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We Can Do It. War’s Other Voices

This exhibition commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, in partnership with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and with the support of the Art Fund.

The Battle of Britain was a decisive air campaign fought over England during the summer and autumn of 1940. Flying iconic aircraft including the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane, Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots fought the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) to stop Germany’s fascist leader, Adolf Hitler, from invading the United Kingdom. The RAF also countered the attack with a highly effective network of ground crew, engineers and observation post volunteers. Crucial civil defence support came from across the country, including Rochdale.

Ultimately, the Luftwaffe was defeated. The battle was one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World War, also secured by the many pilots from across occupied Europe and the Commonwealth who fought in it.

This show explores how the lives of people in Rochdale changed as a result of a war that was to become the most destructive in history. Particular focus is given to women because of the important role they played. Whether it was by undertaking war work, volunteering or providing childcare, women have a story to tell.

To mark this anniversary, the IWM has worked with partners to proactively lend from its rich art collection for the first time. From August 2020, Battle of Britain artworks have been displayed at three venues; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth, The Harris in Preston, and Touchstones Rochdale, the final venue.

We would like to thank the IWM and the Art Fund for their support, Manchester Art Gallery for their kind loan and the London Transport Museum for their contribution.

We would also like to thank members of our community who have helped to create this exhibition: Mrs Greenwood, Mrs Wilbraham, Mrs Dania and Oulder Hill School.

Join Curator Odile Masiá for a tour of the exhibition:

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An Aerial Battle, 1940

We Can Do It. War's Other Voices. An Aerial Battle, 1940 Francis Dodd

Francis Dodd (1874–1949)
Oil on canvas

On loan from the Imperial War Museum

Francis Dodd was born in Anglesey and trained in Glasgow. He was commissioned as an official war artist in both the First and Second World Wars.

The RAF pilots who fought during the Battle of Britain were supported by thousands of service personnel on the ground. In this work, numerous barrage balloons, used to protect cities from air attacks, are shown floating above the trees.

Dodd’s painting, completed on 6 September 1940,  conveys the simultaneous proximity and distance of the Battle of Britain.

Aerial combat and defences are evident in the sky but life goes on below.

Wedding photograph of Corporal Ernest Dania and Edna Frost, 1941

Wedding photograph of Corporal Ernest Dania and Edna Frost, 1941

Ernest was employed as a motor mechanic in Rochdale before enlisting in the RAF in 1938 as an aircraft mechanic and flight rigger.

He was later promoted to corporal. A few days after his marriage, Ernest was posted to Canada and based at No. 36 Service Flying Training School. Two years passed until the couple could reunite.

During this time they wrote letters to each other, barely mentioning the war but describing day-to-day activities such as going to the cinema.

Mrs Dania’s wedding dress in RAF blue, 1941

Mrs Dania’s wedding dress in RAF blue, 1941

Ernest and Edna met at a dance school in Rawdon when he was stationed with the RAF at Dishforth, Yorkshire.

This dress was made by the groom’s mother, Dora. She worked as a seamstress following the death of her husband in 1918 from the Spanish flu pandemic, when Ernest was two years old.

BBC radio broadcast letter, 1942

BBC radio broadcast letter, 1942

Over To You was a radio programme broadcast by the BBC to RAF servicemen posted in Canada with greetings from their wives and mothers, such as this one from Edna Frost.

The operational pressure on Britain at the start of the Second World War drastically reduced the number of airfields available for training.

As a result, a number of flying schools moved to Canada. No. 36 Service Flying Training School, assembled at West Kirby moved to Penhold, Alberta in August 1941 as part of this programme.

Untitled, c.1940

We Can Do It. War's Other Voices. Untitled, c.1940 Eileen Agar (1899–1991)

Eileen Agar (1899–1991)
Gouache on board
On loan from the Imperial War Museum

Eileen Agar was one of the few female artists selected for the ground-breaking ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London in 1936.

During the Second World War, she worked in a canteen by day and served as a fire watcher by night.

