Rex Whistler – Flying Visit of No.10 Squadron to Berlin – 1939-40
- Author: Rex Whistler (artist)
- Date: 1939-40
- Dimensions: Sheet: 36.5 x 24. 7 cms. Image: 35 x 23 cms.
Exceedingly rare “10 Squadron” version of this splendid wartime cartoon map of Berlin designed by British artist, Rex Whistler
About this piece:
Rex Whistler (artist)
Flying Visit of No.10 Squadron to Berlin in the form of an RAF leaflet raid here fancifully depicted – but not forgetting a great many hard facts – by Rex Whistler
Sheet: 36.5 x 24. 7 cms. Image: 35 x 23 cms. Narrow but ample margins on all sides. A clean and fresh example, the image very clearly defined & crisply printed. The paper surface with a slight sheen. The whole sheet laid down on a thin cardboard backing, possibly contemporarily so, at time of publication/production or perhaps when re-framed in the 1980s. With all a very attractive example.
Exceptionally rare original Rex Whistler cartoon map of Berlin, this version titled and dedicated to the RAF’s No.10 Squadron and specially commissioned from the artist himself in late 1939 or early 1940 by the Squadron’s Commanding Officer.
The viewer is offered a grandstand aerial view over central Berlin, with the principal buildings and thoroughfares all named. In the upper left corner, the winged figure of Britannia, her shield in one hand (and in this version specially emblazoned with the badge & motto of No.10 Squadron), a triton in the other, points threateningly down at the assembled group of quivering Nazi leaders below, and looks on triumphantly as winged cherubs and putti, each clad in RAF helmets and goggles, distribute a shower of propaganda leaflets across the surrounding skies. Below, in the lower right corner of the image, Hitler, Göring and Goebbels quiver in trepidation beneath a Jolly Rodger flag emblazoned with Nazi swastika – the skull of the skull and crossbones wearing its own SS cap. Whilst Hilter and Göring shake their fists in the air, Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop cowers beneath a nearby table, amid the toppled champagne bottles & broken glasses of what has clearly been a much-disturbed evening for the criminal Nazi elite. Cartoon portraits of three of the leaders are also incorporated into the title cartouche upper right.
The precise origins of this print and the sequence and primacy of its various versions & iterations, manuscript and printed, still remain shrouded in some mystery & uncertainty, even after more than 80 years.
The most often encountered and best-known version of this cartoon is that which was first published as the double-page centrefold in the December 9th 1939 issue of Illustrated magazine when it appeared with the title Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin. It was originally designed by the famous British artist and graphic designer, Rex Whistler [1905-1944], to commemorate the first British RAF propaganda leaflet raid to overfly the German capital Berlin, which had taken place two months earlier.
On the night of October 1st 1939, four Whitley IV bombers of RAF’s No.10 Squadron, the lead aircraft piloted by Wing Commander W E Staton, took off from their base at Dishforth in North Yorkshire to undertake a daring and unprecedented propaganda leaflet raid over the German capital, Berlin. It was one of a series of so-called “nickel” or propaganda leaflet drops made by RAF aircraft over occupied Europe & Germany in the preceding weeks of the so-called “Phoney War”. However this would be the first ever time that British aircraft would overfly the German capital in wartime. The raid was seen by British leaders & propagandists as sending an important message to Hitler and the German High Command, underlining the apparent impunity with which the RAF could carry out such long-distance raids, the failings in Berlin’s air defences and the city’s self-evident vulnerability to aerial attack and bombardment. Despite Staton and his crew in the lead aircraft running into considerable difficulties with their onboard oxygen supply at 22500 feet over the German capital, all four aircraft sucessfully dropped their leaflets and returned home, three of them touching down at Dishforth early the following morning. Sadly the fourth aircraft, piloted by Australian Flt Lt J W Allsopp, was lost on the return flight, having probably run out of fuel and crashed into the North Sea. These early “nickel” raids, were proclaimed a great success in the British press. The exploits of 10 Squadron over Berlin, though not openly named or identified, received much newspaper coverage in the days immediately after the raid. In November 1939 King George VI made a special visit to RAF Dishforth, climbing into one of the 10 Squadron Whitleys involved in the raid and hearing at first hand the accounts of those who had taken part.
