EDMONTON – It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of a great friend and Canadian Film Pioneer, Charles (Chuck) Ross. Chuck passed away peacefully May 16, 2010 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. Chuck is survived by his loving wife Verna, and son James.
NOTE: I wrote this article over the summer of 2007 after having visited Chuck in Edmonton and sitting down with him to do a video interview. It is offered here in memory of Chuck Ross who passed away May 16, 2010. Use of the contents of this article is freely given with ackowledgement of its source; www.canadianfilmandphotounit.ca.
PHOTOGS TAKE PRISONERS
“Photographers have done practically everything else in this war. Now comes to hand the account of how two Canadian Army Film Unit cameramen and their driver captured eight of Hitler’s vaunted Wehrmacht. It happened in Normandy while the Canadians were driving on Fleur-sur-Orne. So far up front were Lt. GEORGE COOPER, Sgt. LEN THOMPSON and Pte. CHARLIE ROSS that they were actually ahead of their own infantry. Shielded only by the shells of friendly artillery the Film threesome first came across two whimpering Huns crying Kamerad! Kamerad! Kamerad! At the top of their voices. Apparently the Germans were frightened stiff of the three bold film men and decided it was better to turn in while the chances were good. Farther up the shell torn road six more Heinies packed it up making a total of eight the film men had to look after and at the same time keep an eagle eye open for newsreel material. The story did not end as rosy as wished for, during a lead tossing melee inside a village later, the film men were compelled to take cover and six prisoners were on the inside of a Cage looking out by nightfall. There you have it for another two weeks gentlemen of the press button. Best of luck and have one on us in gay Paree. “
Taken from the ‘The Viewfinder’, a Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit office flyer dated August 30, 1944.
Although written over 65 years ago, this story is still remembered by Charles N. Ross of Edmonton, one of the surviving members of the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit (CFPU). The CFPU was made up of specially trained combat soldiers who wielded cameras along with their military issue side arms. Driving next to Charles that day was combat cameraman Lieutenant George ‘Coop’ Cooper of Ottawa, and riding shotgun with a firm grasp of his tripod and 35mm Bell & Howell Eyemo movie camera was Sergeant Leonard ‘Len’ Thompson of Victoria. Charles N. Ross recalls that day so long ago…
“We were headed across the River Orne, making our way to Battalion HQ. The Provost had directed us forward up a road, and we knew that there was going to be an artillery shelling at a certain time.” But Charles soon realized something was wrong, “He accidentally sent us up the road that just happened to be the target that day…its not great fun to have 25 pounders come whistling in.”
When the 25 pound shells began to rain down, the camera trio realized that the Provost Lance-Corporal had given them the wrong directions. With trained instincts they frantically found refuge in a nearby salt mine. But not everyone made it in on time…
“The salt mine was already loaded with French civilians and Len didn’t get all the way in,” explains Charles. “He got part-way down the slope still carrying his Eyemo camera and tripod. George and I got in,” says Charles. “After the artillery ceased firing, we walked out of the salt mine and found out that the top turret of Len’s Eyemo camera had been taken out by one of the 25 pound shells. The tip of it. The tip would have been no further than 18 inches from Len Thompson’s head.”
As Charles explains, the three soldiers soon came to realize that they were not alone in the salt mine. Along with themselves and the French civilians, but hiding deep in the shadows, were several members of what appeared to be German soldiers. As it turned out, they were German laborers, dressed in German military garb, who had been toiling in the area when the shelling had begun.
“The Germans scrambled for cover, as did we” says Charles.
“The tires had been shot out from our jeep. A piece of shrapnel had gone through the engine block, and the radiator also had shrapnel through it. And the steering column was ripped out to its core by a piece of metal. Eventually we took the jeep back and it was on the road the next day.”
After the carnage had ended, the trio decided that two of them would head back to HQ leaving Charlie Ross behind to wait for reinforcements.
“George and Len decided to go back and get a truck to haul the jeep in. I was sitting in a ditch. As I waited in the ditch, a Major with a company of the Royal 22e Regiment (Van Doos) appeared. When he saw me he said, “What in the hell are you doing here?”
