History in the Taking by Jon Farrell

CGJ_coverCanadian Geographical Journal: History in the Taking: Some Notes About The Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit

By Jon Farrell

(Prepared in January, 1945)

Used with permission of Canadian Geographic

The situation looked very grim for a force of Canadian infantrymen fighting, with tank support, in Ortona, Italy, on the morning of December 27, 1943. The town was partly cleared, but the Germans were fighting doggedly for every street and every house. It was a matter of touch and go.

A troop of tanks was inching its way along one of the streets. With them was a soldier carrying a movie camera and tripod. Suddenly they came under point-blank fire from a German anti-tank gun position. As the tanks ducked for cover behind nearby buildings the man on foot proceeded ahead of them, seeking a suitable vantage point for pictures. He found a spot to his liking, then calmly set up the camera, adjusted the lens.

From their cover the tank men watched his unhurried, deliberate movements, which suggested that he might have been preparing to “shoot” nothing more alarming than a giant panda at the zoo, or a honeymooning couple at Niagara Falls. Amazed, the tank commander opened his hatch and, with his own camera, took a picture of the movie cameraman in action.

In another moment the issue at that particular spot was no longer in doubt. The anti-tank gun was silenced, the enemy position overrun. The Canadians pushed on to clear the rest of Ortona.

The young man with the tripod was the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit’s Sgt. Jack Stollery, 27, of St. Thomas, Ontario. For coolness under fire at Ortona, and on similar occasions, he was awarded the Military Medal.

Stollery’s citation reads, in part: “His appearance with the forward troops in moments of great danger…was in no small way responsible for bolstering their morale.”

CGJ_page02_02Typical of a CFPU production crew “on location” is this team, which made the picture “Smoke of Battke”. Left to right: Sgt. Allan Stone, film cutter; infantry officer in charge; Capt. Geo. Noble, cameraman; Capt. Joe Peck (wearing earphones), infantry officer attached as technical adviser; Major Gordon Sparling, producer, and Lieut. Howard Smith, director.

Another CFPU cameraman who filmed action throughout the Sicilian and Italian campaigns was Sgt. Jimmy Campbell. He subsequently accompanied the Canadian troops into Normandy. To-day you may find a grave in a meadow near Caen, marked with a white cross and the inscription: “K53057…Sgt. James Campbell…Canadian Army”. He was killed by a mortar bomb as he operated his camera: but the film was undamaged and eventually it became part of the deathless story on celluloid which tells of the Canadians’ role in the decisive victories at Caen.

There is another small plot near the beach at Anzio, Italy. It is the grave of Lieut. Terry Rowe, CFPU “still” photographer. Rowe was killed also while on the job. With him when the shell burst close by was Capt. Colin McDougall, cameraman and director. Capt. McDougall was badly wounded but is back now with CFPU on the Western Front in Europe.

When Allied forces made their attack on Walcheren Island, one of the enemy strong-points menacing the approach to Antwerp, cameraman Sgt. Lloyd Millon was in a Canadian assault boat which took a direct hit from a German shore battery. There is no grave to mark the scene of Sgt. Millon’s last assignment. He is just listed officially as “missing, presumed killed”.
The foregoing incidents help explain why the Canadian Film and Photo Unit has secured some of the best pictorial records of this or any other war. They also indicate that lens lugging in the front line, while it may not be the toughest job in the army, is “no picnic”. It calls, however, for attributes other than mere courage.

The good cameraman or director is first of all a trained soldier. He carries small arms and he knows how to use them if he has to. He is also a combination of technical expert, roving reporter, salesman and diplomat. Immediate peril is just one of his occupational hazards. His job does not always take him within range of shot and shell. In the course of a day’s work he is likely to have dealings with every rank from private to field marshal, and a supply of “know how” or savoir-faire is just as essential to securing good pictures as is a properly focused lens on the camera.

