The Life of a British Army Film and Photography Unit

We are lucky enough to receive lots of original diaries from veterans of the Second World War or their families. This one has been kindly submitted by Neil Walker, and is an extract from the journals of Gordon Johnston (Jock) Walker, one of the three Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) cameramen at Arnhem,1944.

During a training session I had accident which put me in hospital for a spell and, on discharge, was sent to the Para Holding Battalion at Derbyshire. It was here, whilst I was kicking my heels, waiting to re-join the mob, that an offer appeared on the notice board. It simply said, “Parachutists required to volunteer as Cameramen.”

Nothing more, no clues as to what it meant. So, in my usual fashion of volunteering for anything that took my fancy I applied and was interviewed by the major commanding the Army Film Unit - along with some others; waited awhile, still clueless as to what we were to do, then six of us received our marching orders and were posted for training as photographers, Cine and Still, to, of all places, Pinewood Film Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire.

When we arrived at Slough Railway Station, the COs car and driver were waiting to take us to the Studios. V.I.P. treatment indeed, and what, we wondered, was the catch? There wasn’t one, it was just the way they did things there. It was that incredible thing in the Army, a unit of civilians wearing uniform. But all the niceties and military decorum were observed. The Officers, all in the Motion Picture or newspaper business, were ‘Sir’ and the remainder were sergeants (like myself), also from the film and newspaper business, and they were a marvellous crowd who showed us a way of life that we never knew existed, and I think we also taught them something of our way of life.

They asked us what we knew about photography in general and, with the exception of one bloke, the answer was in the negative. We didn’t know an ‘F’ stop from a roll of film, that’s how ignorant we were, but the instructors were patient and taught us to a very high standard in the sixteen weeks duration of the course. We ended up making our own film, shooting 100 feet each against a script each of us had written, so that not only could we photograph but do it with continuity, writing up the ‘dope’ sheet with each shot so that a commentator or caption writer could pick up the story quite easily; all in black and white, no sound.

We were told that the reason we had been selected for training as cameramen was that the existing cameramen, whilst able and willing to accompany any ground troops in action, hadn’t taken the parachute training course and therefore no airborne operations up to then had been photographed, so in their wisdom and to our delight, they thought it better to train seasoned paratroopers as photographers and cameramen than vice versa.

Just as our training was completed we were wakened up by the continuous roar of aircraft passing overhead, there was so many of them, in wave after wave, that we reckoned that the Second Front had opened, and of course we were right and were very disappointed not to be a part of it. Shortly afterwards we said farewell to Pinewood and went to join a reception area for onward transmission to Normandy, where we met up with the other cameramen who, in the main, had seen a lot of action and were very skilled operators.

We got a good welcome and myself, and another Para (we worked in pairs) attached ourselves to the 6th Airborne Division who had done such a marvellous job of securing vital bridges, with the Commandoes, and making the way open for the sea-landing force. But it was a bit of a stalemate at that time as we were building up for the big push that was to capture Caen and, eventually, surround and destroy the German forces in France, leaving the way open to Paris, Brussels, Antwerp and into Holland.

When the time came for the push (which was to be known as the ‘Battle of Falaise Gap’) I was detached from the 6th Airborne and sent to the start line of the action, where I attached myself to a Highland regiment. My instructions were to record the build-up, the artillery barrage and the advance of the infantry and then get out, back to our own unit with the film, so that it could be flown back to England for processing, censoring and release to the news reels if they required it, with the still pictures with the names and addresses of any of the troops who were in the pictures.

This was a very important part of Army Public Relations, as these pictures would be on offer to the local Press where these lads lived and thus their relations - wives, friends, etc., would know that at a given date their husband, son, etc., was all right and on many on occasion, when I was in the line with the troops they would say to me in amazement,

“Are you going into action with us with your camera?”

“Yes, that’s right, and if you lads fight hard enough it will be all the protection I need,” and they would usually say,

“Bloody Hell!”

Of course we were armed, officially with a pistol, an American Colt .45 automatic, but I’ve always maintained that if you’re close enough to use a pistol you are too damned close so, having learned a thing or two in the past, I carried an American carbine, very light, very accurate, semi-automatic which I had acquired, and a pair of hand-grenades, whenever I was going to be close to the sharp end.

