The Canadian Army that fought in the Second World War lived in the shadow of the Canadian Corps that fought in the First World War. Between 1914 and 1918, the Canadians earned an enviable reputation as perhaps the best Allied corps on the Western Front. Under the leadership of General Arthur Currie, the Canadians had captured Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and afterwards compiled a strong record of battlefield success in places such as Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, and Valenciennes.
With the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the subsequent entry of Canada into the Second World War, there was great public pressure on the Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to send another expeditionary force to Europe to fight the Germans.
King tried to avoid committing troops as he remembered the terrible cost of the earlier fighting in France and Belgium. However, this was a debate he would not win. By 1942, five Canadian divisions were stationed in the United Kingdom. The first Canadian battles did not go well. Hong Kong in December 1941 was a disaster as was the Dieppe Raid of August 1942. Nearly a year later, the Canadian army still had no significant forces in combat. King could not resist the calls made by senior army leadership, politicians, the general public to get the army into the war. As a result, two Canadian divisions were sent to fight in Sicily and Italy. But by 1944, the Canadian army was given a place of honour when the long awaited second front was finally launched in France. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigaded landed on Juno Beach to commence the Battle of Normandy. What followed was an almost unbroken period of combat which would end with the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945.
Aside from Dieppe and a few other short, uneventful missions, the Canadian army in England had several years to prepare for war. The military leadership conducted seemingly endless training exercises to prepare the men for battle and weed out those who were too old or incapable of handling the stress. The training took place at the individual and collective level. Individuals received basic training on the fundamentals of soldiering – how to march, salute, use weapons, etc. They also received instruction for specific trades – cooks, corpsmen (medics), vehicle maintenance, etc., – as well as leadership training. Collective training, in turn, taught soldiers how to work together, first at the section level (10 men), then in platoons (40 men), companies (200 men), and so on. The training could be monotonous, but the time spent in preparation made a big difference in combat. The importance of this training would be reinforced later when reinforcements with insufficient training began to arrive at the front.
For a considerable period after the end of the Battle of France, in June 1940, when the French had been defeated and a flotilla of small civilian boats had rescued the British army from Dunkirk without any of its gear, the Canadian divisions in England became the best available troops for the defence of Great Britain.
Life for the Canadians stationed in England was good, if somewhat boring. The English weather could get very cold and damp. The troops looked forward to excursions to Scotland, London, or the local pub when they were given leave. They generally got along very well with the local population. This was confirmed by the thousands of British women who married Canadian servicemen, who, along with their children, emigrated to Canada during or shortly after the end of the war.
The day-long Dieppe Raid and the Sicily invasion of July 1943 were the first serious battles the Canadians fought in Europe. Casualties were high, but at this point in the war they benefited from a surplus of manpower. In fact, they had so many trained officers that nearly 700 volunteers were sent to join the British Army under the CANLOAN program. The Canadians maintained a sufficient pool of trained soldiers to replace their own losses at the front until the heavy fighting in Normandy exposed the shallow state of their reinforcement pool.
“Untrained troops Hazard at Front, Smythe Complains” read the headline on the front page of the Globe and Mail 19 September 1944. Conn Smythe, of course, was the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs who volunteered to serve in both world wars. He was badly wounded in Normandy and this experience drove him to gripe about the lack of good soldiers to replace those who fell in battle. His statement continued:
“The need for trained reinforcement in the Canadian Army is urgent.
During my time in France and in the hospitals of France and England, I was able to discuss the reinforcement situation with officers of units representing every section of Canada. I talked to officers from far Eastern Canada, French Canada, Ontario and all the Western Provinces. They agreed that the reinforcements received now are green, inexperienced and poorly trained. Besides this general statement, specific charges are that many have never thrown a grenade.”
The reinforcement situation overseas reached a crisis in the aftermath of the Normandy campaign. There was simply not enough trained infantry to replace the large number of men killed and wounded in action. The crisis had smoldered for a while but Smyth’s front-page story threw gasoline on the fire. Most Canadians, but especially Prime Minister Mackenzie King, remembered the conscription crisis in the First World War which threatened to split the country apart. Nobody wanted a repeat of the Quebec City riots of 1918 which resulted in 150 casualties and the despatch of 6,000 soldiers to restore order.
At the start of the Second World War, King bowed to pressure to mandate conscription but it was for service in Canada only. Conscripts could not be sent overseas unless they volunteered. In King’s famous words, “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” The conscripts in Canada, widely known as “Zombies,” were criticized for skipping out on war service. Author and soldier Farley Mowat recalled in his memoirs that he savagely disliked those who wore the uniform but refused to make the same sacrifices that confronted him and his brothers-in-arms in Italy and Northwest Europe.
