By Bob Gordon
Over the past decade, video shot on the battlefield by combatants has proliferated on YouTube. Firefights in Afghanistan and Iraq abound. Less widely known is the availability of old school Second World War motion picture footage online, including combat scenes. During the war, military cinematographers shot the shooters and, often, the shooting. That retro footage can be accessed on the Internet. It exists and is available.
In January 1941, newly appointed historical officer Major Charles Perry Stacey recommended the establishment of a film unit dedicated to recording the training and operations of the Canadian military during the Second World War. Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ) in London organized the Canadian Army Film Unit (CAFU) in the fall of 1941. Canadian military cinematographers trained at Pinewood Studios, approximately 30 kilometres west of London near the village of Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire. Upon graduation cinematographers received the rank of sergeant. Post-production was done at Merton Park Studios in South Wimbledon.
At its height, CAFU — re-organized as the Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) in 1943 — had 50 cinematographers and 25 photographers in the field, among the 200 working there. Of these, six were killed and several others were seriously wounded. According to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) archivist Sarah Cook, the CFPU and Canadian military shot approximately 60,000 photos and half a million metres of film.
The original members of the unit were Brits George Noble and Michael Desbois Spencer. The latter worked for the National Film Board (NFB) before joining the Army. The third was Alf Grayston, a veteran of the private Canadian production company Associated Screen News (ASN). They were led by Lieutenant Jack McDougall, also formerly a cameraman and director at ASN.
The unit produced more than 20 training films, promotional shorts, technical films and several short documentaries, most notable of which is You Can’t Kill a City, a documentary about the destruction and rebuilding of the city of Caen in France directed by Michael Spencer. However, their energies were principally directed towards the Canadian Army Newsreels, a series of 106 separate, original 10-minute films for the exclusive viewing of military personnel premiering on November 16, 1942. As Canadian Army Newsreel No. 49 explained: “The Canadian Army weekly newsreel is your newsreel. Its job is to portray faithfully the life of Canadian soldiers wherever they may be. They are shown from front line theatre to headquarters.” Produced throughout the war they were initially released monthly, but due to their popularity among the troops, this schedule was increased to weekly.
There were no film crews with Canadian forces in Hong Kong, and Dieppe was a non-event for Canadian cinematographers. Initially ordered to participate, they were eventually barred from the operation. The only footage they had access to was miserable British footage shot from ships distant from shore. Interestingly, this forced Allied news services, including the NFB, to rely on German footage of the raid and its aftermath for their images. These productions appear on the LAC website Through a Lens: Dieppe in Photographs and Film.
The invasion of Sicily in July 1943 proved a different story. Four cinematographers, including Sergeant Grayston, Lieutenant Al Fraser and Jimmie Campbell, secured excellent footage of the invasion beaches. It was also the first such footage to reach the public, leading Lieutenant Jack McDougall to exult, ‘We scooped everybody.” This footage appears in Canadian Army Newsreel No. 13.
Cinematographers Norm Quick, who worked with the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau before the war, and Jack Stollery shot groundbreaking footage of the Battle of Ortona in December 1943. The effort won Stollery a Military Medal. Fellow CFPU veteran Chuck Ross recalled to archivist Dale Gervais: “He [Stollery] was filming a sniper climbing along a roof and the Calgary tanks were coming in for support. A Colonel opened one of the tank hatches and looked down and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ and Jack said, ‘Sir, I’m trying to get a shot of that sniper crawling along the roof.’ The Colonel said, ‘What’s your regimental number?’ He gave it to him and the next thing he knew, he had won the Military Medal.” The citation states in part: “he displayed the utmost fearlessness and disregard for his own safety, exposing himself on numerous occasions to enemy fire in order to obtain the best pictures possible.” The footage shot by Jack Stollery that day appears in Canadian Army Newsreel No. 24.
Again, at Juno Beach the CFPU scooped the world by 24 hours. And, again, it was not only the first footage available to the public, it was the best. Fixed cameras mounted on landing craft clearly show the infantry approaching the beach and wading ashore after the doors swing open. Bud Roos accompanied the Regina Rifles and Don Grant covered the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. According to Cook, the best footage is of the Royal New Brunswick (North Shore) Regiment. Some of this footage appears in Canadian Army Newsreel No. 33.
Chuck Ross describes the actions of another colleague, Donald Grant: “He won a Military Cross, which was well deserved.” They were covering David Currie at Saint Lambert-sur-Dive [August 20, 1944]. Two of their motion picture cameramen were wounded. Jack Stollery in the thumb, and Lloyd Millon in the shoulder. The driver was wounded in the head and Don got all three out.” The footage they shot is the only motion picture footage (and still photography) of a man in the act of winning the Victoria Cross. Footage from Saint Lambert-sur-Dive is included in Canadian Army Newsreel No. 40.
Four Canadian combat cinematographers paid with their lives: Jimmy Campbell, Terry Rowe, Lloyd Millon, and ‘Barney’ Barnett. Jack Mahoney, a navy photographer, perished with the sinking of the HMCS Athabaskan. According to LAC motion picture and film conservator Dale Gervais, “Sgt. Barnett was flying in an Auster observation plane taking aerial shots over the Rhine near Xanten, Germany, when he came under attack by a Messerschmitt aircraft. Barnett was killed instantly but his camera kept rolling” and he, literally, recorded his own demise. The footage was retrieved by CFPU cinematographer Gordon Petty and with stoic resolve was dutifully included in Canadian Army Newsreels No. 64. Also paying the ultimate price were some of the drivers, unknown but essential support personnel, Ralph Bush and Lewis Curry.