The Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1941-45

The Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1941-45

Kenneth Buckman

By June 1941, the Air Ministry had appointed Air Commodore Sir Harold Peake as its first service Director of Public Relations (DPR), and he subsequently appointed Group Captain Lord Willoughby de Broke as his Deputy Director (DDPR) in charge of Branch PR-1 [1]. A memorandum was submitted, written presumably by the DDPR, which outlined in twelve paragraphs a number of reasons justifying the formation of a film production unit within the Royal Air Force [2]. The memorandum argued that the Service had a very limited record of its activities, consisting of some newsreels, inferior combat footage and some documentary film, and that a full record was ‘an obligation to posterity’. A need was identified for propaganda material, especially for release abroad (the United States had yet to enter the war), and existing arrangements using commercial civilian outfits were impractical, involving much time spent briefing and escorting parties of laymen. This also had major security implications, particularly in view of the fact that new footage had to be processed by commercial laboratories before the RAF had an opportunity to censor the content. Furthermore, commercial film crews were unable to accompany aircrew to film operational activities and cumbersome administration imposed delays on the production and consequent relevance and effectiveness of the films subsequently released. In relation to production finance, the memorandum argued that service unit production was more economical as there was no producer’s profit to consider, service pay rates were lower than those of the commercial film industry and centralised organisation involved less resource duplication than with numbers of commercial units. It further argued that there was already a sufficient number of reputable film technicians in the Service to provide staff for an RAF unit. It was noted that the Crown Film Unit, which had produced ‘some of the best Royal Air Force documentary pictures to date’, supported the idea of an RAF unit taking over relevant work. Finally, it argued that ‘we’ were at a serious disadvantage in the propaganda war in neutral countries, as the Enemy had an extensive service film organisation.

The memorandum led to a formation meeting at the Air Ministry in Whitehall, London, on 17 July 1941. Chaired by Air Marshal R.H. Peck, it included representatives from the War Office, the Admiralty and the Ministry of Information (MoI) [3]. As well as the DPR and his Deputy, the meeting was attended by two members of the Film Branch, Wing Commander (W/C) Bill Williams, its commanding officer, and Squadron Leader (S/L) Derek Twist. Twist was a film editor with Gaumont British before the war, his most notable title being Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935). Other representatives included Brigadier H. Turner (DDPR War Office), Major David MacDonald (Army Film Unit), Lieutenant Commander C.F. Walker (Admiralty Press Division), Jack Beddington (MoI Films Division) and Ian Dalrymple (Crown Film Unit). The meeting agreed that an application be made to the Treasury to sanction the formation of an RAF film unit. One of the Unit’s most important functions ‘would be to make a Film Record of the RAF activities during the war’ and it would also be required to make propaganda films for the MoI. Air Marshal Peck emphasized that the RAF had no desire to ‘cut across the interests of the commercial film trade’ as the Air Ministry recognised the importance of commercial film production in the propaganda war. The RAF film unit would therefore recruit staff from within the Service and acquire its own equipment and facilities without detriment to the industry. Furthermore, ‘convenience and economy’ was sought in the Committee’s recommendation that accommodation be shared by the RAF, Army and Crown film units. The Treasury gave its approval to the formation of the RAF Film Production Unit (FPU) on 25 August 1941 and the acquisition of equipment and recruitment of suitable staff was soon in hand.

A report produced in November 1941 by PR-1 describes in detail the progress of the FPU’s formation and the difficulties experienced [4]. The acquisition of suitable light-weight cameras, such as the Newman Sinclair and Bell and Howell Eyemo types, proved difficult. Manufacturers and agents had none available for purchase and an application to acquire cameras via Lease-Lend from the United States was unsuccessful. The MoI had given an undertaking not to requisition cameras from the film industry and so the FPU endeavoured to obtain equipment from private owners and bankrupt companies with the assistance of the manufacturers Sinclair and Bell and Howell. Eventually, after extensive negotiations with individuals, an ‘unexpectedly satisfactory’ stock of thirteen cameras was acquired, although certain modifications and accessories were needed. Sound equipment was also difficult to obtain, but the Unit managed to acquire both a Western Electric system, including a sound truck, and a Vistatone system and was thus able to record synchronous sound. Cutting equipment was purchased new. One Bristol Beaufort aircraft was initially allocated to the FPU, a twin-engined type normally used operationally as a torpedo bomber. Modification trials for airborne camera work began in September at RAF Benson, a photo-reconnaissance base about ten miles south-east of Oxford. Later, other aircraft, such as Avro Lancaster and De Havilland Mosquito bombers, were adapted to enable the FPU to participate on operations.

A circular was posted on 21 August 1941 to all Home units requesting applications from RAF personnel with experience of film production. Pilot Officer (P/O) Edward ‘Teddy’ Baird, who later became Commanding Officer of the FPU, was posted a week later to Public Relations to process the returns. Of 560 applications, seventy were selected for interview before a panel which included representatives from PR-1, the Crown Film Unit, the MoI and the Association of Cinematograph Technicians (ACT). By the time the report was produced, the FPU had already appointed ‘an expert cine-cameraman’, Aircraftman (AC2) Donald Gallai-Hatchard (later Flight Lieutenant), a feature cameraman who had worked on such films as South Riding (1937) and was sadly killed on operations in Tunis in April 1943, sound recordist Flight Lieutenant (F/L) Bill Sweeny, film editor Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Stocks, and other technical and administrative personnel including a number of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) [5]. Some of these appointments were sent to assist the Crown Film Unit during the production of Coastal Command (1942). S/L J.A. Willoughby was appointed as the commander of the Overseas Detachment, initially comprising a crew of seven, which embarked for the West coast of Africa in January 1942.

It is not known at what stage it was decided to appoint Derek Twist as Commanding Officer of the FPU; it may have been prior to its formation, hence his presence at the formation meeting, but he certainly appears as Officer Commanding on a nominal roll which was produced on 1 January 1942 [6]. The roll comprised twenty-three posts (excluding the Overseas Detachment): six officers, including Twist, Baird and P/O Pat Moyna, who took command of what later became the Operational Unit; nine supernumerary posts detached to the FPU pending officers training; eight airmen and airwomen cutters, typists, drivers and a photographer, notably one LAC Christopher Challis, who worked with Technicolor before the war and subsequently had a distinguished career in the British film industry, amusingly recalled in his recent book [7]. It was necessary to commission a number of personnel as several posts carried officer rank. This group of Pilot Officers included some significant names within the context of this article, John Shearman and Arthur Taylor, who later went on to command specific detachments within the FPU, Jack Clayton and ‘Skeets’ Kelly.

While the FPU was running from its somewhat cramped temporary accommodation at the Air Ministry, discussions with the Ministry of Works and Buildings were in hand to secure Pinewood Studios, about eighteen miles west of London, as a base for the three Government film units. The Board of Trade initially resisted this proposal as space was needed for food and aircraft production, and it was some months after its formation that the FPU transferred to Pinewood Studios in February 1942. Both formal and informal liaison between the three film units at Pinewood continued throughout the war, formal coordination being provided by the Services Publicity Committee. The RAF was unenviably responsible for catering and premises security at Pinewood, and regular liaison meetings were held between the resident film units to discuss administrative matters. A number of films were made in collaboration and there is evidence to suggest that a ‘healthy rivalry’ existed between the two service units based at Pinewood [8]. Later in the war, the three film units at Pinewood were joined by the Polish Air Force Film Unit.

