Fighting the Second World War with their cameras

A look back at Canada's war history through the lens of its wartime Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit.

Q&A with historian Dan Conlin, author of War Through the Lens: The Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit 1941-1945

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      More than a million Canadians fought in the Second World War, but a few used cameras instead of weapons.

      The Canadian Army recruited about 75 men and one woman to form a Film and Photo Unit for the purpose of documenting the war from a Canadian perspective.

      They were Canadian soldiers, most with no previous experience in filmmaking or journalism, and they brought back memorable film footage and photographs of crucial battles in Europe and Canadians on the battlefield. 

      They did so at great risk, and almost a third of them were killed or injured before the end of the war. 

      Dan Conlin has just published a book about the unit, called War Through the Lens: The Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit 1941-1945. He's an historian and a curator with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.

      How did you come to be interested in this unit and its work?

      I was a journalism student in the late 1980s with a summer job at Library and Archives Canada. Archivist Pierre Stevens showed me all these films made by the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit in WW II, vivid depictions of battle and life behind the lines. 

      I wanted to learn about how and why these pictures were made so I interviewed surviving members of the unit for my undergrad honours research paper at Carleton University. I learned from them the story of the 75 men and women who filmed and photographed Canadians in battle.

      Two years ago, Maureen Whyte at Seraphim Editions asked me to write an illustrated book on the oral history interviews and my new book, War Through the Lens, tells their stories.

      A Canadian tank regiment returns home at Halifax's Pier 21 in 1945, a still from the army documentary about tank crew who survived the war together called "The Green Fields Beyond". (Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

      Tell me a little about who was part of the unit and what they were deployed to do.

      Canada had virtually no film industry in 1939 and the Canadian Army soon discovered that it was almost invisible on film screens controlled by big Hollywood newsreel companies.

      The army created a film unit in 1941 to create propaganda, help training and document history. They enlisted the handful of Canadian film professionals but soon had to take dozens of soldiers who had gone overseas from Pier 21 in army regiments and turn them into cameramen.

      These filmmakers often scooped their British and American allies with the first, and in many cases, the most memorable footage of the war's crucial battles in Europe. The cost of their work was high. Six of them were killed and 15 were severely wounded.
      In your book, you introduce us to many unforgettable people. One was Alan Grayston. Tell me about him and his work.

      Grayson was a 17-year-old from a Montreal film-making who lied about his age to join the army and was pulled into the unit. He had a natural talent for camera work in the field, although his outspoken opinions cost him promotions.

      When high command cancelled plans to send Grayston and other Canadian cameramen on the Dieppe Raid, he go so angry at the film unit headquarters that while waving his hand gun around it went off and he fired three bullets through the glass door of his commander.

      However, he was so respected in the unit that he was just demoted from Sergeant to Private for a few weeks and then sent back into the field with his camera. He did outstanding work in Sicily and even got his picture in the New York Times.

      He also had a telling encounter during the Normandy campaign in 1944. He'd been sent a memo telling him to get closer and use a tripod in his battle footage. When his driver and assistant Lew Currie was killed right next to him, Grayston sent the blood soaked film cans back to headquarters with a note saying, "Was this close enough? Was it worth it?"

      This is a significant question which I leave to the reader to decide, whether the courage and determination of these cameramen was worth the risks they took.

      Who were some of the women in the unit?

      Given the sexism of the era, the front-line photographers and cameramen were all men, but Karen Hermiston was a prominent army photographer in England during the war and the unit had a three-woman unit production unit at Merton Park outside of London who edited film and sound, often facing German buzz bombs landing around them.

      While all the motion picture cameramen were men, the unit did have one female photographer, Sgt Karen Hermiston, shown here with her Speed Graphic camera, London, Nov. 15, 1945. (Photo by Lt. Arthur Cole, Library and Archives Canada, PA 150150)

      Did members of the unit come from across Canada?

      The photographers and cameramen came from every province. 

      Two important members were from Regina. One, Sgt. Len Thompson was seriously wounded right at the end of the war when he was run over by an armoured car while filming the aftermath of a battle in Sogel, Germany. 

