After the photo reconnaissance crews returned from a sortie, what happened to the films after the magazines were removed from the cameras?
Basil Jackson explains here
the make-up of the Mobile Field Photographic Sections (MFPS) that processed the
thousands of films exposed during the existence of 34 Wing (16, 69 and 140
No. 5 MPFS (RCAF) allocated to 39 Wing 2TAF [© IWM (CL 1572)]
First, we need to go back a bit to before the form-up of the
Wing. Although well separated administratively and geographically, the three
squadrons were, in fact, working as if they were in the same Wing nine to twelve
months before D-Day. All films were brought by dispatch riders to St. James’
Square, London for processing by N°s 1 and 7 MFPS working under orders from
Eisenhower’s SHAEF in Norfolk House. N° 1 MFPS was just outside the front
door – all the vehicles occupying the central garden area of the Square. So
prints could be hand delivered to interpreters’ desks in Norfolk House a
minute of two after they were dry. Prints from N° 7 MFPS got into
interpretation procedure after only a few minutes longer – the unit being only
500 yards away.
A few anecdotal points before proceeding with the
technicalities: Five of the big articulated MFPS vehicles emitted great clouds
of steam 24 hours day and night. All this coming from the electrical drying of
the fast moving rolls of film and print bromide paper. This aroused natural
curiosity in the hundreds of office workers passing through St. James’ Square
daily. We were under orders to say that we were a mobile laundry and this was
One of the MFPS vehicles was the ‘Enlarging Vehicle’
equipped with a huge horizontal enlarger projecting on to no less than 1m square
bromide paper. (These big prints were used at inter-service conferences
– not by interpreters). Because of the degree of enlargement and the
long focal length involved, print quality could be ruined due to camera shake.
Our problem was that there was a battery of heavy calibre anti-aircraft guns in
permanent gun positions in Green Park just 150 yards from us. Staffed, (I nearly
wrote ‘manned’), entirely by a magnificent bunch of ATS girls. These guns
fired all night and quite often in the day as well. So the work in this vehicle
had to be based on gun re-loading time. The RAF photographers soon cottoned on
to the trick of knowing exactly how many minutes enlarging time they had between
One further heavily engraved memory of St. James’ must be
recounted. Like the rest of London, St. James’ Square was completely black at
night. Not a chink of light to be seen. With so many allied officers billeted
and working in the area, the Square became quite a stamping ground for the
professional ladies of the town. One of these women had the bright idea (pun) of
painting her high-heeled shoes with phosphorous paint. Even now, I have in my
mind a clear picture of these bright green feet pattering, apparently ownerless,
around the Square. Everybody called the owner ‘Goody Two Shoes’ – the title of
a popular song at the time.
The two MFPSs operated in Central London for about four months
and then moved to Northolt to be close to the reconnaissance aircraft of the
newly formed 34 Wing. Under the new arrangements, dispatch riders took prints to
and brought orders from RAF Medmenham PR Unit as well as continuing to serve
mainly Norfolk House.
Thereafter both MFPSs stayed on the same airfields and ALGs
as the 34 Wing aircraft until the end of the war; crossing the channel in tank
landing ships and following 21st Army Group from Normandy, across France,
through Belgium and Holland into Germany.
Now we come to the MFPS itself and the make-up of the seven main
work vehicles plus several auxiliary vehicles that kept the MFPS supplied and
1) Continuous Film Processing Vehicle. This was a very
long vehicle with lengthy chemical baths and roller transport mechanism. Due to
the use of fast sensitive film, the interior was almost completely black. The
film processing continued 24hr a day and only stopped temporarily when the
chemicals were exhausted (after circa 12hr) and for a few minutes at the end of
each film being processed as a new undeveloped film was spliced on.
This mobile continuous film processing vehicle interior had
seven separate very deep baths through which the films travelled over and under
numerous rollers situated above and deep within the tanks. The tanks, in process
order, were: pre-wetting, developing, washing, fixing, first post wash, final
wash, methanol drying liquid.
The four washing tanks had continuous input of fresh water and
outward drainage. This gave a very heavy workload to the ‘Bowser Wallahs’
responsible for keeping the outdoor water supply tanks full. The water had to be
transported day and night from surrounding streams, rivers and lakes. The
vehicle had a light-tight double door entrance with asymmetric security against
double door opening. There was a large air-conditioning plant on board.
2/3) Two Multiprinter Vehicles. Similar layout and
facilities to above, but with interiors lit with reasonable amount of orange
light. Also ran non-stop (except for chemical changes).
4) Contact Printer Vehicle. Same size as above, also lit
inside with orange light. In place of large central machine, two rows of contact
printers, chemical baths and sinks. NB that contact prints from these wide films
were 30cm x 30cm from Fairchild cameras or 22.5cm x 23.5cm from Williamson (F24)
5) Photograph Enlargement Vehicle.
construction but this time with big enlarging apparatus capable of exposing on
to 1m x 1m bromide paper and with very large, shallow developing and fixing
baths (Two men needed to handle each print in the baths). Orange lighting. These
very big photographs were used for battle-plan conferences.
6) Storage and Chemical Mixing.
A roomy vehicle, but
smaller than those above, fitted with shelves and cupboards for storing
unexposed film and photographic paper, chemical powders (developers and fixers),
methanol for quick film drying plus tubs for paddle-mixing chemicals with water.
7) Administration Vehicle. With CO’s office plus work
tables for ordering bundling and dispatching personnel.
Additional vehicles were: Two water bowsers that continuously
collected water from streams rivers and lakes. Several thousand litres per day
were needed. Big diesel generator. Two dispatch rider motor cycles. Three 3-ton
Bedfords to carry stores, spares, victuals and men’s kit at removal times.
An MFPS was entirely self-contained including a mobile cooking
facility, (two cooks). For the totality of the hostilities the MFPS personnel
ate at their own cookhouse and not at the main messes.
The total of the above descriptions of the unit needs to be
multiplied by two. There were two identical MFPS units: Nos 1 and 7 MFPSs
stayed together from form-up in England to the end of the war in Europe.
(Disbanding in Germany).
Although only around 50m from each other, there was no sharing
of any facilities. This was done purposely so that, if required, one unit could
pack and be on the road within two hours.
140 Squadron Photographer
Email from B. Jackson to J. Shaw, 3 January 2002]
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The Bodenplatte Attack
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