The Second World War in living colour

Most books about the Second World War include only black-and-white photographs, and these are often sketchy or blurred. Some are even staged pieces of propaganda. Colour photography was not unknown at the time, of course, but it was immensely expensive and therefore rarely used.

The German doctrine of Bewegungskrieg, or ‘war of rapid movement’, which was so successful for them in the campaigns of 1940.

Artists with historical leanings have long tried to ‘colourise’ black-and-white images from the period, but the results have proved a mixed bag. Only recently has the process approached perfection, with the work of Brazilian digital colourist Marina Amaral, as featured in MHM in the past.

The bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem in the Netherlands, the scene of the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in September 1944, which proved costly for the Allies.

But there are other ways to bring colour to the conflict. In a new book, the bestselling historian of the Second World War James Holland has teamed up with the artist Keith Burns to provide a comprehensive and highly colourful new illustrated history of the war. This Illustrated History covers all theatres of the conflict, from the bombed-out housing of London’s East End to the sweltering North African desert and the punishing jungle climate of Burma.

With the German Army lacking adequate winter clothing, the brutal weather conditions on the Eastern Front helped turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favour.

Following the conflict roughly chronologically in large chapters such as ‘Blitzkrieg’, ‘The Eastern Front’, and ‘The Battle for Normandy’, the book is aimed at those looking for an intelligent overview of the war, as well as younger readers seeking something by way of an introduction.

The firebombing of Dresden by the RAF in February 1945 destroyed the city’s medieval centre and claimed many thousands of civilian lives.

This is where the illustrations play their part, vividly bringing to life the events of more than 80 years ago. There are nearly 300 of them in all, ranging from intimate portraits of families listening to the wireless to grander depictions of lavish military parades and exhausting, blood-soaked battles. Some of these illustrations can be seen on the following pages.

One of the Luftwaffe’s precious Focke-Wulf Condors is shot down. This was the achievement of Lieutenant Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, whose technique was to aim for the cockpit.
The Dunkirk evacuation of June 1940 from the air. One of the reasons the rescue was a success was the failure of the Luftwaffe to halt it in time.

Burns described the brief – ‘basically, paint everything from the Second World War’ – as ‘daunting’ to begin with, but added that, now that the project was finished, ‘it’s interesting to see how the painting has changed and loosened up over that period.’

Fifth Army troops pass the Colosseum in Rome. The Italian city was the first capital to be liberated from Nazi German occupation.

‘Keith Burns was one of my absolute favourite war artists before we began collaborating,’ added Holland, ‘so to provide some words for his extraordinary artwork has been an absolute privilege.’

‘We set out to produce an accessible and engaging introduction to the whole sweep of the period. I hope people will feel we’ve succeeded.’

The Second World War: an illustrated history by James Holland and Keith Burns, published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 25 May, is available to purchase for £30 at all good bookstores.

Images: Keith Burns/Penguin Michael Joseph