Book review: Cameramen at War – Ian Grant
From time to time, I would research material for him, but not, I must add, for “Cameramen at War”. He had other projects which, I believe, were never published.
In 1980, a year before he died, he wrote to me.
He wrote, inter alia:
‘scuse using my scratch jottings for this letter – right now I’m surrounded by them – one pile full of notes & accumulated junk, I know I’m going to use at some time or another – and another pile which is the stuff I’m actually writing.
Thanks a lot for the Berlin material which arrived this morning – I’ll need it when I start the rewrite. I’ve only a few pages of the first draft to do – a different one – a TV eye-ball confrontation between Brezhnev, Andropov and the Supreme Commander of NATO.
He was well into writing a book about the Oder-Neisse Line which divides Poland from Germany, at that time East Germany. He thought he would write a novel about World War III in which all the, then, modern military equipment and communications technology would be brought into the affray.
Why review a book that is thirty years old ? Well, it was only recently that I found out that Ian Grant had written the book and I have only just finished reading it. I purchased the copy of the book via the Internet and there are other copies out there.
It is a good read and it recalls the work of the Army Film and Photographic Unit which provided still picture and cinematographer cameramen at the forefront of most battles in the Second World War.
Ian Grant tends to use what one might call “Barrack Room Jargon”. Mostly, the meaning of some of his words and phrases become clear, sometimes they don ‘t.
He writes: “With the coming of nightfall, the remains of the 29th Armoured Brigade went in laager and the costs were added up”. Many people would not know what a laager was, especially in the context of an armoured brigade. So as not to make the same mistake, a laager is a circle of wagons or a park for armoured vehicles. Why could he not say that?
He talks about “Buffalos” and “Weasels” and it is several chapters later that one finds out what they were. The Buffalo is an LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked), sometime with a turret and became an amphibious tank. The Weasel was a light armoured personnel carrier, similar to the British Bren Gun carrier.
He shows a clear dislike of what he called “Warcos”. These were War Correspondents and, in the case of moving pictures, they were newsreel cameramen afforded the rank of Officer, not to be confused with War Correspondents such as journalists Richard Dimbleby and Alan Moorehead. Why he should think that newsreel cameramen were less capable than him and his colleagues, I do not know. In many of the great battles of the war, the newsreel cameramen were also right up the front.
That’s the down side.
He does mention several AFPU cameramen who went on to work in the Newsreels, they were Eddie Smales of Movietone, Pat Whitaker, Bill Jordan, Ken Gordon and Bill McConville all of Pathe News. Slim Hewitt of BBC’s “Tonight” fame.
Alan Wicker was a Captain in the AFPU and he was introduced to the AFPU section working in North Africa whilst in Tunis. “The CO, Hugh Stewart observed in his diaries that he ‘was impressed, and was sure he would go far’”.
Ian Grant’s description of his first arrival on the beach on D-day with 40 Commando and Lord Lovat is as good as any that I have read. It is comparable with the fictional work of Alexander Baron describing the same scene on the same day in his book “From the City, from the Plough”. I am glad to say that this book was re-published in 2010. Baron was in the Pioneer Corps and was on Sword Beach himself during D-Day.
Ian Grant must have done an enormous amount of research to obtain the information he did.
He was able to identify the cameras that each of his colleagues were using. The De Vry and the Vinten cameras had been around since the early twenties and were tried and trusted if not admired by the operators.
His opening chapters deal with the formation of the early units of AFPU in Tunisia and the Western Desert, a campaign that he did not attend. The AFPU were divided into units as follows: No 1 Section in Cairo; No 2 in Italy (originally formed to record the North African campaign), No 5 Section in North West Europe and No 9 Section in South East Asia. Ian was being trained as a cameraman at Pinewood Studios until 1944 and joined Unit 5 AFPU.
His description of the battle for Normandy is particularly interesting to me because, now living in France, I am surrounded by the towns he went through.
We shop in Avranches from time to time. Mortain is just down the road and we frequently visit the likes of Vire, Vassy and Tinchebray. In the past few years we visited Falaise and Flers and spent several holidays in the country around Condé-sur-Noireau.
All these towns were either severely damaged or flattened. It is plain to see that these towns have been re-built since those disastrous days.
Ian describes the move forward to each battle and the part played in it by his colleagues in some detail naming the various elements of the Army engaged. He spent most of his time between D-Day and VE-Day serving alongside 40 Commando and, later, with the 11th Armoured Division.
Ian Grant described his arrival at Belsen Concentration Camp on 15th April 1945. When he arrived at the Gate, it was locked. Inside were Irma Grese and Joseph Kramer, the “Beast of Belsen”. This was proof enough that he was the first cinematographer to arrive.
He filmed the horrific scenes that confronted him and later that day, he was sent out by his C.O. and, thereafter, his colleagues were only allowed to work in the camp for two days at a time. He describes what he saw and he relates what his colleagues witnessed and filmed.
Readers of “Cameramen at War” should come to believe that the Army Film and Photographic Unit, consisted of extremely able men who were dedicated to their task and brave, if not, on occasion, foolhardy.
A quote from the book:
“With the relief of Tobruk and Benghazi, the name AFPU became well known with the men of the 8th Army, that it was an accepted phenomenon that they often made their appearance ahead of the advancing troops”.
As one who spent many years in the newsreel industry, I am convinced that large quantities of the film taken by AFPU have never reached the public screens, either cinema or television. There may be very good reasons for withholding some material for reasons of security or that some were distressing scenes. Even the material that did reach the screen was not credited to them.
Feature films have used library material to show troops disembarking on to the beach. The shot from behind with the coastal defences in the background. If my memory serves me correctly, the Americans had no such shot until they found one in the late fifties. Prior to that there was one shot used by everyone and that was of British or Canadian steel-helmeted troops jumping off into the sea in a hail of gunfire.
We know from Ian Grant that he shot the same scene when groups of 40 Commando and the Green Berets disembarked. I have never seen such a shot. He was with them, wearing a Green Beret at the insistence of Lord Lovat, who said: “No helmets on the day Sergeant, as you don’t want to get shot up the arse.”
Ian describes the scene in his book:
My camera had been running up to the moment we came to a shuddering halt – no doubt Pinewood would comment that the shot was unsteady – and the Commandos moved sharply to the remaining ramp. As most of the LCIs had touched down about the same time we now came under a hail of small-arms fire and one or two chunks of larger stuff. Hastily draping the camera around my neck I pushed my way into the queue cramming its way to get off in a scramble which, as one Londoner later described, ‘was worse than the Underground at rush hour’. I took one fast look backwards and was horrified to see my benevolent rating slumped over his Oerlikon gun, his face and arms covered in blood, then I got a hefty push from the Commando behind me and I was on my backside, thumping down the ramp and into about two feet of water.
I suspect that there is a lot of AFPU film that was withheld by the censors at the Ministry of Information. The Army Film and Photographic Unit’s collection is now being curated by the Imperial War Museum.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ian’s book, especially since it took a long time to get published after he had finished writing it.