“I didn’t have an intelligent answer and just said, ‘Waiting for you sir.’ ”
* * * *
Born in Fifeshire, Scotland in 1920, Chuck, as he likes to be called, emigrated to Canada with his family in 1925. The family landed in Quebec City and soon boarded a train traveling west, eventually arriving in Drumheller, Alberta, a small town within the Verdun valley.
The family moved several times, struggling with the hopes of locating ideal farmland. The family soon settled in Chancellor, east of Calgary where his father planted his first crop. On the night before the harvest, a hailstorm came roaring through and completely destroyed the crop. Short of money, Chucks” father went to work at the Black Diamond mine in Edmonton and returned the following spring with an added resolve to plant another crop.
“And that was the start of the dirty thirties,” recalls Chuck. “I’ve seen dust storms where you can hold your hand out in front of your face, and you could hardly see it.”
After several attempts to locate suitable farmland, the family eventually settled outside Sundre, Alberta, a small town northwest of Calgary, where they made an honest living from the production and sale of wheat and cream, which they sold in town.
With the arrival of WWII, Chuck enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps in Calgary on February 15, 1940. Sent to Ottawa as a new recruit, he was assigned with the Mechanical Transport Vehicle Reception Depot (M.T.V.R.D.), and three weeks later was shipped overseas to arrive in the U.K. in late March.
As a driver, Chuck was eventually assigned to Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ) in England. It was at CMHQ that Chuck soon had the opportunity to drive members of the Film and Photo unit to and from their destinations. As circumstances would have it, Major Ralph Collier who was commanding the transport section for CMHQ was requested to join Number Two Public Relations Group (No. 2 PR), and he called upon Chuck to join him.
The Canadian Army Film Unit was organized in September 1941, as part of the Public Relations Services at Canadian Military Headquarters in London. More than seventy cameramen and still photographers were trained and sent into the field. Of these, six were killed and several others were seriously wounded. The Unit was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), the Military Medal (MM), the Military Cross (MC), and Mentions in Despatches (MID).
One film unit member who came close to losing his life when a ship he was on was torpedoed, was Jack Smith. Chuck explains,
“On a ship that was torpedoed was Jack Smith from Toronto who fished out a whole bunch of the nurses, he was a big man. He should have been decorated for it but what happened is he came back into camp after being in the water for so long and he was covered in oil and what have you and the first person he ran into was Major-General Chris Vokes and of course he didn’t salute or do a damn thing. And Chris Volkes stopped and said, “Don’t you know that you are supposed to salute a superior officer?” Jack hauled off and knocked him ass over kettle and when Chris found out what he (Jack) had done, nothing more was said and I think he got a Mention-in-Despatches but he should have got the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).”*
Chuck describes the actions of another colleague, Donald Grant,
“Don Grant who was from London Ontario, who was a stills man [photographer]. He won a Military Cross (MC), which was well deserved.”
“They were covering David Currie at St. Lamberts-sur-Dives. Two of their motion picture cameramen were wounded. Jack Stollery in the thumb, and Lloyd Millon in the shoulder. [Lloyd was later killed during the assault on the Walcheren Islands, clearing the Scheldt Estuary.] The driver was wounded in the head and Don got all three out.”
“One Military Medal (MM ) was won by Jack Stollery in Ortona,” continues Chuck.
“He was filming a sniper climbing along a roof and the Calgary tanks were coming in for support. A Colonel opened one of the tanks 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 footage shot by Jack Stollery that day appears in one of the Canadian Army Newsreels, Issue No. 24 in a story covering the battle for Ortona.]
Once he became a member of No. 2 PR, Chuck soon found himself in a unique position to learn from these combat cameramen.
“I decided that’s something that I would like to do, and I thought I could do it,” Chuck Ross explains.
“When I went to Normandy, I went with George Cooper from Ottawa. George had been in Sicily and Italy as a Combat Cameraman as a number of our fellows had. He asked me if I would be his driver, and that was the start because he started teaching me right away. We would be driving and he would say “What’s the exposure for this?” because you couldn’t use a light meter out in the field unless you were extremely careful. And, over time, you got to do it automatically, and I shot my first footage in Caen.”
As Chuck explains, George Cooper regularly carried along two Eyemo cameras, and it was with one of these that Chuck was trained. Many of the other drivers were also trained in this fashion, including George Cooper.
