Recently, Adam spoke with Clint Mitchell, an administrator of the wonderful online research community, the Luftwaffe Research Group forum, about his research into the camouflage and marking schemes of Second World War aircraft. A self-described ‘newcomer’ to the research community, Clint was the profile artist for the sadly now defunct Eagles Over Europe research project, led by Larry Hickey. The project aimed to reconstruct the war in the air from 1 September 1939 until the end of December 1940, and publish its findings in a series of volumes over time. As part of the team, Clint uncovered many new and astonishing facts hitherto unknown about German aircraft camouflage. Clint’s talents in graphic design do not just end there, as he has links to the Kent Battle of Britain Museum who own the copyright for the banner picture for this blog, where he has helped in the restoration process of several wartime aircraft, including, currently, a Messerschmitt Bf 109. We hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as Adam did chatting with Clint.

1. When and how did you become interested in researching the air war during the Second World War?
Like many others, my early fascination was ignited by constructing plastic model kits as a child. In my teenage years that pastime fell by the wayside, but later, when I settled down, I was wondering what I could do as a hobby in my spare time, and I chose to look into model kits again. Throughout my life, I have always been artistic and drawn, and it was the colourful German schemes and emblems that particularly captured my attention. Therefore, I made the decision to select Luftwaffe aircraft as my chosen subject for modelling. I then spent a small fortune tracking down all the Luftwaffe kits, although, I must admit, I never actually built a single one, because I started to become more and more interested in the aircraft profile artwork I was seeing and decided to give that a go. I studied Graphic Design at college, so I was up to speed on the digital artwork programs. The Luftwaffe emblems were essentially logos, so I was already experienced in recreating them digitally. It seemed an ideal area of the hobby to get into.

2. What was the first military aviation subject you really looked into?
When I had decided to give aircraft profiling a go, my grandmother mentioned that in 1940, a Messerschmitt had crashed in a field not far from where she lived and I thought it was the perfect candidate to research. The aircraft in question was Uffz. Ernst Poschenrieder’s Bf 109 E-1 WNr. 5175 ‘White 12 + I’ of 7./JG 53, which came down on Broomhill, Strood, on 30 September 1940. I started with the local archive and newspapers, and signed up to the now defunct Luftwaffe Experten Message Board (LEMB). From there, I managed to gather photographs of the aircraft, crash reports etc., which were kindly shared with me by the forum members. Being an aircraft of JG 53, a unit with a history of applying non-standard camouflage patterns, it wasn’t very straightforward working out the scheme from the available black and white photography and eyewitness descriptions. I think, if it would have been an aircraft from another unit with a simple RLM 71/02/65 standard scheme, I may not have gone quite as deep down into the rabbit hole.

3. What was the hook, or the moment that made you realize you wanted to carry on down the path of research?
It was the excitement of the treasure hunt. When you are hyper-focused on a certain trail of research, any breakthrough, no matter how small, is literally like finding treasure. Psychologically, it is the same as prospecting for gold or rare gems. Finding that nugget of data or the re-analysis of existing data and finding a solution that no-one else has discovered since the Second World War is deeply gratifying. Although, where research discoveries can mirror that of precious commodities, including the significant outlay of finances and time, sadly, researchers have to settle for the mental benefits of striking gold rather than the financial.

4. How did you become interested in your speciality field?
As mentioned earlier, I have always been artistic and involved in graphics/design, so I was drawn to the visual side of things. What I was reading and seeing in the published works regarding the Luftwaffe’s camouflage and marking practices was not tallying up with what I was seeing in the photography. It was clear to me that a great deal of erroneous information and misconceptions had been published up to that point, especially fighter camouflage and markings practices from 1937 to 1941. This spurred me on to improve the historical accuracy of the subject.

5. How did you become involved in the ‘Eagles over Europe’ project, and what was it like?
It was purely through someone seeing my profile artwork online. I posted one of my profiles of a Ju 88 on the LEMB forum and the art director for the EOE project, aviation artist Jack Fellows, saw it and I was persuaded to become the profile artist for the project. Working in a team of some of the most respected Second World War aviation researchers on the planet with the largest collection of aviation related images from the 1939-1941 period ever collated was incredibly exciting. With the pooled experience and knowledge of those involved, we made a lot of progress, reassessing the history of the air war over Europe from 1 September 1939 to 31 December 1940. A great deal of discoveries relating to camouflage and markings at unit level were ironed out, especially for the German side of things. Some very odd practices were discovered, one such being Bf 110s delivered to units in the summer of 1940 factory painted in the new RLM 71/02/65 colours, only for them to be repainted at unit level back to the earlier RLM 70/71/65 splinter pattern. I also had to establish the minutiae of details which differentiate one sub-version from another. Very little accurate or in-depth information is published with most type dedicated books focusing on operational histories. So, I had to start from scratch regarding working out the technical differences between the aircraft subtypes. Again, the treasure hunt psychology kicks in and it was exciting to discover numerous unpublished details. One such was the only external identifying feature between the Dornier Do 17 Z-1 and Z-2.

