Before, during and after the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, artists were in the thick of the activity, observing and recording the campaign. IWM has a collection of artwork relating to D-Day thanks to the efforts of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), the body that oversaw Britain’s official war art scheme during the Second World War.
Here are ten selections that show different aspects of D-Day, from training and seascapes to the people involved in the conflict.
As an official war artist, Edward Bawden had already travelled around the Middle East and North Africa before he returned to Britain in January 1943. By March he had been sent to make portraits at Colchester Military Hospital. During this time he seized the opportunity to visit Dunwich Common, an area being used as a training landscape further up on the Suffolk coast. Exercise Kruschen was one of the first exercises to inform the preparation for the D-Day landings. The mock German defences built there exist to this day. Bawden made 11 drawings, including this large composite drawing, of which this is a detail. View all the panels of this artwork.
Bawden’s use of colour and shadow adds a heightened mood of tension and apprehension to these most secretive of scenes. Intriguingly, no mention is made of his assignment at Dunwich in either the War Artists Advisory Committee correspondence or minutes.
Preparations for D-Day
Richard Eurich had a passion for painting seascapes and had already completed some successful early commissions for the WAAC, including Attack on a Convoy Seen from the Air. A small number of artists were commissioned to produce works depicting landmark military events after they had occurred.
Eurich was a natural choice for this commission, being capable of combining information from eyewitness accounts, verbal description, photographs and published documentation as well as personal knowledge and imagination to create this ambitious work. His familiarity with the coastline near Southampton allowed him to set the scene for this epic painting, evoking the grand scale of the D-Day operations as well as a brooding sense of calm before the storm. Eurich’s distinctive style of painting has been compared to that of the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose work shows a similar attention to distant detail and purposeful activities. Indeed, the gaping ship’s doors seem to echo Breughel’s 'Mouth of Hell' in Dulle Griet, making a visual equation between war and hell which accords with Eurich’s Quaker background and beliefs.
Troops on an LCI
Edward Ardizzone was best known as an illustrator before he became a full-time war artist in 1940, joining the British Expeditionary Force in France. On returning to the UK, he spent time recording aspects of the Blitz and the Home Guard before travelling out to Cairo, then up through Sicily and Italy with the Eighth Army.
Ardizzone, a sociable and outgoing character, had a knack for getting himself in the right place at the right time: 'When an invasion of Europe was obviously imminent, I asked to be present at the landing and was told by PR that I could only be put on shore 23 days after the event. Then I met some friends from the 50th Division and they at once said, "Come along with us!"' He crossed the Channel on 12 June and records his time on the LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) in his diary for that day: 'On deck at 6.15, make myself some cocoa in a self-heating tin. Glorious morning and feel much better. Weather brilliant as we approach the French coast. A multitude of craft in every direction and of all shapes and kinds, from battleships to the oddest looking things afloat.'
Beach Dressing Station
Jack Heath graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1939 and immediately enlisted, serving first with the Royal Military Police and then with the Coldstream Guards. Along with other artists and designers in the Army he went on to work on camouflage; his responsibility was for coastal defences.
By D-Day he was a captain with the Royal Engineers, but he sustained an injury after crossing the Channel. Although he did not have an official commission, like many artists he took the opportunity to make some drawings of his experiences. He wrote to the WAAC and they agreed to buy three drawings in August 1944. The drawings document his progress: the first drawn from the landing craft as it crossed the channel, the second showing the landing on Green Beach, and this work titled We Lie at the Beach Dressing Station and Wonder how the Battle is Going: D Day 6th June 1944.
In the lead-up to D-Day, the WAAC sent Barnett Freedman to Portsmouth to make a study of the War Room from which the Allied expeditionary operations were to be conducted. At the end of June he crossed to Normandy to begin work on a large-scale drawing celebrating the artificial harbour codenamed 'Mulberry B', established by the British at Arromanches.
