The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War by Dr. Fred McGlade

The Imperial War Museum holds millions of photographs and films created during the Second World War, many of them by the British Army‘s Film and Photographic Unit. They are a treasured resource for military historians. Yet the story of the men who collected this iconic images has never adequately been told.

The beginning of the Second World War found the British Government ill at ease with propgadanda and information. The armed forces in particular seemed to be overly security conscious, and unwilling to inform the general public about their work. Yet total war involved every section of society, and hence it was vital to inform morale on the home front by letting the people know what their menfolk were up to overseas and at home. There were also considerable turf wars, first in Whitehall and then with allies once the US joined the war.

The British Army led the way in producing photographs and films, after forming the Army Film and Photographic Unit. Many of the films and photographs were collected by Sergeant cameramen, who were recruited from existing soldiers who had photographic experience. Hence an ideal combination was found – men who knew how to work a camera, but had also spent some time in the Army. Several of the AFPU men were killed in action, and several more were decorated for bravery. Photographing during wartime was particularly testing, especially in extreme climates such as the desert in North Africa and the jungle in Burma. And like many ‘non-combatants’, the cameramen must have been extremely brave to be in the thick of battle, without being able to take an active part in it.

Personally, for me the most fascinating images produced by the AFPU came from Operation Market Garden. Along with Alan Wood of the Express and Stanley Maxted of the BBC – who also produced some vital reports – three AFPU Sergeants parachuted into Arnhem, and took some iconic images of the battle. Perhaps the most memorable is that of a mortar team of the Border Regiment, their mortar barrell almost vertical in the short range, fighting hard in the cauldron of Oosterbeek. AFPU cameramen also recorded the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, essential for ensuring that the holocaust was not to be forgotten.

There were considerable tensions with the US authorities, however. The US Government was keen to ensure that the US public saw their armed forces taking as active a part as possible in the war. Even though the US was providing by far the bulk of the men and equipment fighting in Europe, to believe some US produced films the americans won the war single-handedly. Sound familiar? Saving Private Ryan, U-571…. obviously Hollywood taking historical licence is not a new phenomenon. But the wartime film showing a band of americans liberating Burma really has to take the biscuit. Just why US public opinion justified lies has never really occured to me.

Fred McGlade has produced an important and interesting record of the work of the AFPU. There are some fascinating images in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and this book gives them added meaning. I’ve always thought that it was a bit strange to use photographs to illustrate a war, but not to ‘illustrate’ the photographs and how they were obtained.

The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War is published by Helion

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30 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War Two

30 responses to “The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War by Dr. Fred McGlade

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  3. John Erickson

    The US Government reaction went through three very different phases. Up until 1941, there was still a strong air of isolation in the US. The government, mainly through FDR, wanted to push the US towards war, but knew they needed the people to support war, so the war was covered as a “European affair”. After Pearl Harbor, the government was terrified of showing failure, including showing casualties, for fear of fostering defeatism. It wasn’t until after the Normandy invasion that the government loosened the reins, and it wasn’t until the summer of ’45 that the censors allowed any realism, including corpses, into the newsreels.
    And it was the fact that, rather than pull cameramen from the military, the US pulled cameramen from Hollywood, and used Hollywood actors as presenters. It was felt that America’s allies had to be shown as “needy”, and thus justifying America’s rescue of them in both Europe and the Pacific – especially in Europe, as after Pearl Harbor, most of the support of the war was limited to wiping out the Japanese, while ignoring the Europeans while they sorted themselves out. The declaration of first action against the Axis in North Africa was very unpopular, requiring a great deal of “spin” to pull the country along.
    There a host of other small reasons, but these are the big reasons for the “America uber Alles” outlook. It did, and still does, a great injustice to the sacrifice of Britain, her Commonwealth, and all the dispossessed European nations, making them look inept and incapable, but that was the way the government-controlled media campaign was waged.

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  5. Rather than damn with faint praise, let me take vigorous exception to a couple of points.

    1) Errol Flynn chased the Japanese out of Burma. Everyone in America knows that. At least those of us who regard “Objective Burma” as one of the best made-during-a-war movies ever made.

    2) @ John Erickson: “wasn’t until the summer of ’45…”. Actually US newsreels began to portray the war with a degree of realism as “early” as 1943, showing dead bodies of US Marines on the Betio/Tarawa beachhead.

    • John Erickson

      MajikFireHornet- Upon review, I stand corrected. Thank you. I will put forth, though, that there was a great deal of controversy within the government as to whether this footage should be shown. If memory serves, the military wanted the accurate footage, while the civilian government was afraid of backlash over “dishonoring” the dead by showing them. (It might have been the other way around – I’d have to dig through some temporarily-missing books to be sure). Either way, graphic footage was discouraged (although shown) until the ferocity of Japanese resistance had to be established to keep the war-weary public behind the Pacific campaign – that was from where I pulled the (incorrect) 1945 date. Heavy coverage actually began during the 1944 Marianas campaign, counterpointing American casualties and Japanese burned soldiers’ corpses, with Japanese civilians committing suicide to avoid the American “barbarians”, thus showing the American public how Japanese propaganda made any peace attempts useless.
      As to faint praise, I have great respect for both American and Commonwealth soldiers. We must remember, at our 70-year distance from events, that each country’s newsreel/military film documentaries were geared to their own audience – hence the Americans will glorify all things US and downplay all others; the British will glorify UK forces (and to a lesser degree, Commonwealth forces) at the expense of, say, Chinese or Russian contributions. It wasn’t necessarily wrong at the time, it was simply promoting the “home team”.

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