The Photographer’s Story

Interesting fact:

Albert Edward Wilkes was a noted sports photographer in West Bromwich.

Albert Edward was the son of Albert Wilkes, a professional footballer who then set up a successful photographic business in West Bromwich. Albert went into junior partnership in the firm in 1924, at the age of 21. He followed closely in his father’s footsteps, specialising in football and cricket photographs.

With the outbreak of war, aged 36, he and his sister went to work at a maintenance unit at RAF Hartlebury. He also served with the local Home Guard as a Quartermaster Sergeant. He was then called up to serve with an Army Ordinance unit stationed near Carlisle, charged with stock-taking and maintenance. His younger brother Arthur Graham joined the Fleet Air Arm and served briefly on HMS Hood; he was then posted to the Caribbean, before it was sunk in 1941. Back in the UK, Albert was desperate to seek other more fulfilling duties, so when he heard about the formation of an Army Film and Photographic Unit in October 1941, he decided to apply. The Unit was established to record military events in which the British and Commonwealth armies were engaged. The first Unit was sent to Cairo in time to record the first Battle of Alamein.

Albert in digs in Germany, late 1945.

Albert found that his application was successful. He joined AFPU Number 5 in early 1943 at Pinewood studios, which initially consisted of 36 volunteers drawn from various regiments. They were under the supervision of Major Hugh St Clair Stewart, a 33 year old film editor and producer who had been with AFPU No 2 during the Allied landings in Tunisia; he had worked on the highly successful ‘Desert Victory’, a propaganda film which documented the struggle between Rommel and Montgomery in North Africa. (After the war, Stewart went on to work with Norman Wisdom and Morecombe and Wise.) Pinewood also functioned as a base for the RAF Film Unit and the Crown Film Unit, who produced propaganda films for the Ministry of Information.

After months of training, in all aspects of cine and still photography as well as combat operations, Albert was allocated to document the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, following the progress of Montgomery’s troops in the battles to liberate Caen, Rouen, Le Havre. He followed the troops into the Netherlands and Belgium, having several lucky escapes on the front line. At the beginning of 1945, he was in the Reichswald Forest as the allies fought their way towards the Rhine. It was a long and arduous journey. In April, along with others from the AFPU No. 5, he entered Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Albert later told his family: ‘One thing that photographs can’t do is capture the smell.’ He followed the British troops all the way to Berlin. He was one of the press corps who attended the Potsdam conference in July, photographing Stalin, Churchill and Truman in the Cecilienhof garden. He photographed the Victory Parade in Berlin in September and documented the interior of the Court Room under construction in the Town Gymnasium in Lüneburg, before the start of the trials of the Belsen Guards. He then spent several months travelling across defeated Germany, a nation of rubble ­– 3.6 million German homes have been destroyed leaving 7.5 million people homeless. His job was to document the post-war reconstruction efforts in the British sector, the provision of food, water, sanitation, the new infrastructure of roads and bridges, the return of peace. He finally came back home to West Bromwich late in 1946 and returned to sports photography. He passed away in 1993.

During his time in action, Albert produced a remarkable body of photographs, some of which are in the Imperial War Museum collections, but many of which have never been seen before.

Interesting fact:

As a souvenir of Berlin, Albert brought home a document from the Reichstag with Hitler's signature.