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Hollywood comes to town

Action shots off Pictou Harbour in the movie Corvette K 225.
Action shots off Pictou Harbour in the movie Corvette K 225. - Submitted

When submarines prowled Pictou Harbour – Part 2 By John Ashton

War has been a popular topic for motion pictures since the invention of the medium in the late 1800s.

Most of the larger countries involved in the Second World War produced propaganda movies and documentary films. These movies were developed to influence, recruit, vilify the enemy and “help win the war.” The Allied countries produced several hundred “PR” movies over and beyond the war years. The Port of Pictou had its fair share of filming war scenes. With the additions of the newly developed Corvette and Minesweeping ships, the secondment of submarines, importance of ship building and repairing and Canadian Navy activities within the port, the harbour presented a good backdrop for filming.

In 1943, Hollywood came to town. Universal Pictures Inc. needed Canadian navy content and a recording crew was sent to the Maritimes to tape life and activities aboard ships, daring sea battles and heroic sailor efforts. The movie was called Corvette K- 225 and it starred famous Hollywood actor Randolph Scott, actress Ella Raines, with cameo appearances from Robert Mitchum, Andy Devine and Barry Fitzgerald. In 1944 this motion picture was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Tony Gaudio).

The “virtual documentary treatment” of the film is a story about a Canadian naval sea captain, Lieutenant Commander (Mac) MacClain, who has lost his ship and many men to a German torpedo. While waiting for a new ship, he befriends Joyce Cartwright, sister of one of his dead officers. We follow the building and launch of new Corvette K-255, the ‘HMCS Donnacona.' And who should be Mac's new subaltern but Joyce's other brother Paul, fresh out of the academy. “Mac will do his best to make a good officer of Paul... if they both survive their hazardous sea duty.”

Just before filming started in Pictou the Canadian navy sent the HMCS Kitchener and HMCS Kamloops to the port for “workup duties,” exercises to train new recruits on different aspects of detecting and fighting the enemy at sea. “The navy also stationed the ships in friendly waters where their safety would not be compromised. While in Pictou their principal duty was to protect the Park-class merchant vessels which were being built there. The Germans had issued a threat that every ship built at Pictou would be sunk upon launching.” With this intimidation Pictou became a closely guarded port, above water and below.

The submarines stationed at the port were not only there for training and protection duties, but managed to make it in the propaganda films. During the shooting of Corvette K-255, the Corvettes executed the entire repertoire of offensive and defensive manoeuvres that would be used in combat with the real enemy. When operations permitted, they circled with the submerged P512 submarine and made runs on her, but no depth charges were dropped. “Many of the sailors aboard the submarines had to dress in German uniforms and undertake gun action against the Corvettes, we drew lots to see who would star in the film and operate the deck gun. Dummy rounds were no use as the reluctant splash was too puny. Instead we were required to use live ammo. The skipper impressed upon us that we were under no circumstances to hit the Corvette with live rounds.” During one exercise, two chosen “star” crew members mistakenly opened the submarine Conning Tower hatch as the sub surfaced. “Water poured in the crew below and they quickly closed the flap.” The over-exuberant “stars” were up to their necks in water and “felt like close to drowning, but the sub surfaced, and the soaked men immediately began their “walk-on” performances.

While stationed in Pictou, Stooker “Moose” McGill of the Kitchener, which was dubbed “HMCS Hollywood,” reported “We never had any movie stars aboard. There were doubles for Randolf Scott and Ella Raines. They took little still shots of the engine room, boiler room and so on, so that they could mock these up in the studio back in Hollywood. We did the usual workup things which they filmed: guns, launching sea boats etc. Of course, the training sub was brought into play. We also had a Carley float in the water with men aboard to simulate survivors.” After the initial filming at Pictou, Kitchener made two trips to New York with the film crew aboard.

The Port of Pictou and its naval connections were also involved in other propaganda films, including a documentary produced in 1942 by the National Film Board of Canada called Freighters Under Fire. The NFB was developed in 1939 to “make and distribute films designed to help Canadians in all areas of the country and create propaganda in support of the Second World War.” In 1940 NFB launched its Canada Carries On series of morale-boosting theatrical shorts. The series was distributed by Columbia Pictures, which released a new episode every month to some 800 theatres across Canada. Many of the Canada Carries Films were narrated by famous Canadian actor Lorne Greene who was nicknamed, "The Voice of Canada," and when reading grim battle statistics, "The Voice of Doom." When filming Freighters Under Fire the Pictou-based submarine HMS P512 was used as a German U-Boat complete with a painted German decal on it conning tower. The Pictou-posted Corvettes were used in the chase and capture footage. The P512 was also filmed by the Royal Canadian Air Force as an instructional video on submarine recognition.

The Port of Pictou would also receive a U-Boat visit, however, more on the friendly side. In May 1945, the German submarine U-190 surrendered off the coast of Newfoundland. She was taken over by the crew of the HMCS Victoriaville and the prisoners sent to Halifax. And with an ironic twist, the U-190 was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy and her first assignment, in the summer of 1945, was a ceremonial tour of communities along the St. Lawrence River, Gaspé, Sydney and the Port of Pictou. On Oct. 21, 1947, U-190 was sent to the bottom during Operation Scuttled.

Interesting to note, in 1955 the frigate HMCS New Glasgow and its crew were used in a Hollywood blockbuster film called The Sea Chase, staring John Wayne and Lana Turner. The New Glasgow plays a British destroyer HMS Rockingham, chasing Karl Ehrlich (John Wayne), German captain of a freighter stationed in an Australian port. “Ehrlich, a fervent opponent of Nazism, receives word that World War II has commenced in Europe, and that he must immediately make his way to Germany while avoiding the pursuing Allied ships. Aboard his ship is a German spy (Lana Turner), whose safe passage he must ensure. Meanwhile, a British ship – with Cmdr. Jeff Napier (David Farrar) at its helm – is hot on their trail.”

Through a Canadian Periscope: The Story of the Canadian Submarine Service, Julie H. Ferguson

Roger Litwiller, Canadian Naval Historian,

Corvettes Canada – Mac Johnston

NFB Archives, Ottawa

North Atlantic Run, Marc Milner

The Canadian Submarine, J. David Perkins

The Canadian at War 1939/45, Vol 1 Readers Digest

Submarine Warfare, Anthony Perkins

Hollywood in the Canadian Navy – Navy and Military Museum, British Columbia

New York Times Movie Review – Corvette K 225

John Ashton is a self-employed historical author and visual/graphic artist who lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County.

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