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Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army

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Oxford Scientific Films (OSF), in association with Manchester’s North West Film Archive and the Imperial War Museum, has produced a 1 x 60’ special called Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army for Channel 4. The film celebrates Britain’s 14th Army by revealing unique filmed messages they sent home to their nearest and dearest. As the focus was on fighting Hitler in Europe, the soldiers in Burma were largely overlooked, eventually becoming known as the “Forgotten Army”. Now, this extraordinary re-discovered footage provides a unique insight into an often unknown part of the Second World War.

For these troops, fighting a savage battle against the Japanese in Burma and India, home leave wasn’t possible, post was slow, and sometimes letters didn’t get home at all. Some of the men left behind pregnant wives or young children who would barely recognise them by the time they came home. Others would bid farewell to sweethearts never knowing whether they would see each other again… Many would become heroes but never spoke of their experiences once they returned to Blighty.

In addition to fighting a seemingly invincible foe, the British soldiers were at risk from other enemies hiding in the jungle. The worst was disease. 40% of the 14th Army suffered from malaria. Typhus and dysentery were also rife. Out of every thousand troops, 700 fell victim to disease of one kind or another.

With morale low, the Ministry of Defence decided upon a scheme to provide a much-needed boost for the soldiers in the Far East and their families back home. A cinematic scheme called ‘Calling Blighty’ sent camera crews to film with the troops in Asia.

It was a huge undertaking. 391 editions, each lasting between ten and fifteen minutes were filmed. Some 8,000 men and a few women sent personal messages home to loved ones. Families and friends back in Britain were invited to watch them at special cinema screenings and catch a glimpse of their relatives on screen… Tragically many of those featured would already be dead by the time the films reached home.

But what happened to these films? Many have just disappeared. Only 48 of the 391 editions have ever been found… 23 of them in Manchester.

For decades after the war, this lost treasure lay silent in a basement of Manchester Town Hall until a workman discovered them and gave them to the North West Film Archive, part of Manchester Metropolitan University. But there was an extra discovery that came with the rediscovered films. All of the original paperwork identifying not only the servicemen on screen, but also the names and addresses of those back home, accompanied the reels. Marion Hewitt of the NWFA archive describes the lists as “gold dust.”

To commemorate the 70th Anniversary of VJ Day, the North West Film Archive embarked on an ambitious project to contact as many of the veterans and families of the men featured in their Calling Blighty films as possible – and bring them together at HOME cinema in Manchester for a recreation of the original wartime screening.

OSF and Channel 4 covered the process and have brought together some of the astonishing, real life stories of these troops featured in the “Calling Blighty” films – and the families they left behind on the home front in wartime Manchester – through archive film, letters and photographs, along with interviews with veterans and relatives.

Emma Morgan, Head of Popular Factual at OSF, said: “When we first heard about the North West Film Archive’s incredible discovery of the lost Calling Blighty film reels and their plan to contact the veterans and their families, we thought it was a unique, very personal and highly emotional way to tell the story of the everyday heroes from the North West who found themselves fighting in an extremely tough and often forgotten episode of World War II.”

The programme has been executive produced by Emma Morgan, written by Simon Berthon and directed by Paul Berczeller. It was commissioned by Rob Coldstream, commissioning editor of History at Channel 4.

The stories include;

Norman Ellor, and his future wife Betty (sons Steve and Rob)

There is also an amazing love story revealed in the films. Gunner Norman Ellor stands bare chested as he says, “Betty darling, you’ve often said in your letters that you’d like to see me. Well here I am. I hope you’re there in the front row getting a good eyeful. I love you darling, very much.”

His sons Steve and Rob Ellor, from Macclesfield and Albrighton, reveal a cache of wartime love letters and journals written by their parents. Norman and Betty met as teenagers and got engaged just before he left for Burma. Norman’s jaunty persona in the Calling Blighty film covers his true feelings. “Home. How far away that seems now. Instead, I have to go fight in a hated war. Thoughts of you keep me going. It is passed through my brain, I am doing this for Betty. She wouldn’t like it if I was scared.”

Steve says, “She was a complete lifeline the whole time he was in the Army. She meant everything to him. But I don’t think it always went as smoothly as he hoped it might do… Part way through he does start referring to jealousy… ‘I trust you darling and I know you’d tell me if anything was wrong.’”

But he needn’t have worried… Betty was waiting for him when they got home and they were married just ten days later by special licence and had a long and very happy marriage.

Rob says, “Watching this film is like having a time capsule, a lens back on to the 1940s in Burma, incredible to watch. I feel like I’m there with him.”

Private Frank Miller, the silent Chindit

(Daughter Alma Moore and grandson Tony Moore)

Former soldier Tony Moore is the grandson of another featured solider – Private Frank Miller. Tony and his mum, Frank’s daughter Alma, watch the Calling Blighty message again in their sitting room. Alma is brought to tears hearing her father call her his darling on screen. She remembers seeing the film in Salford when she was only 4, over 70 years ago. Alma says, “I remember when he was in the army we all went to the pictures. And this reel came on and I said ‘there’s Daddy, it’s Daddy. And it was strange because all I knew of my dad was a picture that my mum had of him in his army uniform.”

