Past Image Photography

World War II Combat  Cameras

Zeiss Super Ikonta


(model 530/16)



The Super ikonta models 530/16 and 532/16 were the standard cameras issued to the AFPU. They were described in the AFPU manual as having been ‘proved to be the best and handiest in action’.  By contrast Bert Hardy, commented 'I can only think that it was adopted by the army in order to make life difficult for us (Hardy, p.188).


Rangefinder camera with F3.5 or f2.8  80mm lens with compur shutter to 1/400th.  Separate rangefinder and viewfinder (530/16) or combined (532/16). 120mm size film, 11 exposures.


Used by Sergeant Peter Norris of AFPU during the Normandy campaign.

Rolleiflex Automat



Twin lens reflex camera. In AFPU service,  intended to cover ‘feature sets’ rather than rapid action.


Compur shutter to 1/400th. Tessar F3.5 75mm lens


120mm film, 12 exposures


A Rollieflex was used  by Robert Capa from 1943 to supplement his Contax,  on the insistence of Life magazine.   It was used  to photograph images of wounded troops on board ship on return from the first wave of D Day landings.  Lee Miller also used a Rolleiflex during WW2. It was even used from 1943 by the 'Hidden Camera' group of the Dutch resistance.


An earlier model of the Rolleiflex was used in the Spanish Civil War by Gerda Taro during 1936-7 and by David 'Chim' Seymour during  1936-8 (alongside his Leica).

Kodak Medalist I



Heavy and awkward rangefinder camera 'the professional's heavy tank'.


Kodak Super-Matic shutter to 1/400th.  F3.5 100m lens. Unusualy for pre-war cameras, the lens was coated.

620mm film 8 exposures.


The AFPU manual stated that this camera ‘should only be handled by an experienced photographer’.  it was mainly used for Used for colour and infra-red photography.   Used by AFPU photograher Captain Edward Dine to photograph King George VI and Field Marshall Montgomery in 1944.  

30 Assault Unit

Voightlander Bessa I



This was the most basic camera of the cameras issued to the AFPU. Although the  Bessa was also available as a rangefinder model, the type illustrated in the AFPU manual relies on estimating focussing distance and adjusting using the mount  on the lens.

Compur shutter to 1/400th.  F4.5  105m lens.


120mm film taking 8 or 16 half-sized exposures (with mask).


AFPU manual takes care to note that the ‘lens should not be cleaned with a handkerchief’.

Zeiss Contax II



The first camera with a combined range/viewfinder. It was able to use interchangeable lenses and had an cccessory shoe for flash. Speed to 1/1250.  Interchangeable lenses (standard is 50mm Sonar – F2 or F1.5).  35mm film in cassettes.


Favoured by many professional photographers of the time – notably Robert Capa, Bert Hardy  and Lee Miller.  The AFPU allowed Hardy to use his Contax – but refused to pay the costs of servicing it.


Prior to the D-Day landings of June 1944, selected officers and men of 30 Assault Unit were given photographic training by the AFPU and were issued with Contax II cameras.  Their task was to move ahead of the allied armies and capture  key intelligence targets.

Leica IIIa



Regarded as less rugged and more difficult to load than the Contax II but lighter.  Interchangeable lenses (standard for was the 50mm F2 summar). 35mm film in cassettes.


In September 1942, 30 Assault Unit requested five Leicas (preferably with F2 lenses) from the Admiralty. It is not clear if they were received. Used by British war correspondent George Rodger for Life magazine.  Sgt Sandy McLaren of AFPU used his personal Leica alongside a Super Ikonta until temporary capture by the Africa Corps.  Many Leicas were 'liberated' by the AFPU teams in Germany and used  as back-up cameras to the official issue.


A Leica IIIA was used by  Eisenstaedt to take the classic 1945 VJ night photograph in  New York Time Square.

Kodak 35 (Military)



Military version of the first 35mm camera produced by Kodak in 1938. Most of the first production was bought by the US military.


Basic 35mm camera without rangefinder.             F4.5 51mm lens


An unattributed photograph of  a museum collection of SOE equipment  shows the civilian version of the Kodak 35.

Argus C3 ('The Brick')



35mm camera with fixed lens. Introduced in 1939.


Issued to GI soldier/photographers (GIs given cameras to record unit histories).   Most famously used by Tony Vaccaro to record the 83rd Infantry Division in Europe 1944-5.


Graflex Speed Graphic (Anniversary)



The American Speed Graphic half-plate camera was the standard press camera of the 1930s and 1940s (35mm cameras were considered 'toys' by some editors until the pioneering work of photographers such as Bert Hardy).


Interchangeable lenses. Speeds 1 sec to 1/1000.


Film size 3-1/4" x 4-1/4" or 4" x 5" single sheets.


The 'anniversary' model was manufactured 1940 - 47 and was also produced in a military version for the US forces. It was not suited to action shots – but the US produced a military version and was the camera used by Rosenthal  to take the iconic image of the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima.

