Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Q&A: James Holland and Keith Burns on their epic WW2 illustrated history

It is intended to appeal to adults nostalgic for Commando War Stories and Airfix and to capture the imaginations of teenagers unfamiliar with either. While most histories of the deadliest ever conflict are illustrated with black and white photos, James Holland’s The Second World War: An Illustrated History charts all the big campaigns and turning points, from Blitzkrieg to atom bomb, with over 280 action-packed accompanying artworks by Keith Burns.

Ahead of publication day this week (May 25), HistoryFirst spoke to historian and author Holland and aviation artist and illustrator Burns about the five-year project, including the new thinking incorporated into the text and the painstaking processes behind each picture. To find out what Holland believes has been missing from previous narratives, and how Burns uses “ridiculous numbers” of models to accurately evoke dogfights and tank battles, read on.

James, what was the idea behind the book?

James Holland: “I wanted to write a brief, easy-to-digest sweep of the Second World War, covering the main areas and combatant nations and incorporating the latest thinking. One of the key parts of my own thesis on the war is that we’ve been looking at just two of the ways of fighting. The war was fought on three levels — the strategic, operational and tactical. Obviously, strategic was the big overview stuff and tactical was the coalface of war. The operational level is what brings those two other levels together. It’s the nuts and bolts, it’s economics, shipping, supply chains, but it’s much more than that.

“In the narrative of the Second World War, historians have traditionally focused on the strategic — ‘What’s Monty thinking?’ ‘What’s Eisenhower thinking?’ ‘What does Churchill want to achieve?’ And on the tactical — people jumping out of landing crafts or flying a Lancaster bomber. And very, very little effort has been made on that operational level. Once you reinsert the operational level into the narrative, a very different picture emerges.

“I wanted to create an overview which incorporates that third level, and explains it with supplies and organisation and all the rest hovering in the background — but very much there and dictating how the strategic and tactical parts of the war were enabled. All illustrated with truly sensational pictures that are second to none in terms of accuracy.”

An RAF speed launch prepares to rescue a downed pilot in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain. Image: Keith Burns

How does that new perspective change things?

JH: “The Germans look less strong when you start to understand some of their inherent shortages, which is why they fought a blitzkrieg war in the first place. It’s because they hadn’t got enough of anything and they couldn’t afford a long drawn out war, so they had to fight quickly. It’s quite historic. It’s what Prussia had been doing for centuries before 1871, when Prussia and the other German nations became Germany.

“It also makes Britain look a lot better. Because you’re looking from Britain’s perspective as an island nation with a huge global reach and empire. And you’re thinking, the army was pretty small in 1939 but actually the navy was the biggest in the world. What does having the largest merchant fleet in the world do to the whole scenario? Well, it means the Germans hadn’t got enough U-boats. They might have had their happy time in July through to October 1940, but if there were only ever 13 of them in the Atlantic at one time, that wasn’t really going to win them the war.

“So it’s those sorts of things which then expose a whole host of other issues and reasons why people were operating the way they were. The reason why the Allies were sluggish going across North Africa, or up Italy, or even through Normandy, was because they were trying to save lives and they had created a very firepower-heavy way of fighting that meant you didn’t fight over the same ground twice, but you were a bit slower — because a consequence of making something incredibly mechanised is that you have an awful lot of moving parts to move.”

Action stations on a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. Long periods of boredom were followed by moments of high tension and fear. Image: Keith Burns

What about telling individual human stories?

“The Second World War really boils down to human drama. So you’re always trying to bring that in as much as you possibly can. Which is why we’ve got lots of individuals painted in here, whether it be people building the Thai-Burma railway, [Chinese leader] Chiang Kai-shek, or even someone on a tractor. You’re using Keith’s amazing pictures to show the human drama while you’re so constrained by space that the words have got to do an awful lot of work. They have to get you from A to B and explain some big concepts and tell you exactly what events happened.”

Who is the book aimed at?

JH: “Anyone aged nine to 99. If you were coming to the Second World War just wanting an overview with lots of nice pictures, I’m hoping this will do that job and give you a really clear but brief overview of the whole thing. It’s done roughly chronologically, but through campaigns. So we do switch from Europe to the Far East, to the Pacific, back to Europe again, and the Battle of the Atlantic and so on.”