He used as a drawing board 'a panel ripped out of this shelled house and so if I get capsized on my way home...I might float awhile on my own drawing'. He made this painting from the drawing, completing it in 1947. Teeming with detail, it pays tribute to a remarkable piece of engineering, the scale of the project and the teamwork of the men labouring together under a heavy ominous sky.
DUKWs (Amphibious Vehicles)
Stephen Bone was appointed as official war artist to the Admiralty in June 1943 and travelled throughout Britain producing large numbers of works about a variety of naval craft. This rather calm scene of a beach landing was drawn in the weeks after D-Day.
Bone accompanied the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force to Normandy, where he also documented post-landing inland scenes in towns and cities such as Courseulles-sur-Mer and Caen, as well as the assault on Walcheren Island in the Netherlands.
By the time British forces advanced out of Normandy, most of the official war artists had left France. Only three remained: Thomas Hennell, Albert Richards and Anthony Gross. Of these three, only Gross would survive the war. On 24 May, the WAAC noted cryptically that arrangements had been made to enable Hennell (along with Ardizzone and Freedman) to paint 'coming events'. Like Freedman, he was initially sent to Portsmouth to make drawings of the preparations for the invasion. He finally arrived in Normandy on 16 June and recorded with mixed emotions the battle and its impact on the French summer countryside: 'The shot-threshed foliage of the apple orchards was fading and just turning rusty, fruit glowed against the sky; there were ashes of burnt metal, yellow splintered wood and charred brown hedge among the shell pits; every few yards a sooty disinterested hulk'.
Drawings, such as this one of a wrecked V1 flying bomb launch site, were used by the WAAC to publicise the destruction of the 'secret weapon’ bases. He followed the action into the Netherlands before returning to Britain in early 1945. His next assignment was with the Air Ministry in the Far East. However, after heading out in May he was eventually reported missing from Java in November 1945.
Albert Richards's training at the Royal College of Art was interrupted after only a term when he was called up to serve - firstly in the Royal Engineers, then as a paratrooper. He was fascinated by parachute jumps as a subject for his paintings and agreed to a commission for the WAAC in March 1944. Just after midnight on 6 June he was dropped near Merville to the east of Sword Beach with a unit of the 6th Airborne Division.
Richards was the only surviving officer in his platoon by the time they had all landed and took charge, assisting them to reach their objective two hours before the land troops were due. He made a series of watercolours showing the landscape that he witnessed. Gliders were sent over the Channel to transport troops and supplies to Normandy before and after the invasion. Here Richards shows the remains of the craft as adding colour and curiosity to the bleak landscape.
Albert Richards said of his watercolours: 'In painting them, my mind was always full of pictures of my gallant Airborne friends, who gave their lives so readily. It’s the first time I have ever witnessed death in this crude form. Somehow I am hoping that it will all help me to paint the pictures I want to paint yet feel so unable to do'. He continued travelling through France and, after a brief period of leave in England, continued through the Low Countries towards Germany with the British Second Army. Here he drove his Jeep around the boggy landscape of the River Maas, finding subjects for his work. One night in March 1945 he set off to paint a night attack. Trying to find a short cut, he drove into a field and was killed after his Jeep ran over a landmine.
Anthony Gross crossed the Channel to Normandy on D-Day itself with the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. He had already spent some time with them, having drawn their portraits when they were in East Anglia preparing for D-Day. Having landed at Gold Beach near Bayeux, he waded ashore with his watercolours and paper held over his head: 'Quite a feeling of unbelief as I trod the sands of France again'. Gross had lived in France before the war and was well travelled, having already been to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, India and Burma as a war artist.
He was a perceptive observer of people in their environments and drew the scenes that greeted him in France. He was also resourceful, managing to acquire a revamped German car from his friends in the Royal Army Service Corps which allowed him to get close to the action. The people pictured here were seeking refuge from the Allied bombing at a camp south of Bayeux.