CBC technician and engineer Art Holmes recorded the sounds of the Blitz above London during the Second World War. (CBC Still Photo Collection)
From 1939 to 1945 Canadian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel lived and died in lands far from home.
CBC Radio was one of the few links friends and family in Canada had to their loved ones abroad. Through reports from the front, dramatizations and direct greetings from soldiers, CBC revealed what life on the battlefront was like.
CBC Radio first hit the airwaves in 1936. So when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Canadian public broadcaster was still in its infancy and covering a war was completely new territory. It became a pioneering assignment for the small group of men who made up the impromptu Overseas Unit.
With Canada at war, the demand for coverage became urgent. CBC had often depended on reading news from the American wires and news services on its broadcasts. But with the United States not yet at war, CBC had to find new ways to get its information.
Initially, the CBC relied on the BBC for its international news. But soon after the Second World War broke out, CBC sent reporters overseas for the first time.
Robert Bowman, then considered an "observer", and engineer Art Holmes fought to board the Aquitania in Halifax and crossed the Atlantic with the first deployment of Canadian troops. It was expected the two would just record the journey, but after they arrived in London, it was decided it would be prudent to keep the two there for the time-being and they set up the CBC's first foreign bureau.
The early days of the small Overseas Unit was filled with thrills and challenges, Bowman said in later interviews.
Before the war, the use of recordings was a rarity and most broadcasting was done live from a studio. The war theatre changed that. While the recording of sound and transmitting it from overseas, often in a period of hours, was seen as a marvel at the time, CBC also knew it needed to develop technology to allow its correspondents to be mobile.
Shortly after arriving in London, Holmes went back to Canada to have a van outfitted to his specifications to use for mobile recording. The four-wheel-drive army truck he brought back to the United Kingdom was equipped with three recording turntables, amplifiers, microphones and a power source. The monstrous mobile unit, that was the envy of the BBC, earned the nickname Big Betsy.CBC's first mobile unit was nicknamed Big Betsy. The ability Big Betsy gave the Overseas Unit to get in and out of locations while recording onsite made her the envy of other broadcasters. (CBC Still Photo Collection)
Holmes also helped design mobile recording apparatuses for the war correspondents. The heavy disc recorders used a soft blank aluminum disc covered in a thin layer of lacquer. As the recording was made, a needle etched a groove in the lacquer to make a recording that could be played back. The recorder, however, had to be kept level to function, which often provided a challenge on the front.
But Holmes became a bit of an expert at getting the recordings just perfect. With the blitz beginning in 1940, Londoners were being advised to take cover, but Holmes was doing exactly the opposite.
He regularly took Betsy out to make recordings of the sounds around him - something no other network was doing. In the dark of night, Holmes would record the wailing of air-raid sirens, droning enemy airplanes, ack-ack of anti-aircraft fire, whistling bombs and fiery explosions.Hear a 1941 example of the recordings made by Holmes:
Sound had previously been seen as a special effect and was something to be talked over. But the concept of letting the sound tell the story took hold among the correspondents. Many became sound addicts and were obsessed with collecting actuality on the front.
The BBC learned of Holmes's recordings and requested his bomb sounds for its own use. The sounds found their way into the BBC sound effects library and have been used in countless movies and television shows.
Posted on Jun 20, 2011 11:13:03 AM