Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Disaster

Military history, Racial politics, Regional History, Society & Culture

Progressive advocates and activists for a more just and equal society in the US view the Port Chicago❈ naval disaster and mutiny in July 1944 as a crucible for the cause of civil rights. African-American seamen, the majority still in their teens, revolted against the entrenched discriminatory practices they encountered in the Navy during WWII, and although vilified and punished by White authority at the time, their stand was to be a key factor in the eventual decision to abolish segregation in the US armed forces[1].

Devastation on the PC pier after the explosion
The catalyst for the subsequent ‘mutiny’ (as the Navy and White society generally characterised it – see also the follow up blog) was a catastrophic series of explosions whilst two naval carrier vessels were being loaded at the naval dock with ammunition for transportation to the Pacific theatre of war. The mega-blast killed 320 sailors and civilians (the bulk of the sailors were African-Americans), plus a further 390 personnel were injured❧. It was the worst home front disaster of WWII (the cost included nearly $9.9m worth of damage to dock, ships and buildings). The fireball engulfing the Port could be viewed from miles away, triggering a quake felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Such was the force of the explosion that one 300lb chunk of steel was ‘cannonballed’ a distance of 1.5 miles, landing in the main street of the Port township[2].

The disproportionate toll of African-American enlisted men in the disaster was the result of the Navy assigning them to the most menial, labouring jobs as stevedores, basically “pack mules” loading the munitions. The Navy made casual racist assumptions about their ‘limited’ vocational capacity, despite the fact that at the Navy boot camp the black sailors had each completed specific training for one or other of the naval rating occupations[3].

Navy double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Navy treated of the two groups of seamen involved markedly differently – the White officers and sailors were given a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, whereas all the Black sailors (despite being severely shaken and traumatised by the incident) were denied the leave – despite it being standard procedure in such instances. This proved a very sore point for the African-Americans at Port Chicago. African-American seamen enlisted in the US Navy, aside from motives of patriotism, for the promise of recognition as full American citizens – a chance to escape the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies or the North’s institutionalised “second citizenship”[4]. Unfortunately what they found, and Port Chicago was no exception to elsewhere in the military, was that they were still segregated and marginalised, despite the fact they were serving in the defence of their country.

Adding insult to injury: Compensation for African-American victims watered down
That the loss of Black lives in the Port Chicago catastrophe was of diminished importance in American society at the time was even more starkly underlined in the subject of restitution. The Navy asked for $5,000 to be paid to each of the families of the 203 dead African-American sailors. Extraordinarily, after a vigorous and forthright protest from Mississippi Democrat representative, John Rankin (a White Supremacist sympathiser) that the sum be reduced to $2,000, Congress caved in to his pressure and awarded the families $3,000 each[5] … a brazenly unequivocal acknowledgement from the authorities that Black lives in America at the time were not worth as much as White ones!

The Naval Board of Inquiry
The Inquiry into the explosion would give the surviving Black seamen (and the victims’ families) more cause for grievance. The report never established the cause of the disaster❖, but implied that an error by the enlisted men may have led to the explosions. As for the white officers and the base commander, they were all absolved of any blame for what happened[6]. The Naval Board effectively ‘white-washed’ the whole episode, choosing not to cast a critical eye over the glaring pre-conditions that contributed to the disaster. Both training and safety was lax at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Deeply significantly, the Black assigned stevedores were not given instruction in ammunition loading. Training deficiencies were in fact common at Port Chicago – the White loading officers themselves had only minimal training in supervising enlisted personnel and in handling munitions. As well, the Port’s commander Captain Merrill Kinne himself had no training in the loading of munitions and very little experience in handling them[7].

Diagram of pier & the two cargo carriers prior to the explosion
Sowing the seeds of catastrophe
Safety requirements were not observed and unsafe practices abounded: there was a complacency about the maintenance of key operational equipment; safety regulations were not widely distributed for the staff to familiarise themselves with. The practice at Port Chicago was to force the stevedores, working around-the-clock, to load the explosive cargos[8] at a pace that would imperil safety – the rate was set at 10 short tons per hatch every hour (higher than commercial stevedores✾). Facility commander Kinne encouraged a climate of competitiveness between the different crews (which they called ‘divisions’) by keeping a tally of each crew’s hourly tonnage on a chalkboard … leading to the junior officers surreptitiously laying bets on which crew would win the “speed loading contests”[9].