A detailed study of Whistler’s map and of the raid itself appeared in our Barron Maps Blog of January 2017
The commonly accepted story is that Staton saw Whistler’s cartoon map in the December 9th 1939 issue of Illustrated and immediately contacted the artist to see if it might be possible to commission a special version of the cartoon to celebrate the Squadron’s role in this operation. Perhaps Staton also recognised the psychological power that the map might have, harnessing Whistler’s irrepressible humour and satirical fun to both lift the spirits of his men during such challenging and serious times and also to cement a stronger sense of Squadron identity, loyalty and camaraderie during these vital early months of the War, as so many individual RAF Squadrons began to find their “wartime feet” and face the challenges of making these first long-distance forays in “nickel raids” over enemy German territory.
Following Staton’s approach, Whistler appears to have designed a special ink and watercolour version of similar size to the Illustrated cartoon but with subtle differences and changes within the image which are also reflected in this printed version, which also bears the exact same title as the Whistler watercolour. The 10 Squadron badge and motto (Rem Acu Tangere (To Hit the Mark)) have been skilfully added to the large shield of the winged figure of Britannia wielding her triton in the upper left of the image. The shield in the Illustrated version of the map had displayed just the British Union flag. The watercolour was personally inscribed by Whistler in the lower margin and apparently gifted to Staton. Its derivation from the published Illustrated version is proven by an inscription on the back which references the 9th December 1939 issue of Illustrated. The watercolour would appear to have remained in Staton’s possession until his death in 1983. It then probably passed to his heirs or estate. It has since been offered for sale twice. It was first sold in a provincial auction in the South of England in January 2010 for a hammer price of £5200, and most recently offered for sale once again at Bonhams in New York in January 2021, where it seemingly remained unsold, on an auction estimate of US$15000-$20000.
In addition to this original watercolour presented by Whistler to Staton, two further printed versions of the cartoon map seem to have been produced, identical in appearance but apparently in two different sizes. They were both probably printed and distributed in the first few months of 1940.
The larger sized version of the map (circa 58 x 35 cms), of which only a small handful appear to have survived, would seem to have been reserved exclusively for presentation to the pilots of the three aircrafts (of the four) which took part in the original raid. One additional example of this larger map was uncovered by chance by 10 Squadron historians Ian Macmillan and Dick King in 2013 in the unit’s archives at its present base at RAF Brize Norton. It has since been carefully reframed and currently hangs in pride of place in the Officers’ Mess at the base.
It seems a smaller version was also produced, probably at Staton’s instigation and/or in response to demand from within the Squadron itself. It was clearly issued in a relatively small print run & for exclusive distribution amongst the 10 Squadron community.
This appears to be one such very rare example.
Over the last few years just a handful of examples of this smaller cartoon have surfaced in private collections around the World – to date (based on contacts arising from our 2017 Blog post and from contacts with 10 Squadron historian Ian Macmillan): one in Canada, another in the USA, and two in the UK (including this one). Invariably, as in this case, the maps have been passed down through family or by inheritance from wartime veterans who originally served with No.10 Squadron during the first year of the war – 1939-40 – but who actually took no part in the original October 1939 Berlin raid and later moved on to serve with other RAF Squadrons. The original owner of this example served as an Observer/Navigator with 10 Squadron from November 1939 through to August 1940, when he most probably moved to another training unit. He subsequently served in several other theatres & with different RAF units throughout the rest of war, being mentioned in Despatches in 1943 at this point having undertaken 30 ops over enemy territory. He remained with the RAF after the end of the war before finally returning to civilian life in the late 1940s.
The differences between the “10 Squadron” and “Illustrated” versions of the cartoon are quite marked. The Illustrated version is generally much greyer and the overall definition and detail considerably fainter than the “10 Squadron” version. The latter is a much darker and sharper image all round, that darkness most especially noticeable in the shadowing & detailing around Britannia and the surrounding putti in the upper left and in the figures of the Nazi leaders in the lower right. The groundplan of Berlin is also much more clearly defined and outlined. It remains unclear as to what the reprographic processes were for the printing of Whistler’s drawings for these various printed versions and whether Staton used the services of a London printer or one based locally in Yorkshire.
To our knowledge, this is the first time that one of these exceptionally rare “10 Squadron” versions of the Whistler cartoon map has been offered for sale on the open market.