Barney Danson, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada

Biography

Barnett “Barney” Jerome Danson was born in Toronto on 8 February 1921. During high school, he held a part-time job delivering cakes for a local bakery. In 1938, when he was 17, he left school and worked as an office boy for Columbia Pictures.

As a Jewish-Canadian, Barney was concerned with the plight of Europe’s Jewish population. He joined the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada in early 1939 in the hopes of being ready for whatever came.

The battalion arrived in the United Kingdom in mid-1941. They trained for almost three years, waiting for the invasion of Nazi-occupied France. Sergeant Danson proposed to Isobel Bull, an Englishwoman he had known for just six weeks. They married, and in 1943, Barney returned to Canada for officer’s training.

The newly promoted Lieutenant Danson instructed at the battle training school in Vernon, British Columbia. Barney was still in Canada when word came that the Queen’s Own Rifles had participated in the invasion. It was not until August 1944 that he rejoined his unit in Normandy.

On 19 August, as his unit worked to help close the Falaise Gap at Grandmesnil, Barney was wounded by shrapnel from an exploding rocket. He lost his sight in one eye, was evacuated, and later returned by hospital ship to Canada.

After the war, Barney Danson worked for his family’s insurance business and started his own plastics company called the Danson Corporation. He entered politics in the late 1960s, became Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Parliamentary Secretary from 1970 to 1972, and was the Minister of National Defence from 1976 to 1979. He was also Honourary Lieutenant-Colonel of his former regiment.

In his later years, Barney worked to educate future generations of Canadians about Canada’s military history and to support visually impaired persons. He received the Order of Canada for his efforts.

Barney Danson passed away on 18 October 2011. He was 90 years old.

War Context

The Falaise Pocket

Lieutenant Barney Danson was wounded by a “Moaning Minnie”, a German artillery piece that fired a barrage of rockets, during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. This phase (12-21 August 1944) of the Battle of Normandy took place after the Germans launched an offensive towards Avranches in the American sector. The German attack failed, and American and French troops began to encircle the Germans (in a pocket) from the southwest. The Germans, realizing they could be trapped, began retreating east between the Allied armies. Their escape routes became known as the Falaise Gap. Canadian, Polish, and British troops fought towards and beyond the town of Falaise to meet up with the French and Americans to close the gap.

Jewish Service

Barney Danson’s story is significant from multiple perspectives. First, he was a Jewish-Canadian serviceman. Barney joined the army before war broke out because he was concerned about what would happen to Europe’s Jewish population as Adolf Hitler’s power grew. Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, occurred just months before his eighteenth birthday.

More than Nazi Germany’s threat to democracy, its threat to the world’s Jews spurred Jewish-Canadians, like Barney Danson, to join the Canadian military in numbers comparable to that of the general Canadian population (around 10%), and above that of any other minority ethnic group.

Canadian Jews experienced anti-semitism in civilian life and in the military. Beyond overt racism — which came from individuals rather than military policy — the military was generally unprepared to accommodate those with non-Christian beliefs. Danson recalls attending Anglican services with his battalion. Uncomfortable reciting certain passages, he and his friend Fred Harris dropped Christian phrases like “Jesus Christ” or “Holy Ghost”.

The Plight of the Junior Officer

Barney’s story is also representative of junior Canadian army officers, specifically those who led infantry or foot soldiers. As he says on camera, the infantry’s job is to advance into enemy fire, take ground, and hold it against attacks. Therefore, infantry almost always take a disproportionate amount of casualties. Good infantry tactics minimize, but never eliminate, casualties in these circumstances.

Commanding an infantry platoon in 1944 was arguably the most dangerous job in the world. Even though the infantry arm of the Canadian Army represented only 17 percent of its strength, 70 percent of lieutenants who died outside of Canada during the war served with the infantry.

Barney’s best friends were sergeants and lieutenants. Between D-Day and when Barney rejoined the Queen’s Own Rifles in August 1944 two of his best friends, Sergeant Frederick Harris and Lieutenant Gerald Rayner, were already dead. One month later another best friend, Lieutenant Earl Stoll, was killed near Boulogne.

Many junior officers did not survive long enough for their men to learn their names. Lieutenant Danson did not last long before he was wounded, but at least he had a history with the battalion as an enlisted soldier and sergeant.

Regardless of how long they lasted in the line, lieutenants were subject to intense and immense pressures. The lives of their men were their responsibility, yet the decisions they made would inevitably result in some men’s deaths.

Additional Resources

Videos

Up from the Ranks
This short documentary shows the gruelling training WWII-era Canadian Army officers received in order to “crush the toughest enemy on earth.” Their training is not only in physical endurance and defence; they study science, geography, first aid, weaponry, covert communications and the qualities of a good leader. A sense of camaraderie and teamwork is instilled in the men throughout their training.

Up from the Ranks, Julian Roffman, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Moaning Minnies
Nebelwerfer rockets firing during WW2. Allies nicknamed the Nebelwerfers “Screaming Meemie” and “Moaning Minnie” because of the distinctive sound. Nice video of the electric firing mechanism.