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
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
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
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