      Another was Sgt. George Game who'd worked as a film projectionist in rural Saskatchewan before the war which was enough experience to make him  senior cameraman. He filmed Canadians all through Italy, France and into Germany. He was quite candid with me about the cumulative effect for fear and told me, "My experience, and I think a lot of soldiers, it is the same way. You are afraid at first, very much afraid and then you get over it and you say, 'Well I am all right. It can't get me. I am going to be immune to this system.' And then after a while you start, 'It's gonna be me,' and when you get to this stage you think you are going to get it. I went into Germany and I got sick, very sick. I had a case of the shakes, battle fatigue as they called it. This brought on jaundice and hepatitis but it was actually battle fatigue. So I was sent back to Antwerp and was in a hospital when VE-Day came and the war ended."

      Today we call it post-traumatic stress syndrome and know it is something that confronts veterans. It was the same with these men fighting the war with their cameras.

      Sgt. George Game films between two German bodies on the outskirts of San Leonardo near Ortona, Dec. 10, 1943. (Photo by Lt. Frederick G. Whitcombe, Library and Archives Canada, PA 147111)

      They also documented the final days of the war and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. That must have been particularly harrowing. What kinds of reports did they produce?

      Several of the cameramen I interviewed had vivid and awful memories of encountering the death camps of the Holocaust as they pushed into Germany.

      Cameraman Gord Petty got ahead of Canadian infantry and stumbled across a Nazi concentration camp attached to an aircraft factory. "There was this big barbed wire gate and behind it were these guys in their striped suits and they were walking skeletons." 

      To feed the starving survivors, Petty took a cow from a nearby field. "I shot that German cow in that slaughterhouse — only time I ever used my gun — and before the damned cow hit the floor there were five men on it with knives! They were that hungry."

      Al Calder, serving with Canadian paratroopers spent a day filming the giant Belsen death camp with the British and told me "It is one I hate to even think about... The thing that you can't record is the unbelievable stench... People were dead and dying, sick to the point where their bodies were just simply rotting and these are the things which I can never forget. Never!"

      Their images helped document the ghastly genocide against Jews and other minorities that was part of the war.

      What happened to these cameramen and photographers after the war?

      The unit was a big success having taken 60,000 still photos and made 6,000 newsreel stories shooting one and a half million feet of film. However it was disbanded when the army demobilized in 1946. 

      Some members took their wartime experience and became big players in Canada's postwar media word. Michael Spencer went on to be a senior figure at the National Film Board and created what became Telefilm Canada, often credited with single-handedly creating the Canadian feature film industry.

      On the other hand, the army's very talented newsreel editor Ken Ewart shocked the producers he worked with when he came back home through Pier 21 and got his discharge papers. He went right back to his family farm in Alberta — although later on he did use his film skills to make instructional films about planting techniques for fellow farmers later on.

      The work of the unit in many ways was forgotten. The army cameramen themselves felt they should brag about what they did, that the attention should be on their fighting comrades. Many people assume all those images were made the National Film Board or CBC Television — which of course didn't exist back in WW II.

      You say it was really important that we as Canadians had our own military film and photography unit, bringing back our own stories from the war. How is that reflected in the film footage and photographs?

      I think it crucial that we had Canadians brave enough to tell the story of the war through Canadian eyes. The Dieppe Raid is a good example. With no Canadian cameramen on the beaches, all the pictures were taken by German cameramen so the dominant images we have of Dieppe are dead and captured Canadians. If you do not have your own image makers, others will tell your story with their own agendas. 

      There were lots of challenges. The censorship of the war and the fact, as fellow soldiers they did not take pictures of dead Canadians and were sparing about showing the wounded which means their version of the war was sanitized. However they captured many grim things about war, starving and frightened civilians, scared and wounded prisoners and war's terrible destruction.

      The work of the film unit captures the experience and the spirit of Canadians at war with snapshots like the stories of the war brides headed to Pier 21 in Canada to begin new lives with their Canadian Army husbands. Or a touching documentary called the Green Fields Beyond about a Canadian tank crew who survived the fighting all across Europe and returned to Canada with their Sherman tank, the only Canadian tank that survived to fight non-stop all across Europe. 

      We are lucky to have these surviving images, especially as the unit lost much of their original uncensored film in a big fire at the NFB in 1967. 

      On Remembrance Day, I think it is important for people when they see those war films to think about why and how they were made.


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