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19 September 2014
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Art and Daily Life in World War Two

By Roger Tolson
15 inch Gun Turret on HMS Repulse by Barnett Freedman
15 inch Gun Turret, HMS Repulse, 1942 by Barnett Freedman, Imperial War Museum, 292cm x 201cm, oil on canvas ©
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The impact of technology
Detail of '15 inch Gun Turret on HMS Repulse' showing the an officer
An officer trained in the exacting nature of these fearsome weapons stands by ©
The sophistication of the engineering is apparent, as well as the physical and technical demands it placed on the operators. The enormous 15-inch twin-fired shells weighed almost a ton. The crew are wearing training gear, not ‘flash’ gear, so this is a practice drill, part of an endless need to improve efficiency and master the immaculate choreography required to operate the gun. The breach is shut and the shell loaded; above the turret, the deck and the smoke of gun fire, the gunnery officer would know the gun was ready and could aim and trigger it remotely.
 
Detail of '15 inch Gun Turret on HMS Repulse' showing the cramped conditions
These are dangerous, claustrophic working conditions and tuberculosis was rife ©
The machinery weaves a web around the sailors, shaping their working lives in this claustrophobic environment. Tuberculosis was common amongst crew working in these cramped, damp conditions. This is a fragile environment, the close circumstances creating potentially life threatening risks through machine failure or operator error and also acting as a false barrier to the dangers of the sea and enemy fire. Above all, it controls the vision of the crew, specifically denying a view of the target. These guns had a range of 25km, providing the operating crew an outlook of metres.
 
Convoy protection
The British war effort was dependent on the supply of essential foods and materials across the Atlantic. This became the focus of the German U Boat fleet and the sinking of merchant shipping became critical during 1942 when average monthly losses were 96 ships. The solution came in the form of convoy protection. This was the role that HMS Repulse, a battle cruiser, was undertaking when Freedman took a commission to work on board. Freedman’s painting explores the increasingly complex relationship between technology and operator in contemporary warfare.
 
The artist
Barnett Freedman was one of the first artists to be commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee at the start of the Second World War. He was posted to France at the start of the war, staying on as long as possible before being evacuated. He was to return in 1944 to record the setting up of operational harbours in Normandy. In between, his interest was in recording operational methods and he was commissioned to work for the Admiralty, and specifically on HMS Repulse, in July 1941.
 
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