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The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit

in the Second World War


Fred McGlade


Helion Studies in Military History, no. 5

Solihull: Helion, 2010

Paperback. v+212 p. Illustrations. ISBN 978-1906033941. Ł24.95


Reviewed by Toby Haggith

Imperial War Museum



The British Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) produced some of the most important, well-known and enduring images of the Second World War. Accompanying infantrymen right into the front-line, AFPU cameramen, who had all transferred from combat units themselves, recorded and documented such momentous events as the landings at Sword beach on the morning of 6 June 1944 and the horrific scenes discovered when the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The consistently high quality of the images produced by members of the Unit as well as their bravery in securing these images (twenty-five members of the Unit died in action and many others were injured), meant that it was AFPU cameramen who increasingly got the scoops, much to the annoyance of the commercial newsreel and press photographers who followed in their wake. Despite the prominence of its photographs in wartime newspapers and the dominance of AFPU footage in newsreels and in commercially and critically successful documentaries such as Desert Victory (1943) and The True Glory (1945) (both were awarded an Oscar for the best documentary), much of this work was published anonymously at the time and in general the names of the individual cameramen and the AFPU itself have been forgotten and received little academic interest. Fortunately this has not been the case at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), the official repository of the film and photographic output of the AFPU, whose curators have published numerous scholarly essays and articles on the subject.(1) Short accounts also exist in general books about British wartime filming, notably by Clive Coultass (Images for Battle : British Film and the Second World War, 1939-45, 1989), himself a former film curator at the IWM, and by James Chapman (The British at War : Cinema State and Propaganda, 1939-1945,1998), but it is notable that while numerous books have been published about British commercial cinema during the Second World War and the official documentaries commissioned by the Ministry of Information, the film and photographic output of the organisations run by the War Office, Admiralty and Air Ministry have been largely overlooked.(2)

Dr Fred McGlade’s book is an attempt to fill this gap and is a narrative account of the history of the Unit. After an introductory chapter to put Army filming and photography into historical context, the next chapter, ‘Origins’, describes the gradual evolution of the Unit from the desperately under-resourced War Office provision (there was only one Official War Office Cinematographer to cover the BEF in France from September 1939 to June 1940) through the Army Film Unit, set up in November 1940, and which concentrated on producing short documentaries to publicise the Army, to the establishment of the AFPU in October 1941, a formation of 100 cameramen incorporating photographers but also now with a new role: to cover the Army in the front-line. The next chapter covers the further development of the AFPU, the induction and training of recruits to the Unit and its first operational work, accompanying Commando raids on occupied Norway and, from January 1942, to record the British Army’s campaign in North Africa. Proceeding roughly chronologically, the next chapter covers the AFPU in North Africa from the Battle of El Alamein to victory over Rommel’s forces in the desert, with the subsequent chapters being devoted to the different geographical theatres in which the Unit operated: The Italian Campaign, D-Day and the Battle for Europe, South East Asia, followed by the Conclusion.

McGlade’s main sources are the Unit’s War Diary, the personal diary of Ronald Tritton, the civil servant at the War Office in charge of Army public relations, and the transcripts of interviews with members of the AFPU held in the IWM. McGlade has also gathered some new and useful documentation such as The Cine Technician and the Kodak Works’ Bulletin, and many recollections and insights that he has been given by surviving veterans in correspondence or during the twenty-five video interviews that he personally conducted. Given his interest and concentration on the experiences of the AFPU members, I was surprised that the Appendix does not contain an authoritative list of all the members of the Unit or a list of the members who were killed in action during the war.

A baffling omission from the sources are the Secret Caption Sheets, more commonly known as Dope Sheets, which were compiled in the field by the cameramen to record exactly the action they had covered (film or photos) and relevant technical details that would be useful to the technicians developing, printing and then editing the raw footage. These are crucial historical documents for anyone trying to make sense of the output of the AFPU and are readily accessible, as a complete set is preserved at the IWM. Working with these records, the scholar can gain important insights into crucial issues in the history of the AFPU, notably relating to censorship and the issue of faking or re-enacting scenes of action for the camera. In addition, the dope sheets are a potential source for those interested in wider histories, beyond the visual record. Because although generally straightforward records of the content of a film or series of photos, there are numerous occasions in which the situation the cameraman was operating was so extreme or unusual in some way, that he used the dope sheet as a witness account, recording observations that take these documents beyond a technical list of what can be seen in the frame. For example at Arnhem, Sergeants Mike Lewis and Jock Walker used their dope sheets as a diary, recording the increasingly perilous situation for the British Airborne Division as it became encircled by a crack German unit:

