This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: COI 119).


A picture of the contribution made to Britain's war effort by people from Newfoundland.

The film, which has throughout a strong connecting theme on the importance of the mail link with "back home", opens with scenes of the sorting of letters (and "comforts") in the London office of the Newfoundland trade commissioner, Mr D James Davies. With a reminder that "not all warriors are in uniform", lumberjacks working in Scotland are shown, with an impression of their life in camp; next a unit of fieldgunners, practising firing 25-pounders (at moving tank-silhouette targets) and WW1 howitzers; then sailors in the navy, rowing a cutter, manning AA gun, flag signalling etc, and various shots of convoy escort ships; (tribute is paid to merchant seamen, without illustrative film); finally, the film shows Newfoundlanders in the RAF, posing by aircraft, climbing into cockpit etc (Hurricanes, Defiants and Beaufighters).


Credits: Jack Murphy is the assistant trade commissioner.



Newfoundland’s political life during the interwar years was marked by scandal and disaster. Brazen financial corruption, a catastrophic economic crisis, and Byzantine yet bizarrely provincial political intrigues led the country to sink into what Hyam has described as ‘a strange depression’ (Hyam, 2006, 4), the final result of which was the unprecedented removal of self-government in 1934. A Dominion territory that had been Britain’s oldest colony of all until Responsible Government was granted in 1855, Newfoundland was thus returned to the colonial fold with the dubious distinction of being ‘the only failure of the British people to govern themselves’ (ibid.).

Already suffering from the strain of its duties during the Great War, Newfoundland’s economy was badly mismanaged during the early 1920s, as several unlikely, un-coordinated schemes to re-orientate the island’s industry around mining and wood-pulp products, undertaken with public funds and at the expense of the fisheries, proved to be costly failures. The Great Depression brought further chaos, and the Government was forced into providing $2 million (Newfoundland dollars) per year in unemployment and poverty relief. Public debt had reached record levels by 1920, and continued to rise, standing at $72 million in 1926 (Chadwick, 1967, 130). By 1933 the public debt was around $100 million, interest repayments were running at 65% of national revenue, and for some time the economy had been showing a deficit of around $4 million per year (Tait, 1939, 64; Chadwick op. cit., 155, 160). The average Newfoundlander’s standard of living was perilously low, and cases of tuberculosis and rickets showed an ‘alarming increase’ (ibid., 158).

In March 1933 a Royal Commission, led by Lord Amulree, was appointed to prepare a report on Newfoundland’s evident troubles. Published in October that year, the report’s concluding advice was that Newfoundland should take the extraordinary step of relinquishing its Dominion status, and allowing itself to be administered from Whitehall ‘until such a time as the Island may be self-supporting again’ (Newfoundland Royal Commission, quoted in Chadwick op.cit., 161). Newfoundland was in a state of utter desperation and the recommendations were quickly accepted by the legislature. Parliament in London debated the issue in December 1933. Appalled by the situation on the island, they acted with speed, and on 30 January 1934 Newfoundland lost its Dominion status, being ‘launched into the Imperial pool’ as an unprecedented ‘constitutional oddity’ (ibid., 172).

The central task of the ‘Government by Commission’ that took over the running of the country was to re-structure the economy and alleviate some of the widespread hardship. The ‘sober and solid’ (ibid., 176) administration made some headway on the latter issue, but the economy remained fragile and continued to be in debt throughout the 1930s. The outbreak of war marked a notable change in the island’s fortunes, as the establishment of large American and Canadian bases saw the economy spring to life, with surpluses suddenly running at amounts comparable or greater than the annual revenues of the 1930s (ibid., 181; Macleod, 1986, 10-18). Unemployment evaporated as large military bases were created and serviced. Newfoundland could even contribute quite significant sums of money to the British treasury – the boom year of 1942 saw ‘interest-free loans’ to Britain totalling $7 million dollars, with The Times reporting that contributions since the start of the war amounted to $38 million (DO 35/749/3; The Times, 9 June 1942, clipping preserved in NA file). 



