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Target for Tonight (1941)

Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Main image of Target for Tonight (1941)
35mm, 50 minutes, black & white
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
SponsorsMinistry Of Information
 Air Ministry
ScriptHarry Watt

An RAF bomber crew receives its orders and proceeds on a successful bombing raid over Germany.

Show full synopsis

In late 1940, RAF Bomber Command commissioned one of the most successful and well received of the documentaries produced by the Crown Film Unit, Harry Watt's 'hitting back film', Target For Tonight. Tired of films showing Britons having to grin and bear it under fire - including his own Britain Can Take It (1940) - Watt sought to show the RAF successfully fighting back in the heart of Germany, and doing it in a "very British, casual, brave way." It was a message that was gratefully received by British audiences, who had effectively been on standby for a potential German invasion since the Allied retreat at Dunkirk.

Watt chose to use dramatic reconstruction to tell the story of a single bombing raid, with each part in the film "played by the actual man or woman who does the job - from Commander-in-Chief to Aircrafthand." Weeks spent among the men and women of the RAF enabled him to tailor his script to get the best possible response from his cast. Partly filmed on location at RAF Mildenhall (renamed Millerton), and partly on soundstages, the production holds together its documentary and dramatic aspects through skilled direction and editing. The potentially problematic bombing raid sequence is effectively pulled off using a mixture of specially commissioned footage, German newsreel and model work. Watt and his team were obviously pleased with this model sequence, as it is repeated as a kind of coda at the end of the film.

Released at the end of July 1941 (only three months after it began shooting), the film portrays Bomber Command as a tightly run, efficient operation. The first half is dominated by communication, the passing of information and orders in a smooth chain, with each section knowing its role and place. The logic of the film is that, from the moment the intelligence photographs land safely at Bomber Command, the fate of Freihausen is sealed.

British audiences of 1941 who lived in built-up areas would be well aware of offensive bombing tactics, with air-raids a daily peril, so it is interesting to consider their response to this picture of a very clinical strike on a purely industrial target. Though 'hitting back', the aggression of the film is controlled and considered, and however accurate a reflection of Allied bombing tactics this might be, it perfectly embodies the Government's message of a 'British way' to win the war.

Jez Stewart

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Video Clips
1. New intelligence (2:51)
2. Heading out (3:07)
3. Over the target (3:53)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Sky's the Limit, The (1943)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
Crown Film Unit