AFPU Cameramen At War

In the years leading up to WWII the propaganda machine of the Third Reich was long experienced and finely tuned. The march across Europe was well recorded, now regularly seen on TV screens and depicted as victorious entry into conquered countries.

When war was declared the Central Office Of Information controlled and censored publicity related to all military and civil actions, and the Director of Public Relations, War Office was responsible for the affairs of the British Army.

Although the magnificent evacuation from Dunkirk was well documented it was realised that when the offensive started, the front line was no place for untrained photographers endangering not only themselves but the fighting machine they wished to photograph.

Professional Cine and Press photographers of the right age had already been called up and were serving in Corps and Regiments. When the call came to recruit a Unit of photographers to address the coming need for photographers, they were quickly located.

Pinewood Studio became the HQ of the Unit which served as a training centre for soldiers who could more easily be turned into cameramen than cameramen turned into soldiers.

Number 1. Unit was based in Cairo which was to come into it’s own when retreat changed to offensive at Alamein, opening with the launching of the barrage skilfully and uniquely filmed by Sgt Billy Jordan, MM.

Commentators have over the years regarded the work of the AFPU as propaganda and perhaps correctly in the proper sense of the word, but in those days when Allied troops were at last advancing and clearing all before them, the images were a vital boost to moral on the home front.

The AFPU was deployed in all theatres of Allied action, often alongside special forces such as the Commandos, the Chindits, the Airborne, SAS, Special Boat Squadron and the Long Range Desert Group. Major campaigns were filmed and photographed and the footage from the Desert and North Africa was used to produce “Desert Victory” which gained an Oscar for the best war documentary. Footage from D Day provided the background information for the opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan”

The Italian campaign and Western Europe embraced the action at Monte Casino, Arnhem, the Rhine Crossing and the relief of Belsen. The Far East campaign was covered by Number 9 Unit under the umbrella of Admiral Louis Mountbatten and that unit’s film was used to produce “Burma Victory”.

All images now archived in the Imperial War Museum were processed through Pinewood where it was not unusual for editing staff to occupy the very seats they had vacated, in some cases as recently as six weeks previously.

Pinewood Studios is very proud of it’s association with the AFPU and the Memorial Plaque which records losses proportionately as high as any Unit in WWII, together with those of the RAF No1 Film Production Unit, is carefully preserved in the corridor leading to the cutting rooms which edited so many of the films frequently seen on TV. An act of Remembrance is held there annually.

Many former members of the Unit returned to or became established in the film and photographic industries after the war, several becoming leaders of their professions.

All of the credit for the formation and integrity of the Unit is due to Lt. Col. Hugh St Claire Stewart, now in his 99th year. This site is dedicated to him, and all those names on the Memorial at Pinewood. 

Then and Now

The title of Association of Former Members began when Paul Clark took over the reigns to run the re-unions from Harry Thompson, who in turn had taken over from George Reeves
But the re-unions were inspired by Capt. Alan Del Strother a one time Adjutant at Pinewood.

For many years the re-unions were held in the White Swan Tudor Street, appropriately just off Fleet Street, when the voice of members chatter competed with the roar of the nearby printing  presses. Then, No.1, No.2, No.5 and No. 9 sections huddled together with little or no exchanges between them. Small as the total strength was, individual groups didn’t know each other as their campaigns were particular to them. In those early days we were joined by members of PR War Office and War correspondents under whose umbrella the Unit functioned and alongside.

When the pub was knocked down the re-unions came to rely on the generosity of other hosts and variously met at a TA Sgts. Mess in London, then a very enjoyable period in the Sgts. Mess of the 1st Btn. Grenadier Guards, Victoria Barracks, Windsor, the Officers Mess  RAF Uxbridge, and the most  recent, following others there, the Imperial War Museum where we were joined by members of the TA Media Group and serving cameramen.

Greatly reduced numbers due to age and infirmity suggest there will not be many more
re-unions but we are working on it.


Roll of Honour

Several enquiries have failed to source true and complete records of  the AFPU. From “Dope Sheets” Kay Gladstone and Hilary Roberts compiled lists in relation to archived materials which when linked to lists from the re-unions and recollections of names in the sections. Our lists, though not totally accurate, are as complete as any.

These names have been reconciled with news of former members who have died since the war, but again are only as accurate as the information received. So if any visitors to this site spot any omissions we will be grateful to anyone who can fill in the  blanks.

Because PR and war correspondents were attendees at the re-unions they are also listed in our roll of honour which it should be realised does not only comprise cameramen and photographers. Darkroom technicians, camera mechanics, clerical and transport staff all  played a vital part in running the Unit and are deserving of equal listing.

“Dope Sheets”

Cameramen and photographers were required to caption and detail the content of their pictures together with a brief background story, together with other relevant information.
In war time slang expressions such as “What’s the Griff”  or “What’s the Dope”  “What’s the Gen” probably led to our information sheets being so called.

The sheets accompanied the film stock back to base in distinctive Red Bags, taken from the action by despatch riders to the nearest and quickest mode of transport back to base for processing by the support technicians.

Toward the end of the war a small gathering discussing the formation of a reunion suggested a News Letter and for years this comprised a single ‘foolscap’ typed sheet of announcements to keep those on the mailing list informed. This list by no means includes all former members.

When Paul Clark took over he dressed up the newsletter with the earth shattering idea of calling it “Dope Sheet”….the very title conjured up some 40 years previously and never used. We hope to include some past additions as the site develops. 

As the pages of the site are extended, so we will expand the story of the Army Film & Photographic Unit 1942-1946.