The British army in 1939 was unprepared for the demands of official war photography and 35mm cameras were still viewed with suspicion by the War Office, with 120 film size being the preferred format.The original cameras issued to the stills photographers accompanying the BEF to France in 1939-40 were First World War vintage Goerz Anschutz (Ango) plate cameras, which was still a standard press camera.
Cameras were in short supply and with plans for an expansion of the small film unit into the AFPU, the War Office had to buy cameras from whatever sources they could find, as well as appealing to the public for donations of Leicas, Contax and Zeiss Super Ikonta cameras - all of German manufacture. The AFPU stills photographers were mainly issued with the Zeiss Super Ikonta (532/16, 530/16 or 531/2 models), initially from a shipment seized in Turkey. This was a slow and awkward folding camera, using 120mm medium format film. It was generally disliked by the photographers. The AFPU Manual also includes instructions for the Rollieflex, to be used for more staged shots and also the US Kodak Medallist I - a heavy and ugly camera using 620 size medium format film. The British mainly recorded WW2 in Black and White as colour film was in limited supply and tended to be reserved for newsreels. Later in the war, the Kodak Medalist was introduced for colour photography, but was described as suitable only for the more experienced photographer. At a more simple level of photography The AFPU manual also includes instructions for the basic model of the Voightlanda Bessa which did not even have a rangefinder. Distance had to be estimated and set by a focussing ring on the lens.
Although official use of 35 mm cameras by the British was rare, Bert Hardy, well-known photographer for Picture Post before his recruitment into AFPU managed to use his existing Contax II camera (and Rollieflex) - although the War Office refused to pay for their repair! Somewhart ironically, AFPU instructors at Pinewood trained photographers of the 30 Assault Unit to use Contax II cameras prior to D Day. Civilian photographers acredited to magazines were more likely to use the 35mm format, with the Contax II preferred as being more rugged and easier to load than its main rival, the Leica III. Most famously, Robert Capa and Lee Miller both used the Contax II (as well as a medium format Rollei) whilst the British Life photographer, George Rodger used a Leica. The standard press camera of the 1930s was the Speed Graphic - a 5" x 4" large format camera. The Speed Graphic Anniversary model is frequently shown in publicity shots of the Canadian Photographic Unit. Although unwieldy, the US produced a military version which was used to take the famous photo of the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima.
The following collection is based around the types of stills cameras issued to the WW2 British Army Photographic and Film Unit (AFPU). It also includes references to cameras used by civilian photo-journalists, US army photographers and also to civilian cameras of the period which have a specific connection to the conflict. Officially, ordinary soldiers were not permitted to take cameras on campaign but this was impossible to police. The snapshots taken by enthusiasts on cameras such as the Ensign Midget or the 'box brownie' , collectively form an extremely important archives of the war.
For Cine Cameras used by AFPU see HERE.
I would be grateful to learn of any other stills cameras used in WW2 by British forces. Contact me HERE.
WAR OFFICE ISSUE 1939-40
Goerz Anschutz c.1911
1896 - 1922
The Goerz Anschutz plate camera, as used in the First World War and still a popular press camera (name changed to the Goerz Ango in the 1920s), was the War Office Directorate of Public Relations official issue from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the formation of the Army Film and Photographic Unit in early 1941. This the type of camera was used by E. G. Malindine to record the Dunkirk evacuation.
Zeiss Super Ikonta (model 530/16)
The Super ikonta models 530/16 and 532/16 were the standard cameras issued to the AFPU. They were described in the AFPU manual as having been ‘proved to be the best and handiest in action’. By contrast Bert Hardy, commented 'I can only think that it was adopted by the army in order to make life difficult for us (Hardy, p.188).
Rangefinder camera with F3.5 or f2.8 80mm lens with compur shutter to 1/400th. Separate rangefinder and viewfinder (530/16) or combined (532/16). 120mm size film, 11 exposures.
Type used by Sergeant Peter Norris of AFPU during the Normandy campaign.