PostScript: Was the explosion a nuclear detonation?
In the early 1980s investigative journalist Peter Vogel postulated the hypothesis that the explosion at Port Chicago was likely to have been a nuclear one. Vogel noted the continued secrecy surrounding the naval base site and pointed to the specific characteristics of the fireball (as described by eyewitness accounts) – a “brilliant flash of white” and the mushrooming effect of the explosion’s dispersion (ie, a Wilson condensation cloud). Vogel also asserted that the force of the actual blast was greater than the reported 1,780 tons of high explosives on board the two Liberty carriers (E.A. Bryan and Quinault)[10].

Whilst Vogel’s theory would hold obvious appeal for conspiracy theorists, it has been not gained traction among historians. Its detractors, especially nuclear historians Badash and Hewlett, point to Vogel’s lack of hard evidence to support his claim, and his inability to explain why the US Government would want to detonate a nuclear device on populated home soil. Badash and Hewlett have noted in particular the absence of any residual radioactivity and resultant harm to the local community – which suggests that only conventional weaponry was involved[11].

❈ the town of Port Chicago, now called Concord, is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Sacramento River
❧ toll for Black Navy servicemen: 203 dead, 233 injured – representing 15% of all African-American casualties for the entire war
❖ it was a bad time for the Navy, PR wise. Just two months prior to the Port Chicago disaster, another calamitous explosion at West Loch (Pearl Harbour) resulted in the death of 163 seamen and hundreds injured … and like Port Chicago the disaster remained unexplained
✾ the quota set on the main base at Mare Island for instance was only 8.7

[1] President Truman’s 1948 Executive order officially desegregating the American armed forced, United States of America Congressional Record (106th Congress), Vol 146-Part 4 (April 3, 2000 to April 25, 2000)
[2] 430 miles to the south, ‘Port Chicago Mutiny (1944)’, www.blackpast.org; ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘A Chronology of African American Military Service. From WWI through WWII.’ (U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. History), www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/chron36.htm
[3] RL Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, (1989)
[4] ibid.
[5] M Moorehead, ‘The Port a Chicago Mutiny’, (Workers World), Feb 1995, www.hartford-hwp.com
[6] Allen, op.cit.
[7] ibid.
[8] The White officers used wilful deception to gain acquiescence, lying to the Black loaders as to the inherent dangers of the work – telling them the ammunition was not live which was catastrophically wrong, I Thompson, ‘Mare Island mutiny court-martial changed Navy racial policies, Daily Republic (Solano County), 23-Feb-2014, www.dailyrepublic.com
[9] Allen, loc.cit.
[10] Vogel, P (1982). THE LAST WAVE FROM PORT CHICAGO. The Black Scholar, 13(2/3), 30-47. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41066881
[11] L Badash & RG Hewlett, cited in ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, op.cit.

Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Mutiny and its Ramifications

Military history, Racial politics, Retailing history, Society & Culture

San Francisco Bay
On 17th July 1944 a catastrophically massive explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California resulted in the loss of 320 lives, the majority African-American sailors. Less than four weeks after the worst wartime disaster on American home soil, the Navy, without regard for the sensitivity of the situation, instructed the surviving Black sailors to resume loading munitions onto the USS Sangay standing at the dock. 258 of them refused, contending that the conditions at the dock being still unsafe, and commenced a work stoppage. Threatened with court-martial (and a possible death penalty) 208 of the sailors eventually backed down. The navy authorities subsequently took punitive measures against these seamen (forfeiture of pay, pension entitlements curtailed) and they were eventually returned to service elsewhere[1].

The remaining 50 were charged by the Navy with mutiny. The defence counsel and the African-American men themselves denied this charge all through the proceedings, arguing that at no time were they attempting to seize control from the frontline commanders or overthrow the authority of the Navy (as argued by the prosecution team), but were refusing to work in what was clearly an unsafe environment, a protest against their being used as “guinea pigs”[2]. As Robert Allen explained, the mutiny charge was levelled against the defendants because the rightful description of what they were doing, striking against deleterious working conditions, only applied to the civilian sphere[3].