The FPU produced a useful typewritten summary of the entire range of its activities just before disbanding in 1945, History of the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, hereafter The History [9]. In addition to the main functions decided at the formation meeting, the FPU performed additional tasks such as filming secret research and development activities, training and welfare. As the war progressed, a number of detachments were formed and by the end of the war the FPU’s overall strength increased to over 300. The Overseas Detachment became the Middle East Unit and subsequently covered the campaign in North Africa which eventually resulted in the Allied victory in Tunisia. As well as newsreel material, footage was included in the outstanding documentary compilation film Desert Victory (1943), one example of many collaborative ventures with the Army Film and Photographic Unit. The Western invasion of North Africa by Anglo-American forces was filmed by a small unit under Moyna’s command. These two detachments subsequently merged in June 1943 and became No. 2 FPU under the command of S/L Arthur Taylor, RAF Iver Heath (i.e. Pinewood) having been designated as No. 1 FPU. No. 2 FPU covered the vast area of the Mediterranean theatre, recording the Allied landings on Sicily, the Italian mainland, Southern France and Greece. No. 3 FPU was formed under the command of W/C T. Connochie to cover activities in the Far East. This FPU produced a significant amount of newsreel footage and was in the process of being expanded at the time of the Japanese surrender on 14 August 1945. No. 4 FPU was formed in April 1944, initially under Derek Twist’s command, to cover the invasion of North Europe from D-Day onwards. As well as film records, including the filming of rocket attacks on ground targets by Hawker Typhoon aircraft using wing-mounted 35mm cameras and the systematic recording of the results of the Allied bombing offensive, much newsreel material was used and two important campaign films were produced using No. 4 FPU footage, The Air Plan (1945) and the highly acclaimed Allied forces documentary film production The True Glory (1945). The Air Plan is the FPU’s most important compilation film about the Service and explains the RAF’s contribution to the success of the Allied offensive in Western Europe.

No. 1 FPU was responsible for a number of substantial films, sixteen of which are described by the FPU as being of particular note, including three ‘studio’ productions discussed in more detail in this article, Operational Height (1942), The Big Pack (1943) and Journey Together (1945). As well as propaganda films, the productions included training films such as Airfield Construction (1945) and Night Flight (1944), and secret briefing films such as The RAF in Combined Operations (1944), which was shown to RAF personnel in preparation for the Normandy landings, and an operational briefing film for the United States Army Air Force for an attack on the giant Ploesti oil complex in Romania. Altogether, twenty-eight productions, not including collaborative films such as Desert Victory, were completed by the FPU, ranging between ten and ninety-five minutes in duration and serving a variety of functions and audiences. Many of these films incorporated actuality footage, both in fictional narratives such as Beau Geste 1942 (1942), about a squadron based in the Middle East equipped with Bristol Beaufighters attacking shipping and ground targets, and explanatory compilations such as Ship Busters (1945), a film about Coastal Command attacks on enemy shipping along the Norwegian coastline. Both films effectively edit actuality footage of the attacks, as viewed from the aircraft, together with staged sequences taken as if in flight, such as close-ups of the cockpit controls and the aircrew. This technique adds meaning to actuality footage by establishing continuity relationships between successive views. The range and diversity of forms used in these productions was almost as great as the number of different individuals responsible for each film’s direction or compilation.

The Operational Unit was the most important section as it recorded the sharp end of the Service’s offensive from mid-1942 onwards. The cameramen in this Unit were normally qualified airmen who could take over other operational duties in emergencies and who developed special techniques using clockwork cameras, either hand-held or ingeniously mounted with improvised technology. Over 680 operational sorties were flown in the North-West European theatre alone, by day and by night, the material being used for subsequent military analysis, photographic reconnaissance, and frequently for newsreel release. Nine Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs) were awarded to Operations Unit members, including its commanding officer Pat Moyna, and three received the Croix de Guerre [10].

The History also includes information about Newsreel filming and distribution. The FPU not only recorded RAF events but, when opportunities arose, often filmed general subjects such as the signing of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty in 1942. Almost 110,000 feet of film (over twenty hours in total) produced by the FPU was used by the major Newsreels, Gaumont British, Universal, Pathe Gazette, Movietone and Paramount, between 1942 and 1945. An internal film magazine was started in 1943, The Gen, of which eighteen editions were eventually produced, the title adopting the popular RAF slang term referring to the latest information. It offers a particular insight into how the Service presented itself to its own people and to the notion of an established RAF culture. This was circulated throughout the Service for inclusion in the entertainments programme and, in addition to showing the effective work the Service was doing in all theatres of the war, included jovial views of RAF life such as ‘Letter to Bert’, a common serviceman’s observations on his experiences in exotic locations.

Other activities described in The History include the Laboratory, which was built in 1944 to relieve the heavy demands for rapid processing imposed on nearby Denham Laboratories, which processed as much as 220,000 feet of film per week, and the Film Library, which ultimately stocked over five million feet of material. The collection eventually was transferred to the Imperial War Museum in 1957. Most film, certainly the major productions, was shot on 35 mm black and white stock, but some 16 mm Kodachrome footage also exists.

The FPU inevitably had casualties, The History stating that ten men were killed and a further six shot down and subsequently taken prisoner. A particular mention is made of Jimmy Wright, a cameraman who flew on forty-three operations and was awarded a DEC. He suffered almost fatal burns and was rendered blind when the aircraft he was in crashed due to engine failure as it was taking off on a training exercise in Grottaglie, Southern Italy, in February 1944. The story of his rehabilitation and subsequent career in the film industry, culminating in a special British Academy Award (BAFTA) for services to the industry, is both moving and inspiring [11]. The FPU was disbanded at the end of 1945, apparently for financial reasons, but also presumably because it had fulfilled its task [12].

Operational Height

There is no doubt that the success of the Crown Film Unit’s Target for Tonight (1941) was influential in the thinking of the Directorate of Public Relations [13]. Bomber Command now had its own film, Coastal Command was due for release in 1942, and propaganda films were seen as being a means of explaining to the public the value of specific units within the Service. This was consistent with contemporary practice in Government public relations filmmaking, the CPO Film Unit exemplifying how this approach had been developed during the 1930s, each film explaining or promoting a specific service provided by the Post Office.

The choice of water-borne balloons as a subject for the FPU’s first propaganda production seems somewhat unusual in view of Harry Watt’s GPO film, Squadron 992 (1940), which also presented the work of Balloon Command. This Command was responsible for the deployment of defensive balloon barrages over targets vulnerable to dive-bomber attack, such as factories and shipping convoys. However, Squadron 992 may have lacked the necessary impact as the balloons are never seen having a direct effect on attacking dive bombers. It is an RAF fighter aircraft which is shown chasing and downing an attacking bomber during a staged sequence. Furthermore, the explanatory and often humorous narration, and descriptions of the balloons and their unpredictable behaviour, leaves the audience with a view that the balloon can never really be taken seriously as an effective defensive weapon. It is possible that Balloon Command wanted their own people to do a more effective public relations job. The FPU focused on a relatively unfamiliar aspect of the Command’s work, the water-borne balloons controlled from small craft, drifters, in the shipping lanes of river estuaries as a precaution against mine-laying aircraft.

The water-borne balloons film was directed and probably scripted by Arthur Taylor [14]. At the age of 36, Taylor was the eldest of the three directors considered here and was a highly talented and experienced commercial film maker. In civilian life, since leaving school, he had worked for Bournville, the famous cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, now part of the Cadbury Schweppes group. After joining their advertising department, where he was able to develop his interests in music, acting and poetry, he was awarded a scholarship by the firm to study for a diploma at King’s College, London [15]. On his return to Bournville, he was given responsibility for the development of documentary film production, his first film, Plantation People (1936), being filmed on location in Trinidad in Technicolor [16]. While filming Peasant Island (1939) in Sicily, he had to effect an escape when war broke out and returned to England with some difficulty [17]. After making a film about North Sea convoys for the Ministry of Food, Bringing it Home (1940), he joined the RAF as a wireless operator in August 1940, and was one of the first experienced filmmakers to be appointed to the FPU [18]. Taylor was the ideal choice to make a public relations film about water-borne balloons. He had experience in writing, directing and supervising a production unit, both on location and in the studio, had directed both professional actors and civilian workers, and had experience of filming at sea. The production crew included three important members, assistant director Jack Clayton, cameraman ‘Skeets’ Kelly and sound recordist Bill Sweeny [19].

