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Taking the Blitz to America

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In the summer of 1941 a collection of paintings by serving members of the London Fire Brigade  was exhibited in the United States. Anthony Kelly describes the success of a little-known propaganda campaign celebrating Britain’s ‘spirit of civilian heroism’.

'In the East End, November 1940' by Reginald Mills. London Fire Brigade MuseumFrom the moment Winston Churchill came to power in May 1940 the United States was central to his strategy. His aim was to use all possible means, including propaganda if necessary, to persuade Americans to join in the war. But Britain’s mouthpiece in the US, the British Library of Information, was not designed for propaganda and was said to have reflected a remote, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ worldview.

Things changed in the summer of 1941 when the British Ministry of Information reorganised and revitalised its American operations. This enabled it to oversee a little-known but remarkably successful propaganda campaign in the US, conceived and executed by an unlikely agency, the London Fire Brigade.

On February 1st, 1941 Major F.W. Jackson DSO, Officer Commanding London Fire Services, wrote to the secretary of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), E.M. O’Rourke Dickey, to inform him that he had recently called for a list of artists serving in his force, which had revealed ‘a large amount of hidden talent of which we were not previously aware’. He stated that he had invited all artists in the service to submit works of art for an exhibition in his headquarters and wondered if the WAAC would assist in judging them. If the standard was sufficiently high then perhaps the works might be sent to the US. Instead of dismissing the idea as fanciful, Dickey arranged for the works to be seen by J.B. Manson, a former curator of the Tate Gallery, after getting agreement from the WAAC chairman, Kenneth Clark, that depending on the quality ‘it would be quite a good thing to send it to America’.

Dickey also went to see the pictures for himself. He reported to Clark on February 7th that he thought they made ‘quite a good show’ and that on artistic merits alone the collection might not be ‘anything very great’ but ‘as a show of work by combatant firemen I am sure it would be worth sending to the States for propaganda purposes’. Meanwhile Manson not only approved of the paintings but wrote to thank Jackson for the ‘thrilling entertainment’ of a demonstration put on by his firemen, adding: ‘I was deeply impressed by what I saw and by your wonderful organisation.’ By mid-February Clark was said to be favourably impressed with the pictures and had formed the opinion that an exhibition in the US would be ‘valuable propaganda’.

There was soon talk of the project being sponsored by the Ministry of Information (MoI) who were encouraged to hear that Jackson had already built up good relations with the head of the New York Fire Brigade (NYFB), Colonel John James McElligott, after three of their officers had been shown British fire-fighting techniques in the Blitz. The NYFB could be asked to help arrange an exhibition in New York on the basis of reciprocity. A proposal was submitted to the Overseas Planning Committee of the MoI, with the objective stated as ‘propaganda for our cause’. A memorandum listed the ‘main ideas to be put over’:

1. This must not happen to you. Help Britain to keep away the Nazi menace.
2. The courage of London firemen – citizen soldiers manning the new front line.
3. Art in wartime – how culture and art can be kept alive and even stimulated in Blitz conditions.


Then the MoI proceeded to expand the project, with Jackson’s agreement. As well as paintings, a three-dimensional Blitz fire-fighting display would be added to the exhibition. The London County Council agreed to pay for picture frames after the MoI obtained a supply of timber, a restricted material, by certifying that it was to be used ‘for propaganda purposes’.

Action and heroism

By March 10th, 1941 all the pictures were in frames and ready for what was advertised as the first public ‘firemen artist’ exhibition, opening in London at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn with over 100 paintings. In reality it was a rehearsal for the more ambitious foray into the US. The exhibition lasted three weeks, attracting a total of about 30,000 visitors. Journalists were told of its real destination and their reviews show that they had been well briefed. The Daily Telegraph wrote that ‘America is about to see perhaps the most dramatic collection of pictures ever assembled: impressions of the Siege of London as set down by 20 auxiliary firemen and women auxiliaries (sic). Their brushes record, as the camera cannot, the cruelty and spectacular horror of night bombing’. According to The Times, the exhibition was ‘in all probability such a record of great public events as has never before been made by the actual participants’. All the artists were volunteers in the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS).