The trial of the “Port Chicago 50”
A court-martial was arraigned to be held on the Navy’s administrative facility at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The conduct of the trial was a travesty of equality before the law for the African-American servicemen involved … the accused black sailors were ridiculed as ‘primitive’ in their intellectual abilities, and “unreliable, emotional, lack(ing) capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions” (as the official ‘Finding of Facts’ stated[4]. The court hearings disintegrated into a shambles at times, eg, the judge fell asleep during the testimonies. After a six-week trial and a deliberation of only 60 minutes, a verdict was reached with unseemly haste – all 50 of the accused were found guilty of mutiny. The 50 convicted seamen were sentenced to between eight and 15 years imprisonment with hard labour as well as being on the receiving end of dishonourable discharges from the Navy[5].

Treasure Island court-martial site
One keen observer who attended the day-to-day court proceedings was NAACP❈’s Thurgood Marshall (later to become the first African-American judge of the US Supreme Court). Marshall was publicly critical of the trial, announcing: “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy towards Negros. Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading!”[6]. In 1945 the NAACP produced a pamphlet entitled ‘Mutiny? The Real Story of How the Navy Branded 50 Fear-shocked Sailors as Mutineers’. Marshall and the NAACP focussed the issue very squarely on the racial dimension … the treatment of the convicted men was symptomatic of a broader pattern of discrimination by the Navy against African-Americans – by mid-1943 there were 100,000 Black men serving in the Navy, but not a single Black officer among them[7]. Marshall organised an appeal on behalf of the 50 prisoners, however in June 1945 the original verdict was reaffirmed by the naval authorities.

Aftermath and consequences of the mutiny trial
The Port Chicago mutiny had an immediate punitive outcome for the 50 Black sailors who were prosecuted, but in the long run it was a Pyrrhic victory for scientific (sic) racists and White supremacists (covert and overt) both inside and outside the military. The whole episode served to raise national consciousness about practices of racial discrimination within the US military forces. And it was to prove a catalyst and inspiration for the postwar Civil Rights movement[8]. For the Navy the ramifications of Port Chicago made itself felt in short time. By the end of the World War the Navy had, in piecemeal fashion, initiated its own reforms of discriminatory practices, anticipating President Truman’s official decreeing of desegregation of the American armed forces – which did not come into law until 1948. With the world war over the Navy found it untenable to justify the continuing incarceration of the Port Chicago 50 … in January 1946 all of the men were released and assigned to other details overseas. Significantly though, none received pardons for their ‘crimes’, the convictions remained on the books[9].

A dangerous job for White servicemen!
The Port Chicago episode – a closed book reopened?
As Erika Doss has noted, “for decades the full story of the Port Chicago disaster of July 1944 was declared “classified” information and rendered virtually absent from historical narratives of the “good war”[10]. The egregious treatment of African-American seamen remained an inconvenient chapter in America’s war history, one best forgotten (Port Chicago’s subsequent name change seems intended to support this objective of burying the thorny facts of the episode).

By the 1990s the whole shameful business had started to become more openly addressed … in 1994 a memorial to the Port Chicago 50 was created on the former base’s site. But in the same year these good intentions were turned on their head by a fresh Navy inquiry which found (unbelievably) that race was not a factor in the 1944 court case – a finding that would not be out-of-place in the annals of the “Flat Earth Society”!

A number of the convicted African-Americans then still alive agitated for a just resolution, a reversal of the wrongs perpetrated against them. One of “the 50”, Freddie Meeks was talked into requesting a pardon which was finally granted in 1999 by President Clinton[11]. However five others including Joe Small refused to request the same, steadfastly insisting that as they had committed no criminal act, they was no question of seeking a pardon.

PostScript: High hopes for justice with Obama
The continued denial of justice for the Port Chicago 50 led it to become a cause célèbre in the US. This remains the case in 2017 despite the fact that all of the convicted African-American sailors are now dead. Their relatives were among those calling on the Black president, Barack Obama, to exonerate “the 50” and overturn their verdicts. Disappointingly, Obama’s outgoing powers of presidential pardon, recently enacted, did not include any of the Port Chicago 50 in its number – though this was more to do with the Obama administration’s inability to find a legal mechanism to make this a reality, rather than any lack of will on the part of the president[12].

