History - Page 4

Sgt. Bert Williamson: CFPU Combat Cameraman


Sgt. Bertram (Bert) Wellesley Williamson was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1912, to Arthur Harold Williamson Sr. and Ethel Irene May Hunter.  Both his mother and father were primarily of Scottish pioneer stock. The Williamson’s arrived from Scotland via County Monaghan Ireland in the early 1840s. The Hunters arrived from Scotland (Clackmannanshire,) sometime in the 1830s. Ethel’s Great grandfather John Hunter (b.1836-1897) was born in Huntingdon, CE (Canada East) and her father, David John Hunter (1878-1951) was born in St. Albans, Vt., USA.  Ethel was born in Montreal.

Bert had a sister, Thelma, two years his junior and a younger brother, Arthur Harold Williamson Jr., 25 years his junior. Bert’s mother died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1919 at the age of 28. The extended family pitched in to help raise the two young children, Bert grew up partly in Montreal and partly in the town of Point Fortune, 84 km west of Montreal. The Quebec – Ontario border runs through the village.

As was the local practice, Bert and his sister went to high school in Montreal. They both attended Outremont High as there wasn’t high school in the village of Point Fortune.  Bert lived with his Hunter grandparents while in Montreal and Thelma lived with her Williamson grandparents while in school. They would travel home to Point Fortune for the holidays and on weekends to be with their father and step mother.

Young Bert was fond of dogs, children, the Montreal Canadiens and his extended family.  One of his cousins was the famed “Diamond King”, John Thorburn Williamson. He boxed as a young man and he seems to have dabbled in photography. Before the war Bert worked in Montreal for the Associated Screen News which apparently was why he was seconded from the infantry unit he had enlisted in. His civilian boss was instrumental in having Bert transferred to the CFPU where he was stationed.

He joined the Canadian armed forces at the beginning of World War II and served in the Canadian Film Unit in Sicily, Italy, Holland and Germany.  He returned home in early 1946 and married Elizabeth (Betty) Catherine Francis of Fortune Bridge, Prince Edward Island.  They had met early in the war years in Ottawa.  He was in the army at that time and she worked in Munitions and Supply for the war effort as an office worker.  During the War they corresponded while he was overseas.

A year later they had one son, John (Jack) Harold Francis Williamson. Bert and Betty bought a new house in Ville St. Laurent, a suburb of Montreal in 1950.  Bert returned to work for the Associated Screen News as a purchasing agent.  Many of their neighbours and friends were veterans.

Bert was described as a “gentleman”, kind, pleasant, and gentle and had a fine singing voice. His main hobby was photography and he had his own darkroom.  He was a devoted and excellent dad and husband. Bert seldom spoke of the war.  When he was asked by his seven year old son about his rose tattoo on his arm, he laughed and asked his son to promise never to get a tattoo.

Life was ideal and happy until June 1956 when Bert suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. Within three weeks he passed away and now rests in St Andrew’s East Cemetery, Quebec, across the Ottawa River from his childhood home of Point Fortune. He was forty three year old. Many of his family believed that he was a delayed casualty of the War.

ABOUT JACK WILLIAMSON; (Jack) John Harold Francis Williamson was born in Montreal, in 1947. He is a retired history teacher and  Bert Williamson’s son and only child.  Jack had a very short stint in the Canadian Grenadier Guards and has a very deep appreciation for our Vets and their service to Canada. During his teaching career he often wondered if the films about World War II that he showed his students included footage shot by his father.  They did.

ABOUT HAROLD WILLIAMSON; Harold Williamson-Brother of Sgt. Bert W. Williamson, of the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit.

Born in 1937, I was 25 years younger than Bert, he being old enough to be my father. Bert was born in 1912 and our sister in 1914.  In 1919 their mother and an infant brother would die in the influenza epidemic.  Later in life my father would remarry and I would be their only child.

The first few years of my life were spent solely with adults of my family and I only saw my grown brother and sister when  holidays occurred or a weekend visit could be squeezed in, they both were working away from our home.  In 1942 Bert shipped out, but I didn’t really grasp the meaning, maybe it was just to an army camp!  Being so young, my concept of war was much like that of an animated board game.  The only time I saw Bert in uniform was in photos we got before he left.  We lived beside the #17 highway, where there were frequent passing convoys heading east, and I would often stand by the gate and wave to the troops, probably thinking that Bert might be aboard one of the trucks.

