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The British Newsreels’ filming of D-Day

Jack Ramsden and Jack Cotter

Newsreel cameramen had been at the forefront of the battlegrounds to film the action since the start of the Second World War.  The Movietone cameramen Paul Wyand, Norman Fisher, Jack RamsdenGraham Thompson and Alec Tozer had all seen front-line action.  It was the same with cameramen from the other newsreels.

I state this as a fact because there is all the evidence one needs sitting in the libraries of the newsreels.

It is sometimes suggested that all the front line material was shot by cameramen of the Armed Forces, such as the Army Film and Photographic Unit.  This is not so.

Together with cameramen of the American Armed Forces and Canadian Armed Forces, Army Pictorial Service, Army Film and Photographic Unit, Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, American and Canadian Newsreels, several British newsreel cameramen were shooting Operation Overlord from D-Day onwards.

Jack Ramsden (left, main picture), who had had previous experience flying on bombing missions with the U.S.A.A.F. as well as the raids at Vaagso and the Lofoten Islands, was posted on H.M.S. Scorpion.  Scorpion was a destroyer and was in action covering the landing craft and shelling the German coastal defenses.

Normandy Invasion, June 1944 A convoy of Landi...

A convoy of Landing Craft Infantry (Large) sails across the English Channel

He has been quoted as saying “every ship in the Royal Navy seemed to be firing, the noise was incredible and only the footage counter of my camera told me it was still running.  It was quite impossible to hear it”.

Later, Ramsden said that “my pictures of the Airborne Division passing over the coast in the late evening were some of the finest I have ever had the fortune to take”.

He was to find out later that these pictures and other taken on shore at Cherbourg had been censored, much to his regret.

Others covering D-Day included Alec Tozer of Movietone, Jock Gemmell and Ken Gordon of Pathe, John Turner of Gaumont, R. Colwyn Wood of Universal and Jimmy Gemmell of Paramount.

Their pooled material was used in the Movietone issue titled “Liberating Armies Invade Normandy”.

Alec Tozer was filming from a troop carrier.  His craft was not due to arrive until D-Day plus Two.  Tozer felt that he had missed some of the best action, saying “not nearly so full of action as I had imagined it would be”. However his material was used in the same issue as that of Jack Ramsden and also in the follow-up story “Consolidating in Normandy”.

John Turner, of Gaumont, was also assigned to a Royal Navy destroyer which supported the landing and was firing at shore batteries.   Later, he was to write that “..I found the scene unreal because we’d expected something different.  I was in a very old destroyer – it seemed unreal to us all in that ship – we had been keyed up to expect blood and thunder, and instead, when we reached the Assault Area, it might have been any day in a very crowded harbour.”

“…We were lucky no doubt.  There were incidents of course.  There was a ship ahead of us which struck a mine shortly before zero-hour.  But she only shivered, drooped her head a little, recovered and turned for England. And then there was the little tug which hit a mine too – for just a moment it lingered, then it sighed a long, long sigh of pure white steam – and went, with all its men. Like all the newsreel boys on this operation, I’ve been to sea lot since the war started.  We’ve all had thrills – D-Day will take a lot of beating”.

The redoubtable Jack Cotter (right, main picture) of Movietone covered the landings from a U.S.A.A.F. Air-Ambulance.  He, too, contributed to the stories put our by the newsreels in the immediate aftermath of the landings.

Jock Gemmell was also aboard a warship supporting the landings from which he filmed wave after wave of gliders passing overhead on their way inland. He also filmed some of the destruction of buildings on the shoreline of Normandy.  He made a decision not to film a landing craft carrying allied wounded saying it was “too gruesome”.

Kenneth Gordon of Pathe

On D-Day plus Three, he filmed a German air attack on a beach ammunition dump which he described as “good pictures, but to us all a very depressing sight”.

Ken Gordon filmed the invasion as well as shots of Winston Churchill as he arrived by plane in Cherbourg, for the Pathe Gazette story “The Battle Of The Rivers“.  At the end of the war Gordon features in the Pathe story “Welcome home Ken“, where he looks back on his war footage.

Jimmy Gemmel of Paramount was assigned to a warship.  Eventually, he landed in Normandy and spent two weeks filming the battles to break out from the beachheads.

SHAEF commanders at a conference in London

SHAEF commanders at a conference in London

R.Colwyn Wood of Universal had been filming invasions preparations from the 3rd of June.  He landed in Normandy on D-Day plus Three where he filmed Colonel Langley of Combined Operations, with his Eymo camera, only for it to be censored by SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). Colonel Langley was th4 inventor of the rocket ship.

It was reported that R. Colwyn Wood was on board the Warwick Castle when it was torpedoed during which he broke an arm and cracked some ribs.  He was rescued by an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry).

When one compared what we know these, and other, cameramen shot, not only around D-Day but throughout the war, it makes one wonder just how much of the material was censored.  If there still material to be released ?

I believe that of all the cameramen who filmed action in the war including the AFPU, the newsreel cameramen were as brave as any of them.

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles on the Newsreels click here.

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