Zeiss Super Ikonta (model 532/16)
Later model with combined viewfinder and rangefinder.
Used by Jim Mapham to take the famous images of the D Day landings on Sword beach. Also used by Bert Hardy.
Twin lens reflex camera. In AFPU service, intended to cover ‘feature sets’ rather than rapid action.
Compur shutter to 1/400th. Tessar F3.5 75mm lens
120mm film, 12 exposures
A Rollieflex was used by Robert Capa from 1943 to supplement his Contax, on the insistence of Life magazine. It was used to photograph images of wounded troops on board ship on return from the first wave of D Day landings. Lee Miller also used a Rolleiflex during WW2. It was even used from 1943 by the 'Hidden Camera' group of the Dutch resistance.
An earlier model of the Rolleiflex was used in the Spanish Civil War by Gerda Taro during 1936-7 and by David 'Chim' Seymour during 1936-8 (alongside his Leica).
Kodak Medalist I
Heavy and awkward rangefinder camera 'the professional's heavy tank'.
Kodak Super-Matic shutter to 1/400th. F3.5 100m lens. Unusualy for pre-war cameras, the lens was coated.
620mm film 8 exposures.
The AFPU manual stated that this camera ‘should only be handled by an experienced photographer’. it was mainly used for Used for colour and infra-red photography. Used by AFPU photograher Captain Edward Dine to photograph King George VI and Field Marshall Montgomery in 1944.
Voightlander Bessa I
This was the most basic camera of the cameras issued to the AFPU. Although the Bessa was also available as a rangefinder model, the type illustrated in the AFPU manual relies on estimating focussing distance and adjusting using the mount on the lens.
Compur shutter to 1/400th. F4.5 105m lens.
120mm film taking 8 or 16 half-sized exposures (with mask).
AFPU manual takes care to note that the ‘lens should not be cleaned with a handkerchief’.
1945-50 (civilian version illustrated 1947)
The original military version of the Ensign Commando was issued to some offical camereamen at the end of WW2. The main difference to the civilian version released in 1946 was in having a plainer trim and different design of rewind knob.
F3.5 75mm lens.120mm film size
30 Assault Unit
Zeiss Contax II
The first camera with a combined range/viewfinder. It was able to use interchangeable lenses and had an cccessory shoe for flash. Speed to 1/1250. Interchangeable lenses (standard is 50mm Sonar – F2 or F1.5). 35mm film in cassettes.
Favoured by many professional photographers of the time – notably Robert Capa, Bert Hardy and Lee Miller. The AFPU allowed Hardy to use his Contax – but refused to pay the costs of servicing it.
Prior to the D-Day landings of June 1944, selected officers and men of 30 Assault Unit were given photographic training by the AFPU and were issued with Contax II cameras. Their task was to move ahead of the allied armies and capture key intelligence targets.
Regarded as less rugged and more difficult to load than the Contax II but lighter. Interchangeable lenses (standard for was the 50mm F2 summar). 35mm film in cassettes.
In September 1942, 30 Assault Unit requested five Leicas (preferably with F2 lenses) from the Admiralty. It is not clear if they were received. Used by British war correspondent George Rodger for Life magazine. Sgt Sandy McLaren of AFPU used his personal Leica alongside a Super Ikonta until temporary capture by the Africa Corps. Many Leicas were 'liberated' by the AFPU teams in Germany and used as back-up cameras to the official issue.
One of the most remarkable uses of a Leica in WW2 was by the Rev.Lewis Headley, chaplain to the 2nd Loyal Regiment, who secretly took photographs whilst a prisoner in Changi prison.
A Leica IIIA was also used by Eisenstaedt to take the classic 1945 VJ night photograph in New York Time Square.
Kodak 35 (Military)
Military version of the first 35mm camera produced by Kodak in 1938. Most of the first production was bought by the US military.
Basic 35mm camera without rangefinder. F4.5 51mm lens
An unattributed photograph of a museum collection of SOE equipment shows the civilian version of the Kodak 35.
