Image ID HBMETD Desert Victory film 1943 Army Film and Photography Unit British Army CREDIT Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo EXP 15.02.24
A still from the 1943 film Desert Victory (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).

The making of Desert Victory, the British Army's Oscar-winning documentary

Image ID HBMETD Desert Victory film 1943 Army Film and Photography Unit British Army CREDIT Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo EXP 15.02.24
A still from the 1943 film Desert Victory (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).

Blockbuster films such as The Lord of the Rings, Titanic, Slumdog Millionaire and Gone with the Wind have something in common with the British Army – they can all boast an Oscar. 

In 1943, the Ministry of Information released a film about the battle of El Alamein that was to "transform the international view of Britain" and have "an impact on filmmaking around the world" – the feature-length documentary Desert Victory. 

Hilary Roberts, a history of conflict photography specialist and former Senior Curator of Photography at Imperial War Museums, said: "The Battle of El Alamein... was really the Army Film and Photographic Unit's first major experience of combat so, for them... it was a major, major event." 

In October and November 1942, British troops from General Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army took on and triumphed over Italian and German personnel in El Alamein, Egypt – a turning point in the North African campaign during the Second World War. 

Records from 1942 show that the War Office and Ministry of Information had no intention to produce a feature-length documentary from the footage filmed during the Battle of El Alamein. 

However, Ms Roberts says it was a chance encounter between David MacDonald, one of the film's directors and General Harold Alexander, commander-in-chief, Middle East, that led to Desert Victory being made – the first of a trilogy that included Tunisian Victory, 1943 and Burma Victory, 1945. 


While en route to Cairo from Tobruk, MacDonald spotted General Alexander having lunch by the roadside. He stopped to take photos and while he did so, struck up a conversation with the general who, knowing the battle had been filmed, had some questions. 

She said: "[He] asked what they were doing and how it was going and what was going to happen to all the film. 

"David MacDonald asked his permission to make a feature-length documentary film. 

"Three days later, MacDonald was on his way back to Pinewood on Alexander's orders to make that film. 

"He arrived back in Britain in Pinewood in January 1943 and that was when serious work on the film began." 

Ms Roberts says that the success of the film, both at home and internationally, was an "absolute landmark" and boosted morale for those desperate for good news and, possibly, a glimpse of their loved one. 

Success at El Alamein was the first victory the British Army had achieved after months of devastating defeat. 

It was a pivotal moment in the Second World War. 

She said: "The Army had been transformed from a losing force into a force which could win battles against really well-trained, well-equipped troops which [German General] Rommel's forces actually were. 

"It transformed the international view of Britain and it transformed Britain's view of itself so... that's quite a significant achievement for a one-hour feature documentary film." 

WO1 Rupert Frere, Command Master Photographer for the British Army, says that, with the rapid development of technology since the Second World War, the ability to stay in contact with deployed loved ones now is easier in comparison. 

He said: "Most people didn't even own a television so the only way that they would be able to see anything was being able to go to the local cinema, so that's why the films were made. 

"The MOD would have said, 'right, we're losing support, we need to do this, people don't know what's going on'."

Who filmed Desert Victory? 

The Oscar-winning feature-length documentary was filmed by talented men from the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU). 

Some of the footage was also shot by the AFPU's RAF equivalent, the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit (RAFFPU), plus the film also includes captured German footage of Rommel and his men. 

However, as Ms Roberts explains, Desert Victory's "production, its editing, the storyline, all of that is the work of the Army". 

Image ID 2B6XETH WWII Second World War Battle of El Alamein Evening Standard headline 8th Army is Advancing Over the Whole Front 5 Nov 1942 CREDIT Kathy deWitt Alamy Stock Photo EXP 17.02.24
Evening Standard headline '8th Army is advancing over the whole front', 5 November 1942 (Picture: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo).

The AFPU emerged in 1941 from various attempts to film and photograph the war since it began in 1939. 

The unit was created from experienced professionals in the film and photography industry who first had to go through military training and be turned into soldiers before they could enter the theatre of war. 

Director David MacDonald had previously run the Army Film Unit which, in December 1940, filmed the haunting sight of the Dome of St Paul's Cathedral illuminated by flames during The Blitz. 

The unit was initially established to generate material for propaganda and public information but the danger the men faced was very real. 

Statistically, the AFPU sustained, as a percentage of their in total number, the highest casualties in the British Army during the Second World War. 

Due to the dangerous nature of the work they did, the AFPU suffered fatalities, many were wounded and left coping with what is now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, plus, quite a few of them ended up as prisoners of war. 

Ms Roberts said: "One photographer/cameraman Leslie Davis was drowned when his ship leaving Tobruk was torpedoed. 

"A lot were killed in the context of the fighting in and around Tobruk. 

"They also worked with the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS operating behind the lines in this case mostly observation and reconnaissance, intelligence gathering.