So, suitably booted and spurred, and wearing my red beret, this being a point of honour with the paratroops (excepting in very exceptional circumstances when a helmet was de rigueur and a beret would have been plain stupid) usually the Paras fought wearing their berets. I am certain that when the Germans saw one they got the wind up because they knew what to expect if they had the temerity to clash with them. Anyway, I dutifully filmed the tanks ‘in the rear’, the artillery in front of them and, of course, the boys who would be taking the first brunt of the attack; and then it was evening, so I climbed into an armoured personnel carrier with the intention of photographing the gun flashes as they put up the initial barrage. This type of shot is very effective and when edited can produce a visual effect on the screen of one continuous ripple of fire, the flash of the guns showing up the gun itself and perhaps some of the gun team.

All good stuff, but what I didn’t know was that the barrage was to be a creeping one, that is, each salvo would land a bit further on than the previous one, in this case one hundred yards at a time, and that the infantry were going to attack under this umbrella of fire, the theory being that when you subject your enemy to heavy bombardment he will be dazed and if the infantry, or tanks, get in amongst them quickly they can destroy them before they recover their wits, thus achieve a victory without heavy loss of life and reach their given objective, dig in, and be ready for the enemy when he inevitably counter attacks and deny him the ground he has lost.

So the barrage crept, and suddenly the troop carrier’s engines roared and off we went into the darkness, smoke and general mayhem, with me aboard, and I couldn’t get off or I would have been smashed into the ground by one of the following vehicles. Now if there is anything more unnecessary than a cameraman in the darkness I don’t know of it. It is quite impossible to take pictures in the dark so I was like a spare bride at a wedding and could do nothing except keep my head down and trust we didn’t hit a mine or stop a shell.

Eventually, without mishap, we reached the de-barking point and the infantry lads got off and got stuck in, and a very successful action they fought. The lot I was with didn’t suffer a single death, and they captured their objective.

It was just starting to get light by this time and, getting out of the A.F.V., I headed for the sharp end which was about half-a-mile away. As it got lighter, the enemy causalities were very noticeable; heads, legs, arms, trunks - bits of this and that were strewn everywhere. The barrage must have panicked those poor blokes into making a run for it, but a heavy stonking just can’t be trifled with and the only thing to do is to stay put and cross your fingers and trust that it hasn’t got your number on it. They didn’t and paid the price.

Knowing that, as sure as morning follows night, the enemy would counter-attack very soon, and not wanting to be caught out in the open, I looked for a Jerry ‘douvre’. This was, in effect, a large, square hole dug about 8-10 feet square and deep, but lined vertically, laterally and vertically again, with the trunks of fir trees just like 12 inch (30 cm) thick plywood, and similarly roofed, the latter finally being covered with earth and turf and with an L-shaped entrance, the whole being very difficult to see and, as near as dammit, shell and bomb proof, certainly splinter proof.

Anyway, one was soon found because there was a dead German halfway out the entrance, so it was fairly easily spotted. Taking the precaution of lying down near the entrance and calling out, so that if any of the infantry boys were down there they would answer in English, I threw a quick grenade down the hole and after the dust and smoke cleared I went into it. As it so happened it was empty, so, going back up and pulling the dead one out of the entrance, I awaited developments and, before long they counter-attacked with mortars and shell fire.

By this time several troops and their Sergeant had found me, and I asked what the score was. The Sergeant told me that their orders were to stay put until the expected tank and infantry attack started, then the shelling and mortaring began and we all blessed the Germans who had constructed that douvre; apart from being periodically showered with earth and worms, not a single hit penetrated.

The din of the battle was tremendous and the Bren gunners and the Sergeant at the entrance were ready if the attack came our way, but as it so happens, it didn’t. We were stuck down there until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when the whistle sounded, mustering the lads in our area. The ‘stonking’ had suddenly stopped and after the din there was an air of unreality. The Sergeant shot out and called his troops and off they went with the others in the area. It was about company strength and, of course, me trailing in the rear.

I reached the First Aid station, not because there was anything wrong with me, but to see if a hand was needed. It wasn’t, as they had plenty of help from an enemy first-aid post they had over-run; in fact, the British had occupied the German post and both sides were working together, trying to save the wounded and succour the dying.

A quick picture or two to illustrate how, in adversity, both sides could work together, and then I left that charnel house. People just don’t realise the horrific wounds that front-line doctors and staff have to deal with. These men are amongst the noblest of beings, never giving up and often going voluntarily into captivity with their patients; people seem to think that wounds and death are caused by neat little bullet-holes, all very tidy and noble, but this is not so. Can you imagine a man with his jaw shot off? Or his stomach ripped by a jagged piece of mortar, and his tripes strewn all over the place? No, unless you’ve seen it, it can’t be imagined. Or the screams of tank crews when they are being incinerated in their ‘brewed up’ tank. If these things were given worldwide publicity, with pictures, there would be a bit less bullshit about “‘they died gloriously for their country.”



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