“That’s how I became a cameraman,” recalls Chuck. “But to officially become a cameraman, every one of us had to go through Pinewood Studios with the British MOI (Ministry of Information) who put on a six week camera course. The camera course taught you to do things automatically. We were taught by experienced British cameramen who had been in North Africa, France and various other places.”
But prior to going to Pinewood for camera training, Chuck was sent to Belgium.
“We were short of cameramen – and they sent me to cover the Long-Toms firing on the Scheldt and the Walcheren Islands.
I came back into camp that night with my footage. People were talking to me and I couldn’t hear a thing, it was like I was stone deaf. I had a habit when I shot that I would look through the viewfinder and always closed my left eye. But something else I didn’t do, I didn’t put cotton batting in my ears, and I was taking close-ups of them firing in sequence. Anyways I went up to see the medical officer and I wrote down on paper, ‘can’t hear’. The Sergeant came out, the doctor, and he’s laughing, he got about two inches from me and yelled at the top of his lungs, saying don’t worry. He had to blow my ears out twice a day and the next week my hearing came back. But I learned afterwards that it never really came back because I had a blown ear-drum.” Today, Chuck wears a hearing aid in each ear as a consequence of shooting that footage along the Belgium frontier. But not all of the cameramen were fortunate enough to escape unscathed during the assault on the Walcheren Islands.
Some paid with their lives.
Chuck explains, “The assault gathering took place at Cookshaven in Belgium. George Cooper and I were put on the command vessel. Lloyd Millon and Kenny Dougan (two other members of the Film Unit) were on assault crafts. Kenny was covering the Canadian medical corps and I drove Lloyd down and helped put his equipment onto the landing craft and said ‘Goodbye, I’ll see you when you get back.’ He never made it back. An 88 hit the landing craft. It was an assault landing craft and it had ammunition on board and it just blew up.” No body was ever found and Lloyd Millon was officially listed as missing in action. Out of the more than sixty Army combat cameramen, made up of still and cine cameras, four paid with their lives; Jimmy Campbell, Terry Rowe, Lloyd Millon, and ‘Barney’ Barnett. Also paying the ultimate price were some of the drivers, who escorted the cameramen out into the field; Ralph Bush, and Lewis Curry. Also lost during the war was Jack Mahoney, a navy photographer who perished with the sinking of the HMCS Athabaskan. These casualties credited the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit as having one of the highest mortality rates of all military units.
In some cases, the camera was still running when the combat cameramen came under attack, as was the case for Barney Barnett who was filming from a Cessna Piper-Cub airplane when he was spotted by Nazi Messerschmitt and shot down. The footage, was retrieved by Gordon Petty, a fellow cameraman, and eventually made its way into one of the Canadian Army Newsreels.
Byproducts of the thousands of feet of film shot by the cameramen are the Canadian Army Newsreels. These newsreels were initially released once a month and soon due to their popularity among the troops were released once a week.
“Produced by, of, and for the Canadian Army, 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 in Canada, to keep you posted on the deeds of Canada’s fighting Army.” (Quoted from Canadian Army Newsreel Issue No. 49)
In total, 106 newsreels were produced, along with more than twenty training films, promotional shorts and 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.
“One of the rewards we received was this,” says Chuck.
“You would often get a soldier of any rank who would come up to you and say, ‘Do you remember the footage you shot back, so many weeks ago, or two or three months ago?’ Sure, you could remember that. They (soldiers) say, well I got a letter from Mom and Dad or from the wife or from whomever, that they saw it in the local theatre on the newsreels.”
As Chuck explains, the footage would make its way into the field to be screened wherever possible,
“Maybe it would be set up in a barn, or building, and they would set up a 16mm projector, and they would have a generator and a beaded screen as a rule, but there would be times when it would be screened on a white sheet. Whenever they went into a rest area they would be shown there, like in Naples, or Brussels.”
“We were also responsible in the Public Relations Group for the Army Newspaper called the Maple Leaf,” recalls Chuck.
“And many of the cartoons in that were done by Lew Weekes, who was a Sergeant Cameraman with us. He was from Vancouver. He was a tremendous artist and had a great sense of humour.”