The early Do 17 M and later Z-1 versions were powered by the Bramo 323 A engine, which had a small crankcase ventilation pipe protruding from a hole in the left-hand side of the cowling. The Z-2, and all subsequent Do 17 versions, were powered by the Bramo 323 P engine, and this small hole and ventilation pipe were either deleted or routed elsewhere, leaving the left-hand side of the cowlings of the Z-2 and subsequent versions devoid of any such protrusions.

Many would consider these discoveries a minor achievement, but it all adds to the bigger picture.

6. How many profiles did you manage to complete, and which was your favourite one?
At the final count, approximately 450 sets of artwork for individual aircraft were completed. These comprised port, starboard, top and bottom views of twelve different German aircraft types and all sub-versions involved during the EOE period of focus. It was approximately nine years of full-time work before Larry Hickey, the coordinator/financier, sadly passed away and the project came to an untimely end. One could look at it as being nine wasted years, but not many people get paid to research German aircraft all day. The accumulated knowledge and research material from such a task is immense and I plan to make good use of it with future projects.

 I did not have a favourite per se of the many colourful and striking liveries that were completed for the EOE project, because each one had their own quirks and interesting details! However, I am particularly fond of the early, non-standard schemes employed by I./JG 76, later designated I./JG 54.

7. Did you ever manage to contact any pilots who flew during the war?
Unfortunately, I did not. I kind of missed the golden age for contacting former crews and pilots. It is a shame because knowing what I know now, I would have been far more interested in the ground crew, especially those tasked with painting at a unit level and the factories. Although a lot is known about the camouflage and markings practices, the reasoning and decision-making behind some of the camouflage and markings choices has not survived, so we are left to make educated guesses as to why certain practices were implemented or maintained.

8. How has research changed over the years, do you think?
I have only been involved for approximately fifteen years, so I still think of myself as a relative newcomer compared to some chaps I have had the pleasure of working with. The entirety of my research has been undertaken in the comfort of the digital age. As I am sure you are aware, you can have an in-depth discussion with your peers, including the sharing of multiple photographs from the comfort of your office chair. Hats off to the guys who had the passion to do everything by writing letters to each other and travelling the world to sit in archives typing out or hand writing notes. We are spoiled in terms of what is instantly available in this day and age. Things are still developing, with archives digitising their collections. The ease of sharing gigabytes of data from one side of the planet to the other can only be a good thing. I can see a day when all archive material will be at our fingertips. I just hope when that time comes there are still people interested in researching the history of the Second World War!

9. How did you become involved in the restoration of the Ju 52 at the Kent Battle of Britain Museum?
I had known the curator of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum, Dave Brocklehurst (MBE), for years and he knew I was involved in camouflage and markings research, so he asked if I would help to devise a scheme. I’d already helped with the schemes for their Bristol Blenheim (Bolingbroke) and the He 111 H-16 (CASA 2.111A). So, when they acquired the Ju 52 (CASA 352L), I was tasked with the job. The project was a little different from what I am used to because with the Ju 52, I had to devise a scheme based on the aircraft’s fictional involvement in Operation Sea Lion, the planned German invasion of Great Britain in the summer of 1940, an invasion which thankfully never occurred. So, yeah, it was a bit of thinking outside the box, but it was nice to have a clean slate with which to choose a nice scheme. From the special ‘friend or foe’ identification markings used on German aircraft during the Battle of Britain, I knew that if other aircraft types, like the Ju 52, became involved operationally, whether for transport operations or paratrooper deployment, they too would have worn such markings. So, I took inspiration from the Ju 52s involved in Operation Mercury, the German invasion of Crete in May 1941, and a 6./KGzbV 1 aircraft in a pre-war scheme was devised. Period colour photos show that the pre-war scheme was still in use during the invasion of Crete, so it offered us an opportunity to use the colourful and striking scheme. My work on the schemes at the museum has since led to becoming involved with other projects, namely Guy Black’s current restoration of Bf 109 E-1 WNr. 4034 ‘Black 6 + I’, the mount of Fw. Xaver Ray of 8./JG 53.