CGJ_page07_02Sgt. Weekes, cameraman, fills in a spare hour working on a cartoon for the Canadian Army newspaper, Maple Leaf.

“The work of the film director and the cameraman in the army often involves about twenty-five per cent actual ‘shooting’ and seventy-five per cent knowing how to ‘win friends and influence people'”, says Capt. George Noble, a member of CFPU since its inception, and prior to that a professional cameraman for many years in civilian life.

“Getting good results demands tact, patience, a quick eye and a ready wit. All our men have these qualities, at least in some measure. They know that a good approach, a courteous attitude, a brisk and skilled handling of their equipment can mean all the difference between a dull, routine bit of film and a fresh, lively sequence.”

It is probable that CFPU cameramen and directors know more, in a general way, about army organization, equipment and personnel than do any other group of men in uniform. Every commanding officer has a detailed knowledge of the work of his own particular formation, but he has neither time nor opportunity to learn much about other branches of the service. Film crews have a chance, literally, to study the whole picture.

A camera unit may be assigned, for instance, to make a film about tanks. There may be several different “angles” to the story–the operation of tanks in battle, their maintenance and repair, the matter of anti-tank weapons, how tanks are destroyed from the air. To secure the film the director consults experts in a number of separate units, and when the job is completed he and his cameramen are pretty well informed on the subject of tanks.

So it goes with every activity of the army, in training or in action. And it is not hard to understand why few Canadians overseas are so widely known among army personnel as are a score or so of men in CFPU.

The Film and Photo Unit was established in September, 1941, as part of the Army Public Relations Branch. Since then few events of any importance relative to Canadian troops in Britain or in Europe have escaped the unit’s omnipresent lenses.

For nearly two years CFPU was mainly concerned with recording the various aspects of the army training programme. Not until the invasion of Sicily in 1943 were the cameramen able to train their viewfinders on scenes of actual combat. A camera crew, headed by Capt. Alastair Fraser, went ashore with the first wave of invasion troops. One of the movie men, Sgt. Alan Grayston, was aboard an L.C.I. which was almost the first assault craft to “touch down”. Grayston actually had to wait for a while, crouching with his camera under occasional cross fire, until the main body of troops reached the beach. The film he obtained then included some of the best footage “shot” by any Allied cameraman on that operation, and it was given world-wide newsreel distribution.

CGJ_page08_03“Stills” taken by Capt. F. L. Dubervill, shown here in a Normandy dugout, were the first “on shore” invasion pictures to reach the United Kingdom. Radioed to New York, they were five hours ahead of the first “still” pictures from United States photographers.

Provisions for pictorial coverage, both movie and “still”, of Canadian invasion…forces on D-Day were thorough and elaborate: so it was not merely by chance and good fortune that CFPU turned in a performance which, in a number of respects, surpassed those of other Allied picture units. Here are some “firsts” with which it was generally credited:

Sgt. Dave Reynolds, who had been trained as a paratrooper for this particular assignment, dropped into Normandy with his camera–the first Allied cameraman to land on French soil.

Sgt. C. E. Ross (sp: Roos) was the first Allied cameraman to set foot ashore with the sea-borne invaders.

Sgt. Bill Grant’s movie film of the actual landings “scooped” the field by being the first back in London by several hours and the first to reach New York by 24 hours.

“Stills” taken by Capt. F. L. Dubervill were the first “on shore” pictures to arrive back in the United Kingdom. Radioed to New York, they were there some five hours ahead of the first “stills” from American photographers.

CFPU photographs were given most prominent display in all London newspapers on D Plus 1 and D plus 2.

The excitement among Allied force’s public relations people in london when this first film from Normandy was screened for the censors at SHAEFS “Theatre A” can well be imagined. One of the CFPU officers who was there described the occasion in these words:

“The theatre was packed with a lot of senior American officers, the censors and our own representatives. We sat through three or four thousand feet of rather dull stuff having to do mainly with preparations for embarkation. Then came Sergeant Grant’s material. It was good–damned good! All through the theatre you could hear people whispering and muttering surprise. When it was all over there was much excitement and planning as to how to get the film to the United States in the quickest way possible.”