Jack Clayton began his career in the film industry in 1935 as a floor assistant with Korda’s London Films and later became a second assistant director working on such films as The Spy in Black (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940)[20]. Having volunteered for service with the RAF in 1940, he became a flight mechanic, On joining the FPU, he was initially put in charge of the cutting rooms at Pinewood [21]. After working on Operational Height, as the water-home balloons film was eventually titled, he was posted to North Africa and participated in the amphibious landings at Algiers. From North Africa he moved to Sicily and later took part in the Allied assault on Salerno. Under Taylor’s command with No. 2 FPU, he was responsible for compiling much of the FPU’s footage recording the terrible effects of war on the Italian civilian population, some of which was incorporated in the film Naples is a Battlefield (1944). He subsequently served with No. 4 FPU in France, Belgium and Czechoslovakia. After the war he had a distinguished career directing such films as Room at the Top (1958), The Innocents (1961) and The Great Gatsby (1974).

Prior to serving with the FPU, ‘Skeets’ Kelly was also in the feature industry. Having worked on The Edge of the World (1937), edited incidentally by Derek Twist, Michael Powell described him as one of his ‘Foula Regulars’ and thus ‘worth three other men’ [22]. Powell later engaged him as camera operator on 49th Parallel (1941). His camera work on Operational Height was of an innovative quality. He subsequently worked with the Operational Unit and took part in a number of daylight and nighttime bomber operations. His recommendation for the award of the DFC stated that he had ‘at all times shown the greatest keenness in his duty and a complete indifference to danger’ and, in relation to a bomber operation over Genoa, ‘film of this night raid proved to be the most remarkable step forward in night operational photography’ [23]. Kelly went missing on operations in August 1943 but, with the help of the French Resistance, managed to evade capture for two months before he was rounded up by the Gestapo, together with about thirty other evaders, and became a prisoner of war [24]. He returned to the feature industry as cameraman after the war, his expertise in action photography contributing to many spectacular films, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Blue Max (1966) and The Battle of Britain (1969). Sadly, he was killed in a flying accident while filming sequences for Zeppelin in 1970 [25].

Bill Sweeny was the FPU’s sound recording expert, having also worked in the feature industry before the war. He had been put in charge of acquiring the FPU’s sound equipment when it was formed and was subsequently responsible for some pioneering recordings, a famous one being of a crew’s intercom commentary during a bomber operation [26]. Like most of the FPU’s subsequent productions, Operational Height used a cast consisting of Service personnel. The shooting of Operational Height began on 25 March and finished on 4 June 1942 [27]. The completed film, which ran to four reels, was shown to the Air Council on 15 November the same year [28].

The film is introduced by distinctive dramatic music and a rolling caption explaining the importance of keeping the shipping lanes safe, acknowledging the contributions to the film made by the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and RAF. The crew of a balloon drifter, The Comely Bank, is ordered to sail to a new position in preparation for the arrival of an important convoy. Its defensive balloon is intended to prevent enemy aircraft from laying mines in the shipping lane in the Thames Estuary. The crew includes a young Aircraftman, Stanley Rogers, who is embarrassed in front of his captain by an announcement from the shore base broadcasting a birthday message from his girlfriend over the loudspeaker, this subsequently providing the focus of a number of light-hearted and entertaining incidents. The change of position means that the ration boat, which is seen delivering baskets to other balloon drifters, has insufficient time to deliver to The Comely Bank. As their rations included Stanley’s birthday cake, his crewmates attempt to make one for him with disastrous results and he discreetly disposes of the solid mass overboard. Once The Comely Bank reaches its position, the crew sets anchor and goes about the task of setting the balloon at operational height. The expected enemy bombers arrive after nightfall. During a combat sequence in which the crew’s gunner attempts to down the attacking aircraft, a mine explodes nearby and parts The Comely Bank from its anchor. It is now in danger of drifting into a minefield, the balloon acting as a giant sail in the prevailing wind. One bomber is successfully downed when it hits The Comely Bank’s balloon cable, and a minesweeper eventually arrives on the scene to tow the boat away from the minefield. At the end of the film, the convoy carrying American troops and supplies is shown coming into port. The crew of The Comely Bank is thus seen as having played a vital role in getting the convoy through unharmed.

Operational Height is influenced by a Griersonian aesthetic. A combination of strategies are used to depict the typical contribution of a Balloon Command crew to a greater organisational and social function. The poetic qualities of the film are enhanced by the incidental music and the mise-en-scene, which places the crew of the drifter and their balloon against the natural environment. The maritime setting is in many ways reminiscent of earlier documentary films such as Drifters (1929) and North Sea (1938). Grierson’s influence is further evident in the film’s portrayal of The Comely Bank’s crew at work. Like other films of the documentary tradition, Operational Height is not a film of actuality; it is a constructed film which incorporates staged location, studio and model sequences.

Although rooted in the documentary tradition, Operational Height is an outstanding example film of the narrative realist aesthetic which was evident in British film making of the period. The most significant aspect is the personalisation of characters within the dramatised narrative, not only through showing people of common function and rank with regional accents, but through presentation of personal as well as professional qualities. The skipper in Harry Watt’s North Sea (1938) is not just the captain of a fishing boat; he is the manager who cannot delegate. Squadron Leader Dixon, F for Freddie’s skipper in Target for Tonight, is not merely a bomber pilot; he is a casual pipe-smoking professional who takes the operational hazards in his stride. In Operational Height, Aircraftman Stanley Rogers stands out for his youth, his romantic relationship, and as being the butt of his cremates friendly teasing. He is not merely an anonymous balloon-winch operator.

In the course of performing its duty, the crew of The Comely Bank is shown being exposed to prevailing occupational risks. By use of certain technical devices, or courses of action chosen because of effective training and professionalism, the crew is able to overcome its difficulties and perform the essential task in hand. This is a common theme in other documentary productions of the time. In North Sea for example, the crew of the fishing vessel The John Gilman is performing an essential task against the prevailing hazard of weather conditions in the North Sea. As stormy conditions develop, the safety of the crew is put at risk when the pumps become clogged and the radio aerial is put out of action. By repairing the fault and using the technology, namely the wireless communication system which is the essential public relations message of this GPO film, the crew return safely home. Similarly, the bomber crew in Target for Tonight is exposed to the operational dangers associated with night bombing and get into trouble when F for Freddie is hit by flak. The professionalism of the aircrew members, together with the outstanding qualities of their Vickers Wellington aircraft, enables them to return home safely having successfully bombed a vital enemy installation. The same theme is used successfully in Operational Height to explain to the public the daily hazards faced by a typical crew of this relatively unknown RAF unit. It is difficult to imagine how such work could be considered by the layman as being as hazardous or as effective as airborne RAF operations. The risks encountered by the balloon crew when set adrift by the explosion, the exchange of gun fire, the effective destruction of an enemy aircraft by virtue of the balloon cable, and the safe arrival of the American troop convoy are all elements which place the balloon crew on the front line and in an important role within the overall war effort.

