This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: APY 37).


Reel 1: Model of India, filmed at low angle with crawl of text; RAF Film Production Unit presents Life in Air Command South East Asia. The map flips upright, so the camera is looking directly down on it, and commentary explains the basic geography of India. Bombay and escape from the discomfort of life on a troopship. Accomodation at Worli transit camp. Commentary tells audience to expect beggars; average income apparently only two shillings a week. Drive through Bombay with modern flats by Chowpatty Beach. Sunbathing is unwise with advice for developing a tan essential for the really handsome man and refers to WAAFs (women of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force) now being deployed to India. Shopping advice; Bombay apparently one of the most expensive cities in the world. More beggars; some picturesque, all dirty, a few even genuine. Advice about snakes little enough risk if you keep your boots on. Horse racing at Mahalaxmi; betting followed by pay parade. Postings are announced. Kit is packed up for travel by rail; at a halt drinking water should always be boiled. Model shot; Delhi is marked and described as where most of the WAAFs will go. WAAFs go sightseeing, take camel and pony trap rides. WAAFs shopping. Model; Calcutta is marked and described as the gateway to Burma. Scenes at Howrah. Calcutta far more Indian than Bombay. More postings announced with men falling out. Parade dismissed. Model shot; Madras is marked capital of a province with its own culture and history. People of Madras smaller and darker-skinned. Basha billet with a bearer carrying a mans equipment. Importance of mosquito nets; net collapses and entangles an airman. Char wallah arrives and a man takes shower pumped by small Indian boy. Airman picks a banana from a tree. Indian servants work absurdly cheaply; shots of char wallah, shoe shiner, barber and tailor. Sign warns of danger of sharks.

Reel 2: Model shot; Ceylon, where its no hardship to live in a tent. Maintenance of Sunderland flying boats. Sailing and swimming. Model shot; Burma hot, dusty, and there are mosquitos. Forward areas some discomforts must be suffered. Post Office at Imphal. Rations served. Monsoon weather in three months as much water falls as in three years at home even in Lancashire. Effects of monsoon weather on aircraft and vehicles. Church service. Swimming in the sea on coastal airstrip. ENSA show on forward air strip. Local dances. Athletics. Model shot; men go on leave in Darjeeling. Buddhist locals and Tibetan antiques. Pony trekking; a chance to meet European women they brighten up the scenery. Tea planters hospitality. Change of tone; the sole end of the RAF to keep the kites flying, pounding the enemy until the final V-day. THE END over mountains.

A two-reel film by the RAF Film Production Unit for presentation to airmen bound for India, giving an idealised account of what they might expect to encounter after being posted to Air Command South East Asia (ACSEA).


This film is an edit of various reels of mute rushes also held by the Imperial War Museum Film Archive. See related items.

An interesting film which attempts to deal with a geographically massive Command in a meaningful way. However, we might note occasional absurdities in the commentary, the unsurprisingly superior tone towards the Indian population, and an apparent preoccupation with airmens opportunities for pursuing women of the Womens Auxiliary Air Force or other European women. For a force dedicated to the sole end to keep the kites flying, pounding the enemy until the final V-day, we might also notice the scarcity of shots of aircraft actually on operations.

This film probably reached only a limited audience, as the footage it includes was only shot in the first half of 1945, with some coming as late as May 1945.



The footage that comprises Life in Air Command South East Asia was shot during the final months of World War II, with some sequences being filmed as late as May 1945. It was filmed and compiled by the RAF Film Production Unit, a body set up in September 1941 to document the RAF’s wartime activities and to make training and information films (Chapman, 1998, 155). The unit had no ambitions to ‘cut across the interests of the commercial film trade’ and was staffed from within the service (Buckman, 1997, 220). It was disbanded at the end of 1945, partly for financial reasons but also because it had fulfilled its remit (Buckman, 1997, 223). The film covers RAF activities in India, Burma and Ceylon, and its intended audience would have been RAF airmen destined for the Burmese campaign. The success of these operations in mid-1945 would have curtailed the usefulness of this film.

Burma was the front line in Britain’s war against Japan, and provided some of the harshest conditions faced by the Allies. The Burmese campaign drew personnel from throughout the Empire, including India, Africa and Burma itself (Jackson, 2006, 341). Air power was vital in these operations, and RAF personnel in India and Burma grew from 11,600 in September 1941 to 122,000 by May 1945, when they represented 13% of the RAF’s total strength (Jackson, 2006, 365-66). Air Command, South East Asia was formed in November 1943 under Lord Mountbatten, the Allied commander of South East Asia Command. The Royal Indian Air Force also expanded during this period, rising from 1,600 men at the beginning of the war to 28,500 at its close (Jackson, 2006, 367). However, unlike the combined forces of the army, the Royal Indian Air Force operated separately from the RAF (Jackson, 2006, 367).