❈ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

[1] ‘Port Chicago mutiny’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[2] Joe Small, one of the survivors of the disaster and labelled as a ‘ringleader’ by the Navy, summed up the position taken by the 50 defendants,
“(we) weren’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions, with no improvements, no change, the same group of officers…we thought there was a better alternative”, E Doss, “Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America’, American Studies Journal, Number 59 (2015), www.asjournal.org
[3] B Bergman, “War, ‘mutiny’ and civil rights: Remembering Port Chicago”, Berkeley News, 10-Jul-2014, www.berkeley.edu
[4] A Gustafson, ‘The Port Chicago Disaster: Race and the Navy in World War II’, (Turnstile Tours), 29-Aug-2014, www.turnstiletours.com
[5] Bergman, loc.cit.
[6] Marshall, quoted in NA Hamilton, ‘Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States’, (2002)
[7] Doss, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.
[9] US Secretary of the Navy James V Forrestal and Admiral Ernest King, working together, were instrumental in getting the wheels of integration in the Navy going forward, S Sundin, ‘Port Chicago – Desegregation of the US Navy’, (Sarah’s Blog), 28-Jul-2014, www.sarahsundin.com
[10] Doss, op.cit.
[11] C Nolte, ‘Clinton Pardons Wartime ‘Mutineer’ / Port Chicago black sailor of 50 in infamous case’, (SFGate), 24-Dec-1999, wwwsfgate.com
[12] ‘Full list: Obama pardons these 78 people, shortens 153 prisoners’ sentences’, (Pix 11), 19-Dec-2016, www.pix11.com

Project Fu-Go: Japan’s Pacific War Balloon Counter-Offensive

Military history, Regional History

In the latter stages of the Second World War, Japan, under pressure from American and Allied bombing raids on its territory, devised a novel fight-back strategy against the invaders. The strategy devised by the Japanese military high command, was certainly an unorthodox one and one signifying the increasingly desperate position of Imperial Japan in the global war.

By the second half of 1944 the Japanese military situation was unravelling fast … serious Japanese army and navy reversals in the Pacific theatre, Japan had lost its aircraft carriers, the earlier submarine raids in California and Oregon had been largely ineffective, and morale at home among the Japanese citizenry was flagging[1]. As the tide of the Pacific War was turning against Japan, the US targeted key cities of the Japanese home islands – from June 1944 to the Japanese surrender in August 1945 America unleashed a systematic, strategic bombing campaign (from bases in China and Micronesia) with long-range B-29 bombers causing extensive damage and destruction in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe, as well as a host of smaller cities❈.

The Japan military command in response devised a plan, the result of Project Fu-Go – to attack North America using hydrogen gas balloons, fūsen bakudan (literally “balloon bomb”). These “fire balloons” had incendiary bomb devices attached to them, and the idea was to release them from Japan, using the jet stream to carry them the 5,000km across the Pacific Ocean and destroy towns, farmland and forests in the US and Canada[1]. The mechanism constructed was a deceptively simple but clever device to “automate the flight and release the explosives” at a given point and altitude[2].

Japanese scientists had conducted atmospheric experiments from western Japan to eastern Japan, charting the pattern of late autumn/winter jet streams. The tests revealed a particularly strong air current in the Pacific at 30,000 feet✠. The first balloon weapons were released in November 1944 (at the same time that American B-29 missions started taking a more devastating toll on the Japanese homeland). The fire balloon journey took between 30 and 60 hours to reach the west coast of North America, however it has been estimated that about only one in nine of the balloons made it to America (an estimated 1,000 out of 9,000 launched from Japan)[3]. But the number that made the journey is very imprecise … US researchers after the war discovered or accounted for at least 342. It is believed that many more landed on the American mainland but they have not been detected yet owing to being located in remote, unpopulated parts of the country[4]. This is even more likely to be the case in the much sparser populated western Canada.

The first sightings of the strange hydrogen balloons on the American west coast were puzzling to the locals. Their origin was also a puzzle for the authorities until US geologists made tests of the sand recovered from the ballast bags which traced it back to Japan and the beaches of Honshu. Many Americans were still doubtful that the balloons had floated all the way from Japan, speculating that they had been transported by Japanese submarines and secretly unleashed on the North American west coast[5].

The American response to Fu-Gos
The seemingly capricious nature (and innocuous appearance) of the fire balloons, to the American authorities, might not initially have seemed to pose much of a danger. Washington (DC) however did take it seriously … there was concern about the possibility of forest fires breaking out in the western regions of Canada and the US¤, and especially worrying to the US was the prospect of the Fu-Gos carrying biological weapons (which it knew the Japanese had been trying to develop)[6].