Considering it was the FPU’s first propaganda film, Operational Height was an outstanding feature-length production of comparable quality with other documentary films which have subsequently received more widespread critical acclaim. The MoI publicity material, quoting Kinematograph Weekly, described the film as ‘Thrilling, impressive and instructive. Excellent photography, good dialogue and realistic characterisation complete a first class British cameo documentary’ [29]. It is unfortunate that, in terms of production output, Arthur Taylor appears to have become a victim of his own experience and status within the FPU. His only subsequent production credit was Contact, which was never shown but generated the idea of The Gen. Taylor was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader and made commanding officer of No. 2 FPU which undertook valuable recording work in the Mediterranean theatre of war. His prior experience of overseas film production, such as the aforementioned Sicilian episode, no doubt made him the best man for the post. Although Taylor returned to Bournville after the war to continue making films for the firm’s advertising department, he had evidently been deeply affected by his wartime experience and, sadly, committed suicide in 1955. He was by all accounts well liked by his colleagues. His obituary describes him as ‘a charming companion, a perfect host, and the most modest of men’; John Shearman states that ‘he was a very civilized and talented person and not cut out for wars at all’; Jack Clayton describes him simply as ‘a wonderful man’ [30]. Operational Height is the finest example of Taylor’s work with the FPU and is a major achievement in Government public relations film production.

The Big Pack

The second production project initiated by the FPU was a film about Maintenance Command. Derek Twist asked John Shearman and scriptwriter Flight Lieutenant Hugh Gray to undertake the necessary research and produce a script; this evidently proved a difficult task [31]. Maintenance Command was one of the RAF’s Home Commands and was a large operation which handled the storage and supply of equipment, spares and armourments, as well as maintenance of aircraft at air bases. Like Taylor, Shearman had before the war been involved in corporate documentary film production and had learned his craft during the late 1930s with the London Midland and Scottish railway film unit under Loftus Allen. He joined the RAF in 1940, became an airframe fitter and, on learning of the FPU’s formation, successfully applied, was rapidly commissioned and promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. For the Maintenance Command film, which was titled The Big Pack, Shearman’s crew included sound recordist Bill Sweeny and cameraman Bill Pollard. Pollard later worked on one of the FPU’s largest productions, Now It Can Be Told (1945), a feature length film made in secrecy relating to the work of the Maquis prior to the Allied landings in Normandy. However, when The Big Pack went into production in April 1942 neither Shearman nor Pollard had much previous experience, although this would appear to be a general state of affairs within the RAF FPU, as Shearman describes:

…on the whole the people who were working in the Unit all had film making experience but probably not a good deal. Certainly, the rather disastrous first film I made, The Big Pack, I directed. Bill Pollard, who lit it for me, had perhaps been an assistant cameraman, not much more than that. And, it was a fair demand on me to direct in the studio because I had only directed in the studio for about two shots before that. [32]

Shooting was completed in February 1943, having taken about five months longer than the relatively straightforward production Operational Height, and the task of editing was started by ‘a very good feature editor’, Sergeant Gene Turney-Smith. In the meantime, Peter Baylis, who shared an office at Pinewood with Shearman, sensed a certain unease with progress and offered to look at the material. Working together, they edited the material on a ‘what the audience needs to know basis’ and effectively rescued the project. Shearman also credits Gordon Jacob’s filmscore as being a significant contributory factor to the improved quality of the finished production. Jacob, a prolific composer and a teacher at the Royal College of Music, was by this time in his late forties and had written a number of works, including his first symphony, four concertos, two ballets and a number of other orchestral and chamber works, as well as a notable textbook Orchestral Technique. He composed the score for the Crown Film Unit’s Close Quarters (1943), and his work for the FPU usefully exemplifies his reputation as a master craftsman. He had only one post-war feature film credit, Esther Waters (1947), but continued to compose into the 1970s, having retired from the RCM in 1966 and been made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1968 [33].

The film opens with music and a rolling caption superimposed over a map of Great Britain. The camera subsequently tracks in to a close-up of the location of Maintenance Command Headquarters. This device is used repeatedly throughout the film to denote transition between scenes taking place in different geographical locations. An aircraft lands at HQ carrying an officer who brings orders relating to a major overseas land offensive requiring rapid mobilisation within fourteen days. The Commanding Officer, Group Captain Reed, puts Operation Storm into action. Seventy Hurricane fighter-bomber aircraft will be required and Flight Lieutenant Macintosh is ordered to put this in hand. Orders are received by the Ammunition Depot, in another part of the country, to load and dispatch the required stores. Other items are requisitioned at the Equipment Depot and loaded into stencilled crates, including engines, tyres, wings, and pith helmets, the latter giving rise to speculation as to their secret destination. The Hawker Hurricanes are seen delivered to the Aircraft Maintenance Unit, one by a woman Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) ferry pilot. The rate of activity increases as the days go by, denoted by captions. Bearskin coats are requisitioned, leading to further speculation as to the location of the offensive. In anticipation of closing bad weather, Macintosh orders his fitters to rapidly finish their work on the Hurricanes for urgent dispatch. This being successfully accomplished, the Hurricanes depart for a coastal airbase, but are too late to miss the bad weather and run into fog. The woman ATA pilot has an additional problem as the undercarriage of her Hurricane is jammed. Fortunately, she skilfully achieves a successful belly landing and climbs out unscathed. At the docks, the vast quantity of stores assembled from the different Maintenance Command depots around the country is loaded onto the ships. Before they leave however, an air raid causes slight damage, in particular to a lorry load of bearskins. It transpires that this item was a red herring used as a security measure. Actual footage of Allied landings in Tunisia, with dubbed BBC Home Service news broadcast, is used to close the film. The success of the landings is thus shown as being dependent on the vital work of Maintenance Command.

Although The Big Pack uses images of labour, such as loading stores onto trucks and aircraft, and a certain amount of location footage at the various depots, it is a film which is more feature than documentary in style. Shearman suggests that in retrospect this is one of the reasons why the film is less successful than it could have been. Whereas Operational Height works effectively as a documentary feature, The Big Pack, although competently executed, is somewhat impersonal. This is perhaps due to the scale of the operation presented. With The Comely Bank, the audience is presented with a view of a close-knit crew and is able to identify with the personal qualities of the individual characters. The attempt to bring together the different personnel and range of activities of a vast operation like Maintenance Command within a single narrative was an unenviable task.

The ATA ferry pilot stands out as a distinctive character, although this is probably due to her sex as much as her personal qualities. The notion of a woman flying a high performance fighter-bomber aircraft must have appeared to be somewhat novel to an uninformed public, although it was commonplace in the ATA. The fact that she is seen exposed to danger arguably arouses greater concern for her safety than would have been the case if a male pilot had been cast in this role. Other women appearing in the film are also shown undertaking heavy manual work, as well as serving the more ‘traditional’ roles often depicted in other FPU productions, such as telephone switchboard operation, clerical and secretarial work, and pushing markers around huge operational control maps. It can be suggested that the ATA ferry pilot is there merely to add a bit of glamour, but her inclusion demonstrates an attempt to reflect the valuable contribution of women to the work of the Service. There appear to be few examples of similar roles being cast in other FPU propaganda productions and the Service is typically presented from a male viewpoint. There appears to be little evidence of any plans to make a film explaining the contribution of the WAAF. This was a missed propaganda opportunity considering the success of feature films such as Millions Like Us (1943) and The Gentle Sex (1943), both of which depicted the contribution of women to the war effort respectively in manufacturing and in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).

This contrasts with the FPU’s achievements in reflecting the contributions from airmen of other nations serving within RAF units. Not only was the international mix of servicemen presented in films such as Between Friends (1943) and Towards the Offensive (1943), but at least two films were produced about specific contingents, RAAF Over Europe (1945), about the Australian airmen, and Flying Dutchman (1945), which was made with a Dutch commentary to show the people of The Netherlands how their own servicemen had helped to achieve victory in Europe. Although The Big Pack includes no significant proportion of overseas servicemen within the narrative, regional accents are strongly represented. No specific attempt was made to actively seek actors with regional accents as the cast primarily comprised RAF personnel serving within Maintenance Command who were already engaged in the tasks presented.

