Photography aboard H.M.S. Illustrious 1950-52


Thinking back to the “Good old Days” and remembering Oppos past I thought some of my contempories and even todays “Phots” might be interested in what we got up to…..(only the printable stuff)  and what it was like in the days before pixels and digital printers , or even cut film !!. In those days it was a much bigger branch and there were lots more Photographic Units both ashore and afloat but this will give an idea of life as a Photographer aboard one of the large carriers

H.M.S Illustrious   a Fleet carrier carried an above normal complement of photographers due to her various commitments as Trials and Training carrier and the amount of photography involved.

The Phot. Sect.’s complement was, Photographic Officer, 1 P.O., 1 Leading Phot. and three Phots plus up to three National service phots. gaining seagoing experience joined on occasions by squadron phots and civilian photographers from Farnborough.


When I joined the ship in 1950, Lt Arthur Keep was Phot. Officer with Leading Phot. Paul Johnson in charge of the section, together with Phots ? Spicer, Mac Mackay, Pete Everhard and two N.S. phots.  At various times during my 2 plus years aboard the complement changed through Lt. Crawford and Lt. Cdr Manley-Cooper as Phot Officer.  Leading Phot Wally Donkin, P.O.Phot. Pricky Hart and Phots. Taff Hembrow, Reggie Marles, Mike Thorne, Johnny Flack and numerous NS phots.some of whom I remember as Trevor Budd, John Dudley, Sandy Hedderwick and Derek “Joe” Griffin.


Besides the general run of ships photography and ( a flourishing and very profitable “Rabbit” firm) the flight deck was the setting for most of our day. As trials and training carrier most days had intensive flying programmes, all training landings were filmed on 16mm Kodak cameras which was processed  to negative format and projected after flying finished. At lest two other still cameras were on hand for any accidents, (and there were many). One positioned near the rounddown and the other covering the barriers. The flying covered, pilots initial deck landings and the clockwork mouse aircraft from Yeovilton who went round and round training “batsmen” deck-  landing officers,  together with training for RNVR squadrons and the odd Dutch Naval squadron. This all took place in the Channel or Irish Sea with weekend shore leave in such exotic spots as Bangor N.I., Torquay, Penzance, Invergordon !!!! and Spithead.  Forays to Gibraltar and Malta were made when RNVR squadrons came aboard for their annual training cruise.


The trials aspect involved the first deck landings of all new aircraft before entering service and there were many of them in those days and some that never got beyond prototype stage. Jet aircraft were just being developed for carrier use. For these trials civilian photographers from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough brought High Speed Cameras on board but the ships phots still covered everything in 16mm and stills.


Before the Angled Deck and “Ski jump” had been thought about Jet aircraft presented problems for carrier operations and allsorts of innovations were being tried out,  rubber deck areas, elastic nets for barriers and rockets for assisted take-offs. Some of the ideas proved crazy  and unworkable but until someone thought about angling the flightdeck and steam catapults anything was worth trying. Early aircraft were the  Sea Mosquito, Sea Meteors and Vampires leading to Swifts and Attackers and early Seahawks and the Blackburn and Fairey versions of the later Gannets (GR17s). The huge twin engined target tug, the Short Sturgeon and the Balliol Seatrainer, which never got into service. Early helicopters from Bristols and Sikorsky looked liked airborne greenhouses.


The cameras available in the section were the V.N 9x12cm Press camera (plates), the Watson Half/plate Bellows camera, an early Contax 35mm camera plus the usual array of F24s, K20s and Dial Recording Cameras which were generally used for jobs they were not designed for, but with tweaking did the job. For Cine work we had  Morigraf andVinten 35mm cameras and Kodak Juniors 16mm with 50ft loading which was used for all the landings.


Everything was shot in Black and White and processed that day, the 16 and 35mm was loaded on racks and processed in 20 gallon tanks on a “dip and shake” basis and then dried on rotating racks. The tanks were changed fortnightly and the chemicals mixed using a wooden oar !!  Temperature was achieved by an enormous immersion heater (which was also useful for heating bath water in the darkroom sink) for which one drew lots for turns to bathe before weekend leave !!


One problem in all fleet carrier photo. sections was flooding. Waste and washing water was drained from a sump in the main darkroom by a “venturi” on the ships ring main. The problem was after many years at sea very small barnacles lived in the ring main, clogged the venturi,  causing it to act in reverse and the sump quickly followed by the section was  flooded on quite a few occasions, until a brilliant N.S Phot, John Dudley designed and made a simple warning system using a half pound “titler”(tobacco) tin on a wooden lever and utilising an  aircraft oleo contact switch, sent a signal to the Ships Engineers Office !!! And he wasn’t even thanked. let alone commended.


The Printing room had an 8308 enlarger/copier with legs sawn off and bolted to the deck, a Black Knight 211/4 square/35mm enlarger with 2 lenses.  A Kodak wooden contact printer together with a 5x5 contact printer for F24 negs. which were the most used equipment as the enlargers could not be used due to vibration whenever the ship was underway. A  Kodak 24 inch Glazing machine and large sink for processing and washing made up the equipment.

A small store plus Office and Chemical mixing room made up the rest of the section. All developers and fixers were made up and mixed from bulk chemicals, plus it also served as “the Kitchen” where an “appropriated” wall mounted heater was used horizontally to prepare soups, beans on and even fried bacon and eggs in a Dallon stainless developing dish !!  Dhobi-ing and drying were done “in-house” using the Drying cabinet or even the Glazer.


