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Rex Whistler – Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin – 1939

  • Author: WHISTLER, Rex (artist)
  • Publisher: Illustrated Magazine
  • Date: 1939
  • Dimensions: sheet: 52 x 35 cms


Rare cartoon map by British artist Rex Whistler celebrating the RAF’s first propaganda “nickel” raid over Berlin in October 1939

About this piece:

Rex Whitler (artist) – Illustrated Magazine (publishers)


Flying Visit of Truth 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: 52 x 35 cms. Black & white engraving published as a double-page centrefold of “Illustrated” magazine. Photos and printed text to verso. Staple holes to top and bottom centrefold (from original staples) filled & reinforced on verso. Very slight toning to fold. Some marginal reinforcements with transparent archival tissue along upper sheet edges of verso. Given the nature of the medium & production, in all a fine example. 

This wonderful satirical cartoon by the renowned British artist and illustrator, Rex Whistler [1905-1944], commemorates one of the most significant British propaganda coups of the first weeks of World War Two.

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 that had been underataken 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.

The Berlin raid & Rex Whistler’s drawings were the subject of our extensively researched Jan 2017 Barron Maps Blog.

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.

Rex Whistler’s cartoon first appeared as the double-page centrefold of the December 9th issue of Illustrated magazine.  Entitled Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin, in the form of an RAF leaflet raid here fancifully depicted, but not forgetting a great many hard facts, 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, shield in one hand and triton in other, pointing threateningly at the assembled group of quivering Nazi leaders below, looks on as winged cherubs and putti, each clad in RAF helmets and goggles, distribute propaganda leaflets across the surrounding skies. Below Hitler, Göring and Goebbels quiver in trepidation around a Jolly Rodger flag additionally emblazoned with Nazi symbols. Whilst they shake their fists in the air, Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop cowers beneath a nearby table, amid the toppled champagne bottles & broken glasses of 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.

Some time shortly after the appearance of the cartoon, it would seem Staton approached Whistler to see if he might purchase the original artwork. Whistler went one better, creating a spearate original ink and watercolour drawing based on the Illustrated cartoon but updated to include direct reference to 10 Squadron, both in its revised title and in the armorial on the shield of the mythical figure of Britannia in the upper left image. At some point in late 1939 or early 1940 he presented the cartoon to Staton with a personal message inscribed in pencil in the lower margin. This cartoon was retained by Staton in his own personal collection and has been offered for sale at auction twice since the latter’s death in 1983. The last occasion was in January 2021 when it was offered at auction by Bonhams in New York at an estimate of US$15000-20000, seemingly remaining unsold.

A small set of printed copies, engraved from Whistler’s ink & watercolour design, and also amended to include the Squadron’s name in the title and the insignia on Britannia’s shield, were then issued. Tradition has it that at least three examples were presented to each of the surviving pilots  of the aircraft involved in the raid as well as one reserved for the Squadron itself. Thanks to the investigations of 10 Squadron historians, Ian Macmillan and Dick King it was this latter example which was  “re-discovered” in 2013 hanging in an old 1940’s frame on the office wall at 10 Squadron HQ at RAF Brize Norton.One wonders if additional examples might also have been presented to the other surviving crew members as well? No information appears to survive to validate whether this was the case.

But it has since come to light that a smaller edition of the print was also produced and seemingly issued, probably at Staton’s instigation at some point in early 1940, and very likely due to popular demand from within the Squadron itself. Certainly, over the course of the last five years, since our June 2017 blog was published, a handful of examples of this reduced-size edition of the “10 Squadron” version of Whistler’s cartoon map have come to light, all owned by the family or descendants of RAF flyers who served with 10 Squadron during late 1939 & 1940 but did not, it seems, participate in the October 1939 raid themselves. An example of this smaller “10 Squadron” cartoon map is currently on offer alongside this map on our website.

This is a rare and important wartime cartoon, a morale-boosting propaganda piece dating from the first weeks of the war. It was designed by one of Britain’s most talented and sought-after pre-war artists & illustrators, whose own life and remarkable artistic career would be tragically cut short nearly five years later whilst serving as a tank commander with the Guards Armoured Division in Normandy in July 1944.

Refs: Jan 2017 Barron Maps Blog