Canadian military photographers: The silent witnesses of war

Airwoman E.F. Nightingale, military photographer

Airwoman E.F. Nightingale, served as a Canadian military photographer during the Second World War.

More than 70 years ago, during the height of the Second World War, Canadian military photographers were silent witnesses to a nation at war, all with the aim of capturing the moment on film, however grim.

But many of the pictures of Canadian military personnel from the Second World War were staged for the media to use back home, shot by former press photographers who signed up to chronicle Canada’s involvement in the conflict.

According to Collections Canada, late in 1939, Frank Badgley, commissioner of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, prepared a report recommending 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, news photo 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 to 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.”

F/O 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 that 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, “at all times headquarters could, at will, issue to the press photographs of events or of persons that might be considered of topical interest.”

By 1940, all three services – Army, Navy and Air Force – had photographers serving overseas with newly-formed photographic units. Three of the original photographers who were active in 1940 were Laurie Audrain of the Army, Gerry Richardson of the Navy, and Norman Drolet of the Air Force. Sadly, however, many of the wartime photographs that are contained in the Collections Canada image bank say “photographer unknown.”

A proud heritage
Although military photography did not really come into its own until the Second World War, military photography dates back as far as the 1800s. According to Master Warrant Officer Norm Marion, a Canadian Forces photographer and public affairs officer at 16 Wing Borden, Ont., “The title of being the first Canadian military photographer has to go to Captain James Peters, an officer commanding a battery of the Canadian Regiment of Artillery during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.

“Captain Peters, a talented writer who, in addition to his duties as artillery officer, acted as correspondent to a Quebec newspaper, was also a keen amateur photographer and carried his own camera equipment throughout the campaign. Although the technology had, by then, evolved to the use of magazine-loaded dry plates, the logistics involved in carrying the equipment into battle remained a major part of the operation. While dealing with the business of running his artillery unit, Capt Peters managed to photograph, often from his saddle, the actions of his troops at Fish Creek and Batoche. His photographs are generally recognized as the first in the world taken during battle, rather than before and after the fighting. Captain Peters was mentioned in dispatches for his actions during the campaign.”

Today, we salute all Canadian Forces military photographers whose proud heritage has allowed Canadians to witness the efforts of our personnel, in peacetime and in war.

Thanks to their service … we can see, and remember, them.

For images of today’s Canadian Forces members at work, visit

With files from Collections Canada

-Holly Bridges, RCAF Public Affairs

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  1. Michel Roy says:

    I am a former Military Photographer and looking for more information concerning:
    Helen Penney
    Harry Price

  2. Linda Care Penney says:

    Interesting article indeed. Just wanted to let you know my aunt Helen Penney ( through marriage) was an aerial photographer with the Second World War effort. Her duties had her remain in Canada, but we enjoyed many stories as she would talk about the many friends she made during this period in her life. At 99 years of age, my aunt’s mind is as sharp as ever. Still, from time to time we find ourselves chatting with her about the days of her good friends, that made a bad time, not so bad.

  3. Dale says:

    Hi – great article. I wonder if it would be possible to obtain a reproduction of the image of Airwoman E.F. Nightingale?

    To Kim who posted in August – please contact me – I would love to learn more about your grandfather and his time as a RCAF military photographer – I would be interested in posting an article about him on my website!

  4. Kim says:

    My grandpa sgt harry e price was an official photographer for the RCAF during ww2. Thank you for honouring them.

  5. Jack Bates says:

    Great topic, hopefully a lot of the photographs will be made available to the public, including peacetimes events. There is more on the life and times of James Peters at the LAC, on the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum website, and from Colin MacLock in Esquimalt.

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