Bomber crew is a group portrait of a Lancaster bomber crew representing the young Australians involved in the air war over Europe during the Second World War. In her capacity as an official war artist, Stella Bowen was stationed with the Royal Air Force at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, where No. 460 Squadron was based. This was the most highly decorated Australian squadron in Bomber Command, but had suffered the highest casualties. Bowen was commissioned to paint a typical crew that flew Lancaster bombers on the intense bombing raids over Germany and occupied Europe.
On 27 April 1944 she began a series of pencil sketches of a bomber crew comprising of six Australians and one Englishman. Preoccupied with their flight preparations, the men expressed no particular interest in Bowen's attempt to draw them, but their bravery and youth captivated the artist. That night their operation took them over Friedrichshafen, a vital industrial centre on the shores of Lake Constance. By morning, Bowen's subjects were reported missing. The artist had only made preliminary sketches of the crew, but she returned to her London studio to complete the painting, working from pencil sketches (also in the Memorial's collection), and official photographs. She later wrote to her brother: "It was horrible having to finish the picture after the men were lost. Like painting ghosts."
The crew is depicted in front of the menacing image of their Avro Lancaster bomber, looming above them like a bird. They are shown wearing their full flying gear including 'Mae West' life jackets, flying helmets and headphones. Their names appear on the helmets and are repeated on the wreath-like ribbon that scrolls across the canvas, complete with their RAAF wings floating like cherubs. Bomber Command, 460 Squadron RAAF; back row 1-r: Sergeant D G Champkin of the RAF, flight engineer; Pilot Officer Thomas Lynch, rear gunner; Flying Officer Hector Harrison, wireless operator; Flying Officer Ronald Neal, mid upper gunner; front row l-r: Flying Officer Marmion Carroll, navigator; Squadron Leader Eric Jarman, pilot; Flying Officer Francis Jackson, bomb aimer.
One of the men, Pilot Officer Thomas Lynch, who was presumed to have perished with the rest of the crew, was eventually discovered in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He reported that the bomber was shot down in the vicinity of Lahr, near the Swiss border. The crash saw him unconscious until 4 May, when he awoke as a patient in a German air force hospital in Baden-Baden. A German doctor told him the remaining crew had been killed. Lynch himself was badly injured and spent many weeks in various hospitals. Following amputation of his right leg and more time in hospital, he was posted to Stalag IXC to await repatriation.
Bowen harboured a particular interest in group portraits with a preference for the decorative portrait: "I would much welcome the chance to do group portraits as a formal decorative scheme, with emphasis on linear design. Uniforms and symbols would lend themselves to this treatment." With Bomber Crew, she achieved this long-held aim.