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Navy veteran reflects on covert photos

Gilbert Davis shows a page in his extensive photography collection from his days aboard HMCS Merrittonia. - Daniel Palmer/News staff
Gilbert Davis shows a page in his extensive photography collection from his days aboard HMCS Merrittonia.
— image credit: Daniel Palmer/News staff

When 18-year-old Gilbert Davis packed his Kodak Brownie camera for his first naval assignment, he had no idea that his efforts would help create one of the most unique photographic collections of the Second World War.

It was 1941, and Davis had just left his job with the Canadian Pacific Railway to join the Royal Canadian Navy.

Onboard photography was banned by the navy, as pictures could find their way into enemy hands, giving the Germans invaluable intelligence.

“I bet there wasn’t more than two guys who had a camera to take their own pictures,” Davis said.

For whatever reason, Davis’ superiors looked the other way and allowed him to document his time aboard first the HMCS Bellechass, sweeping for mines in the Queen Charlotte Sound, and then aboard HMCS Merrittonia, a flower-class Corvette that protected merchant ships from German u-boats in the Atlantic Ocean.

Davis, now 90, pans through his photo album in his Saanich home and recalls each snapshot with vivid detail.

He stops on a picture of buildings in Londonderry, Ireland, his destination for more than a dozen trips across the Atlantic from St. John’s, Nfld. On another page, black-and-white shots of billowing smoke from a torpedoed ship on an otherwise clear horizon.

On the lead-up to Remembrance Day, Davis shows a humility and grace common amongst the servicemen and women who served during the Second World War.  “It was tough, but I’m glad I was there to help,” he said.

His stepson, David Witzer, painstakingly put together a Youtube video and narration of many of the photographs taken during Davis’ time at sea.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

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