A Tribute to ‘The Few’: Ken Rush
They were not as nimble on their feet as they once were, they stooped slightly and their hair was grey, but in 2010 when the eight RAF veterans from the Second World War posed for their photograph with Forces’ Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn, the years fell away as swiftly as their Hurricanes and Spitfires had once swooped down through the clouds into clear blue sky.
As the veterans’ eyes twinkled with mischief and they exchanged stories and jokes, the man with the task of transforming the photograph he had taken into a painting, cleverly framing them in a Union Jack with aircraft soaring in the skies behind, was Lincolnshire artist Ken Rush.
Fortunately for all concerned, there isn’t an artist more qualified or with a finer pedigree for producing such works as Ken Rush. In 1945, at the age of 14, having watched the Battle of Britain raging overhead while standing on a shed in his back garden, he was the youngest artist at the time ever to have a painting accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, returning there two decades later when, in 1976, he was named European Illustrator of the Year. This accolade was for a painting in his best-selling Book of Fantastic Machines, published by Octopus. As well as aircraft, Ken specialises in car illustrations and his work has featured widely in Automobile Quarterly in the USA.
Closer to home, anyone who once collected Brooke Bond Tea Cards might remember the History of the Motor Car series, with Ken’s illustrations
increasing the sales of tea to such an extent that 470 million cards were eventually printed. His paintings of cars, aircraft, ships and trains were also featured on the box-tops of popular construction kits.
Ken called the painting of the veterans, which he completed in 2013, We Meet Again, and for all the dramatic action in the background and his gift, demonstrated again, for depicting aircraft, it is the characters of the men themselves that shines from the canvas: a thin blue line of heroes to whom we owe our freedom. From left to right, the men in the painting are:
Flight Lieutenant William Walker (1913-2012), born in Hampstead, North London, the son of a brewer, flew with 616 Squadron and 116 Squadron. He had an eventful war, including the moment when, on 26th August 1940, he was forced to bale out over Goodwin Sands where he clung to a shipwreck before being picked up by a fishing boat. The next day he visited his squadron headquarters, only to discover that there was no one there: they had all been shot down or killed. After the war he returned to the brewing trade, eventually becoming chairman of Ind Coope. Later in life he published a book of poetry about his experiences.
Flight Lieutenant Nigel Drever (born 1919) joined the RAF in 1937 and saw action during the evacuation from Dunkirk. In June 1940, returning to England from France, he was on board the cruise ship Lancastria when it was sunk by German bombs with the loss of 5,000 lives. After surviving that dice with death, in March 1941 he was forced to bale out over Germany and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Stalag Luft III of “Great Escape” fame. Although his name was not drawn in the ballot to be an escapee, he was one of the tunnellers. In 1945, when the Nazis evacuated the camp, he was forced to take part in the infamous “Long March” which many of his fellow POWS did not survive. After the war he was a property developer.
Wing Commander Tom “Ginger” Neil, born in Bootle, Lancashire, in 1920, flew Hurricanes with 249 Squadron from RAF North Weald in Kent. He flew in 141 combat missions during the Battle of Britain, shooting down 13 enemy aircraft and surviving a mid-air collision with another Hurricane. He was awarded the DFC and Bar and in 1941 took part in the Battle of Malta. After retiring from the RAF in 1964, he worked in Boston in the United States and then enjoyed a successful career in the shoe industry in Norfolk.
Wing Commander Bob Foster (1920-2014) from Battersea, South West London, served with 605 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, first in Scotland and then in Croydon and Suffolk, flying Hurricanes. Bob later shot down five enemy aircraft while in action against Japan (when he was based in Darwin, Australia, flying Spitfires) for which he was awarded the DFC. At the end of the war he was one of the first RAF officers to enter Paris and joined General de Gaulle’s victory parade in the city. After the war he worked in the oil industry, became chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and vicepresident of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust.
Flying Officer Ken Wilkinson, now 96, from Solihull, was among those who in May this year attended a thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Ken flew Spitfires with 19 Squadron and 616 Squadron under the command of legendary RAF hero Douglas Bader. “The Spitfire squadrons were top cover,” he recalled, “and the Hurricane squadrons were there to get stuck into the bombers…as far as I was concerned, they were bombing England and they wanted to invade and we didn’t want it to happen.” Shortly after hostilities ceased, Ken became a quantity surveyor.
Squadron Leader Nigel Rose joined 602 Squadron at Drem in Scotland in June 1940 aged 20, just as the Battle of Britain began. “We were very new and raw,” he recalled. “On my third day with the squadron I had my first engagement, when Germans were spotted coming in. I’d never seen a German aircraft before, not one, and here were 100 or so. I got my baptism of fire then....” He claimed three victories during the Battle of Britain and went on to become an instructor in 1942 before being posted to Egypt and the Middle East. After the war, he went back to his job as a quantity surveyor.
Flight Lieutenant Owen Burns, now aged 99, who joined the RAF in October 1939 as an air-gunner with 235 Squadron (Coastal Command) flying Bristol Blenheims, has said that: “If it wasn’t for the Battle of Britain, all able-bodied Englishmen would have been taken to Germany as prisoners of war and made to work in the mines. We knew just how important it was and how dangerous, but we were youngsters and keen to do anything.” During peacetime he worked in the whisky business.
Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum (born 1921) from Walthamstow in North West London, joined the RAF at the age of just 17 and was flying combat missions within months. He saw extensive action in the Battle of Britain and was awarded the DFC and promoted to Flight Commander. He also patrolled the skies above Malta and then became a test pilot on the Hawker Typhoon. He is a modest man, a quality which shines from the pages of his best-selling book, First Light (2002), which has been made into a television drama.
In 2013 the painting was shown as part of the Guild of Aviation Artists Paintings of the Year summer exhibition at The Mall Galleries in London. Limited edition signed prints (price £100) are being offered for sale, with £25 from each print sold to be donated to the DVL Trust, Dame Vera Lynn’s charity for children with cerebral palsy. For further details, email Ken and his wife Jean at firstname.lastname@example.org