Documenting the Second World War

When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, tens of thousands of Canadians enlisted to serve in the armynavyair force and supporting services. The military scrambled to buy equipment, train recruits and prepare for war. Little thought was given, at first, to documenting the war effort. By 1940, however, the military was recruiting historians, most notably Charles Stacey, 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 forces. Today, their diligent work provides a rich visual and written catalogue of Canada’s history in the Second World War.



Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland
Alex Colville's Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland. 

Background: Lord Beaverbrook and the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO)

Canada’s effort during the First World War had been documented through the ingenuity, drive and funds of Sir Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook). He created a record of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the efforts of the more than 620,000 Canadians who served in uniform. Beaverbrook was an expatriate Canadian millionaire newspaper baron. (Lady Diana Manners described him as a “strange attractive gnome with an odour of genius about him.”) He 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).

The CWRO sought to convince officers in the field to create better, more detailed 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 tremendous success. War artists, through the Canadian War Memorials Fund, painted more than 1,000 works. ( See also Representing the Home Front: The Women of the Canadian War Memorials Fund.) Photographers snapped more than 7,000 photographs. Motion picture cameramen shot thousands of feet of footage; it was eventually made into short newsreels and longer films. 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 the First World War.)

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

Charles Stacey, Canadian Army Historical Officer

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 CanadaArthur Doughty, had died in 1936. 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 also produced records through diaries or letters. More rarely, they took film footage or made sketches, drawings and watercolours.

The First World War official history program (the attempt to write a multi-volume history of the conflict) was not begun until after the war. It then suffered long delays. This failure convinced the Canadian Army’s high command in the Second World War to bring in an official historian early; they would gather war records and write draft narratives of the war. The army was lucky to find Charles Stacey, a professor of history at Princeton. He had written two important books on military history and was a former militiaman. By Christmas 1940, Stacey had been sent overseas to Canadian military headquarters in London, England.

The material Stacey collected about Canadian operations was valuable for historical purposes. Hut he was also as an important resource for senior military leaders. Canadian generals, especially A.G.L. McNaughton and  Harry Crerar, relied on Stacey’s records to learn about the training, leadership and performance of Canadian troops. It allowed them to see paths to improvement and optimization. With the support of the generals, Stacey ensured that key records were created by commanders on the ground. These records were then archived with Stacey’s section. After reading Stacey’s informative narratives on training, operations, discipline and morale, McNaughton, who eventually rose to command the First Canadian Army, advised Stacey to “pull no punches.”

G.F.G. Stanley
G.F.G. Stanley holding the flag which he was instrumental in designing.

The Army Historians

Having won the confidence of senior officers, Stacey was soon able to expand his small historical section. He brought aboard historians in uniform such as George Stanley (who later designed Canada’s maple leaf flag), J.R. Martin, Murray Hunter, Gerald Graham and J.M. Hitsman. Almost all taught at universities after the war and wrote important history books.

The historical narrators wrote reports that would be used by the official historian (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. At the start of the war, these records were 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.

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

Juno Beach
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.

Navy and Air Force Historians

The Canadian navy and air force also had historical officers to gather records. However, they were part of smaller organizations and had less chummy relationships with the air marshals or admirals. Wing Commander Kenneth Conn, a decorated flying ace in the First World War, 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 historical section of the Royal Canadian Navy under the 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 war at sea. He created records of naval experiences that might never have been written down.

Vincent Massey and 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. (See Documenting the First World War.) But  Vincent Massey, a patron of the arts and Canada’s high commissioner to London, urged that a new war art program be undertaken. Massey hoped to follow the British lead of assigning official war artists to depict the conflict, especially the harrowing bombing of Britain. However, 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. It was several years before the program allowed Canadian artists to forge ahead.

Alex Colville, war artist
Lieutenant Alex Colville, with the 3rd Canadian Division, 1945.

The army historical officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stacey, began to recruit artists from the ranks in early 1942. He did so 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. Stacey’s section wrote in its instructions: “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.”

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

molly-lamb-bobak

Second Lieutenant Molly Lamb of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, 12 July 1945. (courtesy Library and Archives Canada PA-113772)

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.

No official artist witnessed the Dieppe raid of 19 August 1942. Charles Comfort reconstructed the event from eyewitness accounts. His Dieppe Raid captures the Canadian infantry and tanks advancing under fire. Other artists, like Orville Fisher, landed on D-Day, 6 June 1944. 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 trained 131,500 airmen, were painted by Patrick Cowley-Brown and Peter Whyte. Other artists, such as 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) catches the chaos, terror and strange beauty of a bomber passing over its target amid cones of searchlight.

Naval artists, such as Donald C. Mackay, Tom Wood, Tony Law, and Harold Beament, painted the Battle of the Atlantic. The Royal Canadian Navy was tasked with protecting merchant supply ships sailing across the Atlantic from 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 war at sea.

The wartime home-front was painted by artists such as Pegi Nicol MacLeod. He created more than 100 works of art, many of them focused on the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Molly Lamb Bobak captured the sometimes raucous scenes on bases and at 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. (See Documenting the First World War.) 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 BayefskyAlex Colville, and Donald Anderson, who captured the horrors of the death camp at Bergen-Belsen.

