A tribute to an Eagle Squadron commander brings Gil Cohen top honors.
Gil Cohen’s painting Fourth Mission of the Day Lieutenant Donald J.M. Blakeslee, has earned the artist his second consecutive top honor from the American Society of Aviation Artists. Cohen depicted Blakeslee leaving the cockpit of his No. 133 Eagle Squadron Supermarine Spitfire Mk. Vb after completing his fourth mission on August 19, 1942, a tribute to Eagle Squadron Flight, during the air offensive accompanying the ill-fated Dieppe raid on the French coast.
Known as Operation Jubilee, the raid was a combined Canadian and British effort. The goal was to take and hold the major port long enough to capture prisoners, gather intelligence and gauge reaction by the German command. The raid resulted in a near disaster for both the air and ground forces. The Canadian troops and Commandos lost 950 dead and 2,340 wounded or captured, while more than 600 Britons were killed. The Germans reported 311 killed and 280 wounded. In the air, the Royal Air Force lost 119 aircraft, while the Luftwaffe counted just 46 shot down or damaged. The three Eagle Squadrons—in their only joint operation—brought down 10 German aircraft, listed five as probables and damaged 12. Blakeslee, serving as 133 Squadron’s leader, was credited with shooting down one Focke Wulf Fw-190 and a Dornier Do-217 that day, with two more Fw-190s listed as probables.
The retired U.S. Air Force colonel described the August 19 action as similar to a “barroom brawl—absolute confusion where Allied planes were crashing into each other and the Germans flying into their own planes.” The only Eagle commanding officer to complete four missions on August 19, he recalled that long day over the French coast as a “continuous melee of close aerial combat.”
The story behind Cohen’s oil-on-linen work goes back to 1992, just after he completed his painting The Mighty Eighth— Russian Shuttle. That painting also involves Blakeslee, who led several squadrons of North American P-51s from the 4th Fighter Group escorting Boeing B-17s on a 1944 bombing mission over Germany. After dropping their ordnance, the Mustangs flew on to the Ukraine. “I showed Blakeslee… exhausted after an incredible number of hours in the air, standing in front of his aircraft,” Cohen recalled.
Eager to get involved in the war in Europe, Blakeslee joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940. He arrived in England on May 15, 1941, and was assigned to Biggin Hill. In addition to No. 133 Squadron, he flew with another Eagle Squadron, No. 121. After several months with 133 Squadron, he was promoted to flight leader and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On September 29, 1942, the three Eagle Squadrons were officially transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces. Blakeslee’s No. 133 Squadron RAF then became the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, attached to the Eighth Air Force.
On April 3, 1943, the 336th transitioned to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. “Don Blakeslee hated the P-47, likening it to a big truck,” Cohen said. Despite that, Blakeslee became the first American to shoot down a German aircraft while piloting a “Jug,” splashing an Fw-190 off the coast of France on April 15, 1943.
Fourth Mission of the Day “is the closest that I’ve ever come to a portrait in an aviation painting,” Cohen noted. “When I decided to honor the Eagle Squadrons, it came to mind what better example of an individual who exemplifies the courage and determination of the Eagles than Don Blakeslee.”
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.