A camoufleur’s art

For more than a century official war artists have helped shape our understanding of Australian military history. Often selected on the basis of their pre-war reputations, the works produced by official war artists such as Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Streeton and Albert Tucker have become staple offerings for a nation now locked into a  permanent cycle of military commemoration. 

Far eclipsing the output of these official war artists however is the great body of work produced by Australia’s unofficial war artists. Despite its greater authenticity (much official war art having been produced by non-participants, after the event), this vast output remains largely undocumented, unstudied, and unappreciated.

These unofficial artists painted, sketched, and drew for their own pleasure, depicting what they liked as they liked without the thought that their works were destined for public collections. They drew and painted to hone their artistic skills, to record their experiences, to relieve the boredom and isolation, and in the case of many, as a means of therapy, helpful in unfamiliar situations disconnected from everyday life.

Unencumbered by military directives these unofficial artists could access and observe subjects that were not ordinarily available, the informality of their art contrasting with the oftentimes formal and heroic tone of official war art.

 

Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland)

 

Although Australian servicemen and women were never actively encouraged during the Second World War to sketch and paint (as they were in Canada), many uniformed personnel took pleasure in doing so. While some of these unofficial artists were self-taught, others had received formal training and were so employed – typically as commercial artists – prior to the war.

 

This June 1943 list of official camoufleurs reads like who’s who of the Australian art world (National Archives of Australia, NAA: A649, 224/600/374 page 102).

To this last category belonged many of Australia’s camoufleurs, members of a small but prestigious group of practicing artists, photographers, designers and architects (both men and women) tasked with assisting the Army, Navy and Air Force to camouflage its facilities and equipment, and with training military personnel in the science of camouflage.  

In early April 1941 the Australian War Cabinet had approved the establishment of a Defence Central Camouflage Unit and an experimental camouflage station at Sydney’s Middle Head, both operating under the auspices of the Home Security Department. National Security (Camouflage) Regulations were approved later the same year. Recruitment began almost immediately, no more than about sixty ‘officers’ having been appointed in all.

Arthur Francis (Frank) Rowland (1912 – 1976) received his camoufleur certificate number 19  around May 1943, being initially posted to the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) newly constructed satellite airfield at Brymaroo near Jondaryan on the Darling Downs (Queensland). Seldom used by aircraft, and with no hangars and just a handful of wooden structures to camouflage, there would have been little else for Rowland to do at Brymaroo  – other than paint. It was around this time that Rowland is also thought to have joined Brisbane’s influential Half Dozen Group of Artists.

 

In 1943 Rowland was billeted on the Brymaroo property of Ann and Lionel Mason, this watercolor typifying the landscape in that part of the Darling Downs. Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland).

 

In a mid 1943 war art exhibition review, Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper counted Rowland ‘Amongst the painters who rise above the depressing level…though his drawing is not perfect, [he] has a sense of character in a portrait of a CCCworker, and has captured the movement and atmosphere of a man working at a gravel-crushing machine.’

The following year he was posted to Darwin and although employed as a civilian, he continued  working for the RAAF. Only camouflage officers working in forward areas were required to wear uniforms, being issued with Air Force officer uniforms adorned with Home Security Department badges, buttons and armlets (with the letters ‘A C’).

It was only after camoufleurs in Australia’s  North-West Area had begun ‘illegally’ wearing epaulettes with the words ‘Accredited Camoufleurs,’ that the Department – in April 1943 – had issued its first official insignia bearing the correct ‘Authorised Camoufleur’ insignia.

 

Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland).

 

The Japanese had long since ceased attacking northern Australia by the time Rowland arrived there, the allied advance having also moved far offshore to the north-western islands. No longer a front-line combat zone, much of his art from this period is concerned with the ordinary and the routine of everyday military life.

After the war he returned to Brisbane where he resumed his career as a commercial artist, while continuing to judge, exhibit and teach art (at the Queensland College of Art). He eventually retired in 1961 after a twelve year career with the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper.

The works shown here were exhibited at the Royal Queensland Art Society’s Petrie Terrace Gallery in 2016 and remain with Rowland’s family, another thirty-two of his works being with the State Library of Queensland.

 

Down on the Downs, twice.

In early February 1942 an American single-seater aeroplane – low on fuel – force landed in a paddock on the Darling Downs west of Brisbane whereafter, the hapless pilot presented at a nearby homestead asking to use the telephone.

Two days later, at about 8 p.m. on Tuesday, 10th February 1942 an American Sergeant of Guard with three other Guards called at Jondaryan Police station (171 kms west of Brisbane) and informed the duty officer, Constable C Coop (2790), that they were endeavouring to locate one of their planes which they stated had made a forced landing thereabouts. 

Assembling one of the 192 P-40Es diverted from Mindanao in the Phillipines, to Brisbane, Queensland in January 1942 (AWM P00264.015).