Frances Loring and sculptor Florence Wyle
Frances Loring and sculptor Florence Wyle standing among statues, [photograph], Gilbert A. Milne, January 21, 1950, Gilbert A. Milne fonds, Negatives of Toronto's arts, academic and broadcasting communities and personalities, and the city's post-war urban expansion. (Archives of Ontario, C 3-1-0-0-666)

Wartime Government Filmmaking

Canada’s film industry dates back to the early 20th century. (See Canadian Film History: 1896 to 1938.) In the shadow of feature films from Hollywood, Canadians focused on making documentary-style shorts and newsreels produced by federal and provincial government agencies. These were designed to inform and educate, and to promote tourism, immigration, and trade. The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau 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 keep up with technological changes.

In late 1939, John Grierson took the helm of the newly founded National Film Board of Canada (NFB). It set out to centralize the production and distribution of Canadian film. It also absorbed the Motion Picture Bureau. The NFB focused on documentaries to highlight the Allied war effort and to offer Canadian perspectives.

The Canada Carries On series, begun in April 1940, used overseas footage to create realistic documentaries on many Canadian battles, campaigns, and achievements. The series was blatant propaganda; it intended 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 excellence. It expanded to 800 staff and created more than 500 films during the war. It would have had much less success without its little-known partnership with military film units overseas.


Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU)

The Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) was the primary film and production unit in London, England. Created in 1943, it was commanded by J.E.R. McDougall. The CFPU was responsible for the official film and photographic record of the Canadian 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. The Canadian Army Film Unit was established in 1941 to capture the activities of the army on film. Films were initially made only in Britain, with footage of training, sports, social activities and the defence against invasion.

The two groups were merged in 1943 to create the CFPU. The new organization was also responsible for making training films and distributing 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, such as the NFB, for distribution in Britain and North America. Starting with the Sicily invasion in July 1943, the cameramen of the CFPU travelled with the fighting units. They got many scoops. They sent back combat footage and images from Sicily and the Italian campaign (especially the Battle of Ortona in December 1943), as well as from D-Day and the fighting throughout Europe. Cameramen such as Chuck Ross, W.R. “Bud” Sherwood and Bill Grant, to name but a few, captured the war on film.

Sicily, 1943
Royal Canadian Artillery firing at enemy positions, Sicily, 1943.

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. The next year, a small photography group was established overseas in London.

In May 1940, the director of naval information, Lieutenant John Farrow, pushed for record keeping beyond that of the paper files. A Hollywood film director, Farrow 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; it created a photographic and film section in July 1940.

There is much less surviving film footage of the navy and air force than of the army. This is because it was either not made or was destroyed after the war. There is, however, a rich collection of photographs from several dozen photographers for all three service arms. It includes the work of Ken Bell, Frank Dubervill, E.D. Atkinson, Gilbert Alexander Milne, Richard Arless and Alexander Stirton. They were usually equipped with their Speed Graphic cameras to record Canadians in battle and at rest.

Gallantry medals were given to several photographers, including 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. Motion picture cameraman Sergeant Jimmy Campbell was killed by a mortar bomb outside of Caen, France, during the push into Northwest Europe.

George Baker landing on Juno Beach

Private George Baker of A Company, North Shore (NB) Regiment, landing on Juno Beach on D-Day. This image was taken from the only surviving film footage of Canadians landing on D-Day. (Courtesy North Shore (NB) Regiment HQ, Bathurst, New Brunswick)

The War Record Comes Home

The desire to document the Canadian forces during the Second World War had two purposes: to propagandize the Canadian war effort for Canadians and our allies; and to create a permanent record of historically valuable art, photography and film.

Canada’s war artists would eventually paint, sculpt or draw more than 5,000 works during the Second World War. 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. 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.

The film footage had a more complex fate. It was transferred to the NFB after the war. Much of the wartime film footage was destroyed in a storage-facility fire in 1967. This loss prompted the establishment of a National Film Archive at the then Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada). Part of its mandate was to collect and acquire Canada’s lost film heritage that was scattered across the country. There are various collections at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) that hold various copies of CFPU footage as part of their holdings.

Canadian War Museum
A winter shot of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa at night. 

The historical written records were transferred to the historical section of the DND. They were used to create official histories, which have been published for the army, navy and air force continuously since the war. A Second World War naval history was published in 2007. Most records have been transferred to LAC, where they are catalogued as part of the DND records.

The half-million Second World War photographs are housed LAC. 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 — textual, photographic, art and film — have been scanned and are available in digital form. As memories fade and veterans die, these records form Canada’s historical legacy of the Second World War.

See also: Documenting the First World War; Representing the Home Front: The Women of the Canadian War Memorials Fund; Monuments of the First and Second World Wars; Memorials and Honours.


Further Reading

  • Sarah Klotz, “Shooting the War: The Canadian Army Film Unit in the Second World War,” Canadian Military History, vol.14, no.3 (2005).
  • Peter Robertson, Relentless Verity: Canadian Military Photographers Since 1885 (1973).
  • 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).
  • Dean F. Oliver and Laura Brandon, Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945 (2000).