Before TV: Watch WWII Like the Greatest Generation

For a small admission fee, you were once able to sit inside a movie theater and get a solid hour’s worth of news and information from around the country and the world. This was not made possible by cable news or the Internet, but by the newsreel — a relic of a bygone era that informed, entertained and boosted morale.

Newsreels played an important role in providing news to the public between 1911 and 1967, though the coverage was generally superficial. For ten minutes before every feature film, they showed, in roughly 2 minute segments, the latest in events from around the nation and the world.

Now, let’s journey through a brief history of the Second World War via the newsreel. 

1938: Political Tensions on the Rise

Newsreels favored topics of sports, bathing beauties and other spectacles, but by 1938, the political climes of Europe and Asia had reached a fever pitch. A civil war in Spain was raging. Hitler annexed Austria and demanded the Sudetenland. Japan waged war against China.

In addition to popular events in the United States, images of Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese bombs in China filled American theater screens.

1939: War Breaks Out in Europe

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Early the following year, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France toppled like dominoes. Nothing seemed to halt the German juggernaut.

Great Britain was determined to make a stand. Meanwhile, Americans sat across the pond and watched the belligerent events unfold.

1941: WWII Comes to the United States

The U.S. didn’t remain on the sidelines for long. On Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy” — the Japanese Empire attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Americans on the mainland watched from afar the gruesome toll the surprise Japanese attack took.

America Goes to War

On Dec. 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. Declarations of war on Germany and Italy followed on Dec. 11, 1941. Americans deployed to Europe and Asia to stop the onslaught of Axis aggression.

The U.S. government quickly integrated newsreels into the war effort. They didn’t impose direct censorship, but instead limited access to combat zones. The Office of War Information (OWI) worked closely with the major newsreel companies to ensure that what was shown didn’t reveal military secrets.

Each of the five major newsreel companies was allowed to send two camera crews to each major fighting front. The footage shot by civilian camera men was gathered and combined with film recorded by military photographers. The film was then monitored for content before being released to the newsreel companies.

1942: Meanwhile on the Home Front

As war wreaked havoc overseas, Hollywood actors did their part to contribute to the war effort. Many promoted war bonds while some even enlisted — Jimmy Stewart entered as a private and became a colonel after four years.

Many women took up the fight by going into the factory to produce the equipment needed by U.S. troops. The U.S. government produced public service announcements to promote safety and to coordinate the war effort on the home front.

Newsreels first got their start alongside major motion pictures. But, they weren’t the only thing being shown. The headline film, newsreel and even a cartoon were one package deal for an evening’s worth of entertainment. In the 1940’s, cartoons not only provided laughs, but ammunition to boost morale.

1944: Invading Fortress Europe

Support from home helped U.S. Troops to invade Italy and finally Normandy. D-Day gave us some of the most iconic images of warfare as thousands of Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge

Allied armies advanced from the Normandy coast and reached Paris in August 1944. On Aug. 25, after fierce fighting German forces surrendered Paris to the Allies. The U.S. then invaded Germany for the first time.

Allied recorded footage was also supplemented with German footage captured during the war. Germany, wounded but still dangerous, unleashed one last offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

The Air Forces Have Their Say

While American G.I.’s doggedly fought the Wehrmacht and stormed into Germany, the U.S. Army Air Forces bombed major German cities. By 1944, American aircrew had to fly a minimum of 30 missions before they could go back to the U.S. Allied bombs damaged German weapons production and logistics and weakened German morale.

1945: V-E Day

The Soviet Army reached Berlin in April 1945. Realizing that the war was over, Adolf Hitler committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun, on April 30. Between May 4-8, German forces throughout Europe surrendered unconditionally.

Allied forces officially accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. Civilians danced in the streets as peace once again reigned in war ravaged Europe.

V-J Day

War still raged in the Pacific. The United States found success in their “island hopping” strategy, and the Japanese mainland came into the American military’s bombing range. On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

Japan declared their surrender on Aug. 15 and signed the document of surrender aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. WWII was now officially over.

What do you remember about newsreels? Share your memories in the comments.

Photo courtesy PhotosNormandie