Flight Sgt Rawdon Middleton: Expressions - Commemoration through Art

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An online educational resource which aims to develop students’ understanding of wartime artworks. This activity features Incident In Which Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton [VC] Lost His Life, painted in 1949 by David Smith, an English artist. The artwork depicts the final moments of an Australian pilot's life over the English Channel after repeated air attacks over several hours on the night of 28 to 29 November 1941. Use the background context and inquiry questions to encourage student research and learning.

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Series
Expressions - Commemoration through Art

During the Second World War, many young Australian men fought as aircrew in the Royal Air Force's (RAF's) Bomber Command. They flew long and dangerous missions, mostly at night, from bomber airbases in England to targets in Occupied Europe. They faced hazards such as German fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery (‘flak’) and extreme cold at high altitudes. The cramped interiors of the bomber aircraft they flew were challenging as well.

Flight Sergeant Middleton, a young Australian Bomber Command pilot, sustained life-threatening injuries during a raid on a target in Italy on the night of 28 to 29 November 1942. Despite his injuries, he flew his bomber back to England, where most of the crew bailed out over land. Flight Sergeant Middleton then turned the aircraft out to sea, to avoid it crashing on homes. He died when the Stirling crashed into the water.

Incident In Which Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton [VC] Lost His Life was created by English artist David Smith in 1949. It depicts the Stirling bomber flown by Flight Sergeant Middleton about to crash into the water off southern England.

A painting of a man standing on a clifftop next to a fallen parachute and looking out to sea at a descending 1940s military plane and two parachutists.
David Smith, Incident In Which Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton [VC] Lost His Life, 1949, oil on canvas, 116 x 151.4cm, AWM ART27538

Inquiry questions

  • Look carefully at the painting and describe what you see. Include all the details of the painting, even if you think they might not be significant. Keep in mind what you don’t see in the painting, as often things left out can be as significant as things that are visible.
  • Is the painting a primary or secondary source of historical information? What might have motivated David Smith to create the painting? What does the painting tell us about the circumstances surrounding the crash of the bomber?
  • Flight Sergeant Middleton’s actions were incredibly brave and selfless. How has David Smith represented those actions in the painting? How has he used light, tone, colour and composition to emphasise the actions of Flight Sergeant Middleton?
  • The painting depicts the parachutes of the two crew members who bailed out of the Stirling bomber while it was over the water. Sadly both drowned as a result. Why would they have chosen to remain on board the bomber with Flight Sergeant Middleton once it was over the water? What do their actions tell you about the relationships Bomber Command crews had with each other? What would have influenced the way those relationships developed as the crews flew each bombing operation?
  • Other young Australian men who served as aircrew in Bomber Command in the Second World War were awarded medals for bravery and courage. These medals included the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). Search online for an Australian in Bomber Command who was awarded a medal for their actions. The Anzac Portal is a good source of information anzacportal.dva.gov.au. Find out about the circumstances of the award and create an artwork that tells the story. Your artwork could be a drawing, a painting, mixed media, or created using digital technologies. Discuss the artworks created by the class; have each class member explain why they chose the story presented in their artwork.

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