by Kathleen Broome Williams
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 282+.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1682474267
An Artist at War
Every so often I get sent books to review. Recently, the Naval Institute Press sent me a copy of Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II. I have read it, even though it is not a book that I would usually have chosen to read . . . and I was thoroughly enthralled! This was a serendipitous discovery for me, and made me realize how little I knew about certain aspects of naval conflict during the Second World War, most particularly the role of the Merchant Navy.
George Plante was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 18th September 1914. He was educated at George Heriot’s School and the Edinburgh College of Art, before winning a scholarship to study at the Contempora Lehrateliers für neue Werkkunst in Berlin. This was a progressive private art school created by architect Fritz August Breuhaus de Groot, which placed great emphasis on the unity of applied arts.
On his return to the UK, George worked as a newspaper and advertising illustrator, but when the Second World War broke out, he volunteered to train as a radio operator aboard Merchant Navy ships. After a short spell learning his trade and serving on a small coaster – the SS Amelia – he transferred to the much larger SS Sourabaya. This was a whale factory ship which, because of its large whale oil tanks and open decks, could serve as a combined tanker and cargo vessel. As she also had more accommodation than normal cargo vessels, she could also embark a small number of passengers.
Plante served aboard SS Sourabaya on many North Atlantic convoys, and spent his off-duty time at sea and in port painting and drawing what he saw around him. George produced a series of paintings and drawings about the Battle of the Atlantic that attracted the attention of the British Ministry of Information (MOI), the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and the War Ministry. As a result, they were used both in the UK and as part of exhibitions in the USA and Soviet Union.
On 27th October 1942, the Sourabaya – which was part of convoy HX212 – was hit by a torpedo fired by U-436 south-east of Cape Farewell off the southern tip of Greenland. Only 81 of the crew of 158 was picked up after the ship sank; luckily, George Plante was one of the survivors.
George continued to serve as a radio operator, transferring to the SS Southern Princess, which was also a former whale factory ship. She was sunk by a torpedo on St Patrick’s Day 1943 … and for a second time George survived. (It is ironic to note that the Southern Princess had previously been named San Patricio, and that she was sunk on St Patrick's Day.)
On his return to the UK, George was recruited by the Political Intelligence Unit (PID) of the British Foreign Office. He was sent to Cairo where he worked as a writer and illustrator of propaganda material as well as undertaking related intelligence work. He also continued to draw and paint whenever the opportunity arose.
After he was demobilized, George joined Young & Rubicam – a leading American advertising agency – working in their newly-formed London office. He eventually became their Art Director, but after seventeen years he moved to Unilever International, where he worked as their world-wide Creative Director. By this time, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and member of the Society of Industrial Artists. He had also had exhibitions of his work at the Royal Society of Marine Artists, the Walker Gallery in New Bond Street, the Hampstead Arts Center, and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.
George Plante retired in the mid-1970s and in 1980 he and his family moved to Hilton Head in South Carolina. George became a US citizen in December 1994 and died as a result of leukemia in 1995 at the age of 81.
The earliest section of the book deals with George Plante’s time in the Merchant Navy, and gives an interesting insight into what life was like for those who had to serve aboard merchant ships during the Battle of the Atlantic. There are numerous memoirs available that describe what it was like to fight against the U-Boat menace, but very few books that look at the events from the point of view of a non-combatant. This book helps to fill that void, and for that reason alone I am very pleased that I have read it.
Note: This review originally appeared on Bob Cordery's blog Wargaming Miscellany https://wargamingmiscellany.blogspot.com). He is a retired educationalist who has been playing and designing wargames since the early 1960s. He is a founder member of Wargame Developments, the designer of The Portable Wargame, available in several editions, and has written or contributed to numerous books on wargame design, naval wargaming, the Spanish Civil War, and Freemasonry.