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March 2011 - Nr. 3

Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939 largely to support Britain and France which had declared war on September 3. At that time, Canada was a nation of just under 11.5 million people and one large group — the French Canadians — had traditionally shown themselves to be wary of foreign wars. Thus Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King pledged a limited war effort largely based on sending a single Canadian division to help Britain, training air crew from the British Commonwealth and providing food and raw materials to the Allies.

The government passed much special legislation during the war including the War Measures Act (first passed in 1914) and the National Resources Mobilization Act to give itself powers over civil liberties and the economy that would have been impossible in peacetime. Canada eventually became an important part of the Allied war production effort. Everything from bullets to bombers was produced and a large number of government-owned Crown corporations were established to manufacture them. Eventually, as in the First World War, Canada also had to resort to conscription to fill army ranks.

At the start of war, the Canadian military was in poor shape. The Royal Canadian Navy had only seven modern destroyers and fewer than 2,000 officers and men. There were fewer than 4,000 naval reservists, most of whom were almost completely untrained. The Canadian Army’s permanent force had just over 4,200 officers and men. It had no tanks, and almost no modern artillery or machine guns. The army reserves numbered some 51,000, most with little training. The Royal Canadian Air Force had just over 3,000 officers and men. With the exception of less than 30 recently built Hurricane fighters, most of its 270 aircraft were obsolete.

The 1st Canadian Infantry division went quickly to Britain, its soldiers untrained and ill-equipped, arriving in December, 1939. The 2nd Division was sent after France surrendered to Germany in June, 1940. By the end of the war one additional infantry division, two armoured divisions and two independent armoured brigades made up the Canadian Army in Europe. They were eventually consolidated under First Canadian Army.

The first two battles fought by the Canadian Army were disasters — Hong Kong in December, 1941 and Dieppe in August, 1942. In July and August, 1943 the 1st Canadian Infantry Division took part in the liberation of Sicily. It played a key role in that campaign, then crossed into Italy in early September along with the British and American armies to begin the battle for Italy. The division was joined by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division in late 1943. Thus the Canadian Army was divided for most of the war with two divisions and an armoured brigade in Italy and the rest of the army in Britain or Northwest Europe. The army was eventually united in Holland in the spring of 1945.

The bulk of the Canadian army fought in France, Belgium, Holland and northern Germany. In Normandy, it was assigned one of the five Allied beachheads on D-Day, fought in the battles for Caen, helped close the Falaise Gap, and then was assigned the task of clearing the south coast of the English Channel and freeing the French North Sea ports. It also cleared the Scheldt Estuary and then fought in the Rhineland before crossing the Rhine River to help secure the remainder of Holland and occupy parts of the North German plain by the end of the war.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) played a major role in the war in the air. It operated and largely paid for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (which trained over 131,000 air crew in Canada), provided crews and later aircraft for an entire bomber group, and contributed 19 squadrons to the 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force which supported the Canadian and British armies. Canadian fighter pilots flew against the enemy as early as the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940) and in most European theatres. Canadian pilots and crews participated in the bomber war against Germany, flew missions in Alaska, and anti-submarine patrols over the North Atlantic. They even flew in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma.

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) also played a significant role in the Allied war effort. Its destroyers fought the German navy off the coast of Europe and in the English Channel and its escort vessels did convoy duty from the freezing Arctic waters of the northern Soviet Union to the tropical Caribbean Sea. The most important Navy contribution to the war was in the North Atlantic where, for most of the war, a large part of the job of escorting convoys, to protect them against German submarines, was carried out by the RCN. By the end of the war RCN ships and anti-submarine aircraft of the RCAF, alone or with other Allied units, had accounted for 52 enemy submarines.

The cost of the war was heavy for Canada: 42,042 dead and 54,414 wounded out of the 1.1 million — almost 10 percent of population — who served. It was a remarkable performance for a nation so unprepared for war in 1939.

Next Instalment: Canada Fights in Korea

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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