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Where were the fuel tanks and other vulnerable points on a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero? What were the components of the Type F.N.120 tail gun turret on an Avro Lancaster? What was the electrical installation on a Junkers Ju-88A? What was the prescribed camouflage pattern for the Heinkel He-177? How long did the gunner on a Boeing B-17 have to fire at an attacking enemy fighter? How could one get maximum fuel economy out of a Consolidated B-24D Liberator? What was the difference in appearance between a Kawasaki Ki.48 and a North American B-25 coming head-on? What was the cockpit layout of the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik? What were the structural details of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3? Sixty years after World War II, such questions are of academic interest, but during the conflict, knowing the answers could be a matter of life and death. While propaganda artists provided rough impressions of aircraft from both sides for the public benefit, artists serving the warring air arms were producing a much more precise product from which airmen were expected to derive critical information.

In Graphic War: The Secret Aviation Drawings and Illustrations of World War II (Boston Mills Press, Erin, Ontario, 2005, $49.95), Canadian author Donald Nijboer has compiled a fascinating treasury of artwork that the general public seldom saw, but which British, German, American and Russian airmen studied in deadly earnest. They ranged from precision three-view plans and cutaway drawings to cartoons designed to enlighten airmen by humorously showing them what not to do. Some, like a British illustration of a Focke Wulf Fw-190A, reflect the haste that went into alerting pilots to the new fighter before a captured example could be fully evaluated. For comparison, the book also includes a 1945 cutaway illustration of the newer Fw-190D-9, based on extensive intelligence, that so impressed Focke Wulf designer Kurt Tank after the war that he autographed a copy for the artist who created it, Peter Endsleigh Castle.

Castle, who wrote the book’s foreword and adds a firsthand perspective, is one of the few artists who could be identified in Graphic War. The others join the ranks of the war’s “unknown soldiers” and “unsung heroes,” but their legacy lives on in this book by Nijboer. While such a compendium cannot be comprehensive, Graphic War provides a wealth of useful information for the historian or model builder (at least for some aircraft), as well as valuable insights into the many technical details, tactics and practices that air and ground crewmen needed to know in order to make the most effective use of their equipment. Those illustrations did the job then. Now, in Graphic War, they can be admired for the artful way in which they did it.


Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.