26. Totes Meer

There can only be one wreck of the week this week, as everyone is talking about the Do17 Flying Pencil recovered from the Goodwin Sands on Monday. Rather than commenting directly on the wreck, I would just like to set it into some sort of historical and cultural context.

We know from our records that the Do17 was one of 12 aeroplanes which were shot down or crashed on the shore on the same day as the Battle of Britain raged: three in the Humber area, the remainder over Kent and Sussex.

As far as I am aware all the aircraft lost on that day came down into the sea: none crashed on land. Three German aircraft, a He111, a Me109 and our Do17, were lost as against 9 British: two Defiants from the same squadron which attacked the Do17, two Hurricanes, two Spitfires and three Hampdens.

Overall the PastScape database records some 433 German aircraft lost during WWII, of which approximately 364 are known to have been shot down in or near the sea. Undoubtedly there is some under-reporting of both terrestrial and maritime losses of aircraft, an issue not confined to the German side. It is therefore impossible to say definitively from the data available that more German aircraft were shot down over the sea than they were over English territory.

It seems apt then, to look at Paul Nash’s painting, Totes Meer. It was actually inspired by a dump at Cowley in Oxfordshire of crashed German aircraft seen in a terrestrial context, but reworked by Nash into a ‘dead sea’ of twisted wreckage, waves upon waves of German aircraft crashing upon an English shore.

It is virtually contemporary with our Do17, being painted in 1940-1 as part of Nash’s work as an official war artist. Hindsight colours our view of the painting, since we know the outcome: it is easy to forget that, at the time it was made, the war hung in the balance. Did contemporary viewers see each crashed German aircraft as one less to rain bombs on Britain, or do they represent a force as unending and as unyielding as the sea? Or are both views tangled up in the wreckage?

A very visible wheel, not unlike the still inflated wheel seen on the Do17, lends the mangled heap the appearance of the eye of a beached whale or school of whales, reinforced by exposed wing struts suggesting baleen plates. A beached whale is an animal out of context: so, too, are these aeroplanes, lying in the sea instead of flying through the air.

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