These features were to be the unique ‘selling points’ in America and Jackson shrewdly sent the newspaper reports to McElligott at the NYFB. They would distinguish the exhibition from the large WAAC Britain at War display that was being prepared for New York at about the same time and which also covered the First World War. The firemen’s exhibition had the advantage of a much clearer focus. In a letter to the director of the British Press Service in New York in April 1941, regarding a catalogue for the exhibition, Jackson refers to the subject as ‘the great London fire of 29th December 1940’. This had been the most horrific night of the Blitz. The title of the touring exhibition would be The Great Fire of London, recalling the 17th-century precedent but also promising paintings of spectacular action and heroism, elements conspicuously absent from most exhibits in Britain at War, which had deliberately avoided anything that could be described as deliberate ‘propaganda’.

Just before the exhibition opened in London the American Division of the MoI had suggested sending three firemen to the US to accompany the paintings. Jackson promptly agreed, although Kenneth Clark expressed doubts about whether they could find men ‘who could hold their own with the American public and reporters, and who would not be spoiled by all the inevitable bally-hoo’. This augmentation of the original plan would completely transform the whole project and greatly enhance its propaganda value. A decision was taken to send one auxiliary fireman artist, one wounded auxiliary Blitz veteran and one more senior regular fireman, who would be capable of answering technical queries. The regular was an experienced staff officer called D.D. Ivall and the unfit man was Auxiliary Fireman C.E.J. Palmer, a peacetime painter and decorator, who had just spent six months in hospital after being badly burned while fire fighting in the East End.

US poster warning against a Blitz in America, 1942-43The fireman artist was Auxiliary Fireman Rudolf Haybrook, typical of the many ‘characters’ who were attracted to the AFS. Already over 40 when he joined, medal ribbons on his uniform showed his army service in the First World War. He also came with a leg injury sustained while on fire fighting duty. He had been a crew member of the Thames fireboat Massey Shaw at Dunkirk and recorded his impressions of the event in three oil paintings, one of which had been bought by the WAAC. Jackson had made it clear from the start that Haybrook was in fact the source of the original idea for the American project.

With such rapid implementation it would have been surprising if there were no problems related to ministerial or departmental rivalries. When the Ministry of Home Security, which was part of the Home Office, saw the publicity for the exhibition, one of its officials wrote to the MoI to complain that his ministry had not been consulted. He criticised the MoI for working with the London Fire Brigade, declaring ‘this Ministry alone is in a position to authorise the policy’, adding ‘I gather that some of the details in the exhibition shown to the press are wrong’. The director of the MoI American Division, Douglas Williams, called the complaint ‘peevish and unjustified’ and ‘just another example of someone sniping at a complete plan they might just as well have thought of themselves’. The complaint was  withdrawn but the Ministry of Home Security would soon find a different reason to take issue.

Taken on strength

Enthusiasm for the project, rather than petty rivalry, also brought its own problem. As soon as news of the exhibition reached Canada, there was a great deal of lobbying and many requests to extend the itinerary. The Eaton Company of Canada offered their network of department stores as exhibition sites and offered to pay the transport and exhibition costs if it came to them before New York. A compromise resulted in a plan for a ‘dog-leg’ itinerary across the US/Canadian border, although this became subject to change due to German submarine action in the North Atlantic. The Treasury was inquisitive, but satisfied on hearing that the travel costs would be met by the MoI and that payment of the firemen’s wages and subsistence would be handled by the NYFB, whose commander would ‘take them on strength’ as Major Jackson had done with their men when visiting London. Jackson told him ‘if any one of them gives the slightest trouble I know you will not hesitate to send him back to England’. It was assumed that the whole operation would be completed within a matter of months. As it turned out, the planned programme was affected by the decision to send the paintings and the firemen by different ships as well as by its own success.

The American Division of the MoI issued a press release on April 30th, 1941 stating that the American Ambassador in London, John G. Winant, had met the three London firemen on the eve of departure to bid them ‘bon voyage’ and to deliver the following message:

Anyone who has seen you in action, as I have, can appreciate the help and advice you bring to America. You have learned to stand up to double fire. It takes a special kind of courage to fight fire in a blaze of light while enemy aircraft are bombing you from above.

The firemen arrived in New York in advance of the pictures and the British Library of Information reported to the MoI that the hospitality by Mayor La Guardia and the NYFB was ‘extraordinary’ and that they were ‘a great success wherever they appeared’. The Packard Company presented the firemen with a scarlet car and chauffeur to take them on a whistlestop lecture tour of New York and neighbouring states. The Daily Mirror carried an article on May 30th, 1941 by its resident reporter, John Walters, on the impact of the firemen in New York City:

When Haybrook and Palmer stroll about the streets in uniform, crowds rush to shake their hands. One of them was grasped by a civilian who dragged him into a store, thrust a beautiful silk tie into his hand, and went on his way. Ivall, Palmer and Haybrook are doing a splendid job in telling Americans about the work of London’s fire-fighters with a modesty totally devoid of heroic trimmings. Which leads me to implore the British Government to send more men of this type on trips to the United States. They spread far more good will for Britain than do our sleek diplomats, dry as dust economists and sentimental novelists, who are here in swarms.