This is the fourth day of the fighting and things are pretty tough. We are completely surrounded and the casualties are extremely heavy. It seems that the enemy knows where we are but can’t pinpoint us but he is attacking everywhere hoping to break the perimeter somewhere. The fighting is savage and if 30 Corps doesn’t come soon it will be just too bad for us.’ (Sergeant Walker, Oosterbeek, 19th September 1944, A70 169/6/2)

The value of this particular series from the dope sheets is that not only do they powerfully convey the military situation in the film record, and from men actually taking part in the action, but they also give us insight into the attitude of the typical AFPU cameraman. This is particularly so in this quote from Lewis’ account:

The troops are magnificent doing deeds of valour as a matter of routine for which “ground men” would get a decoration. I am a little ashamed not to be actually alongside men like these. (Sergeant Mike Lewis, 22nd September 1944, A700 168/2)

Clearly Sergeant Lewis did not regard himself as a neutral observer, but a fully engaged participant with all his sympathies and instincts allied with those of the soldiers whose actions he was recording. However, this dope sheet also contains another note indicating that, despite his fighting instincts coming to the fore, Lewis realised that his primary role at Arnhem was as a cameraman as, in a highly commendable and professional manner, he had thoughtfully penned a little technical evaluation of his camera equipment under battle conditions:

On the basis of my experience I do think that perhaps a 16mm camera would be better (in spite of latter disadvantages entailed in use) as from the point of view that one has to be highly mobile. (Sergeant Mike Lewis, A700 168/2)

At Belsen, the same cameraman, along with his comrade Sergeant William Lawrie, used the dope sheets to make numerous personal comments that record their horror and revulsion at the scenes they witnessed and that also are invaluable in explaining the strategy they adopted to record the scenes of heaps of naked corpses that were found throughout the camp. McGlade makes no use of these records in his account of the AFPU at Arnhem and Belsen and little use elsewhere in the book. Indeed it appears, on a first reading, that he does not find them until he begins his work on the AFPU in Southeast Asia Command – however, on closer inspection there is one earlier use of the dope sheets, on page 124, when he refers to the Secret Caption Sheet filled out by Sergeant Ginger on the morning of 6th June 1944, to establish exactly which of the Normandy beaches he came ashore; a useful detail, but paltry to the material that could have been gleaned from the dope sheets covering the filming on that momentous morning.

Equally surprising for a history of the British Army’s image gathering organisation, is that the book makes comparatively little use of the films and photographs produced by the AFPU. According to the published filmography McGlade only viewed twenty-one films as part of his research and these were all edited films, with titles and a soundtrack made for screening to the public during the war and in its immediate aftermath. A proper assessment of the work of the AFPU cannot be made on the basis of twenty-one films and certainly not without referring to the unedited footage. Nor is this compensated by a critical analysis of the photographs, which receive scant attention in this book; they are used to illustrate the book, but there is very little comment on them as historical records or as pieces of art.

The writing style is clear, but I found the use of the conditional tense a bit odd and after a while irritating. It reinforces the sense of the position of the knowing historian; that things are inevitably going to turn out this way. This tense also adds to the rather hagiographic tone of McGlade’s study. To be fair to McGlade, he is not alone in adopting this tone towards war cameramen (photographers and cine cameramen), as many writers of biographies of war cameramen tend to write semi-heroic accounts of their subjects, letting their admiration get in the way of a more dispassionate analysis, but as this book began as a doctoral thesis, I would have expected more discipline.