Once the source of the balloon weapons was established, the US government through its newly formed Office of Censorship put a watertight security blanket around the incidents. This starved the Japanese military of vital intelligence on the results of the balloon offensive, so Tokyo had no idea of whether the attacks were successful or not. US fighter pilots were engaged to intercept the incoming balloons but the results were at best marginal (one score only of the Fu-Gos were shot down)[7].

Klamath Falls, Fu-Go fatality
The only known WWII fatalities occurring on contiguous US territory
The information blackout on the Japanese balloon attacks also extended to American civilians … this was to have a solitary tragic consequence late in the war. In May 1945 a picnicking group of adults and Sunday school children discovered one of the grounded fire balloons in countryside near Bly in southern Oregon. Their curiosity about the strange balloon led them to pick up the still live weapon … as a result a pastor’s wife Elsie Mitchell, her unborn child and five children aged 11 to 14 died instantly from a huge explosion. The victims were the only known American civilians killed by enemy action after Pearl Harbour[8]. After the fatal incident the Office of Censorship issued a public alert about the fire balloons, warning citizens to stay clear of them.

The Bly incident was the solitary lethal attack on sovereign soil of the US mainland in the course of the World War. The only other damage from the Japanese fire bombs was to property … one Fu-Go incendiary struck a nuclear weapons plant in Hanford (Washington state), temporarily blacking out the plant which was manufacturing plutonium for use in the August 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan which ended the war.

Cessation of the fire balloon attacks
The uncertainty of not knowing how effective the balloon weapons were, did not inhibit the Japanese military from trying to exact propaganda value from the situation. News bulletins emanating from Tokyo broadcast a steady supply of “fake news” (as much for domestic consumption to boost morale) … announcements proclaimed that the floating incendiaries had claimed 10,000 US casualties, that the attacks had resulted in general alarm within the American population … they also issued a threat that Japanese troops were about to invade North America[9].

In April 1945 the Allied forces succeeded in blowing up two of Japan’s main hydrogen plants … this resulted in a scarcity in the ingredient needed for the fire balloons. This blow to the production of balloon weaponry, added to a growing realisation by the Japanese commanders that the attacks has not been a success relative to the resources expended, sealed the fate of the Fu-Go program[10].

PostScript 1: A balloon-scattered continential landscape
American Air Force writer Robert Mikesh described the Japanese fire balloons campaign as the “world’s first intercontinental weapons delivery system”. In six months in 1944-45 thousands of fire balloons were dispersed across the eastern Pacific and parts of North America. For most of the projectiles their fate was a watery grave but in the 70 plus years since the end of WWII the remnants of Fu-Gos have been found, strewn across the continent – as far east as Michigan and the Great Lakes, as far south as Mexico, and as far north as Alaska and Yukon.

PostScript 2: Canada’s fire balloon fields
Some of the balloon bombs were found in disparate locations like Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands, and one in British Columbia as recently as 2014. Canada in fact was as equally susceptible as the US to the latent dangers of the fire balloon attacks, much of the western coast and all of the northern part of the country comprises dry, forested land. At least 57 Fu-Gos were discovered across the Canadian west during those six months of the campaign (in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC). From the recollections of some Canadians who experienced close encounters with unexploded balloons, it is somewhat of a miracle that there were not more fatalities of the balloon weapons that the seven in Oregon[11].

Fu-Go landing sites
(Source: National Geographic) Two of the fire balloons actually drifted back westward & landed on Honshu island!

❈ the first US air raid on Japan had been in April 1942 – known as the Doolittle Raid – an isolated strike on Tokyo (primarily) intended as retaliation for Pearl Harbour four months earlier, and to probe Japan’s vulnerability to air attack
✠ this was the discovery of one particular Japanese meteorologist in the 1920s – Wasaburo Oishi
¤ a chilling recent echo of this was al-Qaida’s 2012 online urging of jihadists to plant “ember bombs” in American forests (Carroll 2014)

