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Lucky Jim

Having seen the Bristol Beaufighter commisson, I was asked to look at recreating an astonishing tale from WWII by the great nephew of RAF Flying Officer Jim Cole.

Jim was the navigator/bomb aimer in the crew of a 55 sqn Martn Baltimore, on a mission to attack a road junction near Mignano, 15 miles south of Cassino, Italy on 20th October 1943.

He was lying in the glazed nose of the Baltimore in the bomb aimer's position, having just released the bombs, when an anti-aircraft shell hit the starboard side of the aircraft and blew the aircraft apart. Jim Cole found himself thrown forward, then falling through the smashed Baltimore nose.

As he fell through the air he pulled his parachute ripcord, only for it it come away in his hand. He managed to locate the end of the release cable, and pulled. Much to his relief, his parachute opened.

His troubles were far from over though - the explosion had ripped off not only his leather flying helmet and wristwatch, but also one of his boots. Fortunately, the radio lead had become entangled around his leg, and he was able to improvise it into a shoe, which he wore over the next few days evading the enemy in several more adventures to get back to allied lines.

Bomb Aimer's position in the nose of a Martin Baltimore medium bomber

Wow! What a story. Flying Officer Jim Cole's great nephew said that his great uncle didn't talk much about the events, however he had recalled the details in print in the fascinating book Shot down and on the run by Graham Pitchfork, from where I have paraphrased some of the key points for this blog. I thoroughly reccommend a read for this escapade and many more jaw-dropping wartime accounts.

55 sqn Martin Baltimores

After some research on 55 squadron Martin Baltimores and the Italian locality where Jim's lucky escape occurred, at first I sketched a landscape layout but later switched to a portrait orientation in the end as the composition felt better - a vertical descent with both the plane diving and Jim on his way down on the parachute. To me they formed a better ‘golden spiral’ rule in this orientation, drawing the eye from the parachute to the plane and vice versa.

Reading the account of his adventure, the mission was in the Cassino region so I based the landscape on the arid/green hills and plains there. Jim ended up escaping into woodland at the foot of these hills, after he lost not just his sock but also his flying helmet - so these too were details drawn into the picture.

The mission details on the bombing of a road junction were pretty vague, usually such a mission as this was to hit German armour or supply chain activity, so I also put a little of this into the scene to add some drama. We know the starboard side of the aircraft was hit, but I confess to a bit of artistic license with the starboard engine hit by flak - without it, it wasn't immediately obvious that the plane was hit, and that the bombardier nose had been blown out for Jim to fall through.

A pleasing painting to research, design and paint. And most pleasing of all is to know that Jim's family now have an heirloom to honour his heroic RAF service and pass on his story with visitors to the home, as it sits in pride of place in their hallway.


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