War Art: Military and Civilian murals from the Second World War

Over the centuries soldiers and Prisoners of War (PoWs), have created personal and expressive art on the places where they lived or served.

These murals, cartoons and graffiti were often subversive, humorous, risque, nostalgic or decorative. Some were tolerated by military authorities in the interests of morale, and others were officially sanctioned.

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The RAF operated No. 28 Air/Sea Rescue Unit from Newhaven Harbour during the Second World War. This mural shows the Unit’s High Speed Launches that were used to rescue crews from downed aircraft in the English Channel. © Roger J C Thomas

Many of these fragile images are in abandoned or semi-derelict buildings on former airfields and other military sites, subject to erosion and decay and much has been lost. However, some examples have been preserved and fully documented, and a handful have been removed for display in museums and other sites.

Such art offers important visual traces of the past, unlocking clues to the original use of buildings, and revealing intimate insights into military lives, longings and preoccupations in wartime Britain.

Military War Art

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RAF insignia: the Latin motto translates as ‘through adversity to the stars’: it was painted at the former RAF Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire by Aircraftsman Robert Hofton © Historic England AA051483

Robert Hofton served with No. 19 Squadron RAF and was asked to decorate a barn on the site for a Christmas party in 1940: he did so using aviation fuel and airfield paint. Over 50 years later in 1993, he returned to repaint it.

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Fighting cocks at the former RAF Dunkeswell, Devon © Roger JC Thomas

Wartime shortages inspired ingenious improvisation with whatever substances came to hand.  Materials included carbon from lighter wicks, boot polish, candles and pigments made from vegetables, along with the more traditional coloured pencils, inks, chalk and wax crayons.

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Couple dancing the Jitterbug. Former United States Army Air Forces hospital canteen, Ullenwood, Gloucestershire. © Roger J C Thomas

During the Second World War, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) were stationed at many aerodromes in East Anglia. American war art was more prolific than British, often brash, colourful and irreverent, and included decorating the noses of aircraft, often with cartoon characters and skimpily clad women.

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The original buildings at RAF Bottisham housed seven enormous USAAF murals. After the war, the airfield was returned to agricultural use: the buildings deteriorated and were threatened with demolition. An emergency salvage group, the Eighth Wall Art Conservation Society, was formed and cut the murals, including one of the liner Queen Mary and the Empire State building, out of the walls and found new homes for them, including in America.

The ‘Blue Yonder’ mural went to the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum, Norfolk, but has now been returned home to what is the soon-to-be-opened Bottisham Airfield Museum where original airfield buildings are being restored.

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Surviving mural of a woman, originally in the Officers’ Mess building at the former RAF Shipdham/USAAF base, Norfolk. © Evelyn Simak

Most war art is found in the communal areas of camps and military bases where military personnel relaxed, including canteens, or buildings used for dances or other social functions.

After standing empty for decades, RAF Shipdham’s Officers’ Mess and several rooms were converted into private accommodation. Murals, including the one pictured, are still in their original places on the walls where they had been painted, but are now within a domestic setting.

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A personal mission board – perhaps an American pilot’s – with each bomb symbol representing a mission flown with its date and target. The site, at RAF Rackheath, was converted into an industrial estate where the mural survives within a storage facility. © Evelyn Simak.

Wartime grafitti was recently found at Shresbury Flaxmill Maltings, site of the world’s first iron-framed building which was used as a Light Infantry Barracks during the Second World War. Its residents named it the ‘Rat Hotel’.

Peeling paint at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings revealed graffiti from a time when the site was used as a Light Infantary barracks.

Prisoner-of-War Art

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Mural of a woman at the former Pingley Farm, Prisoner-of-War Camp 81, Brigg, Lincolnshire. © Roger JC Thomas.Pingley camp was mainly used to house Italian Prisoners of War (PoWs), many of them captured in the North African campaign and brought to Britain as agricultural labourers. Italian PoWs often painted gentle romanticised pictures of women, as well as religious subjects.

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Harperley Camp in County Durham is a Scheduled Monument, is a rare surviving example of a purpose built PoW Camp. It was occupied first by Italian PoWs and then captured German personnel post D-Day.

Civilian War Art

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Sayers Croft in Ewhurst, Surrey was a camp for boys evacuated from Catford in London. The dining hall and kitchen complex listed Grade II and the two murals were painted in the dining room by boys from the senior art class in 1942. They creatively recorded aspects of their wartime life at the camp in different seasons.

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The huge chambers and tunnels of the former Bath Stone quarry, stretching nearly 100 kilometres, were adapted for use as a secret wartime subterranean aircraft factory – the Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC).

The owner of BAC commissioned Chilean-born artist Olga Lehmann to paint wall murals, mainly in the canteens, to brighten the surroundings for the 10,000 underground shift workers. Lehmann painted the 32 murals, showing classic British pastimes and rituals, using oil paint and solvents.

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1 response to War Art: Military and Civilian murals from the Second World War

  1. Miles King says:

    fascinating piece.

    You might also be interested in a piece of war art produced during the Northern Ireland Troubles, at the Lodge Hill training area (Kent), where British soldiers were trained to defuse booby traps in a mocked-up row of houses in “Newry Road.” The PIRA village, as it became known, still survives, as does one of the terrace-end murals painted to make it even more realistic. Although many of the First World War and Victorian ordnance buildings at Lodge Hill have been listed, this mural remains unprotected, as does the whole PIRA village complex.

    As the fate of Lodge Hill continues to hang in the balance, perhaps HE could revisit it and consider whether these more recent buildings, and the art they support, are worthy of protection.

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