Such talent was unique within an Army Unit that required special camera skills, dexterity and determination in the field. Not only were they cameramen, editors, and photographers, but they were also trained as regular soldiers. A side arm became standard issue along with their Grafix still cameras and Bell and Howell motion picture cameras.
As Chuck tells it, grit and determination was sometimes their best weapon in obtaining critical footage of special events, or in this case, scooping other allied press cameramen.
“I was assigned to cover then Field-Marshal Montgomery’s visit to Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Bernhard in their summer home,” says Chuck. [On this assignment he was the only cameraman at the time to capture footage of Field Marshal Montgomery making a visit to see Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Bernhard in Holland.]
“I said to the driver, ‘When Monty’s car comes up, get this jeep right in behind him.’ We got through the gate into the palace grounds and they closed the gate right behind us. I was the only cameraman there to get that footage. And I looked up and I saw two little girls looking out of the window and I took a shot of them as a cutaway.” As it turned out, one of those little girls turned out to be the future Queen of Holland.
“It was more about good luck than good management. The Dutch press was not very happy.”
Chuck was also on hand to capture footage of the notorious German, Brigadier Fuhrer Kurt Meyer, a member of the Waffen S.S. as he arrived at the airport to await his trial. Meyer was accused of killing Canadian prisoners of war. As Meyer stepped from the aircraft he raised his hand as if to salute the awaiting Provost, who instead, quickly placed handcuffs on the Germans out-stretched hand. The trial proceeded with Meyer becoming the first war criminal sentenced to death by a Canadian court. [Meyer’s death sentence was later commuted to life by Major General Vokes]
During his time with the Film Unit, Chuck Ross had been stationed in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and once was sent to Czechoslovakia where he covered the 4th Canadian Division playing hockey against the Czech National’s in Prague on Christmas Day, 1945. Turk Broda, of NHL fame was one of the net-minders.
Much of the footage shot by the Unit continues to be used in many current documentaries as seen on television today such as the History channel. Their footage is regularly featured in the many DVD series produced by The War Amps of Canada.
“One of the great memories of course is covering V.E. Day in London,” says Chuck as he looks back on his days with the Film Unit.
“I don’t think in my lifetime I’ll ever see as many people in my life. The subways were shut down, no taxis were running, no buses. People were sleeping in Green’s Park, in Hyde Park and all over the place. I came in at ten o’clock at night, and sat on the sidewalk, said to the boss, ‘If you want any more footage shot, somebody else is going to have to do it.’ And I walked back to where I had a room in Knightsbridge, and I hadn’t eaten all day because everything was shut down, and my landlady got up and she said, Have you eaten yet? And I said, No, but that’s all right, forget it. She said, You get cleaned up and come on in, and she made me ham and eggs. It was just wonderful.”
In June of 1946 Chuck was told he was going home. The war was over for him.
He was officially discharged in Calgary in July, 1946.
After the war Chuck worked a short while for the Calgary Gas company and soon after received a phone call to work at the Edmonton Bulletin as a still cameraman where he stayed until the end of 1948. It was at the Bulletin that Chuck met Verna, his future wife. They had one son, James, who went on to join the RCMP.
In January of 1949, Chuck underwent major surgery to remove his right lung. While in the hospital, Chuck received a call from the Alberta government who sent someone to inquire as to whether Chuck would be interested in joining their Film and Photo Section.
“I looked at the guy and said to him, “You must be out of your damned mind. Do you know what happened to me?” and he said, “Yeah, we know all about it.” And I said, well if you are willing to take a chance, so will I.”
After getting out of the hospital, Chuck went home to stay with his parents in Killarney, near Calgary. While resting at home Chuck received a visit from Deputy Minister Ralph Moore who invited Chuck out to dinner and asked Chuck what kind of wages did he expect? Chuck told him he wanted $200 a month and the Deputy Minister said ‘We don’t pay any of our cameramen that.’ The next day the Deputy Minister called Chuck and said you have your $200.
“I walked into the Film Branch on April first and all the boys clapped because they had got a raise. I stayed with them until 1972 when the Lougheed government was elected and they asked me to help establish the Film Industry Unit, which was part of the Industry Development Department [Chuck was the first on board to help establish the Alberta Film Commission – one of the first such commissions in Canada at the time].
