Documenting the Second World War

Historians, artists, photographers and filmmakers served in the various branches of the armed services during the Second World War. Today, their work provides a rich catalogue of Canada's war history.

Alex Colville, war artist
Lieutenant Alex Colville, with the 3rd Canadian Division, 1945 (Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Department of National Defence, PA-142087).

When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, tens of thousands enlisted to serve in the army, navy, air force, and supporting services. While the military scrambled to buy equipment, train recruits and prepare for war, there was little thought, at first, given to documenting the war effort. By 1940, however, the military was recruiting historians to collect records and write accounts of Canadian operations. In the following years, artists, photographers and filmmakers also served with the various branches of the armed services. Today, their diligent work provides a rich visual and written catalogue of Canada's Second World War history.

Beaverbrook and the Great War

Decades earlier, Canada’s Great War effort had been documented through the ingenuity, drive and funds of Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, who created a record of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the efforts of the more than 620,000 Canadians who served in uniform. Beaverbrook, an expatriate Canadian millionaire newspaper baron, sought to publicize the national war effort and create a historical legacy of war records. In the winter of 1916, Beaverbrook used his political influence as a member of the British Parliament to override the objections of the British War Office and create the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO).

Sir Max Aitken, who later became Lord Beaverbrook.
Image: Canadian War Museum/George Metcalf Archival Collection/CWM 20020045-1675.

The CWRO sought to convince officers in the field to create better, fuller and richer descriptions of battle in their records, primarily in their official war diaries. In the summer of 1916, the CWRO also began commissioning soldiers to paint, photograph and film the Canadian war effort. Beaverbrook’s CWRO had astonishing success. War artists, through the Canadian War Memorials Fund, painted more than 1,000 works. The photographers snapped more than 7,000 photographs and cameramen shot thousands of feet of film footage that was eventually made into short newsreels and longer features. Without Beaverbrook’s foresight and energy, there would have been a far poorer historical and visual record of a war that killed more than 66,000 Canadians and, many argue, propelled Canada to full nationhood. (See Documenting Canada's Great War.)

Stacey and the Army Historians

At the start of the Second World War, Canada had few agencies in place to begin creating a record of the war effort. The long-time head of the Public Archives of Canada, Arthur Doughty, had died in 1936, and that small institution was in little shape to gather war records. In the early months of the war, Canadian records largely consisted of unofficial photographs taken by service personnel using their own cameras. Soldiers, sailors and airmen produced records through diaries or letters and, more rarely, took film footage or made sketches, drawings and watercolours.

The failure of the Great War official history program (the attempt to write a multi-volume history) — which was not begun until after the war and suffered long delays — convinced the army's high command in the Second World War to bring in an official historian early, to gather war records and write draft narratives of the war. The army was lucky to find Charles Stacey, a professor of history at Princeton, author of two important books of military history, and a former militiaman. By Christmas 1940, Stacey had been sent overseas to Canadian military headquarters in London.

The material Stacey collected about Canadian operations made him valuable not only for historical purposes but as a resource for senior military leaders. Canadian generals, especially A.G.L. McNaughton and Harry Crerar, relied on Stacey's records to learn lessons about the training, leadership and performance of Canadian troops. With the support of the generals, Stacey rapidly ensured that key records were created by commanders on the ground and then archived with his section. McNaughton, who eventually rose to command the First Canadian Army, advised Stacey, after reading his informative narratives on training, operations, discipline and morale, to “pull no punches.”

Having won the confidence of senior officers, Stacey was soon able to expand his small historical section, and he brought aboard historians in uniform like George Stanley, J.R. Martin, Murray Hunter, Gerald Graham, and J.M. Hitsman. Almost all taught at universities after the war and wrote important history books.

