At the outbreak of the Second World War, the British Army was as ill-prepared for filming and photographing its activities as it had been in 1914. This was despite the undisputed evidence that well before the end of the earlier war the Army’s High Command had recognized the importance of film and photography for both morale and historic record purposes.
Unlike the German Armed Forces, which had been experimenting with combat filming since the autumn maneuvers of 1936 and the French Army, which in September 1939 had already deployed nine teams of military cameramen belonging to its own Service Cinématographique de l’Armée, Britain had not a single cameraman in uniform on 3 September 1939.
This situation reflected the variety of negative attitudes to all forms of publicity widely prevalent in the British Army during the first year of the war. Publicity, especially in the form of films and photographs, roused, or reawakened, instinctive military fears that British secrets would be revealed to the enemy. The War Office in London did have a Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) responsible for filming and photography. The DPR’s main functions still remained, as since its creation in 1937, the coordination and control of its own Public Relations officers in commands at home and overseas, and press contacts at the War Office, now with the additional wartime task of liaising with the newly reconstituted Ministry of Information (MOI).
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.
The AFPU was deployed in all theatres of Allied action until the end of WW2. 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.
The Italian campaign and Western Europe embraced the action at Monte Casino, Arnhem, the Rhine Crossing and the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. 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”.
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.
More information can also be found on the AFPU association website: http://www.afpu.co.uk.