RISEN FROM THE ASHES – The British Pathé Archive Reveals Lost Canadian Footage


(ABOVE PHOTO – the British Pathé vault, and on the right Pte. Nadine Manning of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit in a film vault at Merton Park Studios, December 19, 1944, London, England. LAC – PA 152104.)

In April of this year, British Pathé, one of the oldest media companies in the world, uploaded its complete collection of 85,000 historic films in high resolution to their YouTube channel. This project is being managed by German company Mediakraft, which has been responsible for numerous past YouTube successes. In their press release they explain the extent of the project;

“Our hope is that everyone, everywhere who has a computer will see these films and enjoy them,” says Alastair White, General Manager of British Pathé. “This archive is a treasure trove unrivalled in historical and cultural significance that should never be forgotten. Uploading the films to YouTube seemed like the best way to make sure of that.”

“Spanning the years from 1896 to 1976, the collection includes footage not only from Britain, but from around the globe of major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, sport and culture. The archive is particularly strong in its coverage of the First and Second World Wars.”

This ‘unprecedented release’ was brought to the attention of the Film & Photo Unit website by Benjamin Moogk of Toronto, who wrote in an email;

Click on the image to view the footage on YouTube.

“British Pathé has some raw footage by and of Canadian soldiersI’ve got something really significant here. Footage mis-labeled as “US and Canadian Troops In Anzio (1944). It is in fact the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division in Normandy starting on the afternoon of D-Day. Slate is marked “Grant”.”

Anxious to see for myself, I followed one of the links Ben had provided ;

British Pathé – Invasion Continues – Burning Chateau (1944)
FILM ID:1961.15

Clicking on the link, the roll flickers to life with the shot of a film slate marked “GRANT”. Was this the Sgt. Bill Grant, of the Canadian Film & Photo Unit (CFPU) who had filmed the famous clip of the Winnipeg Rifles storming Juno beach on D-Day? As a Film Conservator with Library & Archives Canada (LAC), I had seen everything on the Film & Photo Unit. Could this be new material I have not seen? Where did it come from? How is it LAC does not have this material in its vaults?

The reel continues with a series of shots of a burning Chateau. I had seen this footage before. Exceptit kept rolling. This was not an edited newsreel but raw footage. In most cases, an edited newsreel story begins with a title, with the Newsreel companies logo splashed across the screen, often with the words ‘Exclusive’ added. But in this case the footage was as it was shot. Straight from the camera.

So, where had I seen this footage before? A brief search confirmed that the footage had been shot by the Canadian Army Film Unit, and appears in Canadian Army Newsreel Issue No. 34. The full newsreel can be viewed at both the War Amps and Library & Archives YouTube channels;

(BELOW: A frame from the British Pathé reel and a frame from Canadian Army Newsreel Issue No. 34 story, ‘Flashes From France’. The British Pathé material is unedited material shot by the Canadian Army Film Unit.)

Canadian Army Newsreel Issue No. 34
War Amps of Canada

Canadian Army Newsreel Issue No. 34
Library & Archives Canada

What British Pathé has done here is provide the world with access to footage that was previously thought lost. Lost? Is it not all there in the Canadian Army Newsreels (CANR)? While the CANR contains the same footage there are some stark differences worth noting. The most obvious difference is the length of the clip. The CANR has been edited into a story. Brief and to the point it shows the viewer what it needs to see, in some cases shots are censored or removed at the editing stage for security reasons. What the British Pathé roll provides is uncensored, unedited, raw footage. Further research uncovered this letter from within the Public Relations War Diary for June, 1944

“About noon on Tuesday 13th June, the Boches laid down about thirty shells – calibre unknown, although they sounded very much like heavies – in and around the billets then occupied by the Public Relations Detachment. Their shooting was very good and they scored about ten direct hits on the house hitting our petrol dump and setting the whole house afire.

The Film and Photo section were located upstairs with most of their equipment – with the exception of two cameras downstairs which were carried to safety by Capt. J. Wilson. Personnel, included Lts. Bell, Dubervill and (Don) Grant, Sgt. Grayston, (W.G.) Grant and Roos. Drivers Treganza and Currie, and Despatch Rider Gnr. O’Reagan all behaved admirable.