CGJ_page08_04The young man with his arm in a sling is Sgt. Jack Stollery, M.C., much-wounded cine cameraman of CFPU. He won the M.C. for the example he set by his extraordinary coolness while filming close-up battle sequences in Italy.

And finally, CFPU film on the invasion provided the “climax shots” for all of the five British newsreels released in London on the first Sunday after D-day. In this regard it should be noted that CFPU movie material is immediately available to the American newsreel companies and to the National Film Board of Canada, which makes frequent use of it in its regular feature productions. It is also at the disposal of the British Ministry of Information, for use in special short films produced by M.O.I. and circulated from time to time in many European countries, liberated or otherwise.

Incidentally, the original strip of film which actually comes from CFPU cameras is never cut up and is seldom used for screening. From it “dupe negs” (duplicate negatives) are made for distribution. The master copy itself is sent to Ottawa, where it is carefully preserved as a sort of historical document in the vaults of the National Film Board. Similarly all “still” photos are preserved for the records.

Picture making, as we have noted, is a highly personalized performance, and the story of a film unit is largely the story of the men who actually handle the cameras and of the men who directed and co-ordinate their work. But there are many other uniformed men (and a few CWACs) working on the “assembly line” which links the “shooting” of an incident with the viewing.

Important functions are performed by despatch riders and drivers; by darkroom experts; by cutters and editors who process the film for screening; by the writers who supply the “still” captions or the movie commentary, and by the the various clerks who attend to the handling and documenting of film at its several stages.

Responsible for the over-all functioning of CFPU overseas is the Deputy Director of Army Public Relations in london, Col. W. G. Abel. His assistant is Lieut.-Col. Eric L. Gibbs, who arranged for most of the intricate chain of communications which has worked so smoothly for CFPU during and since the Normandy invasion.

CGJ_page12_01Pte. Nadine Manning, CWAC, examines test strips.

Since early in 1944 the Film Unit has operated as three distinct groups. Number 1 Group, in London, is headed by Maj. Gordon Sparling. Its chief concerns are administration and distribution, production of feature films, and the training of reinforcements for groups in the field.

Number 2 Group covers Canadians in action in italy, and Number 3, under the direction of Maj. Jack McDougall, follows our Army in Western Europe. Both Maj. Sparling and Maj. McDougall had extensive film experience with Associated Screen Studios, of Montreal, before donning uniform. Maj. McDougall was the first director called into the service of CFPU back in 1941, and his administrative and directive skill have probably contributed more to the success of the unit than that of any other individual. First full-time photographer to step from civvie street into Army Public Relations was Maj. L. A. Audrain. He joined P.R. in 1940 and helped set up the original photographic department which eventually was merged into CFPU.

The time element is vital in handling spot news film from the battle-fronts, and no other Allied film unit is better prepared than CFPU to get its product quickly from “producer” to “consumer”. Here, in brief, is what happens:

From the scene of action the cans of film are flown to an airfield in Britain, and from there they are taken by despatch rider or jeep to CFPU’s main office in London. After being processed there the reels are rushed to a theatre for screening before the censors. At the same time they are viewed by British newsreel men, Ministry of Information officials and others who may be interested.

As soon as the film gets the censors’ O.K. it is despatched by air to Canada. Under favourable conditions, no more than 50 hours may elapse from the time a roll of film leaves the front until it reached the Dominion. Meanwhile a few of the best “still” photos will have been sent to the offices of Cable & Wireless in London for transmission to a dozen different parts of the globe by the amazing wirephoto process.

