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When pin-ups took to the air

Plump forms, skimpy dresses, cheeky slogans: Allied pilots waged their own private propaganda war against the Nazis during the Second World War with pin-ups on aircraft fuselages. The Nazis had little to oppose the erotic attack in the air - but sometimes Mickey Mouse was emblazoned on planes with the swastika.

Jack's sweetheart smiled every time her husband released his bombs. When the US bomber pilot piloted his plane over Japanese cities in 1942 to unload his deadly cargo, his wife from Jack's B-24 bomber also looked down on the earth below - smiling seductively in a skin-tight black evening gown, her eyelashes mascaraed, her flowing hair falling open on her bare shoulders.

Like Jack Shinn's wife, the wives and girlfriends of thousands and thousands of other US pilots went into battle against Nazi Germany at the side of their husbands - not in the flesh, but as often larger-than-life pin-ups: in lascivious, flirtatious and sexy poses that the airmen painted on their bombers or fighter planes during breaks in the fighting with great dedication and love of plump forms. Like Shinn, who had studied art and design before the war and painted his wife's portrait himself.

"Nose art" is the name of the art of sensual, cheeky and provocative art on the fighter planes, and it is as old as military aviation itself. As early as the First World War, the knights of the air of the time were sprucing up their flying war horses as if aerial combat were a medieval tournament. The most famous example of this, although not nose art in the true sense of the word, was the bright red Fokker of German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, whose eye-catching triplane earned him the nickname "Red Baron". Soon the custom developed of not tuning the aircraft individually, but rather of providing the aircraft of a unit with identical insignia as a sign of recognition and collective good luck - a famous French flying squadron, for example, painted its aircraft with a stork as early as the First World War.

But nose art reached its peak during the six years of the Second World War. Half-dressed or often even less dressed pin-ups on United States Air Force planes were just one variation, the self-confident version of the pin-up in the locker of the common soldier. Apart from the sweethearts of pilots and Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner, Joan Crawford or Rita Hayworth, quite different motifs were also honoured on the tin or canvas covers of Boeings or Lockheeds, Martins or Grummans. Comic book characters like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse or Popeye, for example, enjoyed enormous popularity among US boys.

But even the pilots of the German Luftwaffe sometimes offered the viewer more humorous symbols alongside Nazi swastikas. The German fighter group 88 of the Condor Legion, for example, with which Hitler intervened on the side of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, became known under the nickname Mickey Mouse Squadron: The Heinkel He-51 aircraft were emblazoned with the cigar-puffing, hatchet- and pistol-wielding US comic-strip character. While the German pilots reduced Guernica to rubble, the cartoon figure smiled maliciously above them.

Other German squadrons were also painted in animalistic colours, but less playfully, and decorated their machines with martial-looking sharks or wasps, for example.

Often, it was also the special construction features of their aircraft types that virtually invited the crew to embellish them. The "Flying Tigers", for example, American volunteers who were deployed as fighter pilots in Asia, decorated the conspicuously large air intake of their Curtiss P-40 "Tomahawk" aircraft with an oversized feline jaw as a trademark.

Historian Jürgen Willisch from the Berlin Air Force Museum in Gatow, who has studied the history of nose art, distinguishes between three different variants of aircraft art: individual representations, in which pilots like Jack Shinn gave free rein to their own imagination and refined "their" aircraft into an unmistakable one-off. On the other hand, war paint served as a common distinguishing feature of a squadron or wing, as a kind of corporate identity of a community bound together in war to the death. And thirdly, bombers or fighter planes served as carriers of political caricatures - a form, according to Willisch, that only emerged during the Second World War. The flying artists used nose art to make it unmistakably clear what they thought of the enemy or what they intended to do with him: From the fuselage of an aeroplane, a small child greeted Hitler by hitting his head with a giant judge's hammer so that the "Führer" would see stars. A dog lifts its little leg over the map of the Third Reich, a predator takes a German aeroplane out of the sky with a mighty swipe of its paw.

What began as a war art intended to frighten or taunt the enemy and symbolically demonstrate one's own superiority now unites pilots from different air forces across borders. Once a year, flying squadrons meet for the "NATO Tiger Meet". The prerequisite for participation in the military exercise is that the unit must have a tiger or a cat of prey on its coat of arms. Some aircraft are even painted completely in the striped look - the "Red Baron" would have liked it. And Jack Shinn would have liked it too.

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