Some of them rescued equipment whilst others made a photographic record of the event. The result was that practically all photographic equipment and film was saved intact, the one exception being an Eyemo camera, which was dropped suffering minor breakage.

Particular credit is due to Sgt. Roos who although on the verge of nervous breakdown due to previous battle exhaustion, managed to film 200 feet of the blazing building. Sgt. Roos later collapsed and had to be admitted to hospital. Lt.. Grant and Gnr. O’Reagan also did notably well in the salvage work, although it is extremely hard to differentiate among the personnel, all of whom responded to the situation with remarkable fortitude and coolness.

C.C. McDougall, Captain.”
Source: Appendix 13; War Diary June 1944; No. 3 Public Relations Group; LAC.

Back to the reel we see more shots of the burning Chateau where members of the Public Relations Unit can be seen rescuing items from the inferno. Close up shots of the roof engulfed in flames. A jeep is laden with rescued items while a  soldier stands nearby in abject shock. Another slate appears, “ROOS ROLL 37”. Seven days earlier, Sgt. Bud Roos had become the first Allied cameraman to hit the beach on D-Day with ‘D’ Company of the Regina Rifles. What we were viewing in fact was a daily film account by Grant and Roos as they made their way in-land, with the rest of the Public Relations group.

In the next sequence of shots, men of the Public Relations Detachment run frantically in and out of the burning structure tossing out various objects of value through the windows and rushing back in to search for more. At the 4:00 minute markIs that Ross Munro, the Canadian Press lead Canadian War Correspondent placing a rescued typewriter on top of the jeep? The remarkable footage continues with a slate marked “GRAYSTON”. Sgt. Alan Grayston of the CFPU was responsible for shooting footage of the Sicily invasion; the first material to reach London and used by all of the big newsreel companies to play in theatres around the world.

The roll continues with shots of Canadian infantry studying a map; a small troop carrier; three Canadian servicemen reading a copy of The News Chronicle, a British daily newspaper; and a shot of a meal line for the troops, featuring “Paddy’s Tin Can Review, featuring stewed steak with onions and potatoes”. Back to more shots of the smoking Chateau. A touching shot follows of an unidentified soldier (possibly a war correspondent) propping up a friendly dog in his arms.

To further comprehend the ramifications of this material it is necessary to understand that all of the footage that was shot by the allies during WWII was ‘pooled’ together and shared by all the major newsreel companies such as Universal, Gaumont, Fox, and British Pathé to name a few.

Newsreel companies would then select from the allied ‘pool’ of motion picture film, material of interest, and have it copied for use in their own newsreels. The Canadian Army Film Unit produced their own newsreels which exist today at Library & Archives Canada. Unlike commercial newsreel companies, the Canadian Army Newsreel was only available to military personnel;

“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.” SOURCE: Canadian Army Newsreel Issue No. 49, War Amps of Canada.

Another factor to keep in mind is the nature of the media that was used at that time; nitro-cellulose based film. Nitrate film was used up until 1950 when it was replaced with newer, safety based acetate. Handling nitrate posed several problems. If neglected, it can deteriorate very rapidly and become extremely volatile. Because it contains its own oxygen component, it is capable of burning underwater. In other words, nitrate film, under poor conditions can ignite on its own, and once ignited cannot be extinguished. Nitrate had to be held in secure climate controlled vaults and had to be guarded from extreme heat. Veterans of the Canadian Film Unit often talked about how they would use small scraps of nitrate motion picture film to start a fire.

And so it was that on July 23, 1967, in Beaconsfield, Quebec, a few miles from National Film Board of Canada headquarters that a raging fire was reported

“At a distance of 92 metres, the heat is so intense that no one can approach the building. It’s a temporary warehouse, constructed with a corrugated tin roof and supported by fir posts. Within minutes the building becomes an Inferno. In four hours It is totally destroyed. The flames disappear as smoke gently rises from the remains of blackened, molten metal cans. A few hours earlier, those cans had preserved reels of priceless motion picture footage dating back nearly fifty years. All that remains are the ashes of millions of feet of highly inflammable 35 mm motion picture nitrate film. Many unique and valuable films have been lost forever.” (Source: Bill Galloway; Perforations; March-April 1982; Published by the Technical and Production Services; National Film Board of Canada; Volume 2, No. 2).