An increasingly important CFPU activity is the production of “theatricals”–that is, short feature films. Several of these have been distributed widely in Canada by the National Film Board and in many other countries by the British Ministry of Information, which has issued them with commentaries in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic and other languages. Such productions as “Wood for War”, dealing with the Canadian Forestry Corps in Scotland, “You Can’t Kill a City”, showing the emergence of Caen from its ordeal, and “Left of the Line”, made in conjunction with the British Army Film Unit, are on a par with the best of the new pictures in the rapidly expanding field of documentary film.

CGJ_page12_02Sgt. K. G. Ewart, one of the editors of the Canadian Army Newsreel, synchronizing voice, music and sound effects with the visual action on the film.

A number of army training films have also been made by CFPU. These dealt with subjects which could not be adequately treated in Canada — the army’s flame-throwing equipment, for instance, which was on the secret list when a film about it was produced and entitled, for obvious reasons, “Ronson”.

Still another project of the unit is the Canadian Army Newsreel, in which CFPU takes a particular pride, for it is the only newsreel of its kind to come out of this war.
“Of the troops, by the troops and for the troops”, it was started as a monthly venture in November, 1942, for distribution among army formations only. The reel comprises a selection of the best “footage” secured by CFPU cameramen. It is now being produced on a weekly basis and some 40 prints of it are flown regularly to Canadian troops wherever they may be.

The camera units working in the field share practically all the rigours and hardships of the front-line troops. They eat the same sort of rations. They sleep in barns, perhaps civilian billets when they can find them; in tents when they cannot. Often their only “home” is a slit trench.

A typical field section may consist of one “still” photographer, who is usually a commissioned man and in charge of the group; two movie cameramen (all of these have the rank at least of sergeant, several are commissioned:; one or two drivers, and a despatch rider. Such a section will travel in two jeeps, with trailers; possibly it will have the use of a light lorry. Chances are it is covering the activities of a whole division, and so it must be prepared to move quickly and often.

The exploits and adventures of these tripod toters, both in and out of actual combat, will no doubt enliven the pages of more than one book which will be written some day about World War II. You may then, perhaps, read the full story of CFPU’s Capt. Jack Smith, M.B.E., and how he came by that decoration. It will tell of how a freighter carrying him to North Africa was torpedoed in the Mediterranean; of how he helped save the lives of several burned and wounded men while ammunition exploded and fire raged nearby; of how he saved more lives in the water after the vessel sank, and of how he kept up the morale of survivors on a life raft until rescuers arrived.

Or again, you may learn in detail of an incident in France one hot day last August, when a party of three cameramen and two drivers, trying to take their two jeeps into a newly-captured village, ran into enemy machine-gun fire which wounded four of the five.
The story of how the four wounded men finally reached an advanced dressing station, and of how the fifth managed to get their jeeps and equipment safely back to camp should make a thrilling chapter of some post-war chronicle. (Incidentally, it was at that same village, St. Lambert, on that same August day, that Maj. David Currie, of the Canadian Armoured Corps, was winning the Victoria Cross for his heroic part in helping to close the Falaise “Gap”.)

For all its hazards and discomforts, the job of the cameraman in khaki is a curiously absorbing and satisfying one. I have had the opportunity of seeing many of these lads at work in the battle areas, and I would say they derive more pleasure from their daily routine than any other group of specialist in the Canadian Army.

Yes, they are a cheerful crew; and they seem always able to find a laugh to brighten the darkest moments. After that little skirmish in France, mentioned above, one of the wounded lensmen was being helped on to the operating table at the dressing station. He was obviously in considerable pain.
“How did it happen?” asked one of the first aid men, as he bared the leg which had stopped a machine-gun bullet.
The sergeant’s reply, through clenched teeth, was a masterpiece of ironic understatement.
“A dog bit me”, he said.

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About me

Dale Gervais has been actively researching and documenting the history of the Canadian Film & Photo Unit since 2006. Dale recently retired in September, 2018, after over 36 years with Library & Archives Canada. Dale now works as an independent researcher, with experience in audio visual holdings, video production and more recently doing Archival textual document searches, and photographic scanning.


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