Williams, Kathleen Broome, Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2019. 312 pp.
Review by Lt Col Nicolas Smith
Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy
“[George] Plante…was looking at his watch when the torpedo hit…the force of the explosion threw him across the cabin…although very shaken he was not injured. He managed to send out SOS calls before grabbing a photograph of his wife and trying to leave.”
When artist George Plante volunteered for service in the British Merchant Navy during World War II as a radio operator, he was aware of the danger to which he was exposing himself. Plante, a trained artist from the Edinburgh College of Art and the Contempora School of Applied Arts in Berlin, was working at an advertising agency in London when the war broke out. Eager to do his part, Plante, who was Scottish, sought to join the war effort. However, upon attempting to volunteer for service, he was turned down by not only the Royal Air Force, but also the Army and the Royal Navy. One of the naval recruiters recommended that Plante look into being a radio operator aboard merchant ships in the Atlantic, as there was now a desperate need for them.
This was how Plante found himself aboard the merchant vessel Southern Princess in March 1943 when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat, whilst en route to England. Plante and his crewmates were forced to abandon ship in the icy waters of the North Atlantic in the middle of the night. While on shore leave after being rescued from the wreckage of the Southern Princess, Plante was recruited by Ian Fleming to become a war propagandist. He then spent the latter part of the war in Egypt and Italy creating leaflets and newsletters to be air dropped around the Mediterranean to aid in the Allied propaganda effort.
In Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II, historian Kathleen Broome Williams, who is also Plante’s stepdaughter, takes the reader through Plante’s early military career as well as his work for the Political Warfare Executive. Cognizant of her shortcomings as an art critic, Williams instead focuses on her skills as a historian to tell Plante’s story, keeping any critique of his artwork to relatively aesthetic descriptions. She describes some of his more rushed sketches as “cartoonish” and the paintings he produced depicting the Battle of the Atlantic as “bold [and] somber,” leaning her narrative more toward art appreciation rather than analysis.
As a writer, Williams is able to seamlessly intertwine Plante’s story with the overarching narrative of World War II in such a way that his contributions to the war effort are clear. While drawing for a propaganda campaign in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, “Plante’s black and white sketches…showed a vast armada of U.S. and British bombers flying overhead. The symbolism was not subtle and…was used to bolster the morale of all who resisted the Nazis.” Even into the post-war period, his work supported the Allies. Plante penned booklets depicting German signs with Norwegian translations, to help Norwegian citizens “accurately answer questions about German war crimes they had witnessed.” The information would prove vital when the Allied Nations went on to bring war criminals to trial.
Throughout the book, Williams expertly draws from interviews, art and museum exhibitions, personal correspondences, and an abundance of secondary sources (including books, periodicals and a dissertation), to tell Plante’s story. William’s book is laid out across ten chapters, including a helpful list of abbreviations, endnotes broken up by chapter, an index, bibliography, eight glossy pages of well-reproduced art and photos from Plante’s life and career, as well as a forward by British Naval Historian W.J.R. Gardener.
While Painting War adds to the already dense literature of life and war in the 1940s, George Plante’s story is certainly one worth telling. True, some readers may find it lacking in serious artistic and stylistic criticism of Plante’s work, but this should not deter a student of art history. With this book, Williams has masterfully crafted a work that will not only appeal to a very specific type of naval or military historian, but also to a more general audience looking for an exciting memoire covering a topic that has been relatively overlooked thus far.