Pilots of Fighter Command, an object that will be featured in Biggin Hill Memorial Museum, is a book that was published in 1942 by Harrap & Co. Ltd., and contains the reproductions of portraits of sixty-four fighter pilots, most of whom fought in the Battle of Britain. The book was part of a project undertaken by Air Commodore Harald Peake, the Director of Public Relations at the Air Ministry, in which Captain Cuthbert Orde was commissioned to draw a series of portraits of ‘the Fighter boys’. Orde began the portraits in September of 1940, while the Battle of Britain was still being fought. Orde himself served throughout the First World War, earning his qualification as a pilot in 1916 in a Maurice Farman biplane. He was known among the pilots he drew as ‘Turps’ or simply ‘the Captain.’
In the year that Orde worked on this project, he visited almost every operational airfield, including Biggin Hill, staying from ten to fourteen days among the pilots in order to capture the likenesses of these ‘ordinary chaps doing an extraordinary thing.’ Each drawing took Orde two hours to do, and were composed with chalk and charcoal on toned paper. Originally commissioned to create about 150 of these portraits, Orde ultimately drew 163. Unfortunately, due to the constraints of publishing, only sixty-four could be included in the book published in 1942. Selecting which portraits to be included proved to be ‘a difficult and invidious task,’ according to Orde. In his introduction to the book he even recalls one individual asked to select which portraits to include sending back the catalogue ‘unmarked, with the comment, “They’re all damn’ good chaps.”’
Eventually, the sixty-four were chosen, but the names of all 163 who sat for their portrait were still included in the beginning of the book ‘because all were outstanding in their squadrons.’ Many sitters went on to achieve promotions in rank and even their D.F.C.s – or Distinguished Flying Cross. During one session, Orde joked to the pilot that all his sitters got their D.F.C. within the fortnight; that particular sitter got his within ten days!
When asked about the general character of those he drew, Orde determined that there was no ‘typical’ example, with the main body of those at the stations being ‘composed of an endless variety.’ The most striking quality, Orde found, was their ‘ordinariness’:
So when you wonder where they come from, dear reader, whoever you may be, contemplate your own home, your family, your profession, and your background, and you have the answer. You have everything in common with them; or at least I hope you have; for they are just people who understand the poster that reads “It all depends on YOU.” They are not a race apart.
Source: Pilots of Fighter Command: Sixty-Four Portraits by Captain Cuthbert Orde. George G. Harrap & Company Ltd (London: 1942).
Post written by our project intern, Kelsy Westman. A shortened version of this article appeared in the September 2017 issues of the magazines TN16 and RH9.