Clint next to Guy Black’s restoration project of Fw. Xaver Ray’s Bf 109 E-1 from 8./JG 53. © Kent Battle of Britain Museum Trust

10. What were some of the biggest challenges of the restoration?
First of all, the corrugated skin was a serious issue. Try to imagine how one would accurately draw a swastika on the corrugated tail fin of a Ju 52, not to mention the chosen pre-war position, where it is applied across both the main tail fin and the rudder. Also, if you look at how the pre-war swastikas were applied, the front and rear halves of the swastika on one side of the tail seamlessly wrap around the hinge line, becoming the front and rear halves of the swastika on the other side of the tail. The reason for this is that it ensured the swastika would be in the same position on both sides of the tail without any measuring. However, it still baffles me to this day how this practice was accomplished quickly with the curvature and corrugated nature of the skin on the Ju 52. We eventually settled on obtaining an old school projector, which we used to project a transparency of the marking onto the tail, which was then traced with a pencil and masked, which turned out great, but was incredibly time consuming.

Another challenge was the complicated pre-war splinter camouflage pattern. Firstly, no one had ever accurately mapped out the pre-war scheme used on the Ju 52 at the time. This meant poring over hundreds of period photographs and creating an accurate replication of the splinter pattern. Secondly, because of the size of the aircraft, it had to be painted in parts. The fuselage, wings, ailerons, flaps, tail fin, rudder and elevators were all separated whilst the painting was underway. So, a perfectly straight camouflage line which had to be masked out from one wing, up and over the top of the fuselage, down onto the other wing and onto the aileron or flaps, was incredibly difficult. This inevitably led to some retouching being required once the aircraft was fully assembled. However, there is a very talented bunch of volunteers at the museum, so in the end, the aircraft looked absolutely stunning.

11. If you have any advice for people getting into the field of research, what would it be?
(a) Do not take anything you read online or in a book at face value. Of course, some authors can be more reliable than others, but at the end of the day, unless you can prove something using your own research findings, only then can you be sure that what you are presenting is historically accurate. Repeating flawed data helps no one!

(b) Online forums are a great place to start. Do not be afraid to ask established researchers questions. After all, they are all human and, for the most part, they will be happy to help if they can. We all started somewhere.

(c) Be careful who you trust with your personal research, as there are some who will have no problem publishing your findings as their own [something the Air War Publication team have written about before].

12. What has been the biggest frustration in research that you’ve faced?
Something that I find frustrating is publishers concentrating primarily on side view ‘profiles’. For one to fully appreciate and understand the camouflage and markings practices utilised on each individual aircraft, one must attempt to describe how the aircraft looked from all sides. A side ‘profile’ only tells 25 per cent of the story, and this has led to a distinct lack of detailed research into upper-surface camouflage practices. I prefer to describe my artwork as ‘Multiview Aircraft Projections’ and undertake the research to enable the depiction of all views, as this gives the modeller/reader the full story.

Generally, there is a flawed understanding relating to the identification of paint colours applied to German aircraft during the Second World War. This stems from a complete lack of understanding of the science of what affects the paint colours seen on surviving relics, and in colour and black & white photography. Seeing these misconceptions continue to be published over and over gets incredibly frustrating.

13. What is one ‘wow’ moment that you have had in researching the air war of the Second World War?
The main one which springs to mind is the discovery of a camouflage scheme utilised by I./JG 76 in late 1939/early 1940, which comprised solid RLM 02 fuselage sides. Photographs showing the scheme had been around for some years and published, but they had been identified as showing the standard RLM 70/71/65 camouflage pattern typically seen applied to the early Bf 109s. However, whilst investigating the camouflage practices of JG 76 for the EOE project, I was not convinced of the previous attribution and, upon further analysis, it became clear to me that we were looking at a so far undocumented practice of painting the Gruppe’s fighters in a completely non-standard camouflage scheme, consisting of solid RLM 02 fuselage sides, instead of the solid RLM 65 of the standard 71/02/65 scheme continuing from the lower-surfaces onto the fuselage sides and up to the upper-surface colours. In my eyes, this was quite groundbreaking from a research standpoint. It is not every day that a totally new camouflage scheme for the Bf 109 E is discovered. It also took quite some time to convince the other EOE researchers of what we were looking at, but in the end the discovery was accepted, and the rest is history, as they say.

14. What makes a good military aviation book for you?
For a book to be written on a particular aircraft type, it has to go much deeper than simply being an operational history. I want to learn the precise differences between each sub-version, the subtle differences between the same type/subtype built at different factories, a full breakdown of the production batches and Werknummern associated with Stammkennzeichen sequences, a detailed investigation of the factory applied camouflage schemes, and the subtle differences between the schemes applied by each factory or production batch even. The above is possible if a researcher has the will and passion to track down such information, although I am under no illusions that such a study would be a lifelong journey, and most impractical if funding a career in aviation research was your priority.

15. As a final question, do you have a favourite Second War World aircraft, and if so, what is it?
Believe it or not, the Bf 109 E series is my favourite aircraft and specialist area.