Initially, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King pursued a strategy that emphasized industrial and agricultural production, air and naval forces, and a small expeditionary ground force of two divisions. This strategy reflected the fundamental antagonism between English and Scottish Protestant Canadians and French Roman Catholic Canadians, with the French minority constituting a quarter of the population. Efforts to impose conscription in 1917, during World War I, sparked serious rioting, proved unenforceable in French communities, and pushed Canada to the brink of civil war. Understandably, the Canadian government in World War II was unwilling to risk such a crisis again. The conflict was sharpened by English and Scottish domination of the armed forces and officer corps.
This limited strategy was shattered by the German conquest of France in June 1940. All Canadian resources were mobilized for total war by the sweeping National Resources Mobilization Act of 17 June 1940. But compulsory military service was restricted to service in Canada; overseas service remained voluntary. Three infantry divisions were stationed on the coasts of Canada. Many French Canadians were willing to defend Canada, but few were willing to fight for Great Britain. Four French Canadian infantry regiments did have sufficient volunteers for overseas service, however.
In July 1940, then Major General Henry Crerar assumed the post of chief of the General Staff. A capable administrator, he organized the framework within which a vastly expanded Canadian army swiftly emerged. By December 1940, two Canadian infantry divisions formed the Canadian Corps in England. In June 1943, the Canadian army in England numbered three infantry divisions, two armored divisions, and two armored brigades.
The Canadian army was organized on the British model, and much of its equipment was also British. Rugged and accurate, the 7.7 mm Lee Enfield No. 4 was the standard bolt-action rifle. Adapted by Enfield from a Czech design, the low-recoil and very accurate Bren 7.7 mm light machine gun proved effective. By 1942, 60 percent of all Bren guns were manufactured in Canada. The 87.6 mm howitzer—rugged, easily handled, and versatile—and the 140 mm gun, introduced in 1942, were the major artillery weapons. The Canadians did employ the U.S. M-4 Sherman as their tank.
The Canadian army had to contend with serious difficulties. Undermanning was a constant problem, with Canadian units rarely at their established strength, a consequence of the voluntary system. Training suffered from the rapid pace of expansion and the lack of experience among senior officers. In addition, training in unit-level maneuvers was poor, and the army was slow to develop a common system of tactics.
An early tragedy of the war involved the Canadian garrison in Hong Kong. Caught up in the sweep of the opening Japanese offensive, 1,975 soldiers waged a forlorn defense in December 1941, suffering 800 casualties and the death of their commander. The Canadians also sustained heavy losses in the 19 August 1942 raid on the French seaport of Dieppe. A total of 4,963 Canadians from the 2nd Division took part and encountered well-planned German defenses. Only 2,110 of these men returned to England; 65 percent of the Canadian troops were killed or wounded and/or taken as prisoners.
On 10 July 1943, 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Army Tank Brigade were committed to the invasion of Sicily, operating as part of the British Eighth Army. On 3 September, the Canadians crossed the Straits of Messina to Italy and fought their way up the Adriatic coast. In November, they were joined by the 5th Armoured Division and formed the I Canadian Corps. Initially, the corps was led by General Crerar, but he returned to England and assumed command of First Army in March 1944. The Canadian First Army fought within the framework of 21st Army Group, commanded by Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. The able Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns then took command of Canadian forces in Italy.
In the heavy and often frustrating fighting of the Italian Campaign, the Canadians acquitted themselves well. In May 1944, Canadian forces in the Liri Valley participated in the Allied offensive that broke through the Gustav Line. In August 1944, a Canadian thrust near the Adriatic created an opportunity to move into the Po River valley, but the British moved too slowly, and the chance was lost.
In the Normandy Invasion of 6 June 1944, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade landed on Juno beach as part of the British Second Army. Joined by the 2nd Infantry and 4th Armoured Division, they formed the Canadian II Corps on 11 July, commanded by Lieutenant General Guy Simonds. He had led both infantry and armored divisions in Italy. On 23 July 1944, the Canadian First Army was activated, led by General Crerar. It also included British I Corps and the Free Polish 1st Armored Division.
