WW2 Mobile Field Photographic Sections

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 squadrons).  

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 largely believed.

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 salvos.

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 mobile.

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) cameras.

5) Photograph Enlargement Vehicle. Again, same 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.

Basil Jackson
140 Squadron Photographer

[By Email from B. Jackson to J. Shaw, 3 January 2002]

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