I enjoyed reading Michael Roberts’s short essay titled “Michael’s Testimony for VE Day in Britain, 8th May 1945,” published at Thuppahi on 10 May 2020. But I felt the story ended too quickly, leaving me to ponder where the story goes next. It would be good if Michael could continue this story. In the meantime, the following short note was triggered by Michael’s comment about the “insidious impact of Movietone News or Pathe News.”
After 3 September 1939, when Britain went to war with Germany, the British Ministry of Information (MOI) began arranging with numerous companies the release and distribution of their newsreels. One example was The Battle of Tobruk which was sent by plane to Colombo in March 1941. It was cleared through customs and distributed to cinemas in Colombo in time for screening at the evening shows on the same day the film arrived in Ceylon.
Prior to Japan entering the war, the British secured deals with countries across Asia to screen their films in cinemas. The countries included Japan, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, Indo-China, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Free China (Chungking), India and Ceylon. The companies were responsible for distributing the documentaries, which were given to them free of charge, and in return, they had to satisfy MOI that their films were being properly handled, and that a certain percentage of the advertising space was allotted to them.
The British knew how many cinemas existed in every country in Asia. They knew the seating capacity for each cinema and how many times each theatre screened films in a day. For instance, in 1941 (before Japan entered the War) there were 145 cinemas in Malaya; 25 in Indo-China, 250 in the Dutch East Indies; 50 in Thailand; 1,700 in Japan; and 8 in Hong Kong. They worked out that if the seating capacity in a theatre was from 800 to 1000, then the time of circuit for a propaganda newsreel would be three to four months during which time it may be seen by 250,000 people. While reaching a large number of people, the films were also designed to make a big impact on their minds. MOI monitored audience reactions to the films to ensure the films were well-received.
A special mention should be made of Thailand – one of the few countries in Asia that was never colonialised or subjugated by a European power. By 1941, Bangkok had become a city of intrigue with German, Japanese and British agents operating there. In January 41, the situation for the British became serious due to a shortage of their films which gave the Germans the opportunity to introduce into Bangkok a large number of their own war newsreels which were produced by propaganda units of the German Army. These films were somewhat dry and made no attempt to use humour, as British films did. German newsreel films showed “the irresistible might of the German Army,” with many scenes of tanks, guns, and towns in flames while British propaganda newsreels concentrated on their great victories. The aim of the British films was to boost morale by convincing the peoples of Asia that the British were on the side of Good and would prevail and succeed in defeating Germany and Japan.
In Asia, the Ministry of Information was known as the Far Eastern Bureau. A brief sketch follows outlining its history and objectives.
The Far Eastern Bureau (FEB) of the Ministry of Information was created in London on 2 September 1939, the day before war broke out with Germany. Sir John Pratt was put in charge of the section while Robert Scott was appointed Director of FEB with H. Vere Redman as his deputy. All three knew Asia well and had significant experience of the region. Scott established the FEB headquarters in Hong Kong in September 1939, while Redman, his deputy, was based in Tokyo as Press Attaché at the British Embassy.
In June 1940, with the fall of France and the feeling among the British that Japan would go to war against them, FEB was moved from Hong Kong to Singapore. During this period, its purpose was to persuade Asians that Britain would succeed in the war against Germany. After the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Scott was captured by the Japanese and remained a POW until the end of the war. At this time, FEB had a small office in Calcutta and the decision was taken to reconfigure FEB in New Delhi, and it was established in the Secretariat in Old Delhi in April 1942. It expanded its staff and operations with additional offices in Darjeeling and Colombo (Sri Lanka). Sir Paul Butler was appointed Director until November 1943 when C. E. Sayers became Director – a position he held until FEW’s liquidation in 1946. Before joining FEB in 1942, Sayers (a former Australian journalist) worked for the propaganda section of SOE’s Oriental Mission in Singapore under Sir George Sansom. From April 1942, FEB’s operations in India and Ceylon were not directed to distributing publicity to local people or arranging and distributing documentary films across Asia as it had been when it was headquartered in Singapore, but to engage in Political Warfare against Japan. FEB organised radio broadcasts into enemy and enemy-occupied territories in eight Asian languages and three European languages (French, German and English) from stations located in New Delhi and Colombo. FEB’s Production Division produced and printed propaganda materials while its Intelligence Division collected information, monitored Japanese radio broadcasts, and maintained a library of relevant books on Japan and Asia.
- P. C. de Trafford: ‘Organisation and Work of the Film Section of Far Eastern Bureau Ministry of Information Singapore,’ Singapore, 30 April 1941.
Personal papers of former FEB staff.