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WW2 Photography

The small film and camera unit of the War Office Public Relations Department that accompanied the BEF to France in September 1939 consisted of just one stills cameraman (Geoffrey Keating) and a cine camera team (Harry Rignold, assisted by Gerry Massy-Collier).  They were soon reinforced, with Ted Malindine and Len Puttnam both recording the Dunkirk evacuation, being evacuated twice themselves from the French beaches.  A small Army Film Unit (AFU) was set up in November 1940 under Major David Macdonald (formerly of the GPO Film Unit), with Hugh Stewart as his deputy. The War Office remained hesitant over the propaganda value of photography and the efforts of the small team sent to accompany the commando raid on the Lofoten Islands in March 1941 was ruined by technical difficulties (leading to some images being faked in oil depots beside the Thames). On the Vaagso raid in December 1941 some of the film was deliberately destroyed by two army officers who disliked the use of 'propaganda'. 

The Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU)

A major change came with the decision in October 1941 to expand the AFU into what became the new Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) in January 1942. Each AFPU deployed to a war zone was subdivided into sections comprising several teams comprising  two sergeant-photographers (one still and one cine), coordinated by a 'conducting officer' who would delegate tasks after consulting with local military commanders and was also a photographer in his own right. Macdonald left for Cairo at the end of  November 1941 to command the deployment of No.1  AFPU in the Middle East, assisted by Captain Ted Bacon and taking with them 35mm De Vry cine cameras and Super Ikonta stills cameras. Major Hugh Stewart  took command in London at their Pinewood Studios HQ, where he played a critical role in establishing the character and training programme of the new organisation before taking No.2 AFPU into Tunisia for 'Operation Torch'. No.2 AFPU were to absorb much of the personnel of No.1 AFPU and subsequently covered the campaigns in  Tunisia, Sicily and Italy (although Macdonald remained in overall charge at Middle East Command HQ). Hugh Stewart left the command of what became a greatly-dispersed No.2 AFPU to Geoffrey Keating in September 1943 (followed in Spring 1944 by Colonel James 'Monty' Stopford, Earl of Courtown) in order to establish  No.5 AFPU ready for the campaign into North-West Europe following D Day. No.5 AFPU  eventually had a complement of 9 officers and 72 other ranks. The AFPU photographs taken on D-Day and later at Arnhem  are some of the most iconic images of the war. After a somewhat confused start in its relationship to the SEAC Film Unit and US film units, No.9 AFPU under Bryan Langley and  Derek Knight covered the war in the Far East. In 1943 there was an unsuccessful attempt by Stewart to create No.4 AFPU as an airborne unit in Tunisia but there was a difficulty in persuading existing AFPU officers to undergo parachute training and the plan  was abandoned after Stewart returned to Europe.  An airborne team was, however, created within No.5 AFPU ready for the Arnhem operation in September 1944. 


The AFPU soon established a reputation for gritty realism, earning the respect of the combat soldiers. Macdonald produced  one of the finest documentary films of WW2 - the Oscar-wining Desert Victory in 1943 (directed by Roy Boultng), using thirty-two cameramen. Macdonald later explained 'They were allotted to the various divisions and ordered to go into action with the troops and film what they could. The terrific barrage, the tank battles and bayonet charges you see in the film were taken from every possible angle – in front of the men, behind them, at the side of them'. Some of the most atmospheric scenes were, however filmed at Pinewood Studios!

The combat cameramen who went into battle armed only with their cameras and a .38 revolver deserve the greatest respect. There are extraordinary stories of sergeant cameramen calmly cleaning and re-loading their camera on the beaches of Normandy, riding into action exposed on the backs of tanks, landing with the airborne forces at Arnhem and taking part in commando landings in Greece. They also recorded for posterity the first horrific scenes as the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. The AFPU produced some of the most iconic images of World War II, at the cost of 23% in its unit strength killed in action,  and yet are rarely credited.

To see a collection of their original photographs go onto the Imperial War Museum web site and explore their online photographic collections, searching under the key word Army Film and Photographic Unit or AFPU. A small selection can be seen HERE.

oakes and Lawrie.jpg

AFPU photographers Sgts Oakes and Lawrie. In 1945 they crossed the Rhine with glider troops in Operation Varsity and later photographed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

AFPU patch visible on their sleeves.

(c) IWM BU 8368

Autobiographies of AFPU servicemen
Grant, Ian, Cameramen at War, Cambridge, 1980.
Hardy, Bert, My Life, London, 1985.
Hopkinson, Peter, Split Focus, London, 1969.

Smales, Nigel, When You're a Smiler, 2012.
Whicker, Alan, Whicker’s War, London, 2006.

Other works relating to the AFPU

'Birth of a War Picture', Illustrated, 28 June 1942, pp.9-13.

Gladstone, Kay, The AFPU – The origins of British Army combat filming during the Second World War, Film History, vol.14, no. 3.4, 2002, pp.316-331.
Haggith, Toby, '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, Film History, Vol. 14, No.3.4, 2002, pp. 332-353.

Sumner, Dawn, 'The work of the AFPU Re-evaluated: Forgotten Heroes, British Journal of Photography, March 2003, pp. 22-24.
Haggith, Toby, 'Filming the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, in Holocaust and the Moving Image, ed. Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman, London, 2005, pp.33-49.
Hartwell, Keith, Ink and Images, 2008.
McGlade, Fred, The History of the British Army Film & Photographic Unit in the Second World War, 2010.

Capa, Robert, Slightly Out Of Focus, 2001.
Penrose, Anthony (ed.), Lee Miller’s War, London, 2005.

Whelan, Richard,  Robert Capa: the definitive collection, London, 2004.
Vaccaro, Tony, Entering Germany 1944-49, Cologne, 2001.

Web Sites

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