Thanks to the War Amps, all 106 Canadian Army newsreels from the Second World War are now available to the public for the first time ever as a complete set.
The special six disc DVD collection contains more than 20 hours of footage and comes with a booklet that describes the content of each newsreel.
The collection (which can be purchased directly from the War Amps website) is a significant addition to the War Amps Military Heritage Series and will further help Canadians understand our military’s contribution during the Second World War.
“Cliff Chadderton (War Amps chief executive officer) realized about 20 years ago that Canadians don’t really understand what happened in war, ” said Karen Valley, president of War Amps Operation Legacy.
“They understand about the Hollywood version or the video game version but not the real human reality side of war. So he started Operation Legacy and the Military Heritage Series to illustrate the lesser known stories, the more human side of what Canada’s involvement was in the war,” said Ms. Valley.
“I am very happy they are being released,” said Michael Spencer, 90, one of the original members of the Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU), in a telephone interview from his home in Montreal. “I hope very much that when they are released, they reach a big audience.”
Canada was the last of the Allied countries to start a film and photo unit. Documents show that the unit was formed in October 1941, primarily to record the activities of Canadian troops training for the eventual invasion of Europe and to create a lasting record of Canadian involvement in the Second World War.
The CFPU started out with four members: Lt. J.E.R. ‘Jack’ McDougall, Lt. George Nobel, S/Sgt. Michael Spencer, and Cpl. Alan Grayston. The unit grew to include more than 50 cine cameramen, and 25 still photographers.
Only six members are still alive today.
Military cine cameramen attached to the CFPU filmed the 10-minute newsreels.
The cameramen used hand-cranked Bell & Howell Eyemo cameras, which shot 100-foot rolls of 35mm nitrate motion picture film. A roll of film only lasted for approximately two and a half minutes before the camera needed to be reloaded.
Sergeant Norm Quick, one of the unit’s most experienced cameramen got so good at changing rolls that it only took him 20 seconds to reload and be ready to shoot again.
Mr. Quick is very excited in the level of interest that Canadians are showing in the newsreels. He is particularly happy that the CFPU is finally getting credit for the stories, as many people previously thought the film footage came from the National Film Board.
The first issue of the Canadian Army Newsreels was released in November 1942. They were originally released monthly, then biweekly, and finally weekly.
All of the raw footage was sent to London for processing and editing. Military censors decided what could be released and what could not. Any shot that identified a soldier’s regiment or the regiment’s location ended up on the cutting room floor.
Once the newsreels were completed, they were immediately sent out for viewing. In newsreel #49 the narrator explains the unit’s mandate: “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 theatres to headquarters in Canada to keep you posted on the deeds of Canada’s fighting army.”
Mr. Quick recalls seeing some of the completed newsreels while he was overseas and says the soldiers in the field enjoyed them.
Despite having fewer personnel and less sophisticated cameras than other film units in the war, the CFPU did manage to scoop the world on several occasions. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the iconic D-Day footage shot by Sergeant Bill Grant showing Canadian troops landing on Juno Beach.
That film was the first footage of the invasion to make it back to the war office in London and be cleared for release to the media. It was shown around the world.
After the war ended, the CFPU disbanded and its members either returned to their old jobs or found new ones.
Mr. Spencer went back to the National Film Board (NFB) and later became the first executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation.
Mr. Quick also worked for the NFB, before returning to the armed forces to finish off his career.
And what happened to all the film and photographs the CFPU shot during the war?
“The NFB inherited the complete archive of the Canadian Army Film Unit,” said Dale Gervais, a film conservator at Library and Archives Canada.
The collection was housed at a number of temporary sites until a permanent home was found in Beaconsfield, Quebec. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the collection on July 23, 1967,” said Mr. Gervais.
Fortunately, a complete set of 16 mm prints of all 106 newsreels that were stored offsite survived the fire.
Mayfair Theatre Newsreel programme;
Library and Archives Canada is currently making new preservation elements of the prints for long-term storage.
Why should Canadians care about these 106 black and white newsreels?
“They are the only visual record of Canadians in action during the Second World War apart from footage shot by the other allied forces and other independent newsreel companies,” said Mr. Gervais. “Without this record we would not be aware of the sacrifices that had to be made by the young men and women of our armed forces. The newsreels will forever remain as a living tribute to the men and women of the Canadian forces.”
As a special Remembrance Day tribute, the Mayfair theatre in Ottawa will be showing several CFPU newsreels on November 10 at 7 p.m.
Lest We Forget.