Stanley, G.F.G.
Decades before George Stanley became famous as the designer of the Canadian flag, he served as an official army historian in the Second World War.(photo by Jonathon Sark)

The historical narrators wrote reports that would be used by the future and yet unnamed official historian (which would be Stacey), to compile an overall history of Canada's war effort. The narrators relied on records created by hundreds of military units and thousands of officers — records that were, at the start of the war, often incomplete, haphazardly written and filled with errors. As one historical officer, W.E.C. Harrison, later wrote, “In fighting, the Canadian Army was as good as any, but in setting down thoughts or deed on paper its inarticulateness was excelled by none.” Stacey and his historical officers travelled among Canadian units throughout England and Europe, training officers to create better records, which they did.

An historical officer was embedded with the 1st Canadian Division when it landed in Sicily, as part of the Allied invasion force in July 1943. Captain A.T. Sesia worked with units to create records, interviewed participants in the field to augment the written documents, and drafted accounts of the Canadians in battle. Over time, the gathering of records took on greater importance, especially after the invasion of mainland Italy (September 1943) and D-Day (June 1944).

Navy and Air Force Historians

The navy and air force also had historical officers to gather records, although they were part of smaller organizations and the historians had less chummy relationships with the air marshals or admirals. Wing Commander Kenneth Conn, a Great War decorated flying ace, was in charge of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) historical section. His overseas officers included F.H. Hitchins, who would later write several RCAF histories under the title of The R.C.A.F. Overseas.

The navy historical section under command of historian Gilbert Tucker also followed suit, but Tucker had more trouble convincing ships’ captains to write detailed records due to the autonomy of vessels on the Atlantic. Nonetheless, naval historical officer James George, a future diplomat with External Affairs, served on warships to witness the battle at sea and create records of naval experiences that might never have been written down.

Army War Artists

War artists would also be a part of the historical sections overseas. The evocative art from the First World War had been locked away unseen in the vaults of the National Gallery of Canada, but Vincent Massey, a patron of the arts and Canada’s high commissioner to London, urged that a new war artist program be undertaken at the start of the Second World War. Massey hoped to follow the British lead of assigning official war artists to depict the conflict, especially the harrowing bombing of Britain, but it was a slow start. Only a few artists, like E.J. Hughes and Orville Fisher, were employed by the Department of National Defence (DND) in 1940, and it was several years before the program allowed Canadian artists to forge ahead.

The army historical officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stacey, began to recruit artists from the ranks in early 1942, with the support of Colonel A.F. Duguid, head of DND’s historical section in Ottawa. Soon, the commissioned official artists were capturing the army’s war effort on canvas. “The intention is that your productions shall be worthy of Canada’s highest cultural traditions, doing justice to History, and as works of art, worthy of exhibition anywhere at any time,” instructed Stacey’s historical section.

W.A. Ogilvie, a prewar instructor at the Art Association of Montreal who was serving overseas as a trooper in the 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars, was the first artist to be embedded in the field by Stacey in Sicily. He had free reign to travel to the front to sketch, photograph and draw the war. Ogilvie was followed by artists like Charles Comfort, Bruno Bobak, Orville Fisher and Alex Colville, to name a few. They painted, sketched, and photographed in the field, and were then rotated to London to work up larger, more permanent paintings in oil.

Painters captured the fighting; Charles Comfort’s The Hitler Line, for example, portrayed the determined Canadian infantry storming a key German defensive position in Italy in May 1944. T. R. MacDonald, who also painted in Italy, wrote of the challenges of capturing the chaos of battle: “The thunder and the flashes were just quite beyond anything I could have conceived.” These powerful works depict weapons, technology and terrain in vibrant colours but also the human face of war, from exhaustion and strain to agony and anger. Alex Colville’s Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland is a profound and powerful work in this vein.

Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland
Alex Colville's Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland. CWM 19710261-2079 / Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum\t\r\n
Dieppe Raid Recreation
Recreation of the battle by war artist Charles Comfort (courtesy Canadian War Museum/12276).

No official artist witnessed the Dieppe raid of 19 August 1942, so Charles Comfort was forced to reconstruct the event from eyewitnesses. His Dieppe Raid captures the Canadian infantry and tanks advancing under fire. Other artists, like Orville Fisher, landed on D-Day, 6 June. He sketched — and later painted — the fierce firefight to gain the beaches.