Alma and Tony thought that Frank served in the Army Catering Corp, but the Calling Blighty film gives them a clue to a secret about Frank’s war service. Tony says, “We thought my granddad was a member of the army catering corps. They called them ‘cabbage mechanics’. But the emblem on his uniform showed that he was in Special Forces.” Further research reveals that Frank Miller was a member of the legendary Chindits, an elite unit who fought behind enemy lines in some of the most brutal combat of the war.

Tony goes to meet one of the last surviving Chindits called Harold Shippey who describes the terrible fighting and why many of the veterans never spoke of it when they came home. Harold says, “They killed masses in front of us. [The bodies] were left, and in the heat and the humidity they used to swell up and burst. You really wanted to forget it. But you can’t forget it. You can’t forget.”

Alma lives in Fleetwood in Lancashire.

Lance Corporal Frank Bramhall, the quiet hero

(daughter Michele wants to know why he won a medal)

Another soldier, Lance Corporal Frank Bramhall never told his daughter, Michele Simpson, and her children Graham and Joanne why he’d won a medal. They are astounded and amused when they see him on screen for the first time, “Doesn’t he sound posh!”

Michele remembers her father fighting depression and what later became known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for the rest of his life. “I don’t suppose any of us understood why he’d go off and not speak to any of us. I can remember the pots flying at one stage. I can’t blame my mum – if suddenly my husband decided he wasn’t going to talk for two, three, four weeks at a time I think I’d be upset.”

She is determined to find out the truth about his war record. She goes to his old regiment and discovers that that he showed great courage and bravery… but he also killed many Japanese soldiers. “I can imagine why it upset him so much. Regarding his religion. Because he was Roman Catholic and he used to say to me, ‘how can I go to heaven when I’ve killed these people?’”

In spite of his problems, Frank Bramhall returned to his job as a successful grocer and now Michele and her family all live together happily on their family farm in Rochdale.

Corporal John Hartley and the daughter he never met, Ann Alsop

Ann Alsop, a retired school teacher from Sheffield, is an orphaned daughter in her 70s who never met her father Corporal John Hartley. In this documentary she comes face to face with him for the first time when she sees his Calling Blighty film at the North West Film Archive in late 2015.

John Hartley, her father, left for Burma when her mother Mildred was pregnant with Ann. When he died, Mildred made the decision to forget him, subsequently changed her daughter’s name to that of her step-father and threw away all his photos and letters. Ann grew up knowing very little of her father but always felt there was a gap in her life. When Ann was in her 60s, married to husband Gerald and not only a mother but a grandmother herself, her Uncle Eric left her a collection of letters and photos from her father. The Calling Blighty films prompt Ann to take another look at these few mementos and she starts on a journey to discover how her father died. Historian Rob Lyman tells her that John Hartley was shot in the back of his shoulder by a retreating Japanese sniper.

Inspired by this experience, Ann travels to Burma for the first time to visit her father’s grave. At the graveside, she says, “I’m so sorry that we never knew each other, but you do live on through me and my children and my grandchildren. The last few weeks I have got to know so much more about you, and what a fine, brave man you were. We’re very proud of you. I hope you’d be proud of all of us.”

Private Ken Chadwick, the surviving veteran

We also meet Calling Blighty veteran Ken Chadwick. He is 92 now and when he sees his 21 year old self on screen he says – chuckling to himself – “Oooh, I were fatter than I remembered.”

The Calling Blighty film crew caught up with Ken on the bank of the Irrawaddy river in 1944.

He says, “I’m afraid I didn’t say a lot. In them days you weren’t used to being filmed or anything like that. We didn’t get much news. Nothing at all that used to come through as regards home. I don’t know who called it the Forgotten Army. But that’s how it turned out.”

At the Calling Blighty screening on November 23rd 2015, Ken Chadwick was given a warm round of applause on his entrance by the crowd of friends and families.

Fusilier Harold Shippey, a Chindit veteran

Before the war Harold was a butcher. Aged 20, he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, and then underwent a period of intense training in Jhansi in India and became a Chindit under the leadership of Major-General Orde Charles Wingate. Wingate was known for his creation of the Chindits deep-penetration missions in Japanese held territory during the Burman Campaign of World War II.

In the film, Harold reminisces that he was “afraid most of the time.” Not only was the constant threat of the Japanese weighing on them, but the risk of disease in the jungle, such as malaria and typhoid.

He came home from India in 1946 after 4 years with the Chindits. Once back to normality Harold found it hard to settle. Harold believes now that he and many of his comrades most likely had PTSD after the war. He says, “I went in a boy and left a man.”

Harold never spoke of his time in the war until his 70s when he joined the Burma Star Association. He now talks more about Burma, and tries to draw attention to the Forgotten Army. Harold is now 91 and living in East Yorkshire.

In the film, Harold meets Tony Moore, the grandson of Frank Miller, another fellow Chindit. Harold explains to Tony that his grandfather too, would have experienced the same treacherous conditions he did himself, “your granddad would have been just like me, just like us.”

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