Ensign Midget



The Ensign company seized upon the marketing opportunity afforded by the outbreak of war and advertised their well-established Midget camera to troops as 'A remarkable war time camera'. ‘It goes into a tunic pocket, with room to spare’.  The company also exhorted civilians to

‘Keep an Ensign Midget war-time diary’. (Ensign 1940 catalogue). The camera did, however, go out of production in 1940.  


There are isolated references to soldiers in the 8th Army and in New Guinea using an Ensign  Midget camera.


It uses E10 roll film to produce a negative 3.5 x 4.5 cm.


This list is based around the cameras issued to the WW2 British Army  Photographic and Film Unit (AFPU). It also includes references to cameras used by civilian photo-journalists, US army photographers  and also to civilian cameras of the period which have a specific connection to the conflict.  

    Officially, ordinary soldiers were not permitted to take cameras on campaign but this was impossible to police.  The snapshots taken by enthusiasts on cameras such as the Ensign Midget or the  'box brownie' , collectively form an extremely important archives of the war.

I would be grateful for any details of omissions or errors (use contact form).

Malcolm Atkin

Ensign Commando

1945-50 (civilian version illustrated 1947)


The original military version of the Ensign Commando was issued to some offical camereamen  at the end of  WW2.  The main difference to the civilian version released in 1946 was in having a plainer trim and different design of rewind knob.


F3.5 75mm lens.120mm film size

Zeiss Super Ikonta (model 532/16)



Later model with combined viewfinder and rangefinder.


Used by Jim Mapham to take the famous images of the D Day landings on Swords beach. Also used by  Bert Hardy.


ikonta ensign_commando argus speed_graphic midget rollie medalist super_ikonta_530_16 Leica IIIA Contax II Exacta

Kine Exacta Jhagee Dresden


(Model 2/3: 1937-8 - export version)


Schneider Xenon F2 50mm lens.  Speeds to 1/1000th.  35mm film size. One of the first cameras to include built in flash synchronisation.


Apparently prized by US submarine commanders for taking pictures through periscopes!


This was a common camera used by German photojournalists in WW2 (along with Leica IIIa).  Not all of the members of the German photographic units were committed Nazis.   Joe Heydecker (1916-1997)  was a writer and anti-Nazi who had been conscripted into a propoganda unit of the German army.  With his Exacta, he managed to take illegal photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941/2.  His family and friends later had to hide the negatives from the Gestapo.


Kodak Retina II



ilIustrated Type 142 (1937-9).  Speeds to 1/500.  F2.8 50mm Schneider-Xenon lens.


Compact, relatively cheap, 35mm  rangefinder camera made in Germany by Kodak AG.  Its small size and well-protected lens meant it was ideal for slipping nto a coat pocket.


SIS agent Oluf Reed Olsen used a 'Retina Kodak' to photograph German airfields around Oslo from April to late August 1940.  He was captured whilst photographing the D/F equipment of a crashed Heinkel III, but fortunatley managed to escape. The exact model of camera is not known but the rangefinder variant would clearly have been the most convenient.  SOE also purchased a 'Retina IIA' in Stockholm.


Minox (Riga) sub miniature



Sub-miniature camera for 8 x 11mm exposures on 9.5mm film in special cassettes.


The classic spy camera.  The original model was  designed by Walter Zapp and was manufactured at the VEP factory in Riga, Latvia,  from 1937 - 1943.  Before the war, a number were  purchased by British   intelligence. Used by  SIS and SOE agents, including by SOE in France (1943) and Greece (1944).


Photograph.© IWM (PHO 85)

AFPU Issue Cameras

Agfa box 45

Agfa Box 45

1938 - 1942


Most of the simple box cameras used, unofficially, by troops in WW2 are only described generically as 'Box Brownies'.  Many were the common Kodak models, but other brands included the popular Agfa range.


The Agfa 45 is illustrated.  It is a simple Metal box with a single element meniscus f11 lens and  two speed shuter (1/30th and B). It uses 120mm film producing 6cm x 9cm prints.


An Agfa Box 44 was carried by Heinz Lewy on the kindertransport from Germany to France in 1939. An otherwise un-named Agfa camera was used by Sergeant Arthur Ward, RHA ,in italy during 1944. An Agfa box camera was also carried by a German Tiger Tank unit in Russia, 1944. An Agfa 45 was used by Sergeant Francis Lawrence, Australian Ordnance Corps,  who served from 1943 - 1961 in the Far East.


voitlander_bessa kodak35_military_small R.G-Lewis-Advert

The British army was unprepared for the demands of official war photography and, as ithe best cameras of the time were of German manufacture, they had to buy them from whatever sources they could find  and also appealed for donations.  35mm cameras were still viewed with suspicion, with 120 film size being the most common format.