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Bryan Langley: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1987)

Covering WWII beyond Europe for The War Office Film Unit

Main image of Bryan Langley: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Bryan Langley was interviewed by Arthur Graham on 18 November 1987.

1. West Africa and Crete

BL: Having joined the War Office Film Unit as it was called then and having been shipped overseas at remarkably short notice with a great big revolver, I'd never had any military training. And I said to the man in the War office when I was in the OTC at Wellington I'd learned to four fours and I see that the soldiers walk around in 3s, shouldn't I learn what to do. He said no, we think you'll be much better going as a cameraman uninhibited by any military regulations and you can be jolly sure if you do any faux pas somebody there will always kindly or otherwise correct you. So it worked out. I've ridden in the same car as generals and field marshals and haven't felt awed or sat upon by their rank. To me they were just people to be filmed. The only time I really came to regret this lack of training was when we had a crank handle college in India. Of course, we then went into another league in which we had a whole gang of trainees and troops and so forth. For several months I was in sole command as my CO Jerry Keane had been killed so I didn't have any clue what to do as far as awarding punishments and drills and I had to rely heavily on those people who had been luckily enough to be trained but had been brow beaten possibly in the process.

Coming back to the question. I went on this troopship and we went to West Africa and then I flew in a Sabina [?] aeroplane right through the Congo to Khartoum and then down to Cairo. I was there a short time and they said the Germans had landed in Crete, lovely story, they're coming down like snowflakes I hear, the man said. And I thought about G filters and blue skies and whether a 23A would be better and my mind was purely photographic. And we went to Alexandria and soon after we arrived it was bombed, Alexandria was bombed.

Anyway we got to Alex and we were put on half an hour standby to go to Crete and the retreat was starting. Every half hour or so ships would come in from Crete loaded with so many personnel that they said that had all the people on the destroyer gone to one side it would have tipped over. Incredible, absolutely stuffed solid with people in abundance. And the guns were twisted and I filmed all this of course, the arrival of people from Crete, along with other newsreel cameramen, and all the time we were trying, someone was trying to get us to Crete to film the rest of the story, the parachutists. Happily we never went and so we came back to Cairo and the man said hard luck old man we'll get you to Cyprus, they're going to attack that next. We'll get you there first before they come. And the chap said you'd better take just what you can carry and a lot of film. I said how about getting the film back if they do attack and he said oh you'll have to improvise. Famous army words, you'll improvise the shipment of exposed film!

2. Cyprus and the Far East

I went to Cyprus. I was there a couple of months I suppose filming everything and preparing to go on top of Mount Trevelas [?] as a trogladite possibly [unintelligible]. We got bombed by the Germans, from, I think they came from Crete, the Italians from Rhodes and Vichy French from Beirut. And their bombing techniques were unbelievable, absolutely three different systems. You could stand on the ground and say Vichy French today, you really could by their actions, or their aeroplanes or whatever. Anyway, that didn't happen, so back to Cairo and they said better luck next time, we'll send you off to the Far East to Singapore. So, I went in a flying boat, an Imperial Airways flying boat, 300 miles a day from Cairo via Persian Gulf, [unintelligible], Karachi, India, Calcutta, Rangoon, somewhere in Siam, Penang and Singapore.

I arrived in Singapore, I think it was about September of 1941 and of course it was all peace out there. Lights everywhere, no guns, lots of gin slings and all these things. And they gave me a lovely camera car, a baker's wagon but with a roof rack and [unintelligible]. Inside. And I drove up and down Malaya filming all the defences as I was ordered to do. And then the Japanese attacked Malaya and I filmed all the way back. I got disabled at Kuala Lumpur on Christmas day and was shipped back to base on a hospital train but happily for me I wasn't that seriously upset to be in hospital, I could be an outpatient.

After about a couple of weeks I was back in working order to film the last bits of Singapore, the Great Causewav, I filmed that being blown up, about six feet or so and the air raid damage. And I might say that when the Japanese attacked Singapore on December 8th, of course I heard all the aeroplanes coming and I wasn't at all put out by these Japanese because I'd been taught to believe they couldn't fly, shoot, couldn't walk, they were cross-eyed and they didn't worry me at all. Having been through the Blitz in London you see I was a bit cocky. Anyway next day we went down to the dockside and we saw the bomb damage, very small, filmed that. And I had a photograph of these troops dancing, we all danced, at the news that America had been bombed in Pearl Harbour because it meant America was coming into the war.

3. India

BL: Fortunately for me the day before it capitulated, February 15th, I and the rest of the war correspondents were shipped off to Potavia to carry on with General Wayvell [?] SE Asia Command, then the Japanese invaded that and we were all evacuated again. Any old boat going any old where, to Ceylon, and from Ceylon I was ordered up to Burma and that fell before I arrived so I had to go to Calcutta and I filmed a lot of things there. Then they decided to form a training college in India along the lines of the Army Film Unit's so called crank handle college, very good description. I had the syllabus sent out and we adapted it and we trained a lot of people there and I get more satisfaction out of that because four or five of those lads that I trained became professional cameramen in India and Burma afterwards. So, at least my bit of the war did some good for somebody.

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Langley, Bryan (1909-2008)