The narrative complexities posed by temporal and spatial elements on the whole makes the plot more complicated than necessary. There is a sense of important things happening at different times and in different places, all somehow meant to contribute to the success of Operation Storm, but it is difficult to identify causal links between them. This is probably because of a concern for reflecting all operations within the Command in public relations terms, and the film might have been more successful, with the benefit of hindsight, if the narrative had focused on a specific activity, for example the urgent assembly and dispatch of the Hurricane aircraft. As well as the enormous task posed by the subject, Shearman was evidently inexperienced in this kind of film production and he even describes it as the worst film he ever made, although in a wider context it is no worse than many contemporary feature productions. This point is best illustrated by briefly outlining Shearman’s subsequent career.

After The Big Pack he was made responsible for receiving film material which was sent back from the Middle East Unit. He liaised closely with Roy Boulting of the Army FPU in relation to the use of some of this material in the film Desert Victory. He was subsequently responsible for producing two films relating to the Allied landings in Italy, Front Line Air Force (1944), a compilation film about the RAF’s contribution to the landings, and Naples is a Battlefield, which has little to do with the RAF as such, but is an important short documentary film about the responsibility of the Allied nations to the newly liberated citizens. The film was directed by Jack Clayton, although Shearman attributes the idea of creating it from Clayton’s footage to its editor Peter Baylis. As well as being a notable documentary film, it is an example of how the FPU was often called upon to shoot material on subjects of wider concern than RAF propaganda by virtue of having the people and facilities available at the right place and time. It also exemplifies the collaborative rather than authorial nature of the FPU’s filmmaking.

Shearman was subsequently responsible for producing two highly secret briefing films which explained the operation of the petroleum warfare devices, amusingly referred to as ‘the two dogs’. FIDO (Fog Intensive Dispersal Of) was used at operational bases to clear a visible area over the runway for returning bombers, and PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) was a vital system for delivering a continuous fuel supply to the advancing Allied forces in North-West Europe after the Normandy landings. Squadron Leader Shearman became second in command to Derek Twist of No. 4 FPU, embarking soon after D-Day and eventually succeeding Arthur Taylor as Officer Commanding No. 2 FPU in Italy. The PLUTO and FIDO projects appear to have enabled Shearman to develop his interest in presenting technical subjects in film for ‘those who need to use it’. His post-war career with the Shell Film Unit, Basic Films, British Transport Films and the Film Centre Ltd, was almost entirely concerned with producing technical training, information and research films. Evidently, The Big Pack was not of the Shearman mould and it is possible that a more didactic mode of documentary address would have presented the subject more effectively. However, it was for Shearman a valuable learning experience.

Journey Together

The operational activity of the Service depended on the work of Flying Training Command and the idea of producing a film about aircrew training appears to have been first requested by the Air Ministry as early as December 1942 [34]. Much of the work of the Command took place overseas under the Empire Training Scheme, the skies, of North America, South Africa and Australia offering more flying hours than Britain because of the favourable flying conditions, and of course the reduced threat to novice aircrew from enemy action. This undoubtedly provided an opportunity to use more exotic locations and the natural choice of showing the trainees’ progression to operational standard offered a more personal perspective which was ideally suited to an extended feature narrative production.

John Boulting, the third of the RAF FPU’s appointed film directors, had already formed the film production company Charter Films together with his twin brother Roy, serving concurrently in the Army FPU, producing such features as Pastor Hall (1940) and Thunder Rock (1942). John Boulting’s previous work with the FPU included a relatively distinctive and light-hearted short film, Between Friends (1943), in which the audience is treated as a visiting guest at a fighter air station by pilots and ground personnel of various nationalities. Permission was obtained at about this time for Boulting and Hugh Gray to visit Canada. Research for the production took several months and the resulting material required a skilled hand to make it a practical and effective screenplay [35]. By the end of 1943, Terence Rattigan, who had by this time been appointed to the FPU, was working with Boulting on the ‘Aircrew’ script. Rattigan had already written some distinguished plays and screenplays and had served operationally with Coastal Command as a gunnery leader [36]. His play Flare Path (1942) was in the process of being turned into the screenplay for what subsequently became the highly acclaimed and successful feature The Way to the Stars (1945). Shooting on the Aircrew film, Journey Together, was well underway at least six months before The Way to the Stars commenced production [37].

An important decision had been taken to cast professional actors from within the Service and it was notably the only RAF FPU film which presented full credits. Richard Attenborough had at this time already made his memorable screen debut in In Which We Serve (1942) and Jack Wafting had played the leading role in the original West End run of Flare Path [38]. For the American scenes, Edward G. Robinson was cast as the pilot instructor, and Bessie Love as his wife [39]. The film crew included George Brown as associate producer in charge of the second unit for the American location sequences. Brown had been an assistant director and production manager before joining the RAF and had worked on such films as St Martin’s Lane (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), and 49th Parallel (1941) [40]. On joining the RAF FPU, he was initially posted to the Overseas Detachment and had first hand experience of the war in the Middle East, Malta, North Africa and Sicily before returning to Pinewood. His experience was no doubt invaluable in managing the considerable logistical difficulties posed by the production. Harry Waxman and Gilbert Taylor were the film’s cameramen, both of whom subsequently had distinguished post-war careers in the feature industry, and the sound recordist was Charles Poulton. Gordon Jacob wrote yet another highly effective score for this production [41]. The scale of the film meant that it took some months to complete and was premiered at the Odeon, Leicester Square, London, on 4 October 1945, hence after the war had already ended [42]. Nevertheless, there was every justification for completing the film due to the huge strategic air offensive against Japan that was in preparation before the sudden surrender resulting from the atomic bombings. However, the quality of the film was such that it was released commercially by RKO, and subsequently became the FPU’s most well known film production [43].

The film follows the ‘journey’ of the young Aircraftman Dave Wilton (Richard Attenborough) and his associates through the process of aircrew training to the dramatic culmination of his first operational mission. He is first shown hitching an illegal ride in an Avro Anson training aircraft with a friend and in his subsequent disciplinary interview he explains that he always wanted to be a pilot. Although having an elementary level of education, he attends an aircrew training interview, during which he is asked hypothetically how he would act in the circumstance of being the navigator of a bomber that had to ditch at sea. Having successfully passed the initial hurdle, Dave arrives at the London Aircrew Reception Centre, based at a greyhound racing track, and a subsequent montage sequence rapidly shows his initial fitness training activities. The trainees are posted to Cambridge University, where Dave’s room-mate, Johnny Aynesworth (Jack Watling), is recognised by a porter as being a pre-war student. Although Dave and Johnny are of different social classes, they are ‘all in the same boat now’. Dave’s lack of education inspires him to work hard to pass his exams, whereas Johnny, although a naturally skilled pilot, is somewhat blase about the theoretical work. By the end of the course Dave and Johnny have befriended Bob (John Justin), their flying instructor, who is himself desperate to go on operations. At the Aircrew Distribution Centre, the officer announces the role allocations to the rain-soaked trainees who are formally assembled on the parade ground. Depending on the results of the course, trainee pilots will go to the USA and trainee navigators and air bombers to Canada. Both Dave and Johnny qualify for pilot training, whereas their friend Smith (David Tomlinson) is sent to Canada. In Arizona, the trainee pilots are instructed by Dean McWilliams (Edward G. Robinson), who invites the two friends to dinner at his home with his wife (Bessie Love).