There are also some typos and presentational inconsistencies that create confusion, especially over names and terminology. For example, both First World War and World War One appear as do both spellings of Rachmaninoff and surely it was the actor and barrister Leo Genn not Leo Gunn, who was one of the distinguished talents based at Pinewood Studios during the war? There was only one Lewis representing the AFPU at Belsen camp: Sergeant Mike Lewis – the other Lewis is an impostor [140]. Occasionally there is also confusion between photographs and film – related but subtly different visual records. When Tritton’s diary refers to the ‘great pictures being radioed back from Cairo’ this is not footage – but photographs, footage is cine film; only very recently has it become possible to ‘radio back’ moving images via satellite [72].

Some of these errors can be attributed to poor editing by the publishers, but not in all cases. Rather inexplicably McGlade transcribed GPO Film Unit from Ronald Tritton’s handwritten diaries, as CPO Film Unit, he even records this in the list of abbreviations in this fashion. There are two explanations for this error, firstly, that this is a slip by Tritton. Although this is possible, it seems unlikely as Tritton would have known about the GPO Film Unit (which became the Crown Film Unit in 1940) during his negotiations to create the AFPU. In which case, McGlade should have put [sic] and then added a footnote for clarification. Or, secondly, McGlade has had difficulty reading Tritton’s handwriting, and misread the G for a C. An understandable error for someone new to the subject, but not for a scholar writing a thesis about wartime official filming, who would have already come across numerous references to the GPO Film Unit in the secondary literature as this organisation was the only state-funded film production unit existing in Britain prior to the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, McGlade repeats this error twice more in the text, referring to The First Days (1939) and Men of the Lightship (1940), as films produced by the CPO Film Unit.

This sloppiness is also revealed in some glaring factual errors in the historical narrative. For example, it is stated that, ‘The northern sea route through the Artic to Murmansk was controlled by the Japanese Navy’ and when describing the situation in Bergen-Belsen after the liberation of the camp, he refers to Israeli secret agents operating at the camp, three years before the state of Israel came into existence [56, 44]!

The editors should also have tackled the occasional weaknesses in structure, especially in chapter 5, where the narrative jumps about in time and location from Italy, to the AFPU’s side operations covering the British and partisan forces in Greece, Albania and Austria. Not surprisingly then, this chapter also includes a repetition in the history, with the 8th Army’s landing at Regio de Calabria on 3 September 1943 occurring twice over the course of two pages. While in Chapter 7, an analysis of the film Burma Victory is tackled in two separate sections of the chapter.

One of the strengths of McGlade’s book is that it is rich with quotes and illustrations of primary material, often occupying more than one paragraph or stretching over a couple of pages. These contain lively and fascinating detail and help to colour McGlade’s narrative, but the overall impression is that the author has been rather dazzled by his sources and failed to really get on top of them. This is especially striking in the case of the transcriptions of oral history interviews with AFPU veterans, which are overlong and have not been edited to remove the halting, repetitious elements that are typical of verbatim records of speech and can make them difficult to follow when transferred to the page. The quotes from written and printed documents also tend to be on the long side; often these could have been summarised in the author’s own words or conveyed equally well with a brief quote. Moreover, in the process of summarising the historical record, McGlade would have had the opportunity to think more deeply about the real meaning and significance of the valuable nugget he has found.

In placing the work of the AFPU within the context of the military campaigns covered by the Unit, McGlade’s book has brought the cameramen out of the shadows and is especially valuable in conveying the dangers and difficulties of recording images in combat. Such was the bravery and perhaps also the difficulty of their semi-autonomous role within the Army that members of the AFPU often found themselves in front of the advancing forces and, as a consequence, inadvertently liberating towns long before the main force of the British Army would arrive. However, while this book is fine as an organisational history of the Unit and of the men who served with it, it is far less successful as a study of the images that the AFPU produced. Firstly, this is really a book about the film work of the AFPU, with much less reference to the photographers. Moreover, on the occasions when McGlade does give an account of the exploits of one of the photographers, often related in the cameraman’s own words, there is no reference to the images that recorded this memorable episode. For example, McGlade narrates various aspects of Lieutenant, later Captain, Alan Whicker’s actions when serving with the AFPU in Italy, and aside from the fact that he does not seem to be aware of who Whicker was, or rather became (the famous journalist and broadcaster), he does not appear to have looked at any of the photographs as part of his research.

