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Late in 1939, Commissioner Frank Badgley of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau prepared a report recommending that the Canadian Army organize a special film and photographic unit. The purposes of this unit, he wrote, would be:
… to record in motion pictures and photographs the day by day activities and achievements of…those units actively engaged in the combat zones, not only to provide an historical record, but to provide informational and inspirational material for…the maintenance of public morale and the stimulation of recruiting… [and]…to provide material for world wide distribution through the newsreels, newsphoto organizations, the press and other outlets… that will serve to keep Canada's war efforts vividly before not only our own people but the rest of the world.
In 1940, a public relations photographic section was formed at Canadian Military Headquarters in London, England. It was the forerunner of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit set up in September 1941. Back in Canada, the photographic section of the Army's Directorate of Public Relations was organized at Ottawa in 1942.
In March 1940, Flying Officer Fergus Grant, the air press liaison officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), asked that the RCAF's Photographic Establishment create a "Press Photographic Section" for the purposes of "securing photographs of air force activities that may be distributed to the press of Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and other countries." Grant specified that "the photographs should be good, and have news value." The result of this request was the Press Liaison Section; it began operating in the spring of 1940. One year later, RCAF Overseas Headquarters in London established a similar photographic section.
In May 1940, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) began to consider the possible uses of photography. The director of naval information was Lieutenant John Farrow, who wrote an eloquent memorandum which stated, "A pictorial record should accompany the compilation of the War Diary…men die, ships sink, towns and ports change their contours, and without the aid of the camera their images are left to the uncertain vehicle of memory or to be forgotten in the dry passages of dusty files." Moreover, he added, "at all times Headquarters could, at will, issue to the Press photographs of events or of persons that might be considered of topical interest." A routine order of July 10, 1940 stated:
A Photographic Section has now been established in the RCN with the object of providing a fuller record of progress and occurrences of interest for record, press and propaganda purposes….[The] principal duty of the Photographers will be to make a comprehensive record of all aspects of naval work and activities, particularly special operations and any other assignments ordered for historical, news or propaganda purposes.
Who were the photographers who wore the uniforms of the three armed services? Some of them were former commercial or press photographers who continued to practise photography while in the service of their country. Others learned the trade, either at the time of recruitment or during their service careers. Three of the original photographers active in 1940 were Laurie Audrain of the Army, Gerry Richardson of the Navy, and Norman Drolet of the Air Force.
Those who followed Audrain as photographers for the Canadian Army included Gordon Aikman, Ken Bell, Ted Bonter, Art Cole, Mickey Dean, Ernie DeGuire, Dwight Dolan, Frank Dubervill, Barry Gilroy, Barney Gloster, Don Grant, Dan Guravich, Ken Hand, Karen Hermiston, Bud Nye, Charlie Richer, Harold Robinson, Terry Rowe, Frank Royal, Jack Smith, Strathy Smith, Alex Stirton, Fred Whitcombe and Chris Woods.
Their counterparts in the Royal Canadian Air Force included Stu Barfoot, M.J. Bent, G.T. Berry, Roly Boulianne, Lorne Burkell, Ken Coleman, J.H. Crump, Jack Dalgleish, Burt Johnson, Ron Laidlaw, J.F. Mailer, W.A. McMurdo, Harry Price, Cecil Southward, Norma Thorne, A.E. Trotter and Stan Wimble.
The Royal Canadian Navy's photographers were, among others, Richard Arless, Herbert Black, Dinny Dinsmore, Ken Fosbery, Glen Frankfurter, Guy Goulet, Jack Hawes, Roy Kemp, Jack Kempster, George Lawrence, Gar Lunney, Jack Mahoney, John Merriman, Gib Milne, Gerry Moses, Gerry Murison, Herb Nott, Ed Pryor, Gerry Richardson, Dennis Sullivan, Alf Tate, Don Thorndick and Jacques Trepanier.