Johnny makes excellent progress, but Dave has further difficulty in making effective landings. McWilliams attributes this to lack of confidence and to encourage him he allows him to make a solo flight. Dave makes a number of abortive attempts at landing and, on his final approach, crashes without serious injury. His problem is judgement of height and it is evident that he will never become a pilot. McWilliams persuades him to train as a navigator, arguing that every member of a bomber crew is equally important. Somewhat reluctantly, he accepts a posting to No. 3 Air Observer’s School in Canada. During a brief visit from his friend Johnny, who has since qualified and been awarded his ‘wings’ brevet, Dave’s senior officer discreetly asks him to give the still demoralised Dave some encouragement. A friendly argument subsequently develops between the two friends which arouses Dave’s loyalty to his new vocation. His ultimate test is a night navigation exercise with a full aircrew (including a cadet played by the film editor Peter Baylis) joined by friends Johnny and Smith. During the flight, the radio receiver breaks down and Dave has to calculate their position by dead reckoning; that is by computation using the variables of time and estimated bearing and speed relative to the ground, allowing for wind drift. All the time, their fuel reserve is decreasing and it appears they are lost. Realising that he has omitted an important factor from his calculations, Dave re-estimates the course and the crew safely returns to base. Although Dave has passed the test, it subsequently transpires that the ‘problem’ had been stage-managed by the navigation instructor.

Weeks later, the newly-qualified Dave arrives at a Bomber Command base in England, as yet to be assigned to a crew, and coincidentally meets Johnny, who has since flown on a number of ‘ops’. They also meet their former instructor, Bob, who is visiting the base. Days go by and Dave becomes increasingly frustrated at having to wait for his first operational flight as news of the raids is broadcast on the wireless and in the press. By chance, Johnny’s navigator becomes ill and Dave is asked to stand in for the next op. Although he is introduced to the crew enthusiastically by his friend, it is evident that they lack confidence in his ability and that an essential element of a close-knit team is missing. Bob is also permitted to join the crew as an additional member and after briefing and kitting up they take off in their Lancaster, bound for Germany. Approaching their target, they are attacked by an enemy night-fighter, which is destroyed by return fire. Curly, the Air Bomber (George Cole), remains at his station to see the bomb load effectively despatched, in spite of blood trickling into his eye from a head wound. Two engines and a fuel tank have been damaged by the fighter attack. It is now Dave’s skills which will determine whether or not they will survive. A dissolving montage of the instruments of navigation depict the process of calculating the crew’s chances of survival. They will have to ditch in the North Sea, but where exactly? The crew man their ditching stations as the remaining engines shut down, putting into practice their emergency training. As soon as the Lancaster hits the water, the fuselage fills up and the crew has seconds to climb out and get into their inflatable dinghy. This is exactly the scenario presented by the interview panel when Dave first applied for aircrew training. Dave transmits his estimated fix and the crew, still somewhat doubtful of his skill, await their fate. After some hours, a friendly search aircraft passes and signals the imminent arrival of a rescue launch, commenting that their navigator had given a good fix. Dave is now recognised as one of the ‘old firm’, and as the crew celebrates, Bob, reluctantly accepting their good-humoured ingratitude, reminds them of his part in their training.

From a public relations viewpoint, Journey Together’s essential message has two strands. Firstly, that the training provided by Flying Training Command enables seemingly impossible odds to be overcome when faced with the perils of operational flying. The ‘journey’ that Dave and his friends have experienced has prepared them not only to perform their specific aircrew functions, but to handle emergency situations. This corresponds with the common theme discussed earlier in relation to Operational Height and similar documentary films in which prevailing occupational hazards are overcome by experience or technology. Journey Together extends this theme by showing both the process and its application in an operational context which enables the protagonists to overcome their predicament. For example, the sequence where Dave is calculating the return course for the crew of his damaged Lancaster invites the audience to recall the earlier training flight when his crew became lost, thus providing a direct contextual link between training and application. A similar ‘journey’ is experienced by the Army recruits in The Way Ahead (1944). However, unlike The Way Ahead, which depicts the process of moulding raw recruits into an efficient fighting team, Journey Together’s aircrew trainees have volunteered from within the Service for front-line duty. There is never any doubt in the early stages of the film that they will eventually make the grade in one or other capacity. Furthermore, there is little explicit information about the aircrew trainee’s life outside the Service, although class differences are portrayed.

The second strand, the ‘Together’ of the title, is that each member of an aircrew has a vital role to play. Although the pilot is the crew’s ‘skipper’, the crew members are interdependent on each others’ skills. Each one takes a dominant role as the situation demands and this is shown in successive sequences during the bomber operation. Thus, the Air Bomber is dominant when approaching the target area as his expertise is linked with the effective deployment of their bomb-load, their reason for being there in the first place, the Air Gunners defend the crew from attack by fighters and the crew are entirely dependent on the navigator for finding their way home. The essential and important nature of this relationship is best exemplified in the film by Johnny’s crew’s reaction when their chances of survival are threatened by the substitution of their established navigator by the novice Dave.

The notion of interdependence subordinates conventional hierarchies normally imposed by the conventions of rank, social class and regional or national discrimination and is central to an understanding of bomber aircrew culture. Rank is confined to the parade ground and the seemingly inappropriate division between officers and enlisted men serving in the same crew on operations was a frequent source of criticism by many aircrew throughout the war. Certainly, once Dave is a member of the crew, there is little evidence of hierarchy other than Johnny being the ‘skipper’, even though he is of lower rank than Bob, who joins the crew as second pilot. The film goes at greater length to subvert hierarchical conventions imposed by social class, and this is particularly exemplified by the relationship between Dave and Johnny. Darlow and Hodson, in their biography of Rattigan, suggest that this is one of his persistent themes:

The story…served the purposes of Flying Training Command admirably, while at the same time providing him with the opportunity to explore further the way in which the war made people from different backgrounds mix and grow dependent on each other. This is the persistent theme of all of Rattigan’s wartime writing, and Journey Together was its most realistic expression. [44]

It is certainly a theme that was more effectively handled in Journey Together than in The Way to the Stars. In the latter, there is little concept of there being teams of entire aircrew. With the exception of Peter Penrose’s Air Gunner, Nobby Clarke, most of the RAF aircrew appear to be English pilots with upper middle-class backgrounds. The American crews portrayed are even more limited in terms of numbers; we only see Johnny Hollis’s Bombardier Joe Frizelli and a couple of others out of a crew of ten, obviously for reasons of economy in narrative terms, the contrast between Hollis and Frizelli nevertheless offering regional interest in terms of American culture. Journey Together, by following Dave’s progress, introduces its audience to the concept that aircrew consist not merely of pilots and a few others. Each role is presented within the plot of the film to show that an aircrew comprises specialists within a team who are interdependent on each other for survival. Although the theme of crew unity is evident in earlier British films about bomber crews, such as Target for Tonight and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941), the survival of an aircrew is never as strongly attributed to the training of a specific member of the crew, other than the pilot, as it is in Journey Together.

In feature film terms, it is notable that the film excludes a romantic story, although a still from an edited-out scene indicates that this may have been a possible change of thinking [45]. It is the friendships and associations that the protagonists build within the Service, and more importantly within their own crews, which are fundamental to their function and survival, as well as serving to reinforce the essential message of the film. The characters are nevertheless portrayed with the warmth and sympathy normally associated with feature productions, while in themselves standing out as individuals, still managing to represent the thousands of aircrew trainees that went through the process depicted in the film. All of the main characters have their own distinctive human qualities: the cheeky young Dave, whose determination to fly provides the motivation to study and overcome his lack of education; the talented Johnny, who unsuccessfully tries to cheat to pass his exams but eventually takes responsibility for commanding his own aircrew; McWilliams, the hardened but caring veteran who encourages Dave to succeed despite his disappointment; and Bob, who, like his charges, desires an operational role.