Even when he finds a commendation in the AFPU War Diary to Whicker’s work covering the landings in Sicily – ‘Magnificent: Sets of the photographs were quickly sent to all important overseas posts’ – he is not curious enough to look at these himself, to see what it might have been about these images that made them such a propaganda success [102]! As these photos are easily accessible to researchers at the IWM, McGlade could have examined them for comment or even copied some for illustration in the book. For similar reasons, it seems strange that the author did not obtain stills of the actions recorded in Italy by Sergeant Radford, for which he was awarded the Military Medal, presented to him by General Clark of the US Army; even more curious as the eleven lines of the official citation for the MM are transcribed, along with a reproduction of the photo of Radford receiving his medal from Clark. These omissions are not unusual: only on three occasions do the images of action that are reproduced (other than the portraits of members of the AFPU) relate directly to accounts of the work of individual cameramen described in the text. As a result the images feel isolated from this study instead of being integrated in to it. There is also a disconnection between the text and the choice of images he uses for illustration: the text is dominated by the work of the cine cameramen, and yet on only one occasion is a film still reproduced for the book, all the other images are photographs.

The films are analysed at the end of each chapter, following the narrative account of the military campaign being covered by the sergeant cameramen. This is a sensible way of working and organising the material, but McGlade’s book would have benefitted from a clearer delineation for this section, for example with a sub-heading such as ‘Film Analysis’. However, confusingly, often the films studied do not relate directly to the foregoing account of the campaign in the chapter. For example, in chapter 4 ‘El Alamein to the Victory in the Desert’ Desert Victory and Tunisian Victory are examined, which is logical as it is the AFPU’s coverage of the North African campaign which has come earlier. However McGlade has also included randomly located paragraphs on ABCA, Man Wounded, Twenty-One Miles, The Right Man, Troopship and Street Fighting, which, as the reader will surmise from the titles, are films covering a variety of military themes, but non-relating to the war in the desert; the only link being that the year of their release also took place in 1943. This pattern is repeated at the end of the next chapter covering the Italian campaign, with the seven films analysed having, with the exception of the excellent Naples is a Battlefield, no relation to the focus of the rest of the chapter other than they were all produced in 1944. Rather than trying to find a place for these titles in the narrative chapters, and thus tacking them onto the one about Italy because the story of the Unit and the Italian campaign ends up in 1944 (well actually December for the campaign, July for the history of the AFPU), it would have been more sensible to create a separate chapter for the edited films of the Unit, and analyse this as a sub-genre itself. Then he could have examined these films as a whole and traced their development from the beginning of military filming to the end of the war and the disbanding of the Unit. Such a structure would have enabled a more systematic approach that could have included the study of thematic trends, the development of methods of production and other essentials of film analysis. I would also have liked McGlade to compare the edited films of the AFPU with other film representations of the war produced at the time – by the Ministry of Information (MOI), the newsreels companies and by feature film producers.

The analysis of the films themselves is poor and the information provided superfluous, especially for the shorter films, each study beginning with a list of the names of those who performed the various production roles, the running time and, completely irrelevant the brand name of the recording equipment which was used to record the sound! All of these details should have been put in the filmography at the end of the book and the name of the sound recording equipment omitted altogether as it is of no value to the reader. The author also relies on a small number of sources, in particular the Documentary Newsletter, which were penned by knowledgeable filmmakers and technicians but which cannot always be relied upon to produce a balanced perspective as the reviewers often had their own political and stylistic agendas to promote. For the longer prestige documentary features such as Desert Victory, Burma Victory and True Glory, McGlade rarely offers his own analysis, preferring instead to lean heavily on the work of other film scholars, including long passages of text written by the likes of James Chapman, Clive Coultass, Annette Kuhn and Jeffrey Richards; all respected scholars, but I would like to have some sense of what this author thought.

But the missed opportunity of this book was to overlook the unedited footage. His whole approach to the subject of the AFPU, in fact the subject itself, should have suggested, no – directed – him to the thousands of feet of unedited combat footage, preserved and easily accessible at the IWM. This was the material he should have examined first when exploring the history of the AFPU’s brave exploits in North Africa, Italy, Burma and elsewhere. Only a fraction of this footage was incorporated in the big edited films for the public, and this is the material that has been overlooked by the film historians whose work McGlade has so relied upon to make sense of the edited films.  But as with his treatment of the work of the AFPU photographers, McGlade was not curious to view the cine film taken by the cameramen of the episodes which they recall, with such power and interesting detail, in the long sections of transcriptions which appear in the book. For example, the scenes at Normandy were, for many AFPU cameramen, the first action which they covered and one of the most important and climactic moments of combat in the war.

