WAR PICTORIAL NEWS NO 153 (10/4/1944)

This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: WPN 153).


I. 'INDIA.' An unidentified merchant ship is berthed in Calcutta Docks having arrived with a consignment of Australian wheat in support of relief operations in famine stricken Bengal. Grain is unloaded by hoist from the merchantman's hold and stored on a jetty. Indian dockworkers load wheat sacks onto railway carriage and into the holds of waiting river barges. River boat Gouree acts as a tug to pull the laden barges. Indian Army Sikh troops sit in the barges to guard the wheat consignment from possible looters as they travel to the famine area. On arrival, Sikh troops are shown providing famine relief, by issuing food and cooking on open fires for emaciated Bengali children. An Indian Army medical detachment arrives by soft-skinned vehicle at a Bengali village during famine relief operations. Indian Army doctors tend to Bengali children on stretchers and in a hospital ward. A Lockheed (C-60 Lodestar ?) military transport aircraft carrying Viceroy of India Lord Archibald Wavell taxies to a halt at a Calcutta airfield. On disembarkation from the aircraft, the Viceroy is greeted by Acting Governor of Bengal, Sir Thomas Rutherford. Elsewhere the Viceroy and Lady Wavell talk to Bengali villagers queuing for inoculations. Grain sacks are loaded onto soft-skins which later drive off, presumably to the famine stricken areas. The soft-skins have the legend "Food for the People" written in English and Bengali on their sides. The commentary states that the problems of famine have now been alleviated.

II. 'NEWS FROM ENGLAND.' An item that outlines the construction processes involved in the manufacture of collapsible bicycles and motorbikes (Welbikes) designed for use by British airborne troops. A British soldier demonstrates the rapidity and ease of assembly of a collapsible bicycle. Views of the bicycle production line are shown with the commentary stressing that although the bicycle weighs only twenty pounds it is "built like a gun." Women assembly workers work at benches on bicycle gear and ball bearing races, others attach wheels to bicycle frames. Completed bicycles are stacked on the back of a waiting soft-skin. The scenes are repeated at a factory constructing Welbike airborne-use motorcycles. Women factory workers use belt-driven grinding machinery on the assembly line floor. A male factory worker wears goggles as he welds fuel tank halves with an oxy-acetylene torch. The commentary gives structural and performance statistics of the Welbike over views of spokes being added to motorbike wheel rims. A male assembly worker attaches a Villiers 2-stroke engine to a Welbike frame. The motorcycles are stacked pending delivery to airborne units. Three male factory workers demonstrate Welbikes in use, driving around a warehouse floor in a circular pattern. Other news from Britain includes the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to an RAF Bomber Command airfield where they meet Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris. The King and Queen also visit an unidentified United States Army Air Force (USAAF) airfield of the Eighth Air Force where they are met by Major-General James H Doolittle (Commander Eighth Air Force) and Brigadier-General Williams. The King reviews a guard of honour drawn from USAAF military police armed with M1 Garand .30-in self-loading rifles. Following an inspection of the interior of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, the King and Queen climb gingerly down a ladder at the side entry hatch of the aircraft.

III. 'RUSSIA.' Stock shots show Russian 152mm Gaubitsa-Pushka obr 1937g heavy field guns firing at high elevation over the Dnieper River. The commentary states that Russian forces in the Southern sector are now sweeping all before them in a massive offensive that is pushing the retreating German forces into "Hitler's satellite countries" such as Rumania (Rumania). Russian infantry carrying Pistolet-Pulemyot Shpagina obr 1941g 7.62mm sub-machine guns, attempt to pull a rowing boat to a riverbank under German artillery fire. Russian infantry row quickly across a water course under accurate German small-arms fire that churns the water around their boat. Russian rocket fire erupts from behind a stand of trees (Soviet RS-82 rockets ?). Russian infantry advance across steppe and past burning houses as the commentary states that the Russian forces are now over the borders of Rumania and are driving towards the vital Ploesti oilfields. A column of German prisoners winds its way across the Steppe.



The newsreel series War Pictorial News was compiled by the Cairo Office of the Ministry of Information with an intended audience of Allied troops and local audiences in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Footage was largely assembled from items used by newsreel companies in Britain but was provided with a new commentary, with versions being issued in English, French and Arabic as deemed appropriate. Like most editions in the series, No. 153 was edited by Charles Martin and the commentary was provided by Rex Keating. Most editions featured three separate stories, divided into sections that are titled in both English and Arabic. Number 153 covers ‘India’, ‘News From England’ and ‘Russia’. Only the Indian section is concerned with colonial matters, ie the famine in Bengal.