And, presumably, people brought up on comics like Commando?

JH: “There’s a nod to Commando and to War Picture Library, Battle and all those comics — it’s got that sort of undertone to it. So hopefully it’s hitting those buttons as well.”

RAF 609 Squadron attacking a large formation of German Stukas during the Battle of Britain. Image: Keith Burns

Did childhood picture-books help to instil your own love of history?

JH: “I had an illustrated history of the world, which was much read. And talking to you now I can picture a number of those images — actually see them in my mind’s eye. I was constantly reading Ladybird books too. I had the Ladybird stories of Nelson, Cromwell, Alfred the Great, Henry V and all the goodies. So it’s very much with a nod to that heritage.”

Keith, how did the sheer scale of this compare to your previous projects?

Keith Burns: “It’s the biggest project I’ve taken on. The biggest one before it was eight issues of a comic that was 24 pages an issue, plus covers. But that was inks. It’s a different thing to paint everything. I had found myself in a strange niche where I specialised in World War Two aviation stories so I could do all the aircraft, no problem, and most of the other hardware. I’d spent about ten years in comics and had figured out how to make things look like they’re moving, trying to capture the physics of flying, the kinetic energy. But it was a leap to suddenly have to paint everything in the world.

“I had to paint Hitler six times, which was bizarre. I was thinking, ‘God. There can’t be many people sitting painting Hitler this many times’. For things like that, you can only work off photographs, really. And there were all sorts of other interesting scenes I had to illustrate that I’d never done before. It was a massive challenge.”

Soviet troops advancing during Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1944. Image: Keith Burns

How do you come up with your compositions and ensure accuracy?

KB: “There is one illustration where Hitler is in front of the Eiffel Tower. That’s from a photograph and it’s a historical event. So you get the photograph and copy it directly. And any copyright is cleared or licence fee paid. But you don’t want a book full of copies of photographs. You want to be able to show things using angles and compositions you couldn’t possibly photograph. That was the main driver the whole way through.”

So tell me more about your creative process?

KB: “I would print the script and start doodling straight onto it. Because I read something and see a few versions in my head. I’ll scribble them down in pencil as tiny thumbnails and then figure out what kind of references I need. It’s usually models. Especially after this job, I have a ridiculous number of models sitting on shelves — six types of Spitfire and eight types of Sherman tank. I’ve built a lot of the aircraft myself and enjoy doing that anyway, but luckily I have a friend who was happy to do the tanks and trucks.

“I’ve learnt from comics that once you have a model like a Spitfire, you can take it outside and photograph it in daylight and see how the light hits it and changes how the colours and tones are. It gives you all the information you need. But of course there’s no shortcut once you start doing that. If you try and scrimp and say, ‘Well, I’ll just make that one up’, it’s blatantly obvious.

“In illustrations where there are a whole load of ships and aircraft, I’d have a model for every one of them. I had to photographed them all separately and put the photographs together in Photoshop to get the single image. I didn’t build any models digitally. It’s all done with physical models.”

The Japanese attack the United States Pacific Fleet Pearl Harbor by surprise on December 7, 1941. Image: Keith Burns

Who do you hope the book will appeal to?

KB: “Anyone, really. I have a 14-year-old son who’s mad into history. So I’m hoping at some point to sit down and read it through with him, looking at the images. It’s quite unique. You get an element of comic-book storytelling, because on every page you’re getting an illustration as well as the text. A comic works because you’ve got the the dialogue and the images together and there’s a progression through the page. So I think this this combination will appeal to all sorts of people.”

Have any veterans ever commented on the realism of your work?

KB: “Yes. It’s great when I speak to pilots and they say I’ve managed to capture the feeling of being a fighter pilot and the movement and the physics of flying. It’s what I’m always looking for.”

The Second World War: An Illustrated History is published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 25. It brings together the text and images from Holland’s 12-volume Ladybird Expert History of the Second World War in one book for the first time. The top image shows the attack on U-514 by a newly equipped Very Long Range RAF Liberator off the Spanish coast, 1943. Image: Keith Burns

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