Slipping the Bonds
by George Paterson



Bf 109E-4-I.JG3-Hahn


The Bf 109 was the Luftwaffe's mainstay fighter aircraft throughout WW II. Something like 25,000 were produced, and it was flown by all the highest-scoring aces, including Erich Hartmann, whose final tally of 352 aerial victories is the highest ever recorded. Hartmann would not use any other aircraft type, even when, in the later stages of the War, the 109 had reached the limits of its development potential, and much more potent designs were available to him – for example the Fw 190 Dora and the Me 262 jet fighter.

The Bf 109 is probably also the favourite of all aircraft types with the modelling fraternity; any internet search brings up lots of pictures of models, covering all the sub-types of the 109, from the early 109C's and D's of the pre-war period, through the 109E (the Emil) of 1939/40, the mid-war 109F, and the late-war 109G (the Gustav), and finally the very late Bf 109K's of 1945. The upshot is that my Bf 109 archive contains several thousand images. Compare that to my archive for the North American FJ-2/FJ-4, a not insignificant post-war jet, where I struggled to get much more than 200 images, very few of which were suitable for my purposes.

The Initial Image

This is not a typical starting point for my work. It's the cover illustration of a French Bande Dessinée, what we would call a comic strip. The BD is a popular art form in France, and most good bookshops have big floor-spaces devoted to them, covering a wide range of subjects. Typically the cover illustration is more fully “worked up” than the rest.

Here we have ten Bf 109 Emils diving steeply on some unsuspecting prey below. Only the central aircraft with the brilliant crimson nose is geometrically more or less accurate, though not without some problems.

The lighting is very vivid, with a “contre-jour” effect causing a deep shadow on the port wing and tailplane roots. There is very little perspective distortion on the airframe – the viewer is some distance from the aircraft, so that, for instance, the wing chord on the closer wingtip is only marginally wider than on the more remote one. That gives a feeling of space that we sense instinctively.

Finally, the colouring of the airframe has been applied by brush, probably using acrylics, and has been done rapidly to give a rather pleasing texture to many areas.

All in all, then, the starting image has quite a lot going for it, and with a bit of care I can make a good portrayal of a historically authentic aircraft.

Treatment of the Image

The nose of the aircraft is a bit too knobbly, and I needed to smooth it out to look authentic. I also refined many of the details of the engine bay. I left the wings and tailplane mostly untouched.

The tail needed more work; I established the positions of the eight frames that lie between the rear of the cockpit and the tailwheel, and in doing so I realized that the rear fuselage is about 20 cm. too long, which is about a third of a frame pitch. So I copied the complete fin/tailplane/tailwheel and slid it forward by that much.

The fin itself is too big and should not have any curve on its leading edge, just a straight line with a small local curve where it meets the fuselage spine.

Having got the airframe structure roughly right, I then tackled the markings. Bf 109's often had brightly coloured noses, wingtips and rudders, but usually yellow or white, very rarely red. I had decided to portray the Bf 109E-4 flown by Hans von Hahn (another toff!), so that determined the layout of these colour areas.

Hahn was the leader of 1 Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 3 (I.JG3), and his plane carried a version of the Gruppe leader marking, the black pair of chevrons ahead of the fuselage cross. On the engine cowling is a green “Tatzelwurm” emblem of the Gruppe. Don't ask me what these creatures are. Hahn's personal emblem, a cockerel (or rooster I believe over the pond), is below the cockpit - that is a pun on his name.

I gave Hahn a wingman, marked “green 2”, using a kind of moss-green colour borrowed from the tip of Hahn's spinner. It's the same airframe as the primary, just differently marked. The background is a cloud formation that I photographed from my back garden in St. Albans.


Hans von Hahn survived the War and died in 1957. His final victory tally was 31. There's some confusion about him because there were two Hans Hahns in the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe. The other one was a commoner, and his victory tally was about 120 as I recall.

I'm rather pleased at the way this image came out. It just shows what you can do with Photoshop.