The official enquiry into the Bengal famine stated that it claimed 1.5 million lives. This is now considered to be a low estimate, with most authorities believing the casualty rate to be at least double this figure. There has been much debate over the root causes of the famine, in particular over whether or not actual food shortages were to blame (Sen 1981, Tauger 2002). What is not disputed, however, is the inept response of local government and the initial disregard of British officialdom. Some of the problems stemmed from a rise in the price of rice, which the Bengal government’s actions only exacerbated (Bhatia, 1967, 321). Meanwhile, central government refused to see this as anything other than a local problem. In response to an appeal for help the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, stated ‘You make various suggestions in your letter as to what Government should do. Government in this case is, of course, the provincial government of Bengal and I have no doubt that you have put your suggestions to the Ministers, for it is to the provincial Government that it will fall to deal with them’ (Bhatia, 1967, 339). This despite the fact that British rule was at least partially responsible for Bengal’s problems: the war in Burma had cut off supplies of rice imports, and the presence of military personell in India had helped to foster inflation.

Amartya Senhas outlined three phases to the Bengal famine: Phase I, which lasted from the beginning of 1942 to March 1943, in which ‘the economic distress that paved the way for the famine had already gripped a substantial part of the population’; Phase II, from March 1943 to November 1943, ‘when starvation death reached its peak’; and Phase III, from November 1943 through most of 1944, when the death rate reached its peak ‘but the most acute period of starvation had […] passed’ (Sen, 1981, 55). War Pictorial News No. 153 was made in April 1944 during Phase III of the famine. It was only at this point that there was anything like an effective response to the crisis.

Lord Wavell, who succeeded Linlithgow as Viceroy in October 1943, inaugurated British Army assistance. Troops were stationed in Bengal and given the responsibilities of transporting foodgrains and organising relief. Wavell also urged greater assistance from the British Government, complaining to Winston Churchill that ‘the vital problems of India area being treated by His Majesty’s Government with neglect, even sometimes with hostility and contempt’ (Sen, 1981, 79). This fact was not lost on Indian nationalists. Sen has noted that ‘The famine became a focal point of nationalist criticism of British imperial policy in India […], and official complacency came under particular attack’ (Sen, 1981, 78).



‘Happily all is now restored to normal but there was a time when only prompt and determined action by the British authorities saved Bengal from a major disaster’. This is the conclusion of the ‘India’ section of War Pictorial News No. 153 and it is the story that the newsreel wishes to tell.

The ‘determined’ nature of the action is pictured in several ways. The army is described as being in battle against ‘distance, time and hunger’. We witness the unloading and transportation of wheat supplies; the preparation of food for Bengali children; doctors attending children in an outlying village; and Lord Wavell monitoring an inoculation programme. The commentary lends weight to the British achievement. The supply ship that is pictured in the opening scenes is christened ‘the ark’:  ‘For like the ark of long ago she carried the promise of new life’. Elsewhere we hear of the dramatic ‘battle to reach starving men and women’.

It is the ‘prompt’ nature of the response that it is most cleverly portrayed. There is talk of ‘immediate steps’ and ‘no time lost’. We are informed that soldiers ‘at once’ got down to preparing meals, that medical supplies were ‘rushed’ to the famine areas, and that field hospitals were ‘quickly set up’. There is no factual detail regarding the duration of the crisis, its possible causes, or the number of victims. The only figure given is that the British have provided supplies for ‘tens of thousands of them’. The way in which the film is edited helps to illustrate the pace of the British response. For example, the distribution of food and medicine is commonly illustrated in three short scenes: departure, journey, arrival. Lord Wavell also receives the benefits of sharp editing. The fact that he ‘lost no time in coming to Calcutta’ is underpinned by a quick cut from him disembarking his aeroplane to his visit to a village camp.

Throughout the film the credit for solving the crisis is accorded to the British authorities. Indian army personnel are shown helping to deliver supplies and administering food and medicine; however, the British are repeatedly shown as having the senior roles. They are pictured with clipboards and stethoscopes. Although the film regards the famine as being alleviated it does feature quite graphic footage of starving children. Even here the British are shown to be reassuringly in command. An officer checks a young boy’s wellbeing by inspecting his eyesight. The boy’s health is confirmed with a pat on the head.

Richard Osborne (May 2009)


Works Cited

Bhatia, B. H., Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1860-1965), 2nd edn (London: Asia Publishing House, 1967).

Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Tauger, M, ‘Entitlement, Shortage and the 1943 Bengal Famine: Another Look’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 31/45 (2003), 72.



  • WAR PICTORIAL NEWS NO 153 (10/4/1944)

Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
909 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Ministry of Information, Middle East
Keating, Rex
film editor
Martin, Charles
Production company
War Pictorial News