In a sense, Montague Dawson's illustration work began in World War I when the artist was serving as a Royal Navy "Dazzle Camouflage" artist. Dazzle Camouflage was the practice of painting ships in complex black and white geometric patterns, not to hide ships but to make it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed, and heading. This duty also gave him ample opportunities to observe and draw a broad range of Naval ships.
During the war some of Dawson's illustrations were published in Britain's "The Sphere" magazine (1900-1964) and the London Illustrated News. His most notable published works in this period were drawings of the final surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, something he witnessed firsthand.
After the War, Dawson devoted himself full time to becoming a professional marine artist, concentrating on historical subjects and portraits of deep-water sailing ships on active seas. During World War II, Dawson became an official war artist while also again contributing illustrations to The Sphere and other publications. Many of these wartime works were painted in the classical grisaille technique; using shades of grey to create tremendous depth and dimensionality. This also made the pieces easy to publish in black and white, so this illustration was intended for publication.
Many of Dawson's wartime pieces were dramatic depictions of battle, such as the one seen here. Royal Navy S-class submarine, H.M.S. SEALION (72S), braves artillery fire to surface and rescue the pilot of a downed R.A.F. P-51 Mustang fighter.
SEALION was launched on 16th March 1934, though her career was most eventful after the outbreak of the war. Under the command of Lt. Commander (later Rear Admiral) Benjamin Bryant, SEALION is known to have engaged and damaged or sunk several German U-Boats and many Axis supply ships. SEALION was also one of a number of submarines ordered to track the German battleship BISMARCK before her eventual sinking.
Though U.S. built, the P-51 Mustang aircraft were originally designed for Britain's Royal Air Force, and to their specifications. Mustangs were superior to the RAF's more common Spitfire fighters- faster by about 30 mph with more than double the range. First flown as tactical-reconnaissance aircraft and fighter-bombers, the Mustang's reliability and range led to their later being used as bomber escorts on raids over Germany.
Mustangs were not the easiest aircraft to ditch in the air, nor were they easy to emergency land on water. According to the P-51 manual, the procedure for ditching was to approach the water with one wing low and execute a shallow bank turn. When that wing tip struck the water, the rudder was kicked hard over to that side, making the plane slew around. Once down the pilot had to get out fast- even if he was able to land with the nose up, the front air intake would act as a scoop, pulling the plane under water nose first. The plane's design wouldn't allow it to skim the surface; there was really no way to land without pulling water into that intake, something Dawson clearly understood since this work shows the Mustang with the nose already under water.
Here the pilot has touched down just right- with one wing in the water, taking the brunt force of the landing. Now he's got just seconds before the aircraft will sink below the waves. Racing across to the higher wing, he'll jump as close to the sub as he can. On SEALION, submariners top the conning tower to call orders to the on deck crew ready to throw a line once the pilot is in the water. Four on deck guns- two on the conn tower and two on the forward deck, are manned and ready to provide cover fire.
Bright white flashes on the nearby shore show us the source of the artillery fire, shells splashing perilously close to SEALION's bow. The late afternoon sun has just sunk below the clouds and Dawson has added even more drama by filling the sky with brilliant beams of light.
Scenes of military bravery like this one helped boost wartime morale, particularly in this late war period when the British public were hoping that increasing Allied victories would at last bring an end to the fighting. This is one of the best narrative Dawson illustrations we've come across.
The two reference photos shown here are period views of H.M.S. SEALION underway on the River Clyde, painted in dazzle camouflage and a P-51 Mustang with R.A.F. colors.
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