The Battle for Normandy was a crucible of fire for the Canadians. They and the British were deployed in the eastern sector of the beachhead, terrain reasonably favorable for German armored operations. To thwart offensives in this area, most German armor fought the British and Canadians. Canadian forces proved well trained and skilled in combat and played a key role in the defeat of a formidable German opponent. In Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, the Canadian army found an outstanding leader who showed himself to be an innovative and exacting commander. Crerar and Simonds were good partners, with Crerar the manager and Simonds the battlefield leader.
After Normandy, First Army proceeded along the French coast taking seaports. On 4 September 1944, the British 11th Armoured Division captured the vital port of Antwerp, with the Belgian Resistance saving all its port facilities and docks from German destruction. However, Antwerp could only be reached by the 45-mile-long Scheldt estuary, and swift action was imperative to prevent German deployment of defenses along the Scheldt. At this critical juncture, British Field Marshal Montgomery halted his forces, preferring to concentrate his troops for a thrust into northern Germany, Operation market-garden. This decision gave the Germans time to establish strong defenses along the Scheldt and at its mouth.
After the British defeat at Arnhem in late September, the strategic focus returned to ousting German forces from the Scheldt and opening Antwerp. This daunting task fell heavily on the Canadian First Army. On 26 September, Crerar had departed to England for treatment of complications from dysentery, and Simonds assumed his command.
The Scheldt Campaign was a nightmare, fought on sodden mud flatlands bereft of cover and intersected by canals and dikes ideally suited for defense. Montgomery assigned the Canadians the lowest priority for supplies, and only a direct and explicit order on 9 October from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to clear the Scheldt compelled Montgomery to furnish the Canadians (including their British corps) the supplies they needed. Throughout October, bitter fighting raged as Canadian and British soldiers slowly overcame tenacious German resistance. Amphibious tanks and tracked amphibious landing vehicles proved useful. Equipped for amphibious operations, the 52nd Lowland Scottish Division joined the Canadians in this battle.
The assault on Walcheren Island was the climax of the campaign. Commanding the mouth of the Scheldt estuary, Walcheren's defenses included heavy coastal artillery. Royal Marines and Commandos joined Scots and Canadians to capture Walcheren on 9 November. Minesweepers cleared the channel, and Antwerp was finally opened on 28 November 1944. The Scheldt Campaign cost the Allies 12,873 casualties, half of them Canadian.
In December, a shortage of infantry replacements compelled the Canadian government to extend conscription for overseas service to troops already in home service. This move aroused a furor, but only 16,000 of 63,000 eligible soldiers were sent overseas. When Crerar returned to lead First Army, he was entrusted with an Allied force of 475,000 men dedicated to winning control of the Rhineland. In a series of massive operations in February and March 1945, Crerar demonstrated his skill in logistics. German forces were eliminated between the Maas and Rhine Rivers, a loss of more than 90,000 men. In the closing months of the war, I Canadian Corps was transferred from Italy to the Netherlands and completed the liberation of the latter.
The Canadian army made a substantial contribution to the Allied victory. The men of this overwhelmingly volunteer force had fought with courage and tenacity in many hard battles. But they also paid a heavy price, for 22,917 Canadians were killed and 52,679 wounded. Sherwood S. Cordier
Copp, Terry, and Robert Vogel. Maple Leaf Route. Vol. 1, Falaise. Alma, Canada: Maple Leaf Route, 1983.; Copp, Terry, and Robert Vogel. Maple Leaf Route. Vol. 4, Scheldt. Alma, Canada: Maple Leaf Route, 1985.; Copp, Terry. Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2003.; Murray, Williamson, and Allan R. Millett. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000.; Nicholson, G. W. L. The Canadians in Italy, 1943–1945. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1957.; Stacy