It is with great sadness that I have to record the death of an old friend, and a hugely important contributor to Osprey's lists over no less than 35 years. On 10 August, at the age of 86, the soldier, illustrator, historian and author Mike Chappell died peacefully in hospital in southern France, where he and his wife Marilyn had lived in retirement for the past decade. I know that many people will wish to join me in sending their sincere condolences to Mike's widow and sons.

 It is a wretched but inevitable consequence of being Osprey's 'oldest inhabitant'  that I have had to write obituaries over the years for a number of my closest friends, who have played crucial roles in our company's success in the course of their long careers. In this case I can take some small comfort from the memory of the last time I met Mike. That was on 4 November 2013 at the British Embassy in Paris, when Mike was decorated with the British Empire Medal by the then Ambassador, Sir Peter Ricketts, for his services to military history. Such public recognition is rare in our professional world, but in Mike's case it was notably well-deserved.

When Mike retired, in November 2012  I wrote a blog for the Osprey website, outlining his career and recording Osprey's debt to him. Although the second paragraph now makes poignant reading, I believe I can do no better for Mike's memory than to repeat it here, unchanged.



13 November 2012

My old friend Mike Chappell, who illustrated his first Osprey title in 1977  –   British 7th Armoured Division 1940-45 by John Sandars, No.1 in the original Vanguard series  – has finally decided to hang up his brushes after 38 years as a working illustrator. During 35 of those years he has been one of our most prolific and valued  contributors.

After having had the melancholy task of writing obituaries of friends and colleagues too often in the past few years, it is a delight to be able to say farewell to one of the stalwarts of the Osprey Publishing lists while he is still alive, kicking, and enjoying the sunshine and wine of his home in southern France. Since he has soldiered on loyally and effectively for well over ten years beyond ‘official’ retirement age, I cannot deny that he has earned it; on the other hand, as a commissioning editor I’m naturally feeling fairly glum at the prospect of  losing his unique skills.

Mike’s  last title for us will be Men-at-Arms 486, The New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War II, by Wayne Stack & Barry O’Sullivan, due for publication in spring 2013. This will be the 126th Osprey title for which Mike has provided the colour plates in whole or in part. He is also an accomplished researcher and writer, and is himself the author of 20 of those 126 titles.

Mike’s work may be found in the Men-at-Arms, Elite, Vanguard, Warrior, Aircraft of the Aces and Combat Aircraft series, and in books from several other publishers (see listings at the end of this text). He has also illustrated many magazine articles; and he has donated original artwork to various military museums in the UK and abroad. These include the National Army Museum, London; Parks of Canada; the Australian War Memorial, Canberra; and the Anne S.K. Browne Collection in Rhode Island, USA. 


British Army service      

The unique authority of Mike’s work on 20th-century subjects may be explained by the fact that he served as an infantryman in the British Army for 22 years, rising from private to warrant officer class I, and serving in many stations from the UK to Germany, Cyprus, Libya, Swaziland and Malaya. This long experience gives him an unrivalled ‘feel’ for what it is like to wear, carry and use military kit in different environments and military situations, and a sharp and knowledgeable eye for detail. 

Mike was born in 1934 in Aldershot, home of the British Army, into a family of ‘fairly undistinguished soldiers’. As a small boy he travelled to Egypt in the wake of his soldier father, returning to England on the outbreak of World War II to begin (again, his words) ‘a rubbish education at the hands of the Catholic system’. Even so, one perceptive schoolteacher encouraged him when he saw sketches Mike had made of soldiers around Aldershot, and in his early teens he was offered a place at a London art college; but his father insisted that at the age of 15 he enter an apprenticeship to an industrial blacksmith. At the minimum age of  17½ he ‘escaped’ from his indentures and enlisted in the Royal Hampshire Regiment for three years. He got his first ‘tape’ after 6 months; was promoted to corporal after only a year; and after 18 months in uniform he was shipped to Malaya during the Emergency, leading a section of teenage National Service soldiers in a jungle war. He describes this period of his experience as ‘sheer hell... one of my recurring nightmares’.         

Nevertheless, when he was de-mobbed he immediately re-enlisted in 1955. This time he joined the Gloucestershire Regiment, hoping to serve in Kenya during the ‘Mau-Mau’ insurgency, but in the event he was kept at the depot to train National Service recruits. Sent to Cyprus in 1957 during the EOKA insurgency, he was promoted sergeant, and then spent 1958-59 with the British Army of the Rhine in Germany undergoing signals training. In 1959 he was back in the UK for flight training with the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop, gaining his private pilot’s licence but ‘washing out’ at the intermediate stage of training. After serving as an instructor at the School of Infantry (Signals Wing), and getting married, Mike was posted to Cyprus again in 1961-65 – ‘in time for the civil war and the UN intervention’.

