I’ve never been happy with the idea of people digging up bits of crashed wartime aircraft, and then selling them for personal profit. How can you tell that a small piece of rusty metal came from a particular model, and that it was actually found in a specific location – a site that is actually the place where someone usually died? Even if the bodies of the men who perished were eventually recovered and buried, there is something ghoulish about trawling the ground in the hope that a personal artifact – maybe, a watch, a torch or an ID tag– will turn up.
But turn up they do, and then, inevitably, they emerge for sale on eBay or in the hands of specialist relics dealers. There’s obviously a good living to be made from this, as is proved by the emergence of large trading companies with substantial inventories and impressive websites.
One of these companies goes by the name of Historic Aviation, based in Minneapolis, in the state of Minnesota, USA. A reader of this blog, Steve Dulson, commenting on my recent article about the proposed memorial at the site where Flt Lt Norman Barlow and his crew crashed on the night of the Dams Raid, alerted me to an item for sale on this company’s website.
It is described as: ‘A rare opportunity to own a piece of World War II history! This display includes an authentic fragment from the Avro Lancaster bomber piloted by Robert Barlow of Squadron No. 617, the “Dambusters,” RAF, that was lost on May 17, 1943, during Operation Chastise, as well as a beautiful print depicting that fine machine soaring low in the night sky.’
At this point, the alarm on my Dambuster bullshit-meter began to sound. The picture quite clearly shows a Lancaster aircraft, coded AJ-E, flying over a dam but, as any Dambuster student knows, Barlow never reached the Ruhr area, colliding with a pylon shortly after crossing the Rhine. AJ-E, however, was the correct call sign for Barlow’s aircraft.
Kudos to another regular reader, Philip Knight, for pointing this out. He says that the picture shows Barlow at the Möhne Dam, but looking at it more carefully it seemed to me to be more like the Eder, which has arches in the dam wall and angled roofs on its towers.
The picture was painted by an artist called Ron Cole, so I went on a search for further information and found his website.
Well, what a surprise. The same picture, but with one important difference. The code painted on the aircraft side is AJ-N, which was borne on the Lancaster flown by Les Knight, the pilot whose weapon finally breached the Eder Dam.
It looks as though Ron Cole himself can tell his AJ-N from his AJ-E, but someone at Historic Aviation has decided that any old Lancaster picture will do as a mount for what looks like a small piece of metal plate. And it costs $24.95 more than you would pay for the print on its own on Mr Cole’s site, numbered and signed by the artist.
So what other treasures might be lurking in the Historic Aviation shop? A search through all the aviation art prints turned up another oddity. Here is a print of a picture by the British artist, Anthony Saunders, signed by the artist and Corporal Maureen Stevens, and retailing at $130.
The same image can be found on Mr Saunders’ own website, back in Blighty. So we can be fairly sure that he is responsible for this picture.
But on another page in the Historic Aviation shop, here is the same picture, but with a different title, scribed to a completely different artist, Richard Taylor, and allegedly signed by Les Munro and Johnny Johnson:
The text shown in the above screengrab seems to describe a completely different picture, which of course it is. The real “On Course for the Möhne Dam” by Richard Taylor can be found on the website of many art dealers:
So what do Messrs Cole, Saunders and Taylor make of the different ways in which their work has been misrepresented by the guys from Historic Aviation? And what does this say about the provenance of items which purport to be ‘authentic’ Dambuster relics.
I think we should be told. And, in the meantime, buyer beware.
POSTSCRIPT: Ron Cole has now contacted this blog, as can be seen in the comments below. He says that it was he himself who altered the original code on the side of the aircraft. He has also explained how it came about in an email to me:
I obtained a rather beat up panel from AJ-E about two years ago that hailed from the roof of a farm outbuilding, where it had been incorporated since the war. Since I make a business of combining such relics with my artwork, and had an earlier watercolor that portrayed a Lanc, I combined the two for a limited series of displays with the idea that one day I’d actually paint AJ-E and put together a more specific and historically accurate presentation. Then about six months ago I was commissioned to paint the cover for Guy Gibson’s ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ on audio book, depicting AJ-N. Not long after, Historic Aviation contacted me about the possibility of carrying a ‘Dambuster’ relic display, and since I still hadn’t gotten around to painting AJ-E, I did the next best thing by altering the book cover painting. It was at least better than the old watercolor Lanc, and looked nice. So that’s the story behind the otherwise odd combination, such as it is; an imperfect compromise.
Well at least we have an explanation! And also we now know where the panel from AJ-E now resides. As Mr Cole says, it is quite well known that during the war a local farmer had used it in some building work. However, I can’t help feeling that it would be a better idea to use an accurate portrayal of AJ-E, and its brave crew who often only appear as a footnote in the Dambuster story. They were in fact the first crew to take off from Scampton on that night, and were killed some two and a half hours later.
This official RAF picture, taken on the night, is the only picture of a Dams Raid Lancaster in flight and is thought to be of AJ-E taking off from Scampton. [IWM CH18006]