Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Making Movies in a Minefield under Shell Fire (1915)

In November 1915, American cinematographer Frank E. Kleinschmidt traveled to Trieste where he filmed the operations of the Austrian navy. From Trieste Kleinschmidt flew on a military expedition to the Italian coast and covered a mine-sweeping trip across the Adriatic Sea. Both his film report and a written account on his extraordinary experiences with the Austrian sailors have been preserved.

Frank Kleinschmidt (left) with Austrian sailors near Trieste. Picture courtesy Wichita State University Libraries

Kleinschmidt's film adventures during World War I have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He was in 1915 the only neutral American cameraman to film a submarine in action and fly above the Balkan front, taking motion pictures of the attack by the Central Powers on the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Kleinschmidt’s camera also recorded some stunning scenes of actual fighting in the trenches on the Eastern Front.

War on Three Fronts (USA, 1916) 

Kleinschmidt's film War on Three Fronts (USA, 1916) has a scene picturing the seaplane he was in, taking off on a scouting trip from Trieste. Shortly afterwards he accompanied a mine-sweeping operation three miles off the Italian coast. A small flotilla of barges and tugboats was sent out under cover of fog, with only a 75-mm Hotchkiss gun at the bow to protect them against the Italian navy. It was extremely dangerous work. The Austrians were instructed to bomb their own ships as a last line of defence, in case they were under attack. As is shown in his film, the mines were inspected under water with the aid of a special tube and carefully hoisted from the sea.

Illustration from St. Louis Post Dispatch, 29 July 1917

Chase Across the Adriatic Sea

Mine-sweeping in 1915 clearly was a primitive and time-consuming business. Nine mines had just been dealt with when suddenly hell broke loose. Kleinschmidt said he saw a flash of lightning through the fog and the next moment the first Italian shell flew past him. The second impact struck a barge nearby and exploded six mines they had recovered. The Italian navy chased the mine-sweeping party all the way to Trieste and the Austrian sailors had a very close call. Kleinschmidt’s account of the escape back across the Adriatic still conveys a sense of terror:

“I had just taken my moving picture camera out of its case and set it on the tripod when a shell struck three foot from the launch, raising a big geyser. The columns of water descending douched us and stopped our motor. I had to dry off the sparking plugs while the engineer got busy cranking. Happily the motor sprung right on again, and I got back to the camera and commenced cranking. I tried to keep the No. 10 and the ‘San Marco’ in the view finder in case they should get hit, and endeavored to get the spouting of the shells. I got about one hundred feet of it, but it is a tame illustration of all the excitement of a race between life and death.”

Unfortunately, the remaining footage of War on Three Fronts has no scenes showing their escape across the Adriatic but the film does have the scenes showing how the mines were lifted out of the water.

For a copy of Kleinschmidt's complete report (originally published in Scientific American under the title "A Sea Fight in the Adriatic" on July 14, 1917) check out this link. 

Here you can see a collection of pictures on Kleinschmidt and his fascinating war film.


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