As well as fulfilling a strategic role in wartime, Newfoundland provided the Allied cause with around 7000 men for the armed services. There were no standing military units – the first call for men, issued in the second week of the war, was for 625 ‘experienced Newfoundland fishermen to serve in the boats and ships of the Northern Patrol’ (Nicholson, 1969, 5). As the winter of 1939 drew in, further requests for manpower were made by the Navy and Army, and in November a request for loggers was also issued. Newfoundland units were formed within the Royal Artillery (the 166th [Newfoundland] Field Regiment RA and the 59th [Newfoundland] Heavy Regiment RA) and in the RAF (125th [Newfoundland] Squadron), and by 1942 around 3500 loggers had crossed the Atlantic to work for the war effort in the forests of Scotland (ibid., x, 6-8). The wartime service of these men is the subject of Newfoundlanders at War.

A Ministry of Information film produced by Pathé, Newfoundlanders at War was clearly intended for a Newfoundland audience alone, as its main intention is to inform people at home in Newfoundland about the wartime work that their friends and loved ones were undertaking so far away. Thorpe and Pronay confirm that the film was for overseas distribution only (Thorpe and Pronay, 1980, 121). An upbeat missive to those that have stayed behind, it uses the device of letters from home as a way to introduce the various Newfoundland units.

The film opens with scenes of bags of letters being sorted in the London offices of Newfoundland’s Trade Commissioner, and the commentary immediately connects the scene directly to the audience: ‘Two thousand miles away you stamped your letter and sent it off. It comes out of the bag in Newfoundland’s corner of London.’ Cheery ‘Newfoundland boys’ sort the mail – ‘they recognise many of the names’ – and send the letters on to their comrades stationed around  Britain. As the film progresses, each Newfoundland unit is individually introduced after a shot of a real letter, each addressed by name, forwarded care of the Commissioner’s office. The film evidently hopes to present the troops as a source of great pride for Newfoundland, but more dominant is a desire to reassure its audience that everything is fine, and that the lads of Newfoundland are happy and well looked after in their work.

Naturally, the nitty-gritty of war is studiously avoided in favour of scenes of hard work, camaraderie and humorous asides. There is an effort to reduce the strangeness of the situation by relating everything to Newfoundland – letters from home will find the soldiers in a place ‘very much like Newfoundland,’ it rains in London ‘just as it does at home’, the tractors in Scotland are ‘much the same as those back home,’ and so on. Lightly handled sequences show the great strides that Newfoundland’s doughty young men have made in training and extol the virtues of the traditional Newfoundlander, linking their current task to the legendary past – ‘They are the worthy sons of pioneers and explorers. They face the wind and weather on uncharted courses with the same skill and daring as their sailing-ship grandfathers once displayed.’

The essence of the film is encapsulated in the initial sequence of mail-sorting – as the commentary describes the alacrity with which the Newfoundland boys despatch the packages of ‘comforts’ sent from home, a middle-aged woman holds a woolly jumper up for size in front of a fresh-faced naval rating. ‘Trade Commissioner Davies takes a personal interest in their distribution’, asserts the narrator, and the motherly lady fades out to be replaced by the portly Commissioner, who shakes the young man’s hand. The sequence gently reproduces both the moving farewell of parents to their child, and touchingly reassures those same parents (who would have formed a principal audience for the film) that their grown-up sons, gone away to war, are being looked after abroad by a kindly, concerned officialdom.

Francis Gooding 


Works Cited

Chadwick, St John Newfoundland: Island into Province (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967)

Hyam, Ronald Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

MacLeod, Malcolm Peace of the Continent: The Impact of Second World War Canadian and American Bases in Newfoundland (St John’s: Harry Cuff, 1986)

NA: DO 35/749/3

Nicholson, G. W. L. More Fighting Newfoundlanders: A History of Newfoundland’s Fighting Forces in the Second World War (Aylesbury: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1969)

Tait, R. H. Newfoundland: A Summary of the History and Development of Britain’s Oldest Colony from 1497 to 1939 (New York: Harrington Press, 1939)

Thorpe, Frances and Pronay, Nicholas British Official Films in the Second World War: A Descriptive Catalogue (Oxford: Clio Press, 1980)




Technical Data

Running Time:
11 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
894 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
commentary spoken
Murphy, Jack