Promoted staff sergeant, he served in southern Africa (Swaziland) in 1965-66 at the time of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. After a spell at Gloucester during the conversion of the Territorial Army into the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve, Mike was promoted WOII, and was posted to Berlin in 1968 as Company Sergeant Major of A Company, 1st Glosters. A year later, during the early, very violent days of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, his battalion served in Londonderry and Belfast. He was at the Brigade Depot in 1970; and in 1972 he joined a TAVR unit, 1st Bn The Wessex Regiment (Rifle Volunteers), as Regimental Sergeant Major.

In 1974 he took his discharge, having decided against accepting a quartermaster’s commission (though shortly afterwards he was gazetted second lieutenant in the Kent Army Cadet Force). Mike had –  and still has – a critical and clearly expressed attitude towards many aspects of the way that the infantry of the British Army was organized, trained and led during his years of service. (This will not come as a surprise to anyone who read the introductory text of his 1987 title Elite 14, The British Army in the 1980s.)


Early work as an illustrator  

Towards the end of his Army career Mike had rediscovered his boyhood interest in drawing and painting military figures, and during his time in Berlin he had started selling some of his work to officers of his battalion. (He would later contribute work for the final edition of the Glosters’ regimental history, and for a monument, at the time of  the regiment’s amalgamation.) He exhibited at the  Armed Forces Art Society exhibitions in Chelsea in 1973 and 1974, and his work attracted sufficient attention that he was offered a contract to illustrate Jack Cassin-Scott’s book Uniforms of  Waterloo in the Blandford Press Colour Series under the editorship of Barry Gregory.

On leaving the Army, now a single father bringing up two sons, Mike worked hard to establish himself as an illustrator. He received further commissions for Blandford books, which led me to my good luck in tracking him down in 1976 to offer him work for Osprey. (Incidentally, both Mike’s sons have followed him into military careers, and both have recently served in Afghanistan  – Paul, who lives in the USA, as a full-time senior NCO with the Minnesota National Guard, and John as a full-time Reserve officer with the Royal Air Force.)

Back in 1976, the references provided by author John Sandars for  Vanguard 1, British 7th Armoured Division 1940-45, were good, but the scope of the work required was a new challenge for Mike. He took it on fearlessly, and his mastery of the subject quickly became clear. From that first commission onwards there was hardly a year until 2005 when Mike did not illustrate anything between one and four Osprey books, resuming at a slighty reduced pace from 2009.  (It was also during the late 1970s that Mike met his second wife Marilyn at a party in my flat; happily, neither of them has ever blamed me for this  – or out loud, at least.)

Entirely self-taught, Mike  improved his mastery of pencil and watercolour techniques steadily from those first years, and his work has long since earned him an international reputation. I have had the pleasure of working with him as an author several times since he illustrated my own Uniforms of the French Foreign Legion 1831-1981 (Blandford Press, 1981). He has worked with me on all my Men-at-Arms titles on the Foreign Legion and the Indochina and Algerian wars, and has unfailingly turned my raw references into figures that were both carefully detailed and characterful.  The achievement of a good working relationship between an author and an illustrator is never a foregone conclusion, but when it does happen it makes hard work a delight.


Research, writing  and publishing

Mike’s contribution to the whole field of uniform history has gone far beyond his work as a ‘jobbing illustrator’, however. He has been a passionate and tireless researcher of  the details of the British soldier’s appearance and service throughout the 20th century, and he has made the fruits of his work over decades available to the public in a whole series of attractive, accessible and detailed books. This effort has placed in the public record a mass of material that would otherwise have been lost.

Some people may assume that because literally millions of photos exist of British soldiers of the two World Wars, in particular, then the facts about their uniforms, insignia and equipment must be readily available in the records. In truth, of course, this is quite mistaken. The collections of the Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum –  the national repositories of such raw material – are unable to offer any systematic way of locating particular details, and in practice anyone seeking specific information has to approach these archives like a lone gold prospector entering a vast and virtually trackless wilderness.

He must be prepared to carry out his own specialized research, examining thousands of photos with minute care. Without a wide and deep background knowledge he will rarely spot the details that are usually visible only under a magnifying glass, and he may not recognize their significance. There are also pockets of valuable evidence in regimental museums; but – since these are scattered, have very uneven and haphazard holdings, and are rarely staffed by specialists – finding and collating them is an enormous task. Even surviving uniforms may display unit or company-level insignia that nobody at the museum can any longer identify. All Mike’s research in photo libraries and museums has had to be backed up by patiently tracking down and reading unit histories, war diaries and memoirs, and the recollections of the rapidly dwindling numbers of veterans.

Mike’s first ground-breaking publications were MAAs 182 & 187, British Battle Insignia (1) 1914-18 and (2) 1939-45, published in 1986 and 1987. These covered in unprecedented detail the actual practices of  wearing divisional and unit patches and flashes. In 1987 Mike extended his reach and took the risk of starting his own publishing company, Wessex Military Publishing. He researched, wrote, illustrated, published and sold a series of heavily illustrated 24-page numbered booklets under the title The British Soldier in the 20th Century, covering uniform items, insignia and personal equipment. With an A4 page size, these featured four colour plates and plenty of photos reproduced large; they quickly became a ‘must-have’ for enthusiasts, and by 1990 Mike had published 12 titles. At that point the merciless facts of life governing the survival of a tiny business for a specialist market (facts that I understand only too well) brought the venture to an end, but these booklets are still keenly sought-after on the second-hand market by ‘true believers’.

