Strange Moon

Cover of We Landed By Moonlight by Hugh Verity
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed three books about the activities of 161 (Special Duties) Squadron, RAF, during the Second World War. For this post, I want to talk specifically about the cover of Hugh Verity’s memoir and personal history of 161 Squadron, We Landed By Moonlight (Revised Edition), published in 2000 by Crécy. It’s a marvellous book, as a source of both anecdote and historical record, and we should all be grateful to Crécy for keeping it in print—but it’s an odd cover.

The first thing that struck me about it is that the Westland Lysander on the cover is sporting South-East Asia Command roundels and flashes, putting it a very long way from 161 Squadron’s base in the south of England. The image in fact comes from this photograph of Lysander V9289, of 357 (Special Duties) Squadron, RAF, operating in Burma. Right kind of aircraft, right kind of duties, wrong continent. But that’s fair enough, given that 161 Sq. Lysanders flew almost entirely at night on secret missions, so tended to go unphotographed unless they actually crashed.

The Lysander image has been composited with a fine full moon, to produce an atmospheric cover image. (In fact, there are two versions of this cover from Crécy, both using the same Lysander and moon images—you can find the other in my link from the book title, above.) And it’s that moon image that really got me puzzling, and inspired this post. Here it is, in a larger and more contrasty version:

Moon from cover of We Landed By MoonlightIt definitely doesn’t look like our own familiar full moon:

Full moon
Photo via Good Free Photos

But it doesn’t look like a random painting, either. And I found it naggingly familiar. At first, I wondered if it was a photograph of some other moon in our solar system, but then I began to recognize significant features. The curve of Mare Nectaris below the three linked blotches of Mare Serenitatis, Mare Tranquilitatis and Mare Fecunditatis settled it—it is a photograph of our Moon.

But there are three things wrong with it.

One is that it is mirror-reversed. The real Moon looks like this:

Reversed Moon from cover of We Landed By MoonlightThe second is that it is pretty much lying on its side. By my estimate, the north-south axis is tilted at about twenty degrees to the horizontal:

Axis of reversed Moon from cover of We Landed By MoonlightNow, you can see the Moon in this orientation, if you catch it just after moonrise in the tropics, when it’s moving almost vertically towards the zenith. But the farther north or south you go, the more tilted is the Moon’s trajectory as it rises, and the closer to vertical is its axis. Even when the Moon is as far into the northern sky as it ever gets, it can never be seen in that orientation anywhere in France, which was the 161 Sq. stamping ground.

But that’s a nitpick, really, because the striking thing about this view is that you can never see it from Earth. The paired dark blotches about halfway towards the upper rim of the Moon, above, are Mare Marginis and Mare Smythii, which (as the former name implies) sit right on the edge of the Moon’s disc when seen from Earth. The photograph used on Crécy’s cover has actually been taken by a spacecraft, somewhere over about 60ºE lunar longitude.

Once I’d figured all this out, I realized why the image looked naggingly familiar. This view is a classic, because it’s what successive Apollo astronauts saw as they departed the Moon towards Earth. At the conclusion of their lunar mission, they fired their main engine as they orbited over the far side of the Moon, and then came looping around the eastern hemisphere, pulling away in a long orbit back towards Earth. The same view was photographed several times, by several relieved astronauts, but I think the Moon on Crécy’s cover is this one:

Click to enlarge

It’s one of a series of departure photographs taken by Apollo 11 on 22 July 1969. If Verity landed his Lysander by that moonlight, he was a very long way from home!

Note: Crécy’s current edition of this classic book features the Lysander from the Shuttleworth Collection, which is painted in early 161 Sq. markings, landing in a field of poppies.

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