CBC Digital Archives

Art Holmes, the bomb-chasing broadcaster

On a summer's day in 1927, Canadians coast to coast sat enthralled before their radio sets as Prime Minister Mackenzie King spoke to them from Parliament Hill. Through the 1930s radio kept them entertained, and in wartime radio kept them informed. Then, Canadians were captivated all over again by television. In 1952 a bald puppet named Uncle Chichimus ushered them into the TV age, and in 1966 an animated butterfly made Canadian TV a more colourful pace.

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With German bombers buzzing overhead nightly, Londoners are well advised to take cover. But Art Holmes's specialty is doing exactly the opposite. When in England, Holmes takes out his customized mobile recording van to record the terror. On the CBC wartime program Back From the Blitz, Holmes describes seeking out wide-open spaces to capture the sounds of war: wailing air-raid sirens, droning enemy airplanes, the ack-ack of anti-aircraft fire, whistling bombs and fiery explosions. 
. Art Holmes got his start in radio as an operator and announcer at a small Toronto station in 1920-21, when he was still in high school. As a young man he worked as a radio operator on ships on the Great Lakes and aboard transatlantic liners before getting a job with the CRBC.

. Holmes later worked as an engineer for the CBC's coverage of the 1939 Royal Tour. In 1940 he was put on a troop ship with correspondent Bob Bowman to report on the movement of Canadian soldiers overseas.

. After surveying the conditions under which they would be working, Bowman and Holmes knew they'd need a mobile unit to hold their recording equipment. Holmes went back to Canada to have a van - which he nicknamed "Betsy" - outfitted to his specifications. It was a four-wheel-drive army truck with three recording turntables, amplifiers, microphones and power source. By June 1940 Holmes and Betsy were back in Britain.

. War recordings were relayed back to Canada via BBC studios in London, and a transatlantic cable.

. Holmes's recording apparatus was a heavy disc recorder that 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. However, if the unit was jogged during playback - as it might be on a rolling troop ship - the needle would slip out of the groove and cut into the record, destroying the recording.

. The recorder had to be kept level to function, but Holmes managed to make a recording at sea on the way over. By one account this was the first-ever recording at sea.

. Once the blitz began in 1940, Holmes regularly took Betsy out to make recordings of the sounds around him. No other network was doing it.

. Over time, Holmes learned to gauge how close a bomb was going to fall and would adjust the recording level accordingly.

. The BBC learned of Holmes's recordings and requested his bomb sounds for its own use. Later these sounds found their way into the BBC sound effects library and were used in countless movies and television shows.

. In his book The Microphone Wars, Knowlton Nash said: "As the war progressed, listeners heard some of the most spectacularly successful programming in CBC history from its war correspondents."

. The start of the Second World War brought a new set of challenges for the CBC.  Hear an additional clip in which the CBC's Augustin Frigon discusses radio in wartime.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: July 15, 1941
Guest(s): Art Holmes
Interviewer: R.W. Forsee
Duration: 14:04

Last updated: July 18, 2014

Page consulted on July 18, 2014

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