A major contributory factor to the film’s success is the high standard of production. The camera work, editing and soundtrack are as good as other quality feature productions. The models and replicas look realistic, the combat sequences even by today’s standards are convincing, and the procedures presented appear to be accurate. The crew preparing to ‘brace for ditching’ is a particularly impressive sequence in terms of pace and editing as they carry out a number of well-practised emergency procedures. Having adopted crash positions, the suspense of the impending impact is created by the uncanny noise of the airflow whistling along the fuselage from the open escape hatches, the familiar drone of the engines having ceased when the engines were shut down. It is only when the Lancaster hits the water that incidental music enhances the dramatic impact of the event. It is noted that the cockpit simulations sometimes use back projection of a burning city taken during an actual bombing raid, no doubt filmed by the Operational Unit, adding to the authentic impact of the film.


Two essential thoughts emerge from an examination of the films discussed above. Firstly, the quality the RAF FPU was able to achieve compares favourably with both commercial feature production and other government documentary film units. Although to a certain extent this is to be expected, given that the RAF FPU had access to some of the best film production facilities available in wartime Britain, the creative input, though sometimes lacking in experience, was of a genuinely high standard, beating in mind that choosing personnel from within the Service rather than the whole national film-making sector imposed a proportional limitation on the expertise available. Secondly, whereas the two major Crown Film Unit productions about RAF Commands, Target for Tonight and Coastal Command, portray a heroic view of operational aircrew, the selected RAF films are more concerned with the everyday Service experience. This point is central to the question of why there is such limited appreciation of the work of the RAF FPU today, both in terms of literature and in exhibition of the films. With a few exceptions, service film unit productions have ironically been excluded from the critical examination of British wartime filmmaking. Perhaps there is a widespread view that the military service experience exists outside mainstream society, and hence the films of the service units have little relevance outside the military or historical domain?

Within the context of wartime Britain, this is a false premise. The state of total war which existed meant that civilians were involved in the war effort and this is reflected in both documentary and feature productions of the day, such as Men of the Lightship (1940), The Foreman Went to France (1941) and Millions Like us (1943). At the same time, ordinary men and women entered the services and developed new skills. A large proportion were assigned to non-operational duties and, like their civilian counterparts, returned to their more usual roles when the war was over. Service and civilian distinctions are irrelevant in this context and a reflection of everyday service life in wartime has equal social and cultural significance to the more widely discussed reflections of civilian life. The selected RAF FPU films are important in this wider context as they offer a unique insight into everyday service life which is less apparent in other documentary and feature films on RAF subjects made by the Crown Film Unit or the commercial feature producers. Even in Journey Together, where its protagonists are seen in an operational role during the climax of the film, the dominant theme is the training process which was experienced by thousands of cadets. This view is also supported by the selected films’ success in meeting the FPU’s main objectives. They were made as propaganda films to show the importance of certain RAF commands, in much the same way as the Crown Film Unit’s two aforementioned ‘RAF productions’ did for Bomber and Coastal commands. At the same time, although essentially using a fictional mode of address, the films accurately portray aspects of RAF service life. In keeping with the formation meeting’s stated role, they exist as a film record of the RAF’s wartime activities. The ‘studio productions’ thus provide a testimony to the FPU’s considerable success in fulfilling the Air Ministry’s requirements.

The RAF FPU’s ‘studio productions’ also serve to illustrate not merely its adoption of wider aesthetic strategies in British film making but, more significantly, in defining them. Of greatest importance is an increasing combination of fictional narrative and documentary realism in wartime British film. In many ways, Journey Together is the quintessence of this aesthetic, Darlow and Hodson stating that it ‘remains one of the most satisfying blends of documentary and fiction achieved in the cinema’ [46]. It is evident that the RAF FPU offered considerable opportunity for this to develop by means of collaboration, both formally and informally, between documentary and feature producers and technicians. This happened not only within the Service, but with other Government units, as described by John Shearman:

In Pinewood, up to 1944 or 1945, you got this amazing mixture of people from the feature tradition, the Griersonian tradition and from industrial film units. We were all rushing round pinching each others ideas, talking, and learning from one another. I am quite sure that this episode had a very real influence on a kind of amalgamation of ideas. Prior to this time the feature film world had regarded itself as utterly separate and distinct from the documentary world. [47]

Clearly, the work of the RAF FPU deserves greater recognition in the context of British cinema history. Its significance in British documentary film making has been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of wartime film production and by a preoccupation with civilian film makers, not least the core of the Documentary Film Movement which contributed to the work of the Crown Film Unit and Ealing Studios. It is evident that the limited interest in the RAF FPU as a subject of study is unrelated to the quality of its films, which were generally of a comparable standard with the best of the contemporary documentary and feature producers. Rather, there is a tendency to exclude wartime service experience from the overview of society and, therefore, there is a failure to recognise the context of the total war in which British society was engaged. The RAF FPU’s films offer a more representative view of life within the Service, a view which was valuable at the time to the general public and to the friends and relatives of the servicemen and women of many nations who served in RAF Commands. Today’s viewers, in seeking a deeper understanding of British society and its cultural production during this unique period in history, will also find the RAF FPU’s work of great value.


John Shearman, Senior Officer with the RAF Film Production Unit, 1941-45, died on 8 November 1996. He subsequently produced a number of documentary and training films during his time with the Shell Film Unit, Basic Films, the Film Centre Limited (seconded to the Iraq Petroleum Company Ltd) and British Transport Films before his retirement in 1974. I am especially grateful for his assistance while researching this article.

Correspondence: Keith Buckman, Brunel University, Twickenham Campus, 300 St Margaret’s Road, Twickenham, Middlesex TW1 1PT, UK. Fax 44.(0) 181.744.1441; email


[1] Interview with Lord Willoughby de Broke, Sound Records, 5195, reel 4, Imperial War Museum, London (hereafter SR, IWM).

[2] Air Ministry 29/481, Operations Record Book, No. 1 Film Production Unit, Appendix A, Public Record Office, Kew, London (hereafter AIR, ORB, PRO).

[3] Ibid., Appendix B, PRO.

[4] Ibid., Appendix C, PRO.

[5] Ibid., Appendix C, p. 6.

[6] Ibid., Appendix L.

[7] Christopher Challis, Are They Really So Awful?: a cameraman’s chronicles (London, 1995).

[8] Interview with John Shearman, SR, 4842, reel 1, IWM.

[9] History of the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, Film Records, IWM (hereafter FR).

[10] Ibid., pp. 4-5; The RAF Film Unit, Documentary News Letter, 6 (No. 52) (1946), p. 23.

[11] Interview with Jimmy Wright, SR, 4845/4, IWM; Edward Bishop, The Guinea Pig Club (London, 1963), pp. 23-28.

[12] SR, 5195, reel 4, IWM.

[13] Ibid. See also KRM Short, RAF Bomber Command’s ‘Target for Tonight’ (1941), HJFRT 17(2) 1997, pp. 181-218 (and microfiche supplement).

[14] Shearman indicates that it was normal practice for directors to write their own scripts in documentary productions: SR, 4842, reel 1, IWM.

[15] Obituary: Mr AR Taylor, Bournville Works Magazine, June 1955, p. 194, (hereafter BWM).

[16] Plantation People (Arthur Taylor, 1936).

[17] Peasant Island (Arthur Taylor, 1939); Taylor’s obituary, BWM.

[18] Ibid.; AIR 29/481, ORB, Appendix L, PRO; Bringing it Home (Arthur Taylor, 1940).

[19] Dope sheets and consolidated listings for APYs, FR, IWM.

[20] Tony Sloman, Obituary: Jack Clayton, Independent, 28 February 1995, p. 12.

[21] Interview with Jack Clayton, SR, 9496, reels 1-4, IWM; Clayton had recent cutting room experience having assisted David Lean on Major Barbara (1941).

[22] Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (London, 1987), p. 356.

