One of the things that turns many people off from history is the difficulty of placing themselves in the moment—it’s hard to imagine the emotion or brutality of Battle of Agincourt while struggling with Shakespearean language or Medieval renderings. The development of photography cut through the mist of history, but it wasn’t until 1935 with the development of Kodachrome slide film that images went full spectrum. Even then, for the next two decades color film was hard to use and expensive to process, limiting its use. But during World War II, the U.K.’s Ministry of Information took some 3,000 color photographs on the home front and the front lines using color film. Now, a collection of these rare photos, including some that have never been published before, appear in the The Second World War in Colour, curated by the Imperial War Museums, which is celebrating its centenary this year.
“The images in this book show the vivid hues of the flames and fabrics, the intense blue skies, the sun-tanned faces and the myriad of colours of military camouflage,” IWM senior curator Ian Carter says in a press release. “Black and white photography puts a barrier between the subject and the viewer, colour photography restores that missing clarity and impact. As the most destructive war in history gradually fades from living memory, it becomes more important to take away the remoteness and bring the Second World War to life.”
The book includes images from both the battle front, including bombers on runs over Germany and troops shooting artillery in Italy, as well as the home front like photos of factory workers building planes and Auxiliary Territorial Service members scanning the skies for enemy bombers.
The book isn’t the first attempt to showcase World War II in color. In 2009, a popular documentary series called World War II in HD Colour included both color and colorized film of the war. Other caches of color photos have surfaced over the years, including staged propaganda images from the Office of War Information. The archives of LIFE magazine also include color photos of London during the blitz, images taken by Hitler’s personal photographer Hugo Jaeger (who was a big fan of color photography) of the invasion of Poland and color images of the American military in action.