The Biggs' Boys

By Ken Stofer

Copyright 2001-2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

The Photographer

     To most airmen in the Royal Air Force the other man's trade was something of a mystery unless he worked right alongside him on an aircraft, such as the armorer, fitter and wireless mechanic. One of those mysterious jobs was that of the photographer, on whose closed door there was a sign that said with great authority: OUT OF BOUNDS TO ALL RANKS.

    The air and movie cameras were complicated pieces of precision mechanism that had to be "to line" all the time, for should they fail in the air on a dangerous reconnaissance, then not only did the job have to be done over again but valuable aircraft and air crews, too, maybe friends, had to be risked and sent out again.

    The air camera was a highly complicated piece of machinery, and it had among other things a gear box that was operated fully automatically or semi-automatically by electricity, or hand-operated. The gear box contained a mass of worm wheels, gap wheels, electric connections, etc., and it was part of the photographic course with which the photographer had to be fully conversant. Other equipment consisted fully automatic controls that operated the camera with from 6 to 60 seconds between shots; semi-automatic push switches, flexible drives, electric motors and mountings.

    The servicing for all of this equipment was done by the photographic section.

    The shutter speeds and apertures were set by the photographer before flight, and these settings were not altered, the camera only being leveled and corrected for drift during flight.

    Besides air cameras there were ground cameras for all sorts of jobs, identity card photographs, copying prints and maps, photographing damage to aircraft, e.g. bullet holes, dents, modifications, etc., all M.T. vehicles, kit and bed layouts, Squadron groups and sometimes press work.

    Often an aircraft came in with a wing shot up and the photographer had to laboriously climb up into the wing with a portable floodlight and, if his section was lucky enough to have one, a Leica or Contax to photograph the internal damage. Another aircraft may have its prop bent or motor damaged and this again had to be photographed. Crashed aircraft, visits by royalty, progress shots all had to be taken and processed. Air film and movie film from movie gun cameras, film from torpedo cameras, all went through the photographic section. Mosaics of territory were pieced together, too, and mounted.

    On busy days during the war in England, sections processed and delivered as many as 3,000 prints, and the photographic section was the first to see the results of the bombing raids. As soon as the aircraft returned from a raid the magazine containing exposed films, with shots of the bomb damage, were rushed to the photographic section to disappear behind the "Out of Bounds" door.

    There, everything was organized to work smoothly, processing solutions all ready, and the film was marked with details of the aircraft when it was received. The film was developed, fixed, and washed as quickly as possible, then put through a bath of methylated spirits so that it would dry rapidly; passed on to the drying room, wiped off with a leather, and placed on a drum which was revolved at high speed. As soon as the film was dry it was rolled on to a spool, hurried to the printing room and printed.

    A rough print was made of each negative and the prints were passed on to the Intelligence Officer for assessing. Meanwhile other permanent sets were being made, unless other films were ready for printing, in which case the rough firsts of those took priority.

    It took only about 3/4's of an hour from the time the first plane landed to the prints being handed to the Intelligence Officer.

    Often the photographers worked through the night making sets of prints. Sometimes an aircraft waited to fly them to Command H.Q. The first raid on the next day might be due to start at 9 a.m., and then the whole procedure would start all over again.

Copyright 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

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