Air, Sea and Home-Front Artists

The airfields and schools established across Canada by the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which would train 131,500 airmen, were painted by Patrick Cowley-Brown and Peter Whyte. Other artists, like Paul Goranson and Miller Brittain, depicted the overseas air war, especially the bombing campaign against Germany. Carl Schaefer’s Bomb Aimer, Battle of the Ruhr 1944 caught the chaos, terror and strange beauty in broad brush strokes, as a bomber passes over its obscured target amid cones of searchlight.

Naval artists, like Donald C. Mackay, Tom Wood, Tony Law and Harold Beament, painted the war at sea — the battle the Royal Canadian Navy waged to protect the merchant supply ships sailing across the Atlantic from the U-boat wolf packs. The vivid blues and blacks of the angry Atlantic were contrasted with the rust-streaked corvettes and destroyers in convoys. The burial at sea of drowned sailors, the forlorn hope of a marooned crew desperate to be rescued, or, perhaps most disturbingly, Jack Nichols’s Drowning Sailor, were images that captured the intimacy, danger and struggle of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The home-front experience was painted by artists like Pegi Nicol MacLeod, who created more than 100 works of art, many of them focused on the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Molly Lamb’s distinctive style captured the sometimes raucous scenes on bases and cafes where service personnel, male and female, interacted with one another and with civilians.

Paintings of the First World War were often done on enormous canvases. The art of this war was smaller, yet it was no less poignant. Among the most powerful and disturbing examples were those by official war artists Aba Bayefsky, Alex Colville and Donald Anderson, who captured the horrors of the death camp at Bergen-Belsen on canvas.

Film in Canada

Canada’s indigenous film industry dates back to the early 20th century, but in the shadow of feature films from Hollywood, Canadians focussed on making documentary style shorts and newsreels produced by federal and provincial government agencies, designed to inform, educate and promote tourism, immigration and trade. The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau (CGMPB) produced many films from 1918 to the 1930s, including successful features like Lest We Forget (1935) and The Royal Visit (1939). During the Great Depression, however, the Bureau was unable to purchase new cameras and keep up with technological changes.

In late 1939, John Grierson took the helm of the National Film Board (NFB), which set out to centralize the production and distribution of Canadian government film and which also swallowed the CGMPB. The NFB focused on documentaries to highlight the Allied war effort, and to offer Canadian perspectives.

"The Battle of Europe"
The World in Action presents, "The Battle of Europe," a National Film Board Production, 1944-1945
"War Birds"
The World in Action presents, "War Birds," a National Film Board Production, 1944-1945

The Canada Carries On series, from April 1940, used overseas footage to create realistic documentaries of the many Canadian battles, campaigns and achievements. The series was blatant propaganda to raise morale, share stories of the war abroad, and reveal the nation’s massive contributions in battle and wartime industry. The NFB soon developed a reputation for high excellence, and it expanded to 800 staff and created more than 500 films during the course of the war. It would have had far less success without its little-known partnership with military film units overseas.

Overseas Photos and Film

The Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) was the primary film and production unit in London. Created in 1943 and commanded by J.E.R. McDougall, the CFPU was responsible for the official film and photographic record of Canada’s army in the Second World War.

Prior to 1943, two other groups had worked together and alongside army units to create a visual record of the war. The public relations photography section (created in 1940) had the joint responsibility of recording the army with moving and still images. In 1941, the Canadian Army Film Unit was established to capture the activities of the army on film. Films were initially made only in Britain, with footage of the defence against invasion, training, sports and social activities.

The two groups were merged in 1943 to create the CFPU. The new organization was also responsible for making training films and disseminating photographs for use by the army. The organization's most recognizable product was the eight-to-ten-minute Canadian Army Newsreel. In total, 106 newsreels were produced.

Official photographs and films were used to publicize the armed services and to inform the public and serving personnel. Footage and photographs were sent to newspapers and newsreel producers, like the NFB, for wide dissemination in Britain and North America. The cameramen of the CFPU travelled with the fighting units, starting with the Sicily invasion in July 1943, and achieved many scoops. They sent back combat footage and images from Sicily, the Italian campaign (especially the December Battle of Ortona), as well as from D-Day and the fighting throughout Europe. Cameramen like Chuck Ross, W.R. “Bud” Sherwood and Bill Grant, to name but a few, captured the war on film.