Argus C3 ('The Brick')
35mm camera with fixed lens. Introduced in 1939.
Issued to GI soldier/photographers (GIs given cameras to record unit histories). Most famously used by Tony Vaccaro to record the 83rd Infantry Division in Europe 1944-5.
Graflex Speed Graphic (Anniversary)
The American Speed Graphic half-plate camera was the standard press camera of the 1930s and 1940s (35mm cameras were considered 'toys' by some editors until the pioneering work of photographers such as Bert Hardy).
Interchangeable lenses. Speeds 1 sec to 1/1000.
Film size 3-1/4" x 4-1/4" or 4" x 5" single sheets.
The 'anniversary' model was manufactured 1940 - 47 and was also produced in a military version for the Canadian and US forces. It was not suited to action shots – but the US produced a military version and was the camera used by Rosenthal to take the iconic image of the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima.
Kodak Retina II
ilIustrated Type 142 (1937-9). Speeds to 1/500. F2.8 50mm Schneider-Xenon lens.
Compact, relatively cheap, 35mm rangefinder camera made in Germany by Kodak AG. Its small size and well-protected lens meant it was ideal for slipping nto a coat pocket.
SIS agent Oluf Reed Olsen used a 'Retina Kodak' to photograph German airfields around Oslo from April to late August 1940. He was captured whilst photographing the D/F equipment of a crashed Heinkel III, but fortunatley managed to escape. The exact model of camera is not known but the rangefinder variant would clearly have been the most convenient. SOE also purchased a 'Retina IIA' in Stockholm.
Minox (Riga) sub miniature
Sub-miniature camera for 8 x 11mm exposures on 9.5mm film in special cassettes.
The classic spy camera. The original model was designed by Walter Zapp and was manufactured at the VEP factory in Riga, Latvia, from 1937 - 1943. Before the war, a number were purchased by British intelligence. They were used by SIS and SOE agents, including by SOE in France (1943) and Greece (1944).
Photograph.© IWM (PHO 85)
The Ensign company seized upon the marketing opportunity afforded by the outbreak of war and advertised their well-established Midget camera to troops as 'A remarkable war time camera'. ‘It goes into a tunic pocket, with room to spare’. The company also exhorted civilians to
‘Keep an Ensign Midget war-time diary’. (Ensign 1940 catalogue). The camera did, however, go out of production in 1940.
There are isolated references to soldiers in the 8th Army and in New Guinea using an Ensign Midget camera.
It uses E10 roll film to produce a negative 3.5 x 4.5 cm.
Agfa Box 45
1938 - 1942
Most of the simple box cameras used, unofficially, by troops in WW2 are only described generically as 'Box Brownies'. Many were the common Kodak models, but other brands included the popular Agfa range.
The Agfa 45 is illustrated. It is a simple Metal box with a single element meniscus f11 lens and two speed shuter (1/30th and B). It uses 120mm film producing 6cm x 9cm prints.
An Agfa Box 44 was carried by Heinz Lewy on the kindertransport from Germany to France in 1939. An otherwise un-named Agfa camera was used by Sergeant Arthur Ward, RHA ,in italy during 1944. An Agfa box camera was also carried by a German Tiger Tank unit in Russia, 1944. An Agfa 45 was used by Sergeant Francis Lawrence, Australian Ordnance Corps, who served from 1943 - 1961 in the Far East.
Kine Exacta Jhagee Dresden
(Model 2/3: 1937-8 - export version)
Schneider Xenon F2 50mm lens. Speeds to 1/1000th. 35mm film size. One of the first cameras to include built in flash synchronisation. This was a common camera used by German photojournalists in WW2 (along with Leica IIIa). Not all of the members of the German military photographic units were committed Nazis. Joe Heydecker (1916-1997) was a writer and anti-Nazi who had been conscripted into a propoganda unit of the German army. With his Exacta, he managed to take illegal photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941/2. His family and friends later had to hide the negatives from the Gestapo.
Apparently this was a camera prized by US submarine commanders for taking pictures through periscopes!