D-Day: Letters from Canadian combat cameraman detail day-to-day experiences in WWII

Letters home from Canadian combat cameraman Sgt. Hugh McCaughey are at the heart of a collection donated recently to the Canadian War Museum. They reveal both the profound and the deeply personal stories of life during the Second World War.

Sgt. Hugh McCaughey's letters reveal personal side of Second World War

Combat cameraman Sgt. Hugh McCaughey accompanied Canadian troops in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany during the Second World War. (Canadian War Museum)

When the D-Day invasion first spilled onto the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Canadian Army Sgt. Hugh McCaughey was still in England.

But the combat cameraman from Vancouver soon saw the gruesome human toll the amphibious onslaught exacted on those young soldiers who survived the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

McCaughey was on hand with his 16-mm movie camera to record the casualties being brought back from France to the docks in Southampton, on their way to be patched up as well as possible.

"Returning soldiers, broken in body and spirit, minus legs and arms and as usual the majority of them just kids," the 37-year-old McCaughey wrote in a letter home to his mother three days later.

"But there is one difference," he noted in the missive that is now part of a collection recently donated to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

"I photographed the English casualties and they gave the impression of being completely broken in spirit, but not the Canadians."

Those young Canadian soldiers laughed and smiled, he reported, and as an orderly helped a Canadian from the boat, the man kept cracking jokes and was eager to answer McCaughey's questions.

That post-D-Day experience is recounted in one of the 215 letters that form the heart of a collection the War Museum says it welcomes for the insight they offer into one Canadian's day-to-day experience of the Second World War.

First-hand view

"There are all sorts of things that are absolutely fascinating about the letters," says Jeff Noakes, the museum's Second World War historian. "First of all, of course, we've got someone's first-hand experiences of the war."

Pictures taken and film shot by McCaughey and other members of the Canadian Army's Film and Photo Unit have created a visual record of the six-year conflict.

Sgt. Hugh McCaughey's diary from June 1944 recounts his experiences capturing images of casualties returning to England after D-Day. (CWM 20140022-002-001/Canadian War Museum)

"The letters especially are really quite an important addition" as well, says Noakes, "because they help give insight into the creation of these images that have been so widely used to talk about the war."

McCaughey and other cameramen had been rushed to the dockside on June 6, but nothing much happened that day. They spent the night in the dockmaster's shack on the wharf, trying — with considerable difficulty — to sleep on hard benches.

Things changed around 11 a.m. the following morning, when the first barge pulled in with casualties returning from France. Not all of them were Allied troops.

"Yesterday and today we made movies of German prisoners who laugh into your camera, and almost all of them carry a valise or bundle with their possessions," McCaughey wrote. "They seem happy to be out of it."

Untouched history

McCaughey's letters had been sitting largely untouched for years in a candy cane box before his family decided to donate them to the museum, so they could be shared with other Canadians.

Sgt. Hugh McCaughey takes a bit of down time in France on June 30, 1944. (Submitted by Bruce McCaughey)
"We were getting a little concerned about them," says McCaughey's son Bruce, "what we were going to do with them and how safe they were."

Over the past year, Bruce McCaughey scanned the letters many in the immediate family had never read, and he gained fresh insight into his father, who died in 1972.

"I learned things I had never known about my dad."

Not that his father hadn't talked about his wartime experience. But the stories hadn't really registered with his son.

"We were too young and so it was amazing to read through these letters and find out all these stories."

Like, for instance, the time Sgt. McCaughey was in Paris and captured French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French government and U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on film. 

"I guess it's impossible to tell you how one feels on such an occasion," McCaughey wrote on Sept. 7, 1944, just a few days after the liberation of the French capital. "But I'll try."

Liberation day

He walked down the Champs-Elysé​e as part of a "huge dedication parade." Thousands were lining the curbs.

"As I pass, with my camera on my shoulder, someone yells 'Canadien' and everyone takes it up, and shouts and the cry goes all down the line as I walk past."

Library and Archives Canada

People waved at him and cheered. He was astounded by the emotion. A crowd hemmed him in, and French men and women came up to touch his uniform, just as if he were "some kind of spiritual healer."

The crowd was yelling "thank you" and "merci."

"The big shots had their day," he wrote, "but cameras were clicking all around me and I was the subject."

Such euphoria is rare in war, of course, and McCaughey, who was in Europe from 1943 until 1946, had his close calls, too.

"One time … he describes being in a field and hearing that the town had been cleared of Germans and setting up his tripod and all of a sudden bullets started flying past him and he hit the ground," says his son.

Better weather at home

Beyond the accounts of war action, the letters also show how the simpler, more mundane aspects of life near a battlefield were never far from the surface.

Like any good Canadian, McCaughey talked about the weather, finding Europe's more unsettled at times than Vancouver's.

Sgt. Hugh McCaughey captures the euphoria on the streets of Utrecht on Victory in Europe Day in May 1945. (Submitted by Bruce McCaughey)
He signed off his post-D-Day missive with a note that he quite appreciated the Oxo cubes that his mother had sent him: "It went down good." Another letter ended with the thought that he was "glad to hear Dad's eyesight is some better."

McCaughey also sent a letters to his brother, which offered a slightly different perspective than what he told his mother. She didn't hear about how the Parisian women were "naughty."

Bruce McCaughey hopes younger Canadians will get a chance to see the letters, and gain an appreciation of how the Second World War differs from the conflicts Canadian soldiers face today.

He also hopes Canadians will enjoy his father's sense of humour and the stories he told, "not the war hero type stories or so much the battle stories even," but the day-to-day ones, and the adventure and excitement his father found in his war years.

As well, he wants young people to see the value in listening to the stories parents tell.

"We regret definitely that we did not listen to what he said and that we were too young to understand."

In 215 letters home, Sgt. Hugh McCaughey gave his family in Vancouver a look into his experiences as a combat cameraman accompanying Canadian troops throughout Europe during the Second World War. (CWM 20140022-002_06-09-44_p1/Canadian War Museum)

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