The combination of Smyth’s article and mounting casualties overseas forced King to send conscripts into battle. Though his decision caused deep rifts in his cabinet, and again threatened to isolate Quebec, King realized he had no choice. In the end, the federal government authorized 16,000 conscripts to travel overseas for service. Of those, 2,463 men reached the front lines, while 69 conscripts were killed in action. The numbers may seem small but they were important. It was the difference between committing weak and understrength units to battle and it ultimately saved lives.
An old adage describes war as ‘interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror.’ This description certainly applied to the experiences of the Canadian army. The actual days in combat, or even on the front lines, were tiny compared to when the troops were not in contact with the enemy. When not in the front line, the men went about their daily business to stay ready for battle. Similarly, Normandy was a busy time for the Canadian army, but it was followed by a few weeks of relative calm. From mid-September to the early October, there were periods of intense combat in the Channels Ports and the estuary leading to the port of Antwerp. But after those campaigns, the Allied commander took the Canadian army off the front lines until the start of Operation Veritable, on 8 February. This meant that Canadians did not play an active role in the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans launched a major offensive to capture Antwerp. During the downtime, the regiments rebuilt their companies and squadrons, trained replacements, and repaired and maintained their weapons, equipment, and vehicles.
One such break for the Canadian Scottish Regiment occurred on 19 October 1944 and is described in the battalion’s war diary:
“Breakfast line-ups were agreeably surprised to find almost a CANADIAN meal. All it lacked was the toast (mush, bacon and eggs and coffee were good). After the meal most of the troops found a warm dry spot to bed down again. They could absorb lots of this treatment. Baths were arranged and parades of cleanliness followed. The Canadian Legion showed a film especially for those who had been continuously under fire. By afternoon, rest had been caught up on, so a period of letter-writing and storytelling began.”
It was amazing what a little good food and rest could do to repair the morale of the men.
There were also periods of rest and recreation. The war diary of the South Alberta Regiment recorded one such event, in the middle of the Rhineland battle:
“Again, the highlight of the day was the Hockey team’s activities in ANTWERP. They seem to be having a good time charging around the country, and the boys who go down to watch the games enjoy getting into a big city again after these small villages and dyke country. However, the flying bomb activity was rather intense, 17 dropping in one night close to the boys’ billets. Our game was against the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and we won 5-0. Scorers were Trotter 2, Tannar, McKee and Lt Crawford. Trottier was the star of the game, Cpl Griffin was again in great form in goal and the whole team played very well. Otherwise it was a quiet day. The Regiment carrying on with its normal duties. The Squadrons doing a turn of maintenance.”War Diary, South Alberta Regiment, 16 February 1945
Regular breaks were important for the soldiers, but did not prevent them from succumbing to battle exhaustion. This mental injury, known as shell shock in the First World War or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today, was difficult to predict. Many soldiers served the entire war with no ill-effects while others succumbed the first time they were exposed to enemy fire. Afflicted soldiers would display acute fear reactions and anxiety, which caused uncontrollable tremors, a noticeable startle reaction to war-related sounds, and a complete loss of self-confidence. They would also appear depressed and withdrawn.
Medical officers were trained to deal with exhaustion cases. The first stage of treatment was close to the front lines, where soldiers would be given a night of sedated sleep. This would be followed by a short period of leave. The time away was often sufficient to allow a soldier to return to his unit. More serious cases were evacuated from the front and many of these men did not return to combat. Senior leaders in First Canadian Army were worried that the intense fighting in October 1944 was increasing the number of battle exhaustion cases, which would exacerbate the already serious reinforcement issue. Ultimately, the period of relative calm throughout the winter of 1944/45 helped many of the men recover and return to service for the final push to the end of the war.
Our final thought will go to the issue of “war brides.” Given the length of time many of the Canadian soldiers spent in England and away from home, it is not at all surprising that the result was relationships, marriages and children. As the Canadian army spent most of the war in the United Kingdom, the vast majority of war brides and children were British. Nearly 45,000 women and 21,000 children emigrated to Canada from the UK. The second largest contingent of war brides came from the Netherlands. Nearly 2,000 Dutch women and over 400 children emigrated to Canada to join the Canadian soldiers they’d married. Many arrived in Canada aboard the troop transport Mauretania II, which docked in Halifax on 9 February 1946 with 1,800 Dutch women and children. The enterprise was dubbed “Operation Daddy” in the newspapers and was entirely funded by the Canadian government.
By September 1941, nearly 125,000 trained Canadian troops had arrived in England. Their commander, Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton, described them as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin.” This vivid image delighted a Canadian public eager to see its army in battle. But in truth, the dagger still had to be sharpened. It may have been disappointing to some that the Canadians sat on the sidelines while British, Australian, New Zealand, and, after December 1941, American soldiers actively fought to defeat Hitler. However, the Canadians’ time came soon enough. The Sicilians, Normans, and especially the Dutch, would be forever grateful.