Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Photography of Ken Bell

Canadian riflemen land at Juno Beach, D Day, 6 June 1944. Colour photo by Ken Bell
Ken Bell was my great uncle. Before WW2 he was a keen amateur photographer and, soon after Canada declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, he joined up, offering his services to the newly formed Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit, a propaganda outfit which would record Canada's involvement in the war.

On 6 June 1944, along with tens of thousands of American, British, Canadian, and other Allied forces, Ken landed at Juno Beach in Normandy with the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, on day one of Operation Overlord.

Juno Beach was not a slaughter like Omaha Beach, but it still cost the Canadians close to 1,000 dead and wounded. The first wave, among them the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada took heavy losses in the opening minutes, but they pressed forward and took the beach. Later, at around 11.40 am, came the 9th Brigade, among them the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, advancing through the exhausted lead brigades. And with them was Ken, armed not with a rifle but with a Rolleiflex camera.

Many of Ken's photographs were taken in colour, and they remain to this day the only surviving colour photographs of the Normandy Landings.

Candian Army Film and Photo Unit
Ken would not return to Canada until the end of the war; instead he advanced with the Canadian infantry across Normandy, through Belgium, the Netherlands and, eventually, into Germany.

One of the toughest battles the Candians fought was for Caen, the strategic capital city of Normandy which, it had been hoped, would be captured by the Allies in the early days of the Normandy Landings, Operation Overlord.  But its stubborn German defenders would hold out for over a month, delaying the Allied breakout from the beaches.

Canadian Infantry fire into an enemy occupied house in Caen, July 10 1944.
The fighting went on for weeks and, by the end of July, Caen had pretty much been reduced to rubble, destroying what had been one of France's most beautiful cities.

Unidentified Canadian Soldiers in a bombed out church in Carpiquet, near Caen,  June 12 1944
Below is one of Ken's most famous photos, of Sergeant H.A. Marshall of the Calgary Highlanders Sniping Platoon. This is the one that has been turned into coffee cups, tea towels and even hand-painted figurines. One web site I saw selling models of Ken's photo of Sgt Marshall claimed that he had been killed in the war. But he survived, and returned home to Calgary where, after the war, he worked at a curling rink.
Sergeant H.A. Marshall, Calgary Highlander 
War photographers took (and still take) huge risks, and the men of the Film and Photo Unit were no exception. Bell was not as famous as his American contemporary Robert Capa, but the photographs he took, along with those of his colleagues, Charles Roos, Al Calder, Donald Grant and Llewellyn Weekes, are a unique record of the Canadian role in the liberation of Europe.

Charles Roos was in the first wave, the first Allied cameraman ashore on D-Day, and his film of Canadian soldiers disembarking under fire on Juno Beach is what you've seen in D Day documentaries - the most iconic footage of the D-Day Landings.

After the war, Ken worked as a commercial photographer.  He was very successful, but in many ways his war work was always his most memorable, and in 1973 Ken authored a book titled Not in Vain, published by the University of Toronto Press, a collection of photographs taken partly during the war, and partly 25 years later when he returned to the same locations in France, Belgium and Holland, retracing his steps towards Germany.  The passing of time is shown on each page, showing how the same locations had changed since the war.
A Canadian Private gives first aid to a child
I never met Ken, and it's too late now - he died in British Columbia in 2000, aged 85. Dad has fond memories of him, recalling him as a very happy person with a passion for life. Ken told him the story about how he lost his hearing in one ear during the war. It was no fault of the Germans; he was injured during a "friendly fire incident", when he and his colleagues were bombed in error by British bombers. They saw the bomb bay doors open, and realised that they would be killed if they did not take cover fast. So they ran down a hill to take shelter in some abandoned V-weapon tubes. Ken was knocked unconscious; when he came to, he found a tiny kitten taking shelter in his arms. Ken survived the bombing, but all his companions were killed.



  1. Amazing story. It is a shame that you could not have met him, but in a way, we all have.

  2. Luckily the still images by the photographers like Ken Bell have survived. The original film footage was not so lucky as it was destroyed along with all of its documentation in the NFB fire of 1967. The negatives and colour transparencies for the photos are kept safe at Library and Archives Canada. I have never heard the story that it was Bud Roos who shot the film footage of the D-Day landings. Most people claim it was Bill Grant that shot the film, but the story that has been uncovered this year is much more complicated and interesting.

    1. Thanks Benjamin. I'd be glad to know more if you have more information! - Alex

  3. Hello, I'am from France (Caen, Normandy), and I am very interesst on Ken Bell's work. He is not known as he should be, in my country, so I am preparing an exposition on him, to introduice his work. I love his portraits, and the photos of the daily life's soldiers.

    1. Hello Unknown from Caen! I'd be glad to more about your exposition! - Alex