On the home front, the women in our household as in many others, spent their free time knitting as they sat visiting among themselves or if alone, perhaps tuned in to the radio and The Happy Gang!  They turned out month after month, year after year until the conflict was over; scarves, mittens, gloves, sweaters, socks, balaclavas and dickies.  Then there were the ration books with their stamps that you surrendered when a quantity of a limited item was purchased.  And the tissue-thin ‘flimsies’ specifically designed to be used for air mail and to frustrate the user!  Frequently my parents would set about purchasing items to be put into a ‘care’ parcel  to be sent to Bert. An item of clothing-likely of the knitted variety, gum, cigarettes, candy bars, shaving items and whatever else might be of use.  This was when I could scribble a note to my brother to say ‘Hello’ and ‘We miss you’.  I remember the photos in newspapers and magazines of planes, ships or tanks with numbers or unit letters blanked out.

When the war ended, Bert returned home to a rejoicing, relieved, happy family.  He married his fiancé and by the time I was 10, I was an uncle.  Too soon, 9 years later, Bert fell ill and passed away in hospital before the cause could be found.  Some believed that stresses of the war may have been the initial culprit.

A few years later when I was teaching history in secondary school I began to search for some thread to the past-some information about my brother.  There was a void-I really knew very little about Bert, so I thought that perhaps I could at least learn something about him from his wartime records.  There must be a file somewhere.

Finally, I was successful and with the help of a gentleman, Dale Gervais who is working to preserve the products and memories of the men who were in the CFPU during the war, a file was discovered with documents, photos and also a piece of film produced by Bert and his team taken in Italy during that campaign.  I now have some answers as does his son and his grandsons.  This all to help them know Bert better as a father and a grandfather.

A special thank you to Harold, Jack and Gail for reaching out and sharing memories of Sgt. Bert Williamson so that visitors to the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit website may learn more about the men and women who recorded Canada’s actions on film during WWII – Dale Gervais, JUNE 2018

Lew Currie


Film has the unique magic of giving the dead a semblance of life that is not captured in the still photograph. This semblance of life can now be given to one of the men who gave us our inheritance of moving images: Private Lewis Luke “Lew” Currie who was Sergeant Alan Grayston’s driver and assistant. Currie was killed in action while filming near Carpiquet Airfield with Grayston. The circumstances of his death were painful to all who knew him, are are too common in war.

This short clip made at the end of on of Grayston’s rolls shot in Normandy caught my attention a year ago. I told Dale of my suspicions, but I thought little of it since I had not yet put it together with the other pieces of this puzzle. There were hours upon hours of other footage to be identified that took up the following months.  Then, while reviewing photos from PhotoNormandie, I saw two scans of unattributed photographs that brought that few seconds of fuzzy moving image to mind again. The D-Day anniversary is always a good time to put out material on social media to see what might come back. Soon after posting the clip, I was very pleased to hear from two very knowledgeable people in France: Frederick Jeanne and Michel Le Querrec who helped me assemble the clues into a identification of the man in the footage. By simply looking at the photos and the clip it should be evident to you too whois that is mugging for Al Grayston’s camera.

In the near future we look forward to a 4K scan of this film that should make the identification a certainty, but this is as good as it gets with the material available today. It is our sincere hope that by giving these flickering images of those who died their names back we can better remember them.

The discovery of this short clip comes from the voluntary work dome by many people around the world.

Firstly we should thank the D-Day Overlord non-profit organization who made digital copies of this film held in the US National Archive available on line. This and other digital copies of these films are mostly from VHS copies made some time ago, and lack the definition of newer 4K scans, but many of these are the only publicly available versions of these films. This small clip of Currie comes to us through this organization.

Most importantly are Michel Le Querrec and Patrick Peccatte of PhotosNormandie who make their discoveries available on Flickr. Many of these images are taken from prints made during the war by military public relations for the use of the world’s press. These photos have often lost the information about what is represented in them and M. Le Querrec in particular has done an exceptional job in identifying the date, location, and the people represented in these photos.

We should also recognize author Frederick Jeanne, who’s extensive knowledge of the Canadian battlefields in Normandy and his willingness to discuss the images has helped us put the clues together.

As Film and Photo Units filmed the events of the war, they also made photographs of the same events. These photos then become the key source of clues to identifying the fragments of footage shot by the Canadian Army Film Unit. It is extremely rare to find any true information about the film footage in records today, while information about the photographs has often survived in one or another collection. Even then, careful cross-referencing of sources is needed to confirm the information. Researching photographs has become the primary means of correctly identifying the orphaned footage of and by Canadians.

Fred G. Spear: Photographer – PR Darkroom Technician

So much time has passed since the end of the war, that it has made locating information about some of the veterans extremely challenging. Oftentimes, I rely on visitors to the website for additional information about former members of the CFPU.

In this recent post, I want to share an email that I received from Sheila Mitchell, who is searching for additional information about her father, Fred G. Spear.

As Sheila would explain, “As far as my father goes, his full name was Fred or Frederick George Spear.  My mother at the time was Lillian Phylis Roach, I believe.”

