History Book Reviews

Graphic War: The Secret Aviation Drawings and Illustrations of World War II – Donald Nijboer

It is a truism that a picture tells a thousand words. Thus it was that during the Second World War that to assist air and and ground crew to understand their own and their enemy’s aircraft, visual aids were used in the form of large posters and diagrams.

Whilst some such illustrations were simple depictions of the silhouettes of enemy aircraft, others were highly detailed cutaways. They were produced by highly-skilled artists and amongst that number was Peter Castle, whose illustrations are included in this unique book.

Graphic War is packed with highly detailed drawings of aircraft from all the main combatant countries of the Second World War, including such interesting posters as demonstrating the safe height for bombers to explanations of fighter tactics for Soviet pilots.

One such diagram explains the trajectory of bombs as delivered from a B-26, to enable synchronous bombing by a number of aircraft operating in line astern. It shows both the effect of airspeed and the effect of altitude on the technique. Another, drawn in the form of a cartoon demonstrates what drag, lift, thrust and gravity mean and how they affect an aircraft. To describe such things in words would take many long sentences. In visual form these effects are absorbed in moments.

Pilots and navigators needed to understand how radar signal were sent and received to enable them to avoid enemy radar. They also had to appreciate the limitations of wireless communications. Such explanations are easy understood by diagrams.

One of the most intriguing sets of images in this book is that related to night photography with bombing. RAF bomber crews were required to produce a ‘bombing photo’. This photograph would show height, heading and whether or not the crew had hit the target. When the bomb release mechanism was activated, the camera was engaged. At the same time as the bombs were released a bomb-shaped photoflash was also dropped. This fell at the same speed as the bombs and when it reached 4,000 feet it exploded. The exposed film recorded the ground picture moments before the bombs impacted. The images in the explanatory diagrams show the differing positions of aircraft at the time of exposure and which part of the target the camera was likely to catch. Thus, flying straight on across the target would produce a different photograph from that taken if the aircraft had turned and, of course, the tightness of the turn would also influence the nature of the image that was taken.

There is also a set of images that resonates with air travel today. In the same way that instruction leaflets are provided for passengers in modern aircraft showing how to safely evacuate in the case of emergency, so to was a leaflet provided for troops being carried into action in gliders, should they find their aircraft ditching in the sea. This followed the disaster which befell the gliders used in July 1943 on Operation Husky when sixty-nine gliders landed in the sea. Other ditching drills are also shown, as well as how to deal with airborne life boats when dropped to men in the water.

This is a very detailed and very different book full of interesting images, the list of which far exceeds the space limited to this review. The diagrams showing the consequences of striking a barrage balloon cable, and those on how to use the cable cutters which were standard equipment on most medium and heavy bombers, sits alongside complete cutaway diagrams of the Centaurus and Griffon aero engines, and the characteristics of exhaust flames, the colour of which indicated how to adjust an engine’s fuel mixture.

My personal favourite is a cartoon of a bomber crew in a dinghy looking none too pleased with their navigator, Gooney, who was always certain that he would never go too far. “But alas for Gooney, when the fuel ran out there was nothing but ocean roundabout!”

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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