In the fire, footage of the Canadian Military Library was lost – many of it shot by the Canadian Army Film Unit. However, this loss was mitigated by the fact that the National Film Board had copied and used much of the best footage shot by the CAFU to produce their Canada At War series which was broadcast in June 1962. Creating that documentary meant pouring over millions of feet of film, selecting and copying the most dramatic and historically significant shots to be edited and cut into the Canada at War series. But a lot of what was not selected was left behind, and stored in the Beaconsfield warehouse that went up in flames back in 1967. Lost forever. Until now

It needs to be emphasized that the British Pathé material is raw footage. Unedited material with slates still intact. Slates with roll numbers that signify the numerical sequence a scene was shot. Slates that identify the cameramen. In contrast, when a theatrical newsreel starts to play we the audience do not see these slates. They are cut from the rolls of film by editors who piece together the shots, and the sound, to weave them into stories to be screened in front of an audience. The slates, and ‘short-ends’ are cut away to gather on the cutting room floor and eventually discarded. What British Pathé has provided here are unedited rolls of film footage shot by Canadians during WWII. Rolls of film that were gathered from the shared ‘pool’ of allied footage intended for use in a future newsreel.

And nearing the end of this one roll, through the fog of film appears the smiling faces of two men who had landed on D-day just days before. Sgt. W.G. ‘Bill’ Grant, and Lieut. Frank Dubervill, members of the Canadian Film & Photo Unit.

It’s a rare and candid look at two cameramen who are usually found behind the camera, not in front. Sgt. Grant on the left appears to be sorting cigarettes while Lieut. Frank Dubervill, credited with the first ‘on shore’ pictures to arrive back in the U.K. looks on. The reel cuts to an uncensored shot of three soldiers as they frisk through the remains of two dead soldiers. The last scene on the roll is owned by the Canadian infantry who are seen celebrating after discovering a cache of wine bottles hidden in an abandoned German half-track.

The reels uploaded by British Pathé still need further review, but after viewing only one roll of film, its clear that for Canada at least, history has been reclaimed. From the nitrate fire at Beaconsfield, to the newly digitized video now on YouTube, the footage of the Canadian Film & Photo Unit, and the Canadian military history it represents, has seemingly risen from the ashes.

I want to thank Benjamin Moogk who brought the British Pathé YouTube footage of Canadians in action to my attention. Some of the CAFU footage that was uncovered by Ben was shot by Lieut. Al Fraser, Sgt. W.G. Grant, Sgt. Alan Grayston, Sgt. Bud Roos, S/Lt. Shaw RCN, Sgt. Jack Stollery (M.M.), Sgt. ‘Mike’ Angelo, Sgt. Bert Williamson, Sgt. Joe ‘Bick’ Bickerdyke, Sgt. Gordon Petty, Sgt. Lloyd Millon (KIA), Sgt. H.H.A. ‘Barney’ Barnett (KIA), Sgt. Lew Weekes, Sgt. Harry Clements, Sgt. Bud Sherwood, Captain Colin McDougall, and Sgt. Fred Steele. The importance of this find cannot be understated.

I also want to thank James Hoyle, Archive Coordinator, British Pathé Ltd. for permission to use some of the images in this article.

© Dale Gervais

In honour of the centenary commemorations of Canada’s participation in the First World War, the Lost Dominion Screening Collective is giving local film fans a rare chance to see the biggest-budget Canadian film of the 1920s on the big screen.
Carry On, Sergeant!
Presented by the Lost Dominion Screening Collective and accompanied by LIVE MUSIC from The HILOTRONS!
Showtimes: Tue, Nov 11, 7:00pm

British Pathé YouTube channel
War Amps Canada
Library-Archives of Canada

1 Comment

  1. Private Lew Currie the driver for Grayson was my grandfather ..I only have one photo of him in the army …would really appreciate it if you could find anymore .

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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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