Female photographer broke new ground during Second World War

Navy News / October 24, 2019

In the proudest moment of her naval career, Jenny Whitehead Pike helped process the earliest photographs of the D-Day invasion during the Second World War.

One of the first women to be trained as a photographer and photo technician, she was part of a groundbreaking wave of female recruits to the join the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) during the war.

The Wrens, as they were known, played an integral role in Canada’s war effort. While only serving ashore, their efforts were essential to the Allied victory and helped empower women by entrusting them with non-traditional roles and specific technical and operational responsibilities, making the Wrens far ahead of their time. 

Pike was just such a trailblazer, determined to excel in what was considered a non-traditional role at the time.

Born in Winnipeg in 1922, she knew as early as age 11 that she wanted to be a photographer, often helping in her brother’s photo lab. Later, this experience stood the young shutterbug in good stead when she was hired to work in the photography department of Eaton’s department store.

In 1943, with the Second World War under way, Jenny’s father helped her write to the Secretary of the Naval Board offering her services as a photographer.

His support was unusual in an era when many parents disapproved of their daughters joining military forces. There were no vacancies at the time, but Pike was encouraged to join the naval service as a probationary recruit.

The Wrens seemed like a good life and Pike registered in February 1943, training at Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Conestoga in Galt, Ont.

As Pike sometimes jokingly said, it was her first time in a Home for Wayward Girls, which is what the buildings at Conestoga were used for before the Wrens took residence.

In August 1943, Pike was posted to Ottawa for photo training, one of only seven young women in the first class. From there she went on to Halifax in October 1943, and in February 1944 sailed to London, England.

She was in London just four months when the D-Day invasion began.

Pike’s proudest memory of the war was her recollection of developing the first photographs from the D-Day landings. They were the first pictures of the Allied onslaught to be released, and were picked up by newspaper wire services around the world.

Pike, then 22, was the only woman working in the darkroom at the time.

She returned home from England in April 1945, narrowly missing the Victory in Europe (VE Day) celebrations, to her lasting regret.

In 1949 Pike married Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Donovan Pike, a boy she had grown up with and met again when they were both discharged from the navy. He loved navy life and with Pike’s encouragement, re-enlisted. The couple moved to Victoria and had two children, a son Jim and daughter Susan. Donovan Pike died in 1977.

In 1969, Jenny became a darkroom technician for the Victoria City Police, finally retiring in 1983. Despite problems with her sight, Jenny continued to be an avid photographer and camera club enthusiast, always looking for the perfect shot.

Pike passed away in 2004.

“In 2020, the Royal Canadian Navy will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the historic Battle of the Atlantic, the longest, largest, and arguably the most complex campaign of the Second World War.”