Portrait of the Dambuster artist

Jack Guterman in a formal portrait, taken in about 1941. Pic: Guterman family

Jack Guterman was born in Guildford, Surrey, on 1 August 1920, the older of the two children of Jack and Jane Guterman. His father came from a Jewish family who had fled Poland in the 1890s, while his mother was of Irish descent. His father, an accountant, had served on the Western Front in the First World War. Guterman went to Sandfield Primary School and on to Guildford Royal Grammar School in 1931. He left school in 1937 and studied at art school in Andover, where his tutor was the artist Dick Hosking. He then went to work in his father’s accountancy practice.

When the war came, he volunteered for the RAF and was selected for training as an air observer. He went on to qualify as a wireless operator/air gunner, and finished his training in the autumn of 1941.

Guterman had great potential as an artist, and hung his own oil paintings and drawings on the walls of the various rooms he lived in during his RAF career. He took his paints and drawing materials from base to base and carried on producing quality work. He also loved literature and music, and collected records and books. He wrote regularly to his family, sending them a remarkable series of letters with details of concerts he had heard on the radio, accounts of how his artistic work was progressing, witty pen portraits of his RAF colleagues and vivid descriptions of the countryside over which he had flown.

He was posted to 207 Squadron at RAF Bottesford in February 1942, and started operational flying in June 1942. Along with navigator Plt Off Jack Barrett he joined the crew of Flt Sgt Anthony Walters, and they flew on some 19 operations together before going first to a conversion unit and then back to 207 Squadron to a new crew skippered by another pilot, Sgt Warner (‘Bill’) Ottley. By this stage, 207 Squadron had moved to RAF Langar.

He became good friends with Ottley, and they shared a room together in their quarters in the conversion unit at RAF Swinderby. A letter to his sister ‘Babs’ written in early October 1942 gives a good account of their warm relationship:

I now occupy the bed next to Ottley (the fellow in between left today and we are glad as he was deadly dull) so now I am entertained all night by his long and endless store of anecdotes (some of which are remarkably funny but could hardly be accepted with any degree of morality in the drawing room) so it is impossible to relapse into status melancholis.
I have just read the former paragraph out to Ottley himself whose sole remark was “Oh Christ” – but he’s really quite respectable. We were listening to the news just now and his remark on an announcement concerning the calling up of women (of a certain age) was: “Oh Yes! My mother gets great sport out of this calling up business. It’s the only way of finding out her best friends real ages: “You know Bill, Mrs X once told me she was 35 but she registered today so she must really be 41!” That’s the sort of thing I have to put up with.

Guterman’s last operation in 207 Squadron was on 8 March 1943, on a trip to Nuremburg. With this he finished his tour and could have opted to go to a training unit for at least six months. He was also recommended for a DFM, for which the citation read:

In both capacities [as air gunner and wireless operator], he has consistently shown the greatest enthusiasm, determination and efficiency. In the capacity of air gunner, Sergeant Guterman displays a fine fighting spirit, welcoming every opportunity to use his guns against the enemy. On one occasions when returning from Kassel, he successfully attacked light gun and searchlight positions from a low level. His courage, reliability and perseverance have made this airman a most valuable member of aircrew.

Unfortunately the award did not come through before the Dams Raid, and the medal was sent to his family after the war.

Although he could have gone on an instructional role in an OTU, Guterman wasn’t enthusiastic at the prospect: ‘Ugh! Ugh!’, he wrote to his sister on 18 February 1943, and followed this up on 4 March with the news that he was to be posted to a ‘wretched training station in the Lincoln vicinity’. However, somehow he managed to get the transfer postponed, so he was still at Langar when Ottley and his crew were nominated for a transfer to 617 Squadron. As they did not have a regular wireless operator, Guterman must have volunteered to join up with his old comrades, and was posted along with them.

Naturally, he took his painting and drawing materials. He told his family that he had been allocated a room in one of Scampton’s ‘married quarters’ which he shared with a ‘Scots lad’. In a later letter, he referred to him as ‘Johnnie’, so this was probably his crewmate Thomas Johnston. One day, when workmen arrived to paint the outside of the quarters they noticed through the window the display on the walls and enquired what they were. Johnston told them that the items were ‘works of art’ – ‘fleeting fancies materialised in a fleeting form’, a description which left the workmen somewhat baffled.

In the run up to the Dams Raid Guterman found quite a lot of time in which he could paint. He began work on a painting which he called ‘Gethsemane’. In a letter to his sister which is dated ‘early May’ he described how excited he was by the project:

My “Gethsemane” is progressing and flavours of Fra Angelico, the Italian Primitive especially in the “flora” parts. I get so thrilled about it that I cannot get it out of my mind and rush back to do odd things to it throughout the day. I believe it will turn out to be my chef-d’oevre.

‘Gethsemane’ by Jack Guterman, painted 1943. Pic: Guterman family

The finished painting was among the large collection of works which were sent back to the family. He didn’t however mention it in his last letter home, sent to his sister and dated 16 May. Instead he described a trip to Lincoln the day before, in which he had bought three records and studied some art books in the reference library. All in all, he concluded, he was discovering ‘some most quaint corners which each help to raise my opinion of the town’. The letter concluded: ‘I’m boring myself so I don’t know about you! Fond Love Zak.’

A few hours after he finished and posted this letter, AJ-C was shot down near Hamm, and Guterman was one of the six crew members who died instantly. They were originally buried by the Germans in Hamm, but were reinterred after the war in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

One of Jack Guterman’s pictures, given to an acquaintance in 1942, has recently come to light. It is possible that there are other items of his work which survived the war. If anyone knows of any such pieces, the Guterman family would like to hear from them. Please contact this blog, and we will put you in touch.

‘A last smoke before take-off’, drawing by Jack Guterman, 1942/3. Pic: Guterman family


4 thoughts on “Portrait of the Dambuster artist

    • charlesfoster November 9, 2017 / 8:39 pm

      Dear Charlie
      Your comment went into the Spam folder so I have only just seen it. I hope you are genuine!
      The aircraft given the call sign AJ-C was indeed ED910/G. I don’t why the other site lists it as ED817/G. It is wrong.

  1. Roger Cooper October 27, 2017 / 11:32 am

    What a splendid artist he was – and might have been…

  2. Graeme Jensen October 27, 2017 / 7:54 pm

    A very moving story. Makes one wonder how many like talented men, women and children have been lost to human conflict.

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