[23] AIR 29/481, ORB, inserted page, PRO.

[24] Interview with James Hill, SR, 9541, reels 1-2, IWM.

[25] Cast and credits search ‘KELLY S’, Film Index International, CD-Rom, 1995; George Perry, The Great British Picture Show (1985), p. 273.

[26] AIR 29/481, ORB, Appendix C, PRO; SR, 4842, reel 3, IWM.

[27] Dope sheets, AP1, FR, IWM.

[28] AIR 29/481, ORB, p. 71, PRO.

[29] Ministry of Information INF 6/1034, PRO.

[30] Taylor’s obituary, BWM; Author’s interview with John Shearman, 19 March 1994; SR, 9496, IWM, reel 1.

[31] SR, 4842, reel 1, IWM (used here as the main source for material relating to The Big Pack).

[32] Author’s interview with Shearman; dope sheets, AP2, FR, IWM.

[33] Stanley Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980), Vol. 9, pp. 441-442.

[34] AIR 29/481, ORB, Report of 11 December 1942 in the appended minutes of the Services Publicity Committee, PRO; It is noted that the Films Division of the MoI were initially unenthusiastic about releasing a film on this subject to the public. Coincidentally, a subsequent minute on the subject of ‘Anglo-American Co-operation’ outlines plans to engage Terence Rattigan and William Wyler, then a Major in the US Army Air Corps, on an ‘ambitious project’. This idea probably emerged as The Way to the Stars, although by then of course without Wyler’s involvement.

[35] Michael Darlow & Gillian Hodson, Terence Rattigan: the man and his work (1979), p. 129.

[36] Ibid., pp. 104-107.

[37] AIR 29/481, ORB, p. 189; Anthony Aldgate & Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take It: the British cinema in the Second World War (Oxford, 1986), p. 281.

[38] Darlow & Hodson (1979) op. cit., p. 109.

[39] A notable omission from published cast listings for Journey Together is John Justin, who starred in Korda’s production The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and also notably as a pilot in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952).

[40] Interview with George Brown, SR, 9252, reel 1, IWM.

[41] Dope sheets and consolidated listings for APYs, FR, IWM; Gilbert Taylor’s credits as a director of photography include Seven Days to Noon (1950), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Star Wars (1977), while Harry Waxman has in the region of sixty features to his credit, including Brighton Rock (1947) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).

[42] AIR 29/481, ORB, p. 272, PRO.

[43] Aldgate & Richards (1986) op cit., p. 287.

[44] Darlow & Hodson (1979) op cit., p. 129.

[45] David Castell, Richard Attenborough: a pictorial film biography (1984), p. 36.

[46] Darlow & Hodson (1979) op cit., p. 129.

[47] Edgar Anstey, Stuart Hood, Claire Johnston & Ivor Montagu, The Grierson influence, Undercut, 9 (1983), pp. 16-17.


* Available on VHS from DD Video. Tel: +44 (0)1829 741 711; Fax: + 44 (0)1829 741 862.

Airfield Construction (Bill Pollard, 1945) [H99 – 4 reels, (1 reel = 10 min)] A detailed technical film on the different methods of airfield construction. Made for RAF and civilian construction personnel.

The Air Plan (Derek Twist, 1945) [AP29 – 3 reels] A film explaining the strategy behind the employment of the air forces prior to and after ‘D’ Day. Released commercially through MoI and internationally.

Beau Geste 1942 (Jack Clayton, 1942) [AP12 – 1 reel] A day in the life of a Beaufighter squadron stationed in the desert filmed by the Middle East Unit. Non-theatrical international distribution.

The Benevolent Fund (Hugh Gray and Peter Baylis, 1943) [AP8 – 1 reel] An appeal film made for theatrical distribution.

Between Friends (John Boulting, 1943) [AP13 – 1 reel] An amusing camera interview with fighter pilots and ground personnel stationed in Yorkshire in the North of England. International non-theatrical distribution.

The Big Pack (John Shearman, 1943) [AP2 – 4 reels] A documentary story depicting the work of Maintenance Command. Theatrical distribution through the MoI.

Contact (Arthur Taylor, 1942) [AP7 – 2 reels] Never screened but provided the idea for The Gen.

Defence of Britain (Victor Sheridan, 1944) [AP30 – 1 reel] A film about air defence against German V1 flying bombs.

Fly Away Peter (James Hill, 1942) A short documentary shown internally depicting preparation for overseas deployment of air reinforcements. The FPU’s first film production.

Flying Dutchman (Victor Sheridan, 1945) [AP34 – 3 reels] A film about the Dutch nation during the war and after the Liberation. Made for and shown by the Netherlands Government.

Front Line Air Force (John Shearman, 1944) [AP23 – 1 reel] A film record of the contribution of the RAF to the Allied landings in Italy. International non-theatrical distribution.

The Gen (18 editions plus 7 reels of operational material) A film magazine for circulation within the Service covering a wide range of its work in all theatres of the war.

* Journey Together (John Boulting, 1945)(*) [AP26 – 9 reels] A significant documentary feature film depicting aircrew training through the experience of a young volunteer. The RAF FPU’s most well-known film production. International theatrical distribution.

Life in ACSEA (So This Is India) (Victor Sheridan, 1945) [AP37 – 2 reels] An induction film shown to RAF personnel explaining serving conditions in India. Probably received non-theatrical distribution through the MoI. (ACSEA-Air Command South East Asia)

Naples is a Battlefield (Jack Clayton, 1944) [AP25 – 1 reel] A description of war damage and civilian conditions in Naples. Issued as an MoI monthly special.

Night Flight (Peter Baylis, 1944) [AP16 – 4 reels] A training film on night flying and map reading. A shortened version, 2 reels, was issued to the MoI for non-theatrical screening.

* Now It Can Be Told (Edward Baird, 1945) [AR 100 – 8 reels] A film record made in story-documentary style about the training and work of two Special Operations agents sent to assist the French Resistance with preparations for the Allied invasion. Starring the agents as themselves. Theatrical distribution.

Operational Height (Arthur Taylor, 1942) [AP1 – 4 reels] A documentary story about the work of a water-borne balloon crew. International theatrical and non-theatrical distribution.

RAAF over Europe (George Collins, 1945) [AP22 – 2 reels] A documentary showing the work of the Royal Australian Air Force in various operational roles. Limited international non-theatrical distribution through the MoI.

The RAF in Combined Operations (Edward Baird, 1944) [AP20 – 6 reels] A highly secret film dealing with the then imminent invasion of North-West Europe. Used for specialised training and serving confidential showings. Screened in the House of Commons immediately after ‘D’ Day.

Ship Busters (Tony Squire, 1945) [AP38 – 2 reels] Coastal Command’s battle against the German convoys. Intended for commercial release.

Towards the Offensive (John Boulting, 1943) [AP5 – 2 reels] A propaganda film showing the RAF changing from a defensive to an offensive force.

Transport Command Gibraltar to Rabat Salle (Peter Baylis) [AP27] Made for and shown by RAF Transport Command.

A number of training films were completed within the ‘AP’ series including Jumps Ahead [AP9] (parachute training), Naught Feet [AP15] (low level map reading), RAF Regiment [AP18], Mediterranean Operations [AP21] (briefing for the Ploesti bombing mission), Visual Deception [AP31] (camouflage), Operation Varsity [AP40] (training for airborne operations relating to the crossing of the Rhine).

The RAF FPU also contributed to the production of Malta GG(*) (1942), Desert Victory (1943), Tunisian Victory(*) (1943) and The True Glory(*) (1945).

Keith Buckman is Media Services Manager at Brunel University, West London, and contributes to its undergraduate Film and Television Studies course. This article is a revised version of a thesis submitted as part fulfilment of the MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Carfax Publishing Co.

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