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A Rex Whistler Connection


Ian Macmillan
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Besides taking my turn here at providing daily Links, my major current preoccupation is, together with a colleague, the compilation of a centenary history of No 10 Squadron, Royal Air Force.  (The unit will celebrate its 100th Birthday on 1 January 2015.)  In connection with this, I recently came across an item that has a link of sorts to matters here, in that the artist concerned was Rex Whistler, a noted 20th century illustrator and designer, who provided the original backcloths for De Valois' Rake's Progress.

 

The background is that 10 Squadron flew the first RAF aircraft - 4 Whitley bombers - over Berlin in WWII.  This was a leaflet-dropping raid on the night of 1/2 October 1939 - mainland bombing attacks were not authorised until after the German attack on Rotterdam in May 1940.  Whistler picked up on this and published a highly stylised drawing entitled "Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin" in an edition of Illustrated magazine in December 1939.  I now know from the Whistler Estate that the Squadron Commander at the time approached Whistler, asking if he could buy the original, and the outcome was that the artist reworked the drawing, making the title specific to the unit and surcharging the squadron badge on the shield carried by the winged Britannia figure who dominates the scene.  One of the very few copies made is now in the Squadron HQ at RAF Brize Norton and, apart from the revised title in the cartouche and the badge, all else is as in the original, right down to the putti in flying helmets and goggles:

 

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A footnote is that the Squadron's first losses of the war resulted from this raid - one of the four crews did not return and is presumed to have crashed into the North Sea in unknown circumstances.  The five airmen are commemorated on a carved wooden plaque, also in the HQ.  This was commissioned by the same officer from the workshop of Robert Thompson who, thanks to the odd Antiques Roadshow episode, you may know added a mouse to all of his products - and, sure enough, one sits at the top right corner of the frame. 

 

 

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Lin:  Yes, indeed.  10 Sqn converted from Whitleys to Halifaxes over a period in November/December 1941 and flew them until the end of the war from Leeming, then Melbourne, in Yorkshire.  In common with all Bomber Command's 4 Group units, the Squadron was transferred to Transport Command in May 1945 for duty in India after conversion to the Dakota.

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I remember my dad saying that most of his crew ended up inCanada immediately after the war but of course they didn't want gunners so he didn't go and was very disappointed about this. Most of the crew ended up,back in UK eventually though. I have this feeling that a lot of Halifax planes seem to end up in Canada and that's why we don't see them in air shows here where the Lancaster is more traditionally shown. Did different squadrons join forces on one bombing expedition so to speak or just one squadron for one particular raid.

The reason dad never spoke about his medal was that not absolutely everyone in the crew was given it and he didn't like this as he though they ALL should have had it or none. There was probably some reason for this but the medal was always hidden away in suitcase in the back of his wardrobe somewhere. He was though proud of having been in the RAF.

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Lin: Some of the transport conversion training may have been done in Canada, thus taking some of your Dad's crew there - in 10 Sqn's case, it was all done in UK.  There were certainly Canadian (and other Commonwealth) squadrons in 4 Group flying the Halifax and, as far as I know, the only airworthy one anywhere now is over there.  Aircraft preservation for historical purposes was completely discounted once the war was over and so many aircraft were no longer needed, and we are fortunate to have that single BBMF Lancaster still going.  And as a generalisation in the Halifax era, it's probably safe to say that most raids comprised aircraft from more than one squadron. 

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