[1] R Carroll, ‘How Japan’s fire balloons took the Second World War to America’s soil’, The Guardian, 31-Oct-2014, www.theguardian.com
[2] S Lehman, Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Exploding Balloons’, Gizmodo, 13-May-2014, www.gizmodo.com.au
[3] its purpose hoped to provide an inexpensive way to shift the war’s focus onto sovereign American territory, ‘Fire balloon’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[4] J Rizzo, ‘Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Balloon Bombs’, National Geographic, 27-May-2013, www.nationalgeographic.com
[5] RC Mikesh, ‘Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America’, Smithsonian Annals of Flight, no 9 (1973), www.sil.si.edu; ‘Fire balloon, op.cit.
[6] Rizzo, loc.cit.
[7] Lehman, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.; Rizzo, loc.cit.
[9] ‘Six killed in Oregon by Japanese bomb’, (‘This Day in History’, 1945), www.history.com. Seven in fact died including Mrs Mitchell’s unborn child
[10] Mikesh, op.cit.
[11] For instance one Saskatchewan youngster in 1945 accidentally stepped on a collapsed fire balloon which failed to detonate, S Brace, ‘Japanese bombs landed in Saskatchewan 71 years ago’, (Saskat News), 11-Feb-2016, www.cba.ca

Launder and Gilliat: Prolific and Tradesman like Collaborators of British Cinema

Biographical, Cinema

Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were two English film-makers who maintained a steadily consistent presence in the British cinema between the 1930s and the 1970s. Launder and Gilliat’s creative film roles, whether as writers, directors or producers (or as all three), contributed to over 100 British films in that era, including nearly 40 together as co-writers and producers.

The two co-wrote The Lady Vanishes, a 1938 mystery which was a breakthrough feature for Alfred Hitchcock❈. Interestingly Launder and Gilliat (hereafter L & G) had their (separate) starts in the film business composing inter-titles (title cards) for silent movies in the late 1920s, the same industry beginnings undertaken by Hitchcock several years earlier. L & G combined their talents behind-the-camera together for the first time from the mid 1930s. The L & G partnership had a flexibility and a particular pattern to it … invariably they would jointly produce films and/or also co-write screenplays (although on other occasions either man would co-write films with various other collaborating screenwriters). But almost with very few exceptions one or the other would direct a specific film singly – this was done apparently to avoid confusing the actors[1].

A versatile¤ and fecund partnership
As well as being prolific contributors to the creation of British films for such a long period, L & G’s film output spanned a range of genres … from thrillers and ‘whodunits’ like Green for Danger (1956) and Secret State (1950) to WWII social-realism films such as Waterloo Road (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943) to romance/adventures like The Blue Lamp (1949) to historical dramas such as Captain Boycott (1947) to farces like The Green Man (1956) and light comedies such as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), a precursor to a popular series of movies set in a girls’ boarding school immobilised by riotous juvenile anarchy – starting with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) which spawned a string of increasingly predictable sequels.

“Journeymen auteurs?”
The Times of London described the Gilliat/Launder team as “one of the most sparkling writing, directing and producing partnerships in postwar British cinema”[2]. Notwithstanding such praise, L & G’s body of work has tended to be undervalued by the bulk of film critics … at times eliciting back-handed appraisals from critics such as “toilers in the British comic tradition”; (their films at best exhibiting) “unfailing good humour and the occasional brainy prankishness”[3]. Certainly, technical innovation and self-conscious artiness was not Gilliat and Launder’s style, but they never managed to garner anything remotely like the prestige or critical approval that was lavished on other contemporary British film-makers, eg, Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed or the Boulting brothers. Bruce Babington has attributed this in part to L & G’s ‘reticence’ as film-makers, the way that they declined to project themselves forward and intervene in controversies and debates of the day, unlike say, their contemporaries the Boultings[4].

Enlistment in the production of propaganda vehicles
So closely did the personal film-making styles and interests of the two collaborators align, many people found it hard to distinguish between a Launder-directed picture and one directed by Gilliat … most L & G films tended to resemble the fruits of their combined efforts. Or as Adair and Roddick put it, “it would take a lynx-eyed buff to be able to distinguish one from the other”[5].

The war-time pictures, Millions Like Us and Two Thousand Women can be identified as reflecting in particular Frank Launder’s preoccupation with the portrayal of strong, defiantly independent women[6]. These films were commissioned by the UK Ministry of Information to counter the prevailing low recruitment and morale of women in war-time factory work. Millions Like Us, as Judy Suh has noted, conveyed the “double valence of women as productive workers and domestic symbols of national unity”. L & G’s social-realist films, though propagandist in purpose, posed questions of gender and class whilst depicting the routine of ordinary people at work. The necessities of war-time brought out the conflicting roles and identities of women in such an out-of-the ordinary circumstance, as well as the existence of crossings of class boundaries[7].