When The Great Fire of London, 1940 opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on July  18th, 1941 it was widely acclaimed. The Washington Sunday Star of July 20th called it ‘an exceptionally interesting exhibition’, stressing that it should not be confused with Britain at War because the subject matter was different: ‘the bombing of a great city’. The reviewer Florence S. Berryman explained that these were ‘not compositions worked out at leisure in a peaceful studio, but first-hand impressions of experiences, horrors and trials valiantly met by men and women whose physical labor in defense of their country was supplemented by sensitive perception and creative ability.’ Other reviews also emphasised that the artists were ‘civilian fire-fighting volunteers’ who painted while under fire themselves. Many noted the attendance of La Guardia in his role as Director of Civilian Defense. His presence, combined with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, would lead to an even greater interest in the London firemen and an almost overwhelming demand for their services, which would lead to the expansion and reorientation of Major Jackson’s project.

Washington objects

In Washington the British Embassy reported that the ambassador found the exhibition of ‘exceptional value’ and that visitors had shown ‘unusual interest and sympathy’. However there were problems at the National Gallery. The centrepiece of the exhibition was a three-dimensional still life of the Blitz that perhaps today would be called an ‘installation’. Many of the artefacts it comprised were predictable: parts of bombs; an incendiary extinguished by a stirrup pump; ‘an improperly ignited incendiary bomb found in Thames mud’; a hose coupling melted by heat; ‘fabric from a barrage balloon shot down over London by enemy action’; fragments of ‘Ack-Ack’ shrapnel. The gallery director David Finley refused to allow the firemen to display this on the grounds that it was war material, stating that his gallery only concerned itself with ‘art exhibits’ as opposed to ‘war exhibits’.

Some objects had in fact already been removed from the display by censors from the Ministry of Home Security before it had left London. These came from a parachute bomb. The prohibited items included light alloy fragments and the Bakerlite and cardboard tail unit. The firemen’s centrepiece was transformed by two surprising objects. The first was ‘part of the tunic of a dead auxiliary fireman’, the other a battered steel helmet, with a note saying ‘fifteen perished when a sub-station was hit’. The tunic had been confirmed as belonging to ‘the late Station Officer R.W. Sinstadt (24 Stn) who was killed by enemy action on 20th Inst. It is assumed that Station Officer Sinstadt was wearing the tunic at the time’. As well as introducing an unexpectedly emotive element into the exhibition, these objects were displayed with almost religious reverence. In correspondence relating to the exhibition they were described as ‘relics’. The incorporation of death and mourning into a propaganda event would have risked causing offence but in this exhibition, organised by firemen themselves, it was a way of sharing with Americans the reality of the Blitz.

Finley ordered that the words ‘Nazi vandals’ on one of the captions should be covered up on the grounds that it constituted propaganda. Possibly this was a reference to St Bride’s, Testament to Nazi Culture – Damping Down, a painting of a bombed church by Leslie Carr. Finley also banned distribution of a pamphlet containing a message from Charles Latham, Chief of the London County Council, for the same reason. It appeared that the spirit of American neutrality was being applied with exceptional zeal and that the ‘special relationship’ had not yet been invented. The embassy instructed the firemen to comply, but said that these restrictions would apply in Washington only.

The obstacles encountered there were not unique, however. Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US State Department objected when it heard that the firemen’s paintings were on sale, with half of the money to be donated to the London Fire Brigade Benevolent Fund via the British Library of Information. The department announced that, since the latter was an agent of a ‘belligerent government’, it was not a proper recipient of relief funds under the 1939 Neutrality Act and therefore alternative arrangements had to be made. Evidently American ‘hearts and minds’ could not be taken for granted, indicating the very real need for propaganda efforts such as the firemen’s exhibition.

Britain’s missioners

The decision to send firemen who had been injured to the US produced a notable response in the American press. A typical headline from the Milwaukee Sentinel was ‘Buried, Seared in Air Raids, London Firemen Visit Here’. The Dayton Daily News announced that ‘Two of Trio Carry Bombing Marks’. Many reports gave details of the men’s injuries and described visible wounds and scars on their faces and bodies, as if they were stigmata. Continuing the religious theme, a Seattle press headline called the firemen ‘Britain’s Most Successful Missioners’, symbolising ‘the spirit of civilian heroism’.

