A Trib­ute to ‘The Few’: Ken Rush

This England - - Contents - Stephen Gar­nett

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 catalina@glob­alnet.co.uk

Ken Rush at his draw­ing board.

In May this year, to com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of VE Day, Ken trav­elled to the home of Dame Vera Lynn in Sus­sex to present her with a print of the paint­ing.

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