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‘The Raid on Sylt 1940’ by Norman Wilkinson
Norman Wilkinson (1882-1971): ‘Sylt, 19th – 20th March 1940’.
Original oil on canvas, signed by the artist, in original frame with partial exhibition label dated 1953, and cleaning label dated 1959, to the reverse.
Size: 56 x 46 inches (143 x 117 cm).
Provenance: Air Vice-Marshall William Ernest Staton, CB., DSO., MC Andover, Hants.
Illustrated: ‘Winged Words – Our Airmen Speak for Themselves’, William Heinemann Ltd, London, published 1941.
‘Sylt, 19-20th March 1940’: sharply evocative oil on canvas by Norman Wilkinson, powerfully expressive of the selfless and collective efforts of Royal Air Force wartime Bomber Command aircrews.
A striking depiction of Wing Commander William Staton’s twin engined Whitley bomber silhouetted over the target at Sylt, under a fierce barrage of German flak hosing the sky red, yellow and white. One of the most historic air offensives of World War Two, Bomber Command’s raid on Sylt was a reprisal for enemy attack on Scapa Flow, 14th October 1939. On the night of 19th March 1940, 30 Whitleys of 4 Group, in formation with 20 Hampdens from 5 Group, took off for the first attack of the war against a land target: the seaplane base at Hornum on the island of Sylt, a few miles west of the German-Danish coast.
Of seven Whitleys in 10 Squadron, first in the air at 19.30-hours was Wing Commander William “Crack” ‘Em’ Staton – a canvas bucket in his cockpit equipped with a razor and personal escape kit to accommodate every contingency. A larger than life career airman, distinguishable by a fearsome scar that followed the breaking of a chair over his head at a rackety mess party in 1917, Bill Staton, “a huge burly rhino of a man”, was a rare survivor of a band of Royal Flying Corps Bristol fighter pilots on the Western Front who opposed Baron von Richtofen’s deadly ‘Flying Circus’.
Post-war, Staton, known to contemporaries as ‘King Kong’, was stationed on the North West Frontier before he was gazetted as commander of 10 Squadron, stationed at Dishforth, Yorkshire (where his officers’ quarters were “smart as hell” on account of his aptitude for borrowing paintings and furniture from select landowners of the county). He was passed “indecently fit” for active service, aged 42 years. Talk of enemy beams cutting bomber magnetos led the indomitable Staton to test the rumour by circling over the heavily defended target for 15 minutes before – to the express relief of his courageous novice crew – they dropped their bomb load and headed home.
The vitality of strategic night operations by the RAF saw the press descend on Dishforth and next morning’s readers of the Daily Mirror read about “Crack” ‘Em’s’ achievement: leading by example and personality, and defining the limits of airmanship that had to be learned. As a tribute, a Whitley of 77 Squadron dropped leaflets over the station printed, “Congratulations to “Crack” ‘Em’ and Co, the heroes and leaders of Sylt”.
Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) born in Cambridge, and a former St.Paul’s chorister, studied figure painting in Paris and was a prominent oil, watercolour and drypoint artist. His work forms part of a number of collections and galleries, including the Royal Academy, Fine Arts Society and Royal Society of Arts. Elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and Royal Institute of Oil Painters, he was the long-standing President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, and gifted 54 of his paintings to the nation. Wilkinson was created CBE in 1948.