A look at June including how artists helped win WWII and funabulism

Taking a look back in history, June seems to have been a bit of a bloody month – Oliver Cromwell defeated The Royalists at The Battle of Naseby, the key battle in the first English Civil War, on 14th June 1645. Spain declared war on Britain on 24th June 1779 with the Siege of Gibraltar, which lasted until 1783 and The Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815 ending Napoleon’s military and political career and leading to his exile and death on St. Helena.

A bit more recently and heralding the end of World War II, 6th June saw The D Day invasion of Normandy by 1 million allied troops and an amazing story surrounding this time has been the subject of an exhibition in New York which winds up this month before going on the road. The Ghost Army tells of how, during this time, a unit of 1,100 American soldiers, comprising artists, illustrators, radio and sound engineers, managed to fool the German Army. These men were hand picked for the task from New York and Philadelphia art schools in January 1944 and their mission was to deceive the German Army with hand-made inflatable tanks, 500 pound speakers blasting the sounds of assembling troops and phony radio transmissions. To shore up potential ‘holes’ in the front lines, the unit would set up its inflatable tanks and roll in the giant speakers (with a 15 mile range) to give the impression that a huge army was amassing. In one particular stunt the 1,100 men and their multi media ‘roadshow’ posed as the 30th and 79th divisions – 1,100 men creating the ‘presence’ of 30,000. The deceptions proved largely successful and in more than 20 operations it’s estimated that between 15,000 and 30,000 U.S. lives were saved. Included in The Ghost Army Exhibition are sketches by these artist/soldiers which bring an unusual perspective to war and help to convey humanity as part of the story.

Photos – Left: An inflatable “dummy” M4 Sherman. Right: Blondin carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on a tightrope.

On a lighter note, the month of June saw another quite amazing feat by the funambulist or tight rope walker, Blondin. Jean-Francois Gravelet, nicknamed Blondin, made his first crossing of The Niagara Falls on 30th June 1859. The tightrope was taken across the river in a rowing boat. More than three inches thick, the rope sagged by some 60 feet in the middle so that it had a steep slope. It was suspended 160 feet above the water and spanned a distance of a little over 1,000 feet. Blondin offered to carry a volunteer over on his back but, unsurprisingly, no one came forward. He stopped and lay down for a rest at one point and also stood on one leg for a while. After a pause, he went back across on the rope, a good deal pacier on the return. The crossing took him a little over 17 minutes. In several later crossings, Blondin introduced variations. He carried his top-hatted manager across on his back, crossed blindfolded or on stilts or in a gorilla costume and pushing a wheelbarrow. On one of the crossings, he carried a stove and stopped half way across to cook and eat an omelette. Spectacular, and what today might be called Performance Art.