She struggled to work as a painter during this period, writing, ‘How does one communicate with any subtlety when the world is deafened by explosions?’ This painting fuses natural and man-made elements to bring together land, sea and air.

Agar depicts the outline of a prehistoric mammoth surrounded by ships’ masts, small boats and camouflaged RAF aircraft wings.

Women’s war work

Throughout the Second World War enemy bombs fell on British towns and cities killing more than 60,000 civilians, blurring the boundaries between the Home Front and the front line.

Women played a vital role in supporting the rest of the country in the fight against fascism. In 1941 Britain, unlike any other country, began conscripting women for war work. Thousands of women in Rochdale undertook roles central to the war effort. This included work as ambulance drivers, auxiliary nurses, clerks, air raid wardens, canteen managers and industrial workers.

Female artists were also commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) to create artworks as a record of the Second World War. Artists such as Dame Laura Knight depicted women adapting to wartime work. This theme in her paintings mirrored her own position as a female worker within the constraints of a male-dominated environment. Out of the 400 artists involved in the scheme, only fifty-two were women.

Assembling a Hawker Hurricane, 1940– 47

Elsie Dalton Hewland (1901–79)
Oil on canvas
On loan from Manchester Art Gallery, gift of H.M. Government War Artists’ Advisory Committee

Elsie Dalton Hewland was born in Sheffield. She attended her local college of art and the Royal Academy Schools, London.

The WAAC commissioned Hewland to paint aeroplane subjects. This painting depicts a factory where Hawker Hurricane fighter planes were constructed and shows men and women working together on an assembly line in a way inconceivable before the war.

Hurricanes, alongside the Supermarine Spitfire and Boulton Paul Defiant, were flown by the RAF to defend the country during the Battle of Britain.

Mrs Leah and her daughter, Mrs Ashworth, date unknown

Mrs Leah and her daughter, Mrs Ashworth, date unknown

During the Second World War Mrs Leah and Mrs Ashworth lived together in Sudden. Mrs Leah baked cakes and prepared meals in the evening to sell in the corner shop she ran.

Her daughter worked at Dunlop Cotton Mill. They also volunteered as Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Wardens, a role equally open to women. Mother and daughter exemplify the courage shown by many women in wartime: they worked, volunteered and offered a home to an evacuee.

Despite hardship, they also donated money to the Spitfire Fighter Fund.

A Supermarine Spitfire aircraft donated by the people of Rochdale, date unknown

In August 1940, the Rochdale Observer set up the Rochdale & District Spitfire Fighter Fund. In less than a week the amount needed to pay for one Supermarine Spitfire was raised. By the end of the three-month campaign, a total of £12,250 (the equivalent of £700,000 in today’s money) was received. Neighbours, workers, students, families and even children all contributed whatever they could and together they funded the cost of two Spitfire fighter planes.

Jan Falkowski, a pilot with Number 315 Polish Fighter Squadron, Royal Air Force, flew one of the Rochdale & District Spitfires. He conducted offensive fighter sweeps over occupied Europe in August 1941. The now declassified combat report reveals that on 21 August his squadron was attacked by twelve enemy aircraft. Falkowski flew his Rochdale Spitfire and managed to destroy one German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane. The Polish squadron returned safely to its base with no casualties.

Described by Winston Churchill as one of ‘The Few’ who saved Britain in 1940, Falkowski was born in Poland in 1912 and trained at the Polish Air Force Academy. After the German invasion, Falkowski escaped with many Polish airmen to Romania, passing through several European countries before arriving in England in 1940. During his career he was shot down twice and forced to jump out of his plane in a parachute. He was also captured by the German forces and taken prisoner but later managed to escape.

Falkowski was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour and Virtuti Militari as well as the British Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
In 1947 he settled in Canada where he set up a farm and became a flying instructor.