Mike’s writing talent was by no means limited to documenting the details of ‘uniformology’. In 1995 his broad and deep understanding of the British Army in World War I, and his ability to tell a complex and wide-ranging story in clear and highly readable prose, was evident in his The Somme 1916: Crucible of a British Army (Windrow & Greene), one of the large-format ‘silver series’ books produced by that company. (Mike also illustrated two other titles in the series: in 1992 he contributed the four British plates for Ian Knight’s Zulu: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, 22-23 January 1879 – for which the Zulu plates were painted by the late Angus McBride; and in 2001 Mike painted the eight plates for Cassino: the Four Battles, January-May 1944 by Ken Ford, published by Crowood Press after the demise of Windrow & Greene. Again, these long out-of-print titles are still snapped up when they appear in the second-hand marketplace.) 


                                                *         *         *

In the field of  20th-century subjects, it is impossible to think of any other illustrator and researcher who rivals Mike’s contribution to what academics would now call the ‘material culture’ of our military history.  It has been a privilege and an unfailing pleasure to work with him over many years; and all his many admirers will join me, and the rest of us at Osprey, in wishing him and Marilyn a long and happy retirement.


[1] Osprey Publishing titles illustrated by Mike Chappell:

(** = both  author & illustrator; * = figure plates and/or interiors only)


Vanguard Series:

1    British 7th Armoured Division 1940-45 (1977)

2    Panzer-Grenadier Division ‘Grossdeutschland’ (1977)

3    US 1st Infantry Division 1939-45 (1978)

5    US 101st Airborne Division 1942-45 (1978)

6    The Lee/ Grant Tanks in British Service (1978)

7    2nd SS-Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ (1979)

8    US 1st Marine Division 1941-45 (1979)

9    British Guards Armoured Division 1941-45 (1979)

10  Allied Tank Destroyers (1979)

11  US 2nd Armored Division 1940-45 (1979)

12  Sturmartillerie & Panzerjäger (1979) – r/p as NVD 34 (1999)

13  The Churchill Tank (1980) –

       r/p as NVD 4 The Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51 (1993) 

14  The T-34 Tank (1980)*

15  The Sherman Tank in British Service (1980)*

16  The Panzerkampfwagen III (1980)* 


Men-at-Arms Series:

88   Napoloeon’s Italian and Neapolitan Troops (1979)

104 Armies of the Vietnam War 1962-75 (1980)

107  British Infantry Equipments 1808-1908 (1980)**

        - revised as British Infantry Equipments (1): 1808-1908 (1999)**

108  British Infantry Equipments 1908-80 (1980)**

        - revised as British Infantry Equipments (2): 1908-2000 (2000)**

112 British Battledress 1937-61 (1981)

123 The Australian  Army at War 1899-1975 (1982)

127 The Israeli Army in the Middle East Wars 1948-73 (1982)

128 Arab Armies of the Middle East Wars 1948-73 (1982)

131 Germany’s Eastern Front Allies 1941-45 (1982)

132 The Malayan Campaigm 1948-60 (1982)

133 The Battle for the Falklands (1): Land Forces (1982)

135 The Battle for the Falklands (3): Air Forces (1982)*

138 British Cavalry Equipments 1800-1941 (1983)**

       - revised edition (2002)**

139 German Airborne Troops 1939-45 (1983)

142 Partisan Warfare 1941-45 (1983)

143 Armies of the Vietnam War (2) (1983)

164 The Canadian Army at War (1985)**

174 The Korean War 1950-53 (1986)

182  British Battle Insignia (1): 1914-18 (1986)**

183  Modern African Wars (1): Rhodesia 1965-80 (1986)

187  British Battle Insignia (2): 1939-45 (1987)**

209 The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989)

245 British Territorial  Units 1914-18 (1991)

261 18th-Century Highlanders (1993)

300  French Foreign Legion Infantry & Cavalry since 1945 (1996)

312  The Algerian War 1954-62 (1997)

315  The French Army 1939-45 (1) (1998)

318  The French Army 1939-45 (2) (1998)

322  The French Indochina War 1946-54 (1998)

325  The French Foreign Legion 1914-45 (1999)

338  The King’s German Legion (1): 1803-12 (2000)**

339  The King’s German Legion (2): 1812-16 (2000)**

342  The US Army in World War II (1): Pacific (2000)

347  The US Army in World War II (2): Mediterranean (2000)

350  The US Army in World War II (3): NW Europe (2001)

354  The British Army 1939-45 (1): NW Europe (2001)

361  Axis Cavalry in World War II (2001)

368  The British Army 1939-45 (2): Middle East & Medieterranean (2002)

375  The British Army 1939-45 (3): Far East (2002)