A replica of Albert (top), who "stood in" for a wartime escapee. John Worsley (below).

John Worsley, 81, Artist Whose Wartime Creation Outfoxed the Nazis


By Richard Goldstein,, October 21, 2000

John Worsley, a British artist who as a prisoner of the Germans in World War II hoodwinked guards with a dummy P.O.W. named Albert, later a part of British wartime lore, died Oct. 3 in London. He was 81.

Soon after Britain went to war, Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, recruited official war artists to portray combat action and life on the home front. Most of the artists were civilians, but the youngest one, Mr. Worsley, was a midshipman in the Royal Navy.

An art school graduate, Mr. Worsley had sketched his fellow sailors on the armed merchant ship Laurentic. When it was sunk by a German U- boat off Northern Ireland in 1940, he was rescued by a destroyer, but not before sketching the sinking from his lifeboat.

His enterprise resulted in his assignment as a war artist while he took part in the Allied landings in Sicily and the Italian mainland.

He worked in paint at first, but after his landing craft was hit by a dive bomber at Reggio di Calabria in September 1943, making a mess of his artwork ó "I had just got a nice wash going," he would say ó he switched to pencil.

By November he was a lieutenant accompanying Allied saboteurs to an island off the Adriatic coast of Italy, hoping to sketch their exploits. But the Germans intercepted their boat and he was taken prisoner.

His captors thought at first that he was a spy because he had drawing materials, but after keeping him in solitary confinement for two months, they decided he was simply a military artist. He was held with British Navy prisoners at the Marlag-O camp near Bremen, Germany, where he recorded prison life with materials supplied by the Red Cross, assembling such an impressive portfolio that German admirals visited the camp to admire his work.

All the while he was creating a secret masterpiece. Every Thursday, Mr. Worsley worked on assembling his dummy Albert in the shed where prisoners were taken for their weekly shower. Albert's head was papier-m‚chÈ; he had a wig made from hair scraps contributed by the prisoners, and his eyes were Ping- Pong balls made to blink by a sardine-tin pendulum. His body was a wire frame covered with a naval greatcoat. Albert lacked hands, so his sleeves were stuffed into his jacket pockets.

One day, after the prisoners had showered, a prisoner, Lieutenant Mewes, escaped. Albert promptly took the lieutenant's place in the three-times-a-day head count, propped up on either side by the real prisoners. The guards did not know that the officer was missing until he was captured four days later in L?beck.

Mr. Worsley returned to England at war's end and opened a studio in London.

A British journalist, Guy Morgan, who had been a fellow prisoner at the Marlag-O camp, recounted the escape plot in his play "Albert R.N.," which stood for Royal Navy. In 1953, it was made into a film with the same title, directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Anthony Steel as a fictionalized version of Mr. Worsley, who created a replica of Albert for the movie.

John Godfrey Bernard Worsley was born in Liverpool, the son of a retired naval officer. He lived as a youngster in Kenya, where his father ran a coffee plantation, then returned to England. He graduated from Goldsmiths College, London, where he studied fine art, and worked as an illustrator for romance magazines before joining the navy.

Mr. Worsley was a versatile and prolific artist. He drew the popular comic strip "PC49" for the boys' comic book Eagle in the 1950's. He also created color illustrations for television readings of children's stories and painted portraits of British military leaders.

In the late 1960's he became the police artist for Scotland Yard, producing more than 1,000 sketches of suspects from victims' descriptions. He was also noted for paintings of sea scenes and in the 1980's served as president of the Royal Society of Marine Artists. His wartime sketches were collected in "John Worsley's War," published in Britain (Airlife, 1993).

The Imperial War Museum displays 61 of Mr. Worsley's paintings, and the National Maritime Museum is home to another 29.

As for Albert, he still stands ready for roll call, bundled up in his greatcoat at the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth.

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

Go to: Obituaries


© 2000 by Neil Mishalov