Having no knowledge of the incident, Coop immediately commenced inquiries and ascertained that an American plane had indeed force landed two days earlier in a paddock on Jondaryan Estates Station, just six miles from the Police Station.

After learning of this the Constable immediately telephoned Mr William Kent, Manager of Jondaryan Estates Station, who elaborated….

that an American [had] plane landed in the “Berry Bush Paddock”, on Jondaryan Station which is situated about six miles from Jondaryan at about 1pm on the 8th inst. and that an employee named John Coombs had been placed on guard at the plane in the night time, and that Pilot Holman, who was piloting the plane was guarding the plane during the day, and that the pilot was accommodated at Jondaryan Estates Homestead at night, and that the pilot was not injured and the plane was not damaged.

Since the plane was standing in about a foot of flood water in a black soil paddock it could be at least another week, Kent warned, before it could be towed out by tractor. He added that all traffic had been blocked from reaching the Station ‘owing [to] the Jondaryan Creek being in flood and water being 12 feet over the traffic bridge.’

The Sergeant of Guard also spoke with Pilot Holman at Jondaryan Station, the former satisfying himself ‘that everything was in order’. Since they could not get out to the plane, and as the pilot was uninjured, the Guard decided to return to their headquarters at RAAF Amberley, leaving pilot Holman in charge of the plane.

Kent, perhaps not unreasonably, had mistakenly assumed the Pilot had already reported the matter to Police when, on first reaching the Jondaryan Estate, he had immediately asked to use the station’s telephone. In the event it took another ten days for the paddock to dry out, Holman eventually departing for Amberley on 18th February 1942.

That, as far as Constable Cook was concerned, should have been the end of the matter – only its wasn’t. Although he had watched the plane disappear from view, its replacement pilot had barely flown 13 kilometers when he too was compelled –  this time by engine trouble – to make another forced landing in a paddock north-west of Oakey.

Constable 3096 (surname illegible) from that town’s police station subsequently reported that:

…at about 1 pm. on Friday the 20th. instant, a single seater aeroplane was seen to circle over Oakey, and land to the North West of the township. 

I later interviewed the pilot who informed me that his name is Lieutenant GIES, and that he was attached to the American Air Squadron at Amberley. He informed me that the aeroplane was the one that was down at Jondaryan through engine trouble, and that he had been there effecting repairs, and was intending to take same back to Amberley, when passing over Oakey the plane again developed engine trouble, whereby he had to make a forced landing. He requested that a guard be placed over the aeroplane, stating that he would go to Toowoomba, and thence to Amberley. He informed me that he had communicated with his head-quarters by phone and that a guard would probably arrive in Oakey at about 6 pm. that same evening. 

I immediately proceeded to the scene, where I remained guard over the aeroplane until about 7-30 p.m. when Sergeant 2/C A.J. Logan arrived on the scene, with a local resident named Roy DAWSON, who has remained on guard since.

The aeroplane landed in a lucerne paddock in the property of Mr Francis BACH at ‘Woodbine’, Oakey. On landing the one [sic] wing structure two fencing posts which caused damage to one wing and other damage was caused to the plane.

Up to this time [i.e. Two days after the second forced landing] no American staff, or telephone communication has been received from them as to this aeroplane, or what they desire to be done with same. 

Twenty-seven year old Lieutenant Carl Parker Gies had, only a few months prior to these events, been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for ‘his heroic action with the United State Air Corps in the Phillipines’.

A final report prepared by Sergeant A J Logan (1421) of the Oakey Police Station notes that the plane ‘was dismantled by members of the American Air Force and removed to Amberley on the 4th inst.’. It goes on to point out that…

The civil guard of Roy DAWSON was placed over this aeroplane on the verbal instructions given by Lieutenant GIES, of the American Air Force. He remained on guard for eight days, when he had to leave for other employment, the guard was taken over for two days by Alfred Wm. PORTWAY of Oakey, who was on guard for two days. Members of the R.A.A.F. under the direction of Flight Lieutenant CHAMBERS arrived on [sic] Oakey on the morning of the 2nd. inst. when they commenced to dismantle the plane. 

I was verbally instructed that any expense incurred in connection with the care of this aeroplane, was to be charged to the American Air Corps.

Frustratingly, and unlike most other wartime Queensland police reports concerning plane crashes, neither the aircraft or its pilots are adequately identified in any of the several reports (Queensland State Archives Series16865 Item ID 2177680) concerning these incidents.

The subject aircraft was almost certainly one of the 192 P-40Es and 55 pilots diverted – from Mindanao in the Phillipines – to Brisbane in mid-January 1942.

Robert Kingsley’s seven-part blog, USAAF P-40s in Java, offers a much fuller account of these first Australian P-40s, noting that ‘The assembly of the P-40’s was in competent hands but the pilots, however, were a totally different story’ being ‘hardly out of flying training school and their flying time on P-40’s averaged  about 15 hours. On top of this came the fact that they were badly out of practice after their long, slow voyage across the Pacific. The results were inevitable.’