One of Chuck’s first duties with the Commission was to visit Los Angeles to promote the benefits of shooting in Alberta to many of the local producers.
“The first we had was from Disney Studios. It was called Pioneer Woman (1973), and Bill [William] Shatner was one of the actors in it. And that was shot on the Palmer Ranch down by Waterton Lakes and Pincher Creek.”
“Another one we did with Disney was The Boy Who Talked to Badgers (1975). We shot that east of Drumheller on a small ranch.”
“Another film was Silver Streak (1976). Arthur Hiller directed that. He was raised in Edmonton and he worked for the CBC. He went to Union Pacific and they just told him bluntly, “Get the hell out of here, we’re not letting you use any of our trains. So he made a deal with CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) to use this train, and it was called the Silver Streak.”
“Later on I was in Tuscon at the Association of State Film Commissions, and Art [Arthur Hiller] was the guest speaker and he saw me there. And he said, “You know, we’ve got one fellow here who is from north of the border. He bailed me out for Silver Streak, and he said it worked perfectly. And that was a little free publicity for me.”
He is the recipient of several awards; the 1975 Distinguished Service Award, the Queens Silver Jubilee Award, the Alberta Feature Film Award, the Information Film Production Award, and a Canadian Film Award in 1973 for Best Sports Film Ski Alberta.
“On Ski Alberta, one of the cameramen was Roger Brown from Denver Colorado. Roger could ski backwards with a camera shooting better than most people could ski forward.”
“We blew that [film] up to 35mm format and showed it across Western Canada. We got a call from 20th Century-Fox. They had seen the film, and they wanted the rights for Australia and New Zealand.”
“During Canada’s Centennial Year I was put in charge of all the press, radio and television for all the Royal and State visits to Alberta and I received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal for the work I did there.”
Chuck also became involved in The Memory Project, a Dominion Institute initiative to recruit veterans from the Second World War to visit classrooms in their communities to share in their experiences and times during time in service.
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Chuck shared these recollections with the crowd at the Edmonton Legislature in June 2005:
“As dawn broke over the Normandy shore, the greatest combined operations the world had ever seen had begun. It was June the 6th, 1944. D-Day. The Air Force had already attacked forward and rear bridges and strong points all along the beach and in the rear areas. The Canadian Airborne Battalion jumped after midnight to capture bridges and were engaged in heavy fighting. As the landing craft were approaching the beach at Beny-Sur-Mer and Courseulles-sur-Mer they came under heavy fire from the enemy. Once on the beach our Canadian troops were in control. Juno Beach will be part of our history forever. On one of our landing craft was Sergeant Bill Grant of Vancouver getting ready to film the great footage of the Queen’s Own Rifles hitting the beach. The film footage and stills of the battle were taken by cameras of the Canadian Film and Photo Unit which was shown in North America 48 hours later. That day, Bill Grant’s footage scooped the world. The cemetery behind Juno Beach will always remind me of the cost of victory that day. Up from the beach the next battle would be the Carpiquet airfield. The enemy fought hard but the Canadians were more than a match for them. It was on to Caen and over the river Orne to Vaucelles where the Germans had retreated. Casualties were high on both sides. The road to Falaise was heavy fighting all along the way to close the gap. We were bombed by both the U.S., Canadian, and British bombers causing casualties and equipment loss for our troops. At St. Lambert-sur-Dives a squadron of tanks carried Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment, with a Polish Division closing the gap. Major Currie was awarded the first Victoria Cross in Normandy. On a personal note I will always remember a Sergeant with the Regina Rifles leading his squad through a grain field. His face was young but his eyes were those of a veteran who had seen it all. Those men were his responsibility. We Albertans can be very proud of our military then and now, although today it is sixty years ago. For those of us who were there at Normandy and on it will always be yesterday.”
When asked about any final thoughts on his career and times with the Canadian Army Film Unit, Chuck replied, “I don’t think there is a day that goes by that there isn’t some little incident that suddenly tweaks my memories. It was an important time in my life, and it was a great journey.”
© Dale Gervais – March 9, 2008