Though he was 67 when the Second World War broke out, the celebrated cartoonist William Heath Robinson – best known for his drawings featuring crazy inventions – continued to produce memorable comic images during the conflict, as he had done in the First World War.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase a ‘Heath Robinson contraption’ (meaning an ‘absurdly ingenious device’) from 1917. During the Second World War the phrase continued to be used. The Royal Navy christened a cocktail after him (‘a dash of everything, unorthodox but always exciting’) and, in March 1943, Hansard reported a speech by Lord Teviot that noted that the Chinese had been forced to improvise machinery to produce small arms, shells etc: ‘Some of the machinery is almost of the Heath Robinson type, but it works.’
And in June the same year, an early code-breaking machine named the Heath Robinson went into operation at Bletchley Park. It was the inspiration for Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer, launched in 1944, but was so secret that the artist never knew that it had been named after him.
Robinson’s first wartime cartoon for The Sketch magazine was ‘A Cleverly Camouflaged All-ways Gun’ (27 September 1939), introducing a series that lampooned the Germans’ ‘Siegfried Line’ fortifications. Two months later, he revisited the idea of making fun of the military, but from the Allied side, with ‘The Hit-or-Missler Gun, for Firing in all Directions at One Time’ (29 November 1939).
Tanks were a favourite topic, including the German ‘Aero-tank’ with retractable wings (‘Hitler’s New Secret Weapon’, 2 April 1941) and very thin tanks for the Eighth Army (‘Semi-Tanks, for Negotiating Rocky Defiles in Libya’, 11 February 1942).
The defence of Britain also gave rise to numerous inventions, such as ‘Deceiving Nazi Dive-Bombers’ by using dummy rooftops set vertically (9 October 1940) and ‘Camouflage on Salisbury Plain’, with troops disguised as uprights from Stonehenge (13 August 1941), and numerous jokes about rationing.
One of his cartoons, ‘One Way Across the Channel!’, in which Nazi troops are rocketed from coastal guns operating from enemy-occupied territory’ (25 March 1942), was in fact a reimagining of an idea drawn 30 years earlier by Edwin Morrow.
The Germans themselves were aware of his work, and on 31 January 1940, under the title ‘“Heath Robinson” Suggestions from Germany!’, The Sketch reproduced a number of similar drawings by a German artist, and in October the same year the magazine reported that one of Heath Robinson’s cartoons had been printed in the Münchener Illustrierte Presse. Lord Haw-Haw, another target of Robinson’s, also mentioned him in one of his propaganda broadcasts.
Many of his drawings from the early part of the war were reproduced in a book, Heath Robinson at War (1942). He also illustrated Cecil Hunt’s ‘How to’ series, including How To Make the Best of Things (1940), and Mein Rant: A Summary in Light Verse of ‘Mein Kampf’ (1940) by the Glaswegian satirist Dr Richard Patterson.
In addition, he drew ‘The War in the Air’ (1941-1942), a series of full-page advertisements for High Duty Alloys published in Flight and The Aeroplane.
Robinson also did his bit with wartime civic duties. As he wrote in a letter from his home in Highgate in December 1940: ‘I am holding the fort here not as a Home Guard, an A R P Warden, an Auxiliary Fireman, or a Fifth Columnist, but as a little of all of them except the last.’ In addition, three of his sons were in the army and his daughter worked as a nurse.
By 1943, he had become increasingly ill and died in September the following year after an operation.
A memorial exhibition of his drawings was held by the Fine Art Society in London in February 1945.
Dr Mark Bryant has written widely on the history of cartoons and caricature, and is the author of World War I in Cartoons, World War II in Cartoons, and the Dictionary of 20th Century British Cartoonists & Caricaturists, amongst other titles. He is also a Trustee of the Cartoon Museum.