To find out more about the Polish pilots that flew in the Battle of Britain, click here

Squadron Leader Jan Falkowski, the CO of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, presenting a golden watch to Pilot Officer Władysław Śliwiński for shooting down the 200th enemy plane accredited to the squadron. RAF Northolt, 9 September 1943.
© IWM HU 111413
Squadron Leader Jan Falkowski, the CO of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, presenting a golden watch to Pilot Officer Władysław Śliwiński for shooting down the 200th enemy plane accredited to the squadron. RAF Northolt, 9 September 1943.

Rochdale during the Second World War

The intensive bombing on British cities by German forces shaped the day-to-day lives of people like no other conflict. Reminders of air raid precautions and the need to carry a gas mask at all times became a general way of life.

At night, towns including Rochdale went under blackout to stop them being seen from above by bombers. Food, clothes and fuel were rationed. Bicycle sales increased to the extent that stock ran out in some places, with women’s bicycles much more in demand than men’s. Large numbers of children were evacuated into safer areas. Rochdale welcomed 8,000 evacuees from Guernsey and the south of England.

Bicycle lamp with blackout cover, date unknown

We Can Do It. War’s Other Voices Bicycle lamp with blackout cover, date unknown

Government posters with the slogan ‘Look out in the black-out’ explained the stringent requirements for dimming bicycle lights.

Cyclists needed to see and be seen on the road but remain invisible from aircraft overhead.

For more information about these posters, click here

Exhibition brochure for ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’, 1942

We Can Do It. War's Other Voices. Exhibition brochure for ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’, 1942

Rochdale Art Gallery

In 1942 Rochdale Art Gallery, as Touchstones was then known, featured an exhibition called ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’. The

majority were child refugees from occupied Europe who had settled in the United Kingdom. The exhibition was of special significance locally as it drew on the philosophy of Henry Barrett Carpenter, late professor at the Rochdale School of Art. Carpenter had made significant contributions to the theory of colour that were to have great impact in textiles and design. He also believed in encouraged self-expression and use of imagination in children rather than teaching them how art should look.

Baby gas mask, date unknown

Found at St Patricks School, Rochdale

Poison gas had been used during the First World War and against civilians in conflicts during the 1920s and ’30s.  The entire British population was issued with gas masks from 1938 as protection from air attacks that might include chemical weapons.

For more information about baby gas masks, click here

Pair of Utility baby shoes, date unknown

We Can Do It. War’s Other Voices Pait of baby utility boots, date unknown

Clothes rationing was introduced in Britain in 1941.

However, austerity did not mean mediocrity. In an imaginative move, the Board of Trade asked London’s most famous fashion designers to submit patterns for clothing ranges suitable for mass-production that would also be hard-wearing.

All of these garments had the trademark  ‘CC41’, short for Civilian Clothing 1941, but they were better known as ‘Utility’ clothing.

These items may have been economical in terms of style, but they were of good quality, stylish and reasonably priced.

For further information about clothes rationing, click here

Culture in wartime

During the Second World War many museums and art galleries had to evacuate their collections because of the threat imposed by German air raids. In 1940, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded, ‘Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island.’ A year earlier the Ministry of Information had set up the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), which was led by the Director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark. The purpose of the WAAC was to document the conflict, raise morale and promote Britain’s liberal cultural values.

The WAAC organised exhibitions that toured across the country, including to Rochdale. These exhibitions were very popular and well attended, especially as some of the host venues were unable to display their own now-hidden collections.

Additional exhibitions were organised by other institutions such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA, later to be known as the Arts Council). There was, indeed, a thirst for culture during this period.

CEMA, 1942

Strand Film Company for the Ministry of Information
Collection of the Imperial War Museum

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We Can Do It. War’s Other Voices: Oulder Hill Community School project

Year 9 students from Oulder Hill Community School have creatively responded to some of the themes highlighted in the exhibition.

Through a dialogue with Mrs Greenwood, who is 101 and lived in Rochdale during the Second World War, students considered their own experiences of lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the parallels with Mrs Greenwood’s experiences during the conflict. The students have created a painting and written labels and filmed interviews, adding a contemporary dimension to the show.

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