The air force and navy also had camera teams, but they were much smaller and more constrained in their ability to capture combat footage. The RCAF created the Press Photographic Section in the spring of 1940, and the next year, a small photography group was established overseas in London.

In May 1940, the director of naval information, Lieutenant John Farrow, a Hollywood film director, pushed for record keeping to extend beyond that of the paper files. He argued for a proactive program: “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 passage of dusty files.” The navy followed his suggestion and created a photographic and film section in July 1940.

There is far less surviving film footage of the navy and air force, likely because it was not made, but possibly because it was destroyed after the war. There is, however, a rich collection of photographs from several dozen photographers for all three service arms, including Ken Bell, Frank Dubervill, E.D. Atkinson, Gilbert Alexander Milne, Richard Arless and Alexander Stirton. Usually equipped with their Speed Graphic cameras to record the Canadians in battle and at rest, several photographers received gallantry awards, as did Lieutenant D.I. Grant for his bravery on Juno Beach on 6 June 1944. Two photographers were killed in combat: Terry Rowe in Italy on 6 February 1944, and Jack Mahoney, when the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan sank on 29 April 1944. Cameraman Sergeant Jimmy Campbell was killed by a mortar bomb outside of Caen, France during the push into Northwest Europe.

Normandy Landing
View looking east along 'Nan White' Beach, showing personnel of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade landing from LCI(L) 299 of the 2nd Canadian (262nd RN) Flotilla on D-Day.(photo by G. Milne, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, PA-137013).

History of the Record

The desire to document the Canadian forces during the Second Wold War had two purposes: to propagandize the Canadian war effort for Canadians and our allies; and to create a permanent record of historically valuable records, art, photography and film. It is the historical function that remains crucial to the social memory of the war.

Canada's war artists would eventually paint, sculpt or draw more than 5,000 works. The art was transferred back to Ottawa and the National Gallery. But like the Great War art, it was rarely exhibited or seen. There was almost no study of the collection, and it was eventually transferred to the Canadian War Museum in 1971. There, it has increasingly taken on a more visible role, exhibited in travelling shows and, eventually, in the new museum that opened in 2005.

Canadian War Museum
A winter shot of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa at night. 4242114 \u00a9 Gary Blakeley |

The film footage had a more complex fate. It was transferred to the NFB after the war, and much of the wartime film footage was destroyed in a fire that raged through a storage facility in 1967. This loss prompted the establishment of a National Film Archive at the then Public Archives of Canada. Part of its mandate was to collect and acquire Canada’s lost film heritage that was scattered across the country, and thus there are various collections at the Library and Archives of Canada that hold various copies of CFPU footage as part of their holdings. Much of the audiovisual heritage was reconstituted, but some was lost forever in the fire.

The historical written records were transferred to the Department of National Defence’s historical section. They were used to create official histories, which have been published for the army, navy, and air force continuously since the war until, most recently, a Second World War naval history published in 2007. Most records have been transferred to Library and Archives Canada, where they are catalogued as part of the DND records.

The half million Second World War photographs were sent to the then Public Archives of Canada. The photographs, largely black and white but some also in colour, remain crucial for any pictorial representation of Canada’s armed forces during the war.

Thousands of the historical records, from textual to photographic and from art to film, have been scanned and are available in digital form to be used and reused in all manner of historical products. As memories fade and veterans die, these records form Canada’s foundational historical legacy of the Second World War.

Further Reading

  • Laura Brandon, Art or Memorial?: The Forgotten History of Canada's War Art. (2006); Tim Cook, Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (2006); Sarah Klotz, "Shooting the War: The Canadian Army Film Unit in the Second World War," Canadian Military History, vol.14, no.3 (2005); Dean F. Oliver and Laura Brandon, Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945 (2000); Peter Robertson, Relentless Verity: Canadian Military Photographers Since 1885 (1973).

  • Tim Cook, Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (2006).

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