A War Artist and the Pathfinders

In the art collection of the Imperial War Museum is a painting entitled ‘A Pathfinder’. It is allegorical rather than realistic, and as there is no sign of a Pathfinder badge, the man could easily be a pathfinder with a small ‘p’. He is a navigator, with the tools of the navigator’s trade spread before him on his desk, including the specialised ruler (on the left hand side) memorably known as ‘Captain Field’s Improved Parallel‘. The artist is John Leslie Berry and he painted the picture in 1943. (Source: IWM Object 2230)


RICHARD MADDOX

Amongst the tens of thousands of items in the care of the Imperial War Museum is an exceptional art collection ranging from the First World War to contemporary conflicts.

Many of the Second World War items were commissioned by the British War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC). Part of the Ministry of Information, it was headed by Sir Kenneth Clarke who was the director of the National Gallery at the start of conflict. Clarke deliberately sought a wide variety of styles, techniques and experience to show both the civilian and military experiences of war to audiences at home and abroad.

Thirty seven artists worked full-time with 100 more commissioned on a part-time basis by the WAAC.

Amongst these artists was John Leslie Berry. He volunteered for the RAF and initially served as a radar operator in Middle East Command before becoming a war artist – the only one drawn from the ranks.

Four of his paintings are in the IWM’s art collection, one of which is entitled ‘A Pathfinder’, but although it is referenced to No. 8 Group RAF on the IWM’s online web page, this connection seems unlikely.

But there is a Path Finder Force connection of sorts elsewhere in Berry’s body of work.

In the 1960s he illustrated a number of the British ‘Ladybird’ children books including ‘The Airman in the Royal Air Force’ which was first published in 1967.

In one of the illustrations for the book Berry depicts an initial interview scene at the Air Crew Selection Centre which was then at RAF Biggin Hill.

One of the interview panel is a highly decorated senior officer. He is wearing the Pathfinder badge and – as spotted by the sharp eyes of Dr Jennie Mack Gray – the Aircrew Europe Star and the DFC are amongst his decorations. We are both wondering who this officer was and which Pathfinder squadron he served with – it seems very likely that in this instance Berry portrayed a real person.


Jennie Mack Gray adds: What is also very striking is that the officer is still wearing his Pathfinder badge 20 years or more after the war ended. See also the photograph of Charles Owen, one of 97 Squadron’s top pilots, still wearing his Pathfinder eagle in September 1958 when he was commanding a Victor squadron.