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Movietone at War: Assignments for D-Day

D-Day and the invasion of Europe, the Second Front, was expected at any time.

21st May 1944 – Gerald Sanger, Movietone’s Editor, was Orderly Officer at Battalion H.Q. of the Home Guard.  He was asked “How would you cover the Invasion if it were left to you ?“.   The question had been posed by Sir Gordon Craig, Movietone’s General Manager, and the response was to be submitted to Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).

Sir Gordon Craig arranged a lunch at the Gargoyle Club in the following week.  The guest was Matthew Fox a Public Relations office of SHAEF.  Gerald Sanger was asked “How would you dispose cameramen for the Invasion?“. “How would you brief them?”.  The questions, slightly different from the one posed by Craig, but requiring more detail.

The Movietone pair had been told that “something like 250 cameramen are expected to cover the invasion”.

If each of 250 cameramen had shot only 800 feet each, it would result in 200,000 feet of negative which would take 37 hours just to look at, apart from the several days required to develop it.  Gerald Sanger realised the problems that would cause immediately.


IWM caption : OPERATION OVERLORD (THE NORMANDY LANDINGS): D-DAY 6 JUNE 1944. The British 2nd Army: Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) tanks of ‘B’ Squadron, 13/18th Royal Hussars, and men of No 4 Commando advancing towards Ouistreham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He said at the outset that the amount of material from so many cameras might be an embarrassment and that some shots – e.g. disembarkation for landing craft – would be repeated indefinitely.  He suggested an allotment of four men to each landing area in the first wave, and eight in the next waves to push ahead from the beachhead.  He also put forward his ideas for naval and air force coverage and for airborne troops.

Two days later Sanger lunched with Flight Lieutenant Rickets of PR1, Air Ministry. They went to Crockford’s.  They spoke about the grotesqueness of the arrangements for screening and censoring the Second Front material.  Over 250 cameramen engaged and all their material expected to flow through the bottleneck of one theatre.

It was proposed that all film from the Invasion would be screened in one theatre, Theatre A, and seen only by censors and the censored film would be screened in a second theatre, Theatre B, viewed by the representatives of the Newsreel Association.

On Tuesday and Thursday the representatives of the newsreels met the representatives of SHAEF and the British Service Departments in conference to finalize plans.   Two U.S. Colonels from SHAEF explained their plans including sending all American negative forward uncut to Washington. (In the event, all the material gathered at the American beaches on D-Day was lost when the ship carrying the negative back to England was sunk in the Channel).

Gerald Sanger wrote:

I sympathized with the views of Messrs Ricketts, Tritton and Craig, knowing full well in my heart that the first full day’s screening in “Theatre B” would exhaust the enthusiasm of my colleagues for seeing every foot of film that came back from the battle areas. Unfortunately, the News Reel Association, having an obstinate suspicion of the Service representatives and insisted from the start on the policy of “see everything” and the new overriding organization SHAEF had in the most obliging manner evolved a compleat system of screening and censorship to satisfy us.  Full prints were to be struck off all negatives from whatever source, and shown to censors sitting the clock round in “Theatre A”.  After censorship cuts had been made by service cutters on the spot, the prints would be rushed to “Theatre B”, where it was presumed that the News-reel appointees would be sitting the clock round to view and select such material as dupes would be required of.

The Movietone team backed Flight Lieutenant Ricketts who asked that the Services first eliminated material that was “out of focus, fogged, unsteady material” before it was sent for censorship.  SHAEF said no.  They insisted that all material would go to “Theatre A” without interception by anyone, even the owners of the film.

So, the arrangements were made and D-Day was surely not far off.

Sanger noted: Our own secretly briefed war correspondents – Jack Ramsden and Alec Tozer – are hanging around in uniform and attending hush –hush meetings.

Jack Ramsden and Jack Cotter

Jack Ramsden and Jack Cotter

In the event, the Newsreels had eight of their cameramen on duty on D-Day during the Invasion.  As well as Movietone’s Jack Ramsden, Alex Tozer and Jack Cotter, there was Jock Gemmell and Ken Gordon of Pathe, John Turner of Gaumont, R. Colwyn Wood of Universal and Jimmy Gemmell of Paramount. Six of them were in warships, Alec Tozer, was on a merchantman and Jack Cotter was with the U.S.A.A.F. Air Force Ambulance Service.

All coverage on the beaches was made by members of the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU). About a dozen of their cameramen were deployed on the three beaches, Juno, Sword and Gold, the first arriving at 07.45 hrs.

It is quite remarkable that the Newsreels in general and Gerald Sanger in particular had such an influence on how the invasion was to be covered.  It seems a pity to me that he did not agree with SHAEF to use 250 cameramen, but to nominate those cameramen whose material should be dealt with first to allow the production of the newsreels. The cameramen would have been willing and the next generation of film-makers would have been able to go through their material at leisure to produce a very interesting documentary on Operation Overlord.

The Movietone At War articles are based on extracts and research for my forthcoming book: “Movietone At War”.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2013.  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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about Movietone click here.

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