During the War, India, Burma and Ceylon each made significant strides towards independence, a status that would be achieved by each country before the 1940s were over. Ceylon was largely supportive during the War, and the country’s independence has been seen in part as a reward for its loyalty (Ashton, 2001, 461). India’s wartime support in both manpower and materials also helped to secure the country its independence. However, the part played by the Indian National Congress, who refused to support the War, was also of great importance: their resistance led to the Cripps Offer of 1942, which promised Dominion status for India at the War’s end (Brown, 1994, 328). Burma was the only one of the countries to be occupied during the War, and during this period some of its political factions actively supported the Japanese. Following the recapture of Burma in 1945, the British issued a White Paper outlining plans for giving the country Dominion status (Comstock, 1946, 239). However, events moved rapidly, and in 1948 Burmese nationalists secured complete independence (Thomson, 1957, 300). Unlike India and Ceylon, Burma decided not to become a member of the British Commonwealth.



Despite being shot when the War in south-east Asia was reaching its climax, Life in Air Command South East Asia has the feel of a peacetime film that aims to encourage conscription. Foreign lands are depicted as pleasant and diverting places to be posted to.

Burma is the one exception to this rule. The film admits that it is ‘it’s hot, and dusty, and there are mosquitoes’, and it doesn’t flinch from showing the harsh operational conditions in this country. The film is purposefully structured. Despite disclosing that ‘most of you will find your way’ to Burma, the country is not shown until near the end of the film. It is not depicted as being a permanent destination either: airmen are soon shown on leave in Darjeeling, where they take a holiday that we are informed would have cost £300 in peacetime. Various devices are employed to de-emphasise Burma. The film begins by giving a chronological account of the experience of RAF personnel in India. It commences with airmen arriving in Bombay, which the commentary admits is the ‘least Indian of Indian cities’. Burma, at this point, is cast a distant land on the far side of the sub-continent. This distance is enhanced by the use of maps and by the disingenuous commentary. ‘So you are posted to India. Well, I’ll tell you the worst’, the script begins. The worst is that ‘India is ‘much bigger than you expected’. The film then follows the airmen being posted to various parts of south-east Asia. Thus it is able to show Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Ceylon, before eventually facing Burma and the War.

If the War is downplayed in this film, the movements towards independence in India, Ceylon and Burma are completely ignored. Additionally, the film largely bypasses the role of the other nations in the military campaign. It is only in the Burmese segment that we get to see a number of Burmese and Indian personnel, and here they are shown competing against the RAF in sporting events. For most of the film the local people are given background roles and dismissed in casually racist terms. They are cast as being subservient (‘you’ll probably find plenty of Indian servants who’ll work for you fairly cheaply’); deceitful (‘beware of the small shopkeeper’); lazy (‘“Why bother?” – that’s the Indian motto’); and impoverished (‘more and more beggars, some picturesque, all dirty, a few even genuine’).  

The device of showing different postings for the airmen enables the filmmakers to explore the variety provided by south-east Asia. Calcutta is described as being ‘far more Indian than Bombay’; the people of Madras are ‘smaller and darker skinned’; those of Darjeeling are ‘very picturesque folk’. The filmmakers do display some sympathy towards the people they depict: India’s multitude of beggars is excused by reference to the low income in the sub-continent. Local historical and cultural interest is nevertheless subordinated to what are perceived to be the main interests of the RAF: sun (‘you’ll soon develop that tan’) and sex (‘WAAF personnel have been posted to India too’). To sell the attractions of India, the country is frequently compared to Britain. It is hot, but no hotter than London before a thunderstorm; a shopping trip for the WAAF is compared to heading out to Woolworths; the monsoon rains are even worse than those of Lancashire (in contrast, the film admits of Burma that ‘it’s no use pretending that life here is much like home’). It could be argued that this film provides in miniature a portrait of British existence in the colonial territories: the interests of the visitors are prioritised, and the culture of the country is only understood in relation to the homeland. However, it should not be forgotten that, despite the fact it downplays the War, this film was aimed at military personnel who were receiving temporary postings, and that their role was to fight in a global conflict – like this film itself, these personnel were not primarily engaged with local concerns.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Ashton, S.R., ‘Ceylon’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 447-64.

Brown, Judith M., Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 1994).

Buckman, Keith, ‘The Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1941-45’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 17/2 (June 1997), 219-44.

Chapman, James, The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998).

Comstock, Alzada, ‘British Plans for the Empire’, Current History, 10/55 (March 1946), 238-43.

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Thomson, John Seabury, ‘The AFPFL-Continuity in Burmese Politics’, Antioch Review, 17/3 (September 1957), 297-313.



  • SO THIS IS INDIA (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
19 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1713 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Air Ministry
Goozee, S (Sergeant)
Hughes, H R (Flight Sergeant)
Lang, T W (Pilot Officer)
Layzell, R G (Sergeant)
McKee, J L (Sergeant)
Sheridan, V
director (?)
Swain, J (Flying Officer)
Production company
Royal Air Force Film Production Unit
Sergeant; cameraman
Clot, Dennis Francis Emile







Production Organisations