The Evacuation from St Nazairre, 17th June, 1940
Artist / Artist dates Charles Pears P.S.M.A., R.O.I. (1873-1958)
Medium oil on canvas
Size 31 Â1 ⁄ 2 x 44 Â1 ⁄ 2 in. (80 x 113 cm.)

About the artwork

The Evacuation from St Nazaire, 17th June, 1940 Operation Ariel was the code name given to the evacuation of British and Allied troops from the ports of North West France between the 15th and the 25th June 1940. In the aftermath of Dunkirk, Churchill decided that Britain was still under an obligation to help its Allies in Northern France and formulated an appropriate strategy. The ports of Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest and St Nazaire were targeted as collection points for these evacuees, including many civilians. Whilst other ports were free of German intervention, St Nazaire was not. Not only were there navigational hazards in the Loire preventing ships from coming in further than the anchorage in Quiberon Bay, but also the notorious Luftwa e bombers were within range of the allied ships. On 17th June 1940 the otilla including troopships Georgic, Duchess of York, RMS Oronsay and RMS Lancastria, arrived in Quiberon Bay. Troops were ferried out via destroyers and coasters, and very quickly the troopships became overcrowded. At 2pm there was an air raid by German bombers and the Oronsay (the central ship in this picture) was hit by a bomb on the bridge (the smoke is depicted). In the second raid by bombers at 3.45pm the Lancastria was hit by four bombs, which penetrated the hold and ruptured the fuel tanks. Within 20 minutes the ship had sunk leaving a large oil slick on the water. This work by Pears is perhaps 5 minutes before the eventual sinking – around 4pm. Out of roughly 7000 troops and civilians (including many women and children packed into the hold), only 2447 survived. The rest were drowned or killed as the German Luftwa e strafed the oil-soaked sea full of survivors. This still remains the largest loss of life in British maritime history. Following the sinking of Lancastria, Winston Churchill imposed a media blackout fearing what the news would do to a British Nation in the midst of its darkest hour. Newspapers in New York released the story at the end of July 1940, ve weeks after the disaster, but the real human cost was not properly explored until after the War had nished. Even to this day descendants of those involved campaign to have the site recognised as an o cial war grave. Charles Pears Charles Pears established himself illustrating for periodicals before becoming a proli c poster artist during the inter-war period, which included working with London Underground, the Empire Marketing Board and various rail companies. A keen yachtsman, the sea inspired much of his output and eventually led him to become the rst President of the (Royal) Society of Marine Artists in 1939. His vast knowledge of ships and high degree of technical precision made him an ideal appointment as a war artist with the government seeking accurate records during wartime. In the First World War he held a commission in the Royal Marines and was an o cial war artist to the Admiralty, before working for the War Artists' Commission during the Second World War. Examples from these periods seldom appear on the market as the majority are part of the Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museum collections. Typical of all Charles Pears works, ‘The Evacuation from St. Nazaire' combines the unique stylised charm and meticulous detail he is renowned for. The scene successfully captures the drama and tension of the event, as the viewer is placed as if in a boat edging closer to the action. Owing to the government's decision not to publicise the event and Pears' o cial role at the time, this is certainly an extremely rare and important historical document of a major event at the start of the Second World War.