As a result of what the British Library of Information described as the ‘extraordinary success’ of the exhibition two unexpected decisions were taken. A second collection of paintings was sent late in 1941, accompanied by three more firemen, with two simultaneous tours allowing coverage to be extended into areas associated with isolationist and anti-British sentiments such as the Midwest. Furthermore, even though its strategic aim was achieved after events at Pearl Harbor led to America’s entry into the war, the duration of the campaign was extended.

In fact demand for the London firemen became almost overwhelming, due to a frantic expansion of US civil defence preparations. Fear that the US might be bombed not only made the paintings more relevant, but also put a premium on the experience and expertise of the British men, who were called upon to deliver lectures and radio broadcasts nationwide on ‘lessons learned’ from the Blitz. A typical headline appeared in the Indianapolis Times for June 25th, 1942: ‘ “Can Indianapolis be Bombed? It’s Certainly Possible” say British firemen’, adding that just three planes with only 10 per cent effectiveness of bombs dropped could ‘give you more fire than you’ve ever had before’.

When the Ministry of Home Security heard that the firemen were being asked to help plan civil defence for the US another turf war ensued. It complained that civil defence was its responsibility; in any case the firemen had been abroad for so long that they were unaware of ‘recent developments’. The ministry was unable to specify what these developments were however and after lengthy correspondence the matter was eventually resolved.

Auxiliary Fireman Haybrook was appointed Fire Consultant by the Regional Office of Civilian Defense in Seattle, who paid his expenses and $10 a day in lieu of subsistence, while the LFB still paid his wages. From January 1942 to April 1943 Haybrook was on the road, giving hundreds of talks to audiences from chambers of commerce to high schools and handing out the MoI’s booklet, Fifty Facts about India, to deflect awkward questions about British imperialism. Haybrook’s own opinions seemed to be in tune with those of most Americans, as when he praised the AFS as ‘the most democratic organisation in the world’ in a newspaper interview. The British Consul in Seattle described him as a ‘romantic, almost heroic figure’, whose great popularity might have aroused jealousy among regular firemen. In February 1943 he was the victim of an accusation, possibly anti-British in motivation and discovered from a mail censorship intercept, of lecturing while drunk. The strain finally told and he spent ten days in hospital in San Francisco, suffering from exhaustion. He had been treated for shell-shock during the First World War. His medical bills were paid by Malvina Hoffman, the well-known New York-based sculptor, and he was soon back in action.

A double success

Detailed records were kept of all the firemen’s activities and these show the remarkable impact of the North American tour. For example the official attendance at the Washington Museum was 100,000, with a total for all exhibitions of over half a million by the end of 1942. The number attending lectures and talks was over 600,000. Press coverage was extensive and universally favourable, often effusive. Many commented on the distinctive quality of the paintings, typically described as ‘a new kind of war art based on personal experience’. As for the firemen, their bearing and demeanour fully matched their reputation as veterans of the Blitz, inspiring admiration and respect wherever they went. This was recorded in many reports to the MoI in London and in countless official letters from organisations where they had spoken, both in the US and in Canada.

In a letter to the Home Office of June 24th, 1942 the firemen artist tour was described by the American Division of the MoI as ‘phenomenally successful’. The ministry particularly appreciated its reception by audiences and regions previously beyond their reach and in forms that did not look like propaganda. Of course it all began with paintings that were not designed as propaganda, making the whole episode an intriguing example of the problematic relationship between art and politics. The campaign was all the more remarkable given the cost in manpower: six firemen sent abroad for two years. The only ‘casualties’ were 18 paintings destroyed by an accidental fire at the Newark Art Club in New Jersey in February 1944 and these were covered by insurance.

There can be no doubt that the project achieved its double aim. Major Jackson succeeded in showing and selling in America the paintings of his AFS men and women, helping both the individuals and the firemen’s charity, while the MoI had a propaganda coup. The ‘special relationship’ may have become a concept liable to exploitation by politicians, but the London firemen’s paintings undoubtedly helped Britain’s standing in the US at a crucial time and contributed towards a genuine relationship based on empathy and solidarity between two peoples.

Anthony Kelly is a researcher and lecturer. He is writing a book on the firemen artists.



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