Finishing , trimming , mounting was done in the “Office” which led off the shaft that was the only way down into the section, down two decks vertically. A Naafi store being the only compartment below.(which was usefull as the odd case of tinned milk was diverted on its way down). “Coffee” was always made using Camp Essence Bottled coffee, half milk /half water and served on the flight deck from a 80oz Dallon stainless steel jug. Even Commander Air who’s position was along the from the cine camera position was known to partake in a cuppa.


We all worked quite hard at the various jobs with nobody specialising in one particular task and generally it was a happy section, one big benefit was a very profitable “Rabbit setup”, which once you were accepted into provided very useful extra income. Having a regular turn round of visiting squadrons, new naval airman recruits who did a couple of weeks aboard for experience, the same photographs went on selling for years, there were even prints of Illustrious’s wartime experiences selling well!!. We even employed a P.O. Handler who set up stall on the canteen flat after pay day and with mounting boards covered with up 50 postcard prints at 6d a time, he was paid 10% on his sales and was very good at it. A portrait studio set up in the printing room was quite successful and together with (Ships picture with portrait inset) was open once a month. All the crews D&P had to be done but was not so lucrative and not very popular with those who had to do it.  Christmas time was a bonus with Xmas cards and the mounting press busy making calendars  showing either the ship or kittens sat in a cap with the tally band reversed, everybody went on Xmas leave with a bonus !!!!.


Perhaps the biggest “rabbit bag” was when Illustrious was turned into a troopship at short notice. Col. Nassar had threatened to nationalise the Suez Canal, we retaliated be moving troops to Cyprus. About half the crew including half the section staff were shipped ashore and mess decks and the hangar were quickly converted into extra accommodation, the hangar looked like a meat store with hundreds, if not more hammocks strung from crosswires on stanchions. This was all done in a few days by Pompey dockyard and we embarked hundreds of troops plus their vehicles on the flight deck.


P.O. “Pricky” Hart the section P.O. was a top man when operating a rabbit firm, he even made money from the wardroom. Seizing the opportunity, every print in the section was dug out and sold to the soldiers who wanted pictures of anything to do with the ship, problem was as the ship was steaming flat out we were unable to print any more, on the enlarger anyway……until Pricky hearing the ship would be stopping for a couple of hours in the middle of the night for essential engine repairs had all section staff up and busy exposing every bit of paper we could find and using both enlargers we filled boxes for development the next day. When we stopped in Famagusta someone had to go ashore and “buy” a box of whole plate paper to print the official prints the ship wanted. We need not have bothered, the ship came back to Pompey at high speed so enlarging was out of the question. We were to do another run with more troops.

 Whilst Pricky shot up to London to buy more Government Surplus paper from Martins on the Strand,  if I remember rightly it was 12/6d for 100 or £5 for 1000 postcard size sheets and he had to take taxis at each end to make it back for the ships sailing time, those left on board were busy making copy negs , postcard size so we could contact print everything. With a new complement of hundreds of soldiers we set off again, selling anything we could print.  As we closed Cyprus Pricky came up with the idea we photograph every mess using the VN press camera and he insisted we were not to shoot unless you had at least 20 faces in the picture, selling contact prints at a shilling a go and with nearly 100 messes we made a killing on that one too. Sadly we ran out of Sashlite flashbulbs as a lot of the groups had to be done below decks.

The section’s run ashore in Famagusta before returning to Pompey must have been one of the outstanding events in the “Branch” history with Wally Donkin providing the caberet with the club stripper.!!!!! The resulting “share-out” on our return made those left behind green with envy but the sections victuals were topped up on the proceeds and we lived like Lords for weeks afterwards.


Rabbits formed a great part of Illustrious’s section work and that fact that it was all done with the Commanders blessing , the “Firm” being official. We were not supposed to use the “ships paper” though the odd box did get used and the oddest thing being,…ships paper was plain backed whereas the Government Surplus Paper being ex-RAF had “Crown Copyright” stamped all over it. When this was explained to the Commander and receipts for Martins paper shown he thought we were more than honest !!!.and thought we were doing a good job keeping the crew happy with their photo albums. His only criteria was that though we could sell pix of all flight deck incidents, fires and barrier crashes , we must not use photographs were people had been killed, which we readily agreed to.


Our National service photographers were usually with us for about six months and what an interesting bunch they were, we had a trainee Salvation Army Officer, Ex- public school boys and one well known Film Directors son, he had great ideas of how he was going to direct a movie on the flight deck and asked the Commander Air if he could do it as a “private venture” !!!……guess what the answer was ?.

Perhaps the highlight of the time with us was when two of them returned to “Illustrious” which was anchored at Spithead in “Daddies Motor Yacht”,….a converted wartime M.T.B. After tying up at the after brow (officers gangway) they were told in no uncertain terms to go to the for’dbrow.!!!! But they made an interesting and generally useful addition to the section,  the S.A. lad giving Cornet lessons until the P.Os mess above the section objected and one inventing our flood warning system.  


After serving over 2 very happy years aboard the “old Lussie”  I left a  much more experienced and wealthier Photographer…   but…..Oh!  where did it All go ?


Item Description. Article

Remarks/People Involved.  Memories of RNSOP Ford

Ship/Place/Originator. Bob Lomax

Original Reference.

Date/ Date range.c1950-52

Submitted by.  Bob Lomax

Now Held By. Bob Lomax

Historians No. Hist 438