As it turns out, Sgt. Fred G. Spear, B112922, was a Darkroom Technician with the CFPU. In the course of digging through notes, and files to locate the name Fred Spear, I was also fortunate to come across others who might have worked as Darkroom Technicians during the war. I would like to share Sheila’s story in the hopes some visitors to the website might be able to shed some light about her father, Sgt. Fred G. Spear;

Hello I came across this organization while trying to find information on my father who was part of the Canadian film and photo unit. I have done some research through Canadian websites and found nothing. His name was Fred Spear and I have some photos of him in uniform. My mother passed away without giving me much information. Unfortunately! Any help is much appreciated. Sincerely, Sheila Mitchell”

In a later email, Sheila also offered the following information;

“I can tell you that my mother met him in London in June of 1944. I believe he was stationed in UK for quite a long period of time. I am originally from London but now live in Texas USA!!

I am assuming that Mr. Spear did not die in the war, and perhaps he returned to his family in Canada at the end of the war. I was born in August, 1946….so I have no idea as to whether he knew anything about me or not. 

I am wondering if you know anything about the following address, it was written on a piece of paper kept with the photos.  The address is:  Imperial Photo Service, 556 Kingston Road, Toronto 13, Ontario, Canada.  I researched online and there is no mention of this business at this address now, but maybe it had something to do with the Film & Photo Unit? There is also what appears to be a phone number in England (on the back of one of the photos), Abbey 9090 Extn.308.  Again, I have not had much luck in figuring that one out!!”

Over a period of time I was able to locate the following information on Fred G. Spear;

– On 2nd May, 1944, a request was put forward for a Cpl. F.G. Spear, B112922,  from the 1st Canadian Surplus Kit Storage Unit (CSKSD,), be brought to London for interview, and to report to the Public Relations Office, C.M.H.Q., signed by Col. W.G. Abel Canadian Military Headquarters.

– On 6th May, 1944, A/Cpl F.G. Spear of 1st CSKSD, was interviewed and “appears to be suitable for employment as a Photographer Pte “A” in PR (Public Relations) Darkroom.” It also states that, “It is understood, Cpl. Spear will revert to the rank of Private.”

– On 11th May, 1944, Pte F.G. Spear B112922, was attached to 1st Public Relations Group (A) WEF on 8 May 44 as Clerk Gp. “C”. And, “As he is employed as a photographer in PR Darkroom and he is a qualified Photographer “C” may he therefore be shown as authorized to draw Photographer Gp “C” Trades Pay WEF 8 May 44.”

– As of 13th November, 1944, Number B112922 Pte. Fred G. Spear, Age 27 is listed in the nominal roll of “all other ranks” category B-1.

As I learned, Pte. Spear was part of a group in charge of photographic “news work” that consisted of four Darkroom staff members who would oversee “news orders” from the media who submit requests for stills. “On completion of news orders, negatives would be passed to this Darkroom which would then handle all subsequent Official and Private orders. Apparatus available would include developing tanks, drying cupboard, enlargers and glazing machine.” This information was signed off by the Darkroom Manager, F.J. Maillard, Public Relations Office, CMHQ. The four staff members listed to be responsible for the news work were; Trooper Park, Gunner Rook, Sapper Pinkard, and Private Spear.

“Hi Dale, thank you so much for all of the information and the time you put into researching for me!  It is much appreciated!!

It is very strange to read so much information on Fred Spear after having little or no information for so many years. I had really hoped that my mother would share more with me prior to her passing, but I heard so many different versions (she had dementia) towards the last year or so, that I never knew what was real and what wasn’t. My sister, Sue (half sister), told me that our Mother shared several different stories with her also!  So, it is all a bit of a puzzle!

I really don’t think that my mother realized the impact it all had on me, I don’t blame her or love her any less. It was such a shock to me at 16 years old, and then it was just a mess moving forward with what my last name should be as I was never adopted!  I ended up with my Mothers first husband’s last name, even though I was not his child on my passport!  Never understood really why I couldn’t use Stephenson (my step dad’s last name) as I had been using it for all of those 16 years. I was just issued a passport! And that was that!  

Anyway, really really appreciate your help in all of this!  I am not sure where it will all lead, and it may take some time to find out any further information.  But, maybe I will be lucky and learn something about my heritage! Sheila”

UPDATE: I was able to locate a Mr. & Mrs. Fred Spear, living at 21 Amroth Avenue in Toronto on an election list, dated 15th of June, 1949. His occupation was listed as Photographer. As Sheila pointed out to me, 21 Amroth Avenue is about an hour from the address she gave me for Imperial Photo Services on Kingston Road.

If anyone has any information regarding Fred (Frederick) George Spear please contact this website or Sheila directly at sheilamitchell46@gmail.com

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