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.