Bathers stand amid shallow beach pools, while distant birds fly overhead, on a balmy golden evening on the northern French coast. The tranquil scene of Stephen Bone’s Sunset on the Normandy Beaches is disrupted by several elements: naval warships moored on the horizon, ambulance jeeps on the beach, figures running and cycling at speed, barrage balloons and a military plane silhouetted overhead.
Bone’s painting records the end of a historic day that became a turning point of the Second World War, a day on which a major combined naval, air and ground drama unfolded across the Normandy coast. Part of a combined Allied operation against Nazi-held France, over 150,000 international troops, transported by naval ships and private vessels, landed on five beaches. The success of the largest ever international amphibious invasion owed much to the individuals who contributed to the action by rowing or ferrying soldiers and vehicles in small, privately owned vessels. D-Day established the Allies’ position along the French coast, setting up a firm foundation for their eventual successful assault on Nazi-occupied France.
Sunset on the Normandy Beaches was one of nearly 200 works that were allocated to the then Ministry of Works by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in 1946. This included ten works by Bone, who, assigned to the Royal Navy, served as an official war artist from June 1943 to 1945. Initially his assignments had recorded Navy manoeuvres and rescue missions; later, in Norway, he witnessed prisoner of war camps at occupied naval bases.
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