MOST PEOPLE WITH AN INTEREST in the First World War will have come across ‘Old Bill‘, a dishevelled and long suffering British Army soldier, enduring the inhospitable conditions of Western Front with his comrades ‘Bert’ and ‘Alf’ – ordinary soldiers in the frontline making the best of the situation.
Springing from the pencils and pens of Charles Bruce Bairnsfather – a commercial artist born into a military family on 9 July 1887 in Muree in the north of what is now Pakistan – ‘Old Bill‘ is believed to be based on sketches of Lance Corporal Thomas Henry Rafferty. (1)
Lance Corporal Raffert, (Service Number 7840) also served with 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Married, he lived in Birmingham, England and was killed in action on 25 April 1915 but has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, West-Vlaaderen, Belgium. (2)
Bairnsfather’s drawings captured the mood of a soldier’s life in all armies – the seemingly pointless orders, the moments of frantic activity and hours of boredom, best encapsulated by the long-standing military practice of ‘hurry up and wait’.
Wearing his frayed balaclava, walrus moustache and tattered uniform ‘Old Bill‘ also has much in common with his French counterparts ‘Les Poilus‘ – the ‘Hairies‘, the bear-like French soldier’s of the First World War, wrapped in their long greatcoats, burdened with equipment but with a pipe and a flask of rough red pinard wine never far away.
Some will also see parallels between Bairnsfather’s hero and Private Baldrick in the British television series ‘Blackadder Goes Forth‘ three-quarters of a century later.
Bill cartoons were published in a weekly magazine entitled the Bystander.
They would later be published together as Fragments from France originally published in 1914. Although in some ways an anti-hero in his dress, Bill was extremely popular with soldiers and the general public.
During the Second World War Bairnsfather again drew Bill, placing him with Britain’s Land Defence Volunteers (LDV), a home defence organisation that would later become known as the Home Guard.(3) (4) (5)
But although his images were still popular, he didn’t receive official backing for his efforts .
In 1942 he worked for the American Forces in Europe as an official cartoonist, producing material for Stars and Stripes and Yank publications.
In addition to producing Americanised ‘old Bill’-like images, some of which were published post war in two volumes called ‘Jeeps and Jests’ (1943) and ‘No Kiddin’!’ (1945) he also was involved in the producing the artwork for Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber 42-29673.(6)
In the images below (top left) Bairnsfather is seen standing on the top of a maintenance gantry with (presumably) Captain William (Bill) D Whitson. (7)
Below this image Bairnsfather is shown painting ‘Old Bill’ on to a wall at the Chelveston base. (8)
The main image shows the damaged nose of the aircraft after it was attacked in May 1943, with Bairnsfather in the foreground and Corporals Willis Todd and Frank Zimmerman are working on the removal of equipment. (9) (10)
Note the sheepskin flying jacket covering the Norden bombsight. At the time this was so secret that details were closely guarded. (11)
During an attack on Heligoland on 15 May 1943. German Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighters attacked the formation in head-on passes, possibly acting in pairs.
‘Old Bill’ received a cannon shell in the cockpit area that injured the pilot Captain Whitson, his co-pilot Lieutenant Harry Holt and killed the navigator Second Lieutenant Douglas Venerable.
In addition it damaged the the top turret, disabled the oxygen system and blew off a substantial part of the aircraft’s nose.
Although – like the majority of the crew – he also wounded, bombadier Lieutenant Robert Barrall managed to get into the shattered cockpit and flew the aircraft back on three of its four engines.
On the way back to RAF Chelveston (USAAF Station 105) where the aircraft was based, Whitson had recovered enough to land the aircraft successfully, even though the hydraulics had been damaged meaning that the aircraft had no brakes or flaps to slow the bomber.
On 25 July 1943 a medal presentation ceremony was held to honour the crew. Between them the crew were awarded the greatest number of decorations for a single action at that time. Between them the eight men recieved two Distinguished Service Cross awards, eight Silver Stars, seven Purple Hearts. (12) (13)
More information on Bruce Bairnsfather can be found at http://www.warwickfusiliers.co.uk/pages/pg-51-captain_bruce_bairnsfather_1887_-_1959/ , http://www.guide-books.co.uk/Bairnsfather.htm – and https://www.ww1cemeteries.com/captain-bruce-bairnsfather.html – all retrieved 4 March 2020
Details of B-17F ‘Old Bill’ are at http://www.americanairmuseum.com/aircraft/3594. Links to short individual biographies of the crew can be found at the same webpage.
(1) ‘An ‘Old Bill’ Mascot‘ – Britain at War magazine No.121, May 2017 page 130.
(2) https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1625316/rafferty -thomas-henry/ – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(3) https://www.shutterstock.com/editorial/image-editorial/old-bill-and-co-september-1940-9830269a – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(4) https://www.shutterstock.com/editorial/image-editorial/old-bill-and-co-august-1940-9830333a – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(5) https://www.shutterstock.com/editorial/image-editorial/old-bill-and-co-july-1940-9830337a – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(6) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/aircraft/3594 – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(7) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/media/22629 – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(8) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/media/5289 – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(9) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/media/30085 – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(10) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/person/66668 – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(11) https://theaviationgeekclub.com/norden-bombsight-formation-bombing-and-lead-crews-how-american-b-17-bombers-hoped-to-achieve-air-superiority-during-long-range-daylight-precision-bombings-over-germany/ – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(12) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/person/70601 – retrieved 4 March 2020.
(13) http://www.americanairmuseum.com/media/30084 – retrieved 4 March 2020.