Airborne Engineers Association

Roll of Honour



Albert (Bertie) Richards - North West Soldier/Artist Remembered

Published with the kind permission of Squadron Leader Brian Jefferson on behalf of the Lancaster Military Heritage Group

We have previously noted the works of war artists, notably Eric Ravillious and in this article remember the work of Albert "Bertie" Richards, who at 24, was the youngest of three British war artists to be killed in the Second World War — the third being Thomas Hennell.
Bertie was one of the men of the 9th Parachute Battalion to drop into Normandy at 1 am on 6th June 1944. They were on a top-secret mission to take out the powerful German battery guarding Sword Beach, before the armada arrived. The success of D-Day would hinge on operations like this. This shy young man from the Wirral carried sketch book and pencils among his heavy military kit.

In the few hours that followed, he would take part in one of the most dramatic operations of the war and, once victory was achieved, he stopped to sketch the scene — producing two paintings that captured the moment for posterity. The Landing: H-Hour Minus 6 and Withdrawing From the Battery. His whole war had led to this extraordinary day. In the months that followed, he would capture, like no other artist, the devastation caused by an army in advance and the detritus left by one in retreat.

Albert (Bertie) Richards

Maurice Collis, the art critic, later said that, through his watercolours, Richards had "achieved a synthesis of modern styles" and had "surpassed his masters... his battle pictures... being dreams of beauty that none of his comrades at the place could in any manner have seen". Had he lived, Richards might have become one of the great artists of the 20th century. As it is, he is now forgotten.

Born in Liverpool in 1919, Richards grew up in a working- class household in nearby Wallasey. After leaving school he studied at a local art school where he was regarded by his peers as hard working but extremely sensitive. He later won a place at the Royal College of Art, but before he could take it up he was drafted, to train as a sapper in the Royal Engineers. This introverted young man struggled with Army life but found refuge in his painting. While on exercises in Northumberland during the brutal winter of 1940-41, he was inspired to contact the newly formed War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), eventually submitting a number of works. The committee, recognising his talent, paid 15 guineas for Sappers Erecting Picket in the Snow, a stark painting that captures the bleakness of the snow-covered terrain. In the distance, sappers stand idly by while uniform rows of metal pickets dominate the foreground.

The committee was chaired by Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery. Its official purpose was propaganda — art exhibitions were organised to raise morale at home and promote Britain's image abroad. Unofficially, the scheme hoped to save another generation of artists and writers — so many of whom had fallen in the First World War — from being killed at the Front by keeping them usefully employed elsewhere. Among those commissioned were Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland.

Richards asked the WAAC about becoming a junior war artist     but received little encouragement. Increasingly despondent, Richards said that his mind went blank and he lost all desire to paint. But then, in 1943, a transfer to the 591 Parachute Squadron changed everything and his work began to evolve.

Previously, Richards's paintings had grabbed moments at the end of punishing days, evoking the daily life, camouflage operations and so on. But the experience of parachuting gave him a new creative imperative and this can be seen most clearly in The Drop, a magnificent splash of colour that captures the drama of a full-scale exercise run by the 6th Airborne. Against a yellow and green sky, peppered with canopies as far as the eye can see, troops make athletic landings on the pink and brown earth.

The WAAC bought several more of his pieces and invited him to a meeting. On March 1 1944, Richards was made Britain's youngest official war artist and given the honorary rank of captain — the only artist selected from a fighting unit. On the night of June 5, at RAF Broadwell in Oxfordshire, he prepared for the biggest day of his life by writing to EC Gregory at the WAAC: "In a few hours' time I start upon my job as official war artist... and I feel that I will really be fulfilling the task set out to do, to produce paintings of the war and not preparations for it... Tomorrow I shall be in France. The beginning."

The mission to take out the Merville Battery on the Normandy coast was almost a complete disaster. Commanding Officer Lt Colonel Terence Otway had 750 men under his command but only 150 made it to the rendezvous. He had no other option but to go for it. Put in charge of a small platoon, Richards played a key role in helping to overpower the German position which, incredibly, was taken in just 15 minutes. Immediately, he set to work with pad and pencils. He spotted Alan Jefferson, an officer he'd roomed with, lying injured. "Don't move!" he joked and frantically began sketching him.

In an interview for the Imperial War Museum archive, Jefferson recalled: "He produced a picture that was called Withdrawing from the Battery... and I am there in it, in a bomb crater being attended to by a doctor. As Albert promised, he'd put me in his picture."

As the Allies advanced, Richards was painting prolifically and in October 1944, his work featured prominently in an exhibition at the National Gallery called Wartime Paintings of the Army Air Forces. But on March 5 the following year, after declaring he was on his way to create the "best painting of the war", he was killed when he drove his jeep through a minefield near Goch on the Dutch-German border. He was just 25.

Another war artist, Anthony Gross, heard from eyewitnesses that Richards had taken a shortcut: "He misunderstood the directions and they couldn't do anything about it because it was night time. Very sad."

Richards was buried in Milsbeek War Cemetery in Holland. The next month, Kenneth Clark organised a memorial exhibition at the National Gallery and in 1946, a retrospective of work by War Artists at Burlington House included 51 of his paintings.

Yet post-war enthusiasm for Richards's work was short-lived and only one major exhibition (at the Imperial War Museum in 1978) marked his place in 20th-century cultural history. It is hard to know why. Perhaps he is seen as a work in progress; with no direct descendants, there was no one to push his claims. So how should we see him? Allen Freer, an academic and admirer, makes an eloquent case: "A shy, over-sensitive student... the war, brought out the strength and fineness of his character. He had an ineluctable awareness that his art was 'bearing witness' to the events profoundly affecting Europe.

You can find more information On Albert via the following links:

They shall grow not old
as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them



first image second image third image fourth image fifth image sixth image seventh image eighth image
themed object