Moreover, the film coverage of D-Day also provides lots of valuable and pertinent material informing key issues of interest in combat filming, such as recording action and the issue of realism and the horrors of war.  If McGlade had watched the reels covering the landings at Sword beach, he might have noticed a glaring absence of an important aspect of the story of D-Day – images of the dead. Although the British and Canadians did not have as many casualties as were expected on D-Day and their landings were easier than for the Americans fighting to secure a bridgehead at Omaha beach, around a thousand men were killed on the beaches covered by the AFPU cameramen. Additionally, in the transcripts of interviews with the AFPU cameramen that McGlade has reproduced in the book, it is noticeable that not only do the veterans recall, with horror, seeing the bodies of British and Canadian soldiers as they came ashore, but the fact that they refrained from filming these scenes. McGlade should have noticed the effect of this self-censorship from viewing the D-Day episode in True Glory, where he might also have noticed that, while the action at the British and Canadian beaches was sanitised, the scenes recording the landings at Omaha contain graphic images of American corpses laid out on the shore and of troops being killed as they waded onto the beach. Why is the American footage so candid, when compared with the British coverage of the landings? Is this because of a policy directive on the horrors of war issued by AFPU command or is it a reflection of British cultural sensitivities around the representation of the dead? McGlade does not explore these questions because he does not seem to be aware of or is not interested in the wider issues of combat filming.

McGlade is most comfortable when analysing the history of the AFPU as an organisation – indeed with its close reference to the Unit’s War Diary, to the narrative of the campaigns which the cameramen covered and the recollections of the veterans, the book often reads more like a history of a regular British Army regiment than an account of an organisation whose primary role was to gather images for news, propaganda and the historical record. While a media studies approach to the history of the AFPU would not have worked either, McGlade has failed the veterans of the AFPU by not producing any analysis of the photographs or films that they produced, with such commitment and bravery. The AFPU deserves a proper book-length history and assessment of its contribution to the visual record of the Second World War, McGlade’s study falls very far short of delivering it.


(1) Kay Gladstone, ‘British interception of German export newsreels and the development of British combat filming, 1939-1942’, Imperial War Museum Review 2 (1987); Paul Sargent, ‘ “Keep Smiling, keep those chins up and God Bless” : Filmed messages home from service personnel in the Far East during the Second World War’, Imperial War Museum Review 7 (1992); Jane Carmichael, ‘Army photographers in North West Europe’, Imperial War Museum’s Review 7 (1992); Kay Gladstone, ‘The AFPU : The origins of British Army combat filming during the Second World War’, Film History 14-3/4 (2002); Toby Haggith, ‘D-Day filming for real : A comparison of “truth and reality” in Saving Private Ryan and combat film by the British Army’s Film and Photographic Unit’, in Film History, Film History 14-3/4 (2002); Toby Haggith, ‘The filming of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and its impact on the understanding of the Holocaust’, Holocaust Studies : A Journal of Culture and History 12-1/2 (2006). See also Hilary Roberts, ‘Media and war’ in James C. Bradford (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Military History, Routledge, 2006; Hilary Roberts, ‘British Army Film and Photographic Unit (1941-1946) : Shooting in the front line’, Despatches (2011); Hilary Roberts, Cecil Beaton : Theatre of War, London: Jonathan Cape, 2012. Another relevant article, but not by a member of staff at the IWM is by Gianfranco Casadio, ‘Images of war in Italy : The record made by the Army Film and Photographic Unit in Emilia Romagna, 1944-45’, Imperial War Museum Review 4 (1989). A good summary of the work of all the British military film and photographic units of the Second World War can be found in Roger Smither (ed.), Film and Video Archive Handbook. London: Imperial War Museum. 1997.

(2) See also Keith Buckman’s work on the RAAFPU: Keith Buckman, ‘The Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1941-45’, Historical Journal of Radio, Film and Television 17-2 (1997).


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