Hockey stick-wielding private schoolgirl anarchists
After the war, witty and farcical, albeit slight, comedies were their forte (with the occasional thriller thrown in). Like other high-profile international film-makers L & G had their favourite performers that they liked to work with. L & G got the best performances out of British actors like Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Rex Harrison and George Cole. Of these luminaries it was Alastair Sim whose star shined most brightly under the direction of L & G. Sim appeared in at least ten L & G movies and his deliciously roguish star turns as a middle class word-spinning con-man were pure gold. George Cole, who also had a regular gig in the St Trinian’s cycle as the ultra dodgy spiv Flash Harry◘, described working with Gilliat and Launder (and Sim) … to Cole (later himself to find TV fame as consummate, malapropistic con-man ‘Arfur’ Daley in Minder) their films meant:

“Good scripts but terrible money. If Alastair was in the film it was even worse because he got most of it. But they were wonderful people to work with”[8].

In the 1940s Launder and Gilliat formed their own production company, aptly named Individual Pictures, at this time they were contractually engaged by Gainsborough Pictures … in 1958 the partners took charge of the production side of the struggling independent studio British Lion. By the 1960s both the quality and quantity of Gilliat/Launder productions had receded. In 1980 Launder went once more to the St Trinian’s well❃ with yet another sequel, Wildcats of St Trinian’s … unwisely so as the novelty of L & G’s feature films based on Ronald Searle’s charming cartoons of feral schoolgirls had long since lost their appeal.

PostScript 1: The Charters and Caldicott characters trope – antiquated, old school Englishness
L & G wrote into The Lady Vanishes two minor characters that were to become iconic, background characters in British cinema. Played by actors Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne, the two incidental supporting figures are singleminded cricket enthusiasts (“cricket tragics” as one recent Australian PM was dubbed) trying to hurry back to England to see the last days of the Manchester test match. The popularity of the characters saw them reappear in other L & G movies (including Night Train to Munich, Millions Like Us and in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes), and in several other non-L & G films, eg, the Boxs’ A Girl in a Million and (appropriately enough) It’s Not Cricket. Charters and Caldicott were also reprised for several radio series, and for a 1985 television series. Charters and Caldicott’s fame also extended to their inclusion in a series of Carreras Cigarette cards in the 1950s.

Charters & Caldicott
The gormless personalities of Charters and Caldicott, a couple of blithering “Colonel Blimpish” snobs, was a comical throwback to a past England with ‘proper’ gentlemanly good manners and standards of dress[9]. Matthew Sweet saw the two blunderers (in their 1938 incarnations against a backdrop of appeasement) as symbols of “a peculiarly British obstinacy in the face of Nazi aggression” in Europe[10]. Their apathetic dispositions and complete lack of perspicacity about the momentous events happening around them also puts one in mind of Tom Stoppard’s two artless and aimless courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roaming through Elsinore, ‘Everyman’ figures in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The familiar picture of the familiar team

The Lady Vanishes helped open Hollywood doors for Hitchcock … after ‘Hitch’ completed Jamaica Inn in 1939 (written by Gilliat et al) he set sail for America (for good), inviting Gilliat to join him however the Cheshireman declined the offer, preferring to stay in the smaller and infinitely less lucrative pond that was the British film industry (Babington, 2002)
¤ “Versatility” Gilliat once said, “was always our curse”, but as Gilbert Adair remarked in a 1994 obituary for the film-maker, “it was also their own form of individualism”
◘ Cole as well appeared in nine of L & G’s films
❃ this was twice too often to the well as the preceding Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) was also a lame effort at rehashing the by now decidedly stale formula

[1] although such was the working symbiosis between the two that the non-directing partner would in all likelihood make suggestions for improvements to the designated director where necessary, B Babington, Launder and Gilliat (2002)
[2] quoted in The Age (Melbourne), 08-Jun-1994
[3] G Adair & N Roddick, A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film, (1985)
[4] Babington describes Launder and Gilliat as “modest auteurs”, Babington, op.cit.
[5] Adair & Roddick, loc.cit.
[6] ‘Launder and Gilliat’, BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk
[7] J Suh, ‘Women, Work, Leisure in British Wartime Documentary Realism’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 40(1), 2012
[8] ‘Obituary: Frank Launder’, The Independent, 24-Feb-1997, www.independent.co.uk
[9] ‘Charters and Caldicott’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘Charters and Caldicott’, www.chartersandcaldicott.co.uk
[10] M Sweet, ‘Mustard and cress’, The Guardian, 29-Dec-2007, www.theguardian.com