Gil Cohen’s ASAA “Award of Distinction” tribute to British Pathfinders.
Gil Cohen’s painting We Guide to Strike is an example of his ability to offer insight into the emotions and character of his subjects while utilizing their aircraft as the backdrop for his story. Cohen has brilliantly depicted the intensity of the stress experienced by an exceptional assemblage of brave men who volunteered to fly the Royal Air Force’s Pathfinder missions over Europe during the dark days—or rather nights—of World War II. The painting was honored by the American Society of Aviation Artists with its “Award of Distinction”but also with Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine’s “Best of the Best” award.
Pathfinders were specialized squadrons that flew ahead of RAF Bomber Command’s main formations to mark targets over some of Germany’s most fortified areas. Their aircraft were primarily Avro Lancaster four-engine bombers fitted out with top-secret navigational aids such as Gee, H2S and Oboe.
Gee was a receiver for a navigation system that used synchronized pulses from British transmitters to calculate the aircraft’s position from the phase shifts between the pulses. H2S was a ground acquiring radar navigation system that had to be used with discretion, since German fighters could home in on its signal. Oboe consisted of a receiver-transponder at two radar stations in Great Britain. One system determined the range and the other the bearing of the range of the aircraft. Since Oboe could only handle one aircraft at a time, it was generally reserved for Pathfinders.
Cohen’s oil on linen work focuses on a dimly lit portion of the interior of a Lancaster over the heavily defended Ruhr Valley to drop flares on a target. Cohen said it was his intent to summarize “the emotion, the terror and discomfort of the crew”on one of these dangerous missions. Their intense concentration is clearly communicated, since the only illumination emanates from the navigator’s tiny map table lamp and the face of the tuning dial on the wireless operator’s set.“You don’t really see the crew’s faces due to the fact that they are hidden behind their oxygen masks or they’re partially turned away from the viewer,” Cohen explained.“You see the intensity in the eyes. It’s more of what’s implied here rather than what is seen.”
The inspiration for We Guide to Strike came soon after he painted Mission Regensburg, which depicted a navigator and a bombardier in the nose of a B-17. “After finishing that painting, I decided that I wanted to do the interior of a British bomber.” Cohen recalled. “The basic image came before the specifics.” To get the most accurate view of the inside of an RAF bomber, Cohen was permitted to get a look inside the Lancaster that is preserved at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, England. That aircraft is a static, nonflying example of the famous British bomber. Cohen decided that he would take the point of view of the inside of the Lancaster from the wireless operator’s station, looking forward.
He also determined that he would focus on the crewmen as the centerpiece of the work. “Specifically, this would be Pathfinder Force aircraft from No. 8 Group, 156 Squadron,” he said.“I learned that their motto was ‘We Guide to Strike,’ and hence the title of the painting.”
Pathfinder veterans told him they had generally dressed in several layers of heavy underclothing tucked beneath their battle jackets. One No. 156 Squadron survivor, Jack Watson, told Cohen that each aircraft would have probably carried two navigators instead of one. “That’s why there are two in my painting,” the artist explained. Pathfinders flew more than 50,000 sorties against 3,400 targets with an estimated loss of 3,727 crewmen. The honors Cohen’s work has received should be considered a tribute to the men whose service gives additional meaning to their motto.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.