Photographers either swore by or swore at "Old Reliable," the widely used Speed Graphic 4 x 5 press camera. It was at its best when shooting relatively static subjects under stable conditions. Consequently, photographers like Ken Bell, Alex Stirton and Gerry Moses preferred the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Rolleiflex camera in combat situations, as it was smaller, easier to handle, and could be protected inside one's tunic. The most important accessory that the photographers lacked was the telephoto lens; without it, for example, Gerry Moses, shooting from HMCS Uganda, was unable to zoom in on a distant Japanese kamikaze attack on the British Pacific Fleet, which would have produced striking photographs. Photographers like Bell, Stirton, Milne and Moses operated in a variety of environments: the salt-spray-filled air and dull gray light of the North Atlantic, the frequently cold and wet conditions in Britain, the muddy terrain and flat gray light of Northwest Europe, the brilliant light and extremes of climate in Italy and the Mediterranean, and the equally brilliant light and humid climate of the Pacific.
Perhaps the most challenging periods for the photographer were the long hours of comparative inactivity, characteristic of wartime military life, which furnished seemingly unchallenging subjects for the camera. Handled by a good photographer, even the most routine assignments could furnish memorable photographs. Photographers found such work most satisfying, because it enabled them to examine the human side of war. The strain visible on the faces of aircrew members during debriefing after a bombing mission, the fortitude of merchant seamen rescued from a torpedoed freighter, the fatigue on the faces of infantrymen resting after periods of intense fighting, and the happy faces of liberated children at a Christmas party in the Netherlands all found lasting expression in the work of war photographers.
A testament to the risks taken by war photographers are the casualties they suffered and the decorations they received. Two photographers died in action: Terry Rowe at Anzio early in 1944, and Jack Mahoney in the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan, also in 1944. Guy Goulet survived the torpedoing of HMS Nabob in 1944. The citation for Alex Stirton's MBE award read as follows:
During the assault on the Gothic Line…Captain Stirton as a Canadian public relations photographer accompanied the advance to record with his camera…the achievements of Canadian fighting men….[During] previous phases of the campaign in Italy, notably the battle of Ortona and the Gustav and Hitler Line, Captain Stirton showed the greatest skill, courage and daring in covering photographic assignments. On a great many occasions he has risked his life in order to portray accurately heroic front-line actions …. Captain Stirton's photographic work in both Italy and Sicily has been outstanding and has rendered a great contribution to Canadian, British and American publications, as well as to official war records.
Don Grant's Military Cross citation read as follows:
Lieutenant D.I. Grant, a photographic officer with the Canadian Film and Photo Unit, came ashore at H plus 15 mins. on D-Day with an assault company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. His assault craft came under heavy machine gun fire as it neared the shore. Lieutenant Grant…carried out with determination his job of photographing the landing of the assault troops. When the troops advanced inland he went with them, carrying out his duties in the face of intense enemy fire with remarkable coolness. Later in the day he assisted in bringing the wounded to the field dressing station….At all times, this officer has carried out his duties with courage, skill and determination....His coolness has continually been an example and inspiration to the other members of the Film and Photo Unit.
Canadians relied on photographs for information during the war. The prompt and regular release of photographs to both national and local newspapers, and their publication in mass-circulation periodicals like the Montréal Standard, the Toronto Star Weekly and Maclean's Magazine brought the photographs to a very large audience. Aware that their work was being used and appreciated, the photographers felt a sense of responsibility to the Canadian people, and this impelled them to be the first to record important events of the war.
Frank Royal's photographs were the first to be released of the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. Gib Milne and Frank Dubervill took the first photographs to appear in Allied newspapers showing the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Don Grant photographed Major David Currie in the act of winning the Victoria Cross on August 19, 1944. Dubervill also photographed the liberation of Paris on August 26, 1944, and went on to document the link-up of American and Russian troops at Torgau on the Elbe River in Germany during April 1945. Finally, Alex Stirton photographed the historic surrender of German forces at Wageningen in the Netherlands on May 5, 1945.
Private René Corby was a member of Le Régiment de la Chaudière, one of the Canadian units that captured the airfield at Carpiquet after four days of the most intense and costly fighting of the entire campaign in Normandy. Lieutenant Mickey Dean, the photographer who made individual portraits of Corby and his fellow infantrymen, wrote, "These men have been in constant engagement with the enemy ever since Tuesday 4th July. The photos were taken between shelling ….Trust I have caught some sort of individual characters." Canada's military photographers did indeed capture the faces of war, and made them visible in the thousands of photographs that document Canada's armed forces in action from 1939 to 1945.