Image ID 2JRFMAN The last phase of training for the Army Film and Photographic Unit takes place at a Battle School. A cameraman films an infantry section sheltering behind a small mound of earth CREDIT piemags / Alamy Stock Photo EXP 15.02.23
An Army Film and Photographic Unit cameraman films an infantry section sheltering behind a small mound of earth during training (Picture: piemags / Alamy Stock Photo).

The men would carry sidearms but quite often the photographer and cameramen would look after their trade's equipment before ensuring their weapons were fit for purpose. 

Ms Roberts says that at least one member of the AFPU was court martialed for losing his revolver. 

Desert Victory was a technical achievement

Most of the footage showing British Forces at war is actuality but there is one staged scene of "only about 200ft of film" which was recreated at Pinewood Studios. 

The scene, showing troops preparing for the imminent fight and close-up shots of soldiers, with glycerin on their faces to recreate sweat, yelling fire to initiate battle, had to be filmed in a studio back in the UK. 

They couldn't capture this footage at the time due to the cameras being set to run at the wrong speed in preparation for the brutal action they were to film next. 

Ms Roberts said: "The artillery barrage itself is absolutely genuine and it's quite a technical feat to actually create it. 

"The film of the time, if the cameras had run at normal speed, all you would have got was white out. 

"You wouldn't have got any definition so they put their heads together knowing the time that the barrage would start and worked out a solution based on their combined experience. 

"Their cameras were clockwork, so you wound them up and they managed to rejig them so that they ran slowly and that is how they managed to capture these flashes. 

"As a technical achievement in combat, it's... extraordinary." 

Image ID CP67F5 Desert Victory poster for 1943 film detailing the British North African campaign CREDIT Pictorial Press Ltd Alamy Stock Photo EXP 15.02.24
Desert Victory poster campaign (Picture: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo).

But the AFPU wasn't just made up of skilled photographers and cameramen. 

Roughly two dozen AFPU cameramen and photographers captured stills and footage at the Battle of El Alamein thanks to the unit's drivers who played a crucial role in keeping them safe. 

Ms Roberts said: "If you had your eye down the viewfinder of a camera you weren't actually able to keep a lookout for yourself and so... the drivers in the unit were just as important as the cameraman themselves and they too sustained numerous casualties, so they receive equal credit in the history of the unit." 

Image ID DH8D24 a WW2 cameraman of the Army Film and Photographic Unit in action CREDIT Military Images Alamy Stock Photo EXP 15.02.23
A cameraman of the Army Film and Photographic Unit in action (Picture: Military Images / Alamy Stock Photo).

When it comes to history, the Battle of El Alamein is when service personnel became more aware of the work of the AFPU. 

The idea of having a photographer or cameraman with you mid-battle wasn't as novel as it was during the First World War. 

The landmark 1916 documentary, The Battle Of The Somme, features scenes of soldiers stopping to wave at their parents. 

However, by the Battle of El Alamein, some members of the Eighth Army were beginning to understand how important the work of the AFPU was and how they could benefit by being filmed – thanks to a little tour by the unit. 

Ms Roberts said: "In early 1943, the AFPU were authorized to tour around the units of the Eighth Army, [and] show them their work. 

"You could actually buy... copies of photographs and so that's how many of the photographs ended up in soldiers' personal photo albums. 

"Film shows and giving screenings were also terribly important for the troops and that really gained momentum in 1943, so at the time of El Alamein itself, awareness of what the cameramen were doing amongst the troops, in general, was relatively low but the success of the film and the photography at El Alamein changed all that and it was an absolute landmark." 

Image ID CYPJ6T Battle of El Alamein advancing British Army soldiers of General Montgomery's 8th Army in 1942 CREDIT Glasshouse Images Alamy Stock Photo EXP 17.02.24
Soldiers of General Montgomery's 8th Army fighting in the Battle of El Alamein, 1942 (Picture: Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo).

After Desert Victory was released in March 1943, a copy was sent to President Franklin D Roosevelt. 

According to Ms Roberts, American cameramen were producing "quite stodgy documentaries" about the war during WWII and American Secretary for War Henry L Stimson called for better quality footage from the AFPU's US counterparts, the Signal Corps Photographic Center. 

Ms Roberts said: "So it not only had an impact in Britain, but it certainly had an impact on filmmaking around the world." 

And it led to two further films in the series being made – Tunisian Victory and Burma Victory – and a second Oscar for the British Army for their involvement in the 1945 film The True Glory, a British/American co-production of the liberation of Europe from D-Day through to VE Day.  

Both Desert Victory and The True Glory won an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature Length Film category and the statues are in the permanent collection at the Imperial War Museum. 

Technically, the Oscar for Desert Victory was awarded to the Ministry of Information which was the distributor, but the majority of the camera work, editing and scripting was undertaken by the AFPU – the British Army's Film and Photographic Unit.

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