II.

    But the sense of anachronism tells us a lot about the power of publicity. There never were that many Furies built, but when they were new, they were heavily promoted (photographed and used as the subject of illustrations) so they became disproportionately ‘familiar’ in silver. Then, in W.W.II the propaganda bias ensured that ‘our fighters’ that were being promoted would be the newest and best to receiving the most publicity, while the obsolete (but still in use) would be eclipsed, both literally as well as figuratively.

    But there weren’t that many biplanes in use by W.W.II were there?

    Well, those that were – were busy.

    As well as the biplane fighter SAAF Furies in N Africa (and RAAF and RAF Gloster Gladiators and even Gauntlets) there were Gladiators in service in France during the ‘Sitzkrieg’ and even one unit of Glads in the Battle of Britain – while Norway saw RAF Glads, and the Med had RN Sea Gladiators serve. On biplanes, we must not forget the Fairey Swordfish (not a fighter, of course) remarkably served throughout W.W.II. Biplanes were there.

    Meanwhile, pedanting (I hope with some merit) as we are operating beyond Brett’s mention of those poor souls to whom they are all “…just be a bunch of old aeroplanes.”

    “…bare metal finish…” The cowlings would normally be very polished metal (except the Fleet Air Arm equivalents, which were dull anodised) and Aluminium (it’s a colour in this context) pigmented dope over the fabric wings, tail and fuselage surfaces.

    “…the RAF didn’t start camouflaging its aircraft until the Sudeten crisis in 1938…” I know what you mean, but the RAF’s heavy bombers were generally NIVO (green) overall, and the RAF’s Great War fighters (after the RAF’s creation on April 1 1918) were camouflaged. As well as acknowledging that we were excepting the previous war from the discussion, another oddity or difference here is that these are in disruptive camouflage, rather than a single upper colour.

    All very interesting…

    Regards,

  14. Post author

    JDK:

    Yes, I didn’t want to get into NIVO and WWI camouflage, and I already partially corrected myself above. Fair point on the polish and dope.

    Speaking of anachronisms, it must have been an odd experience to be in biplane-vs-biplane combat in WWII, such as when a RAF pilot flying a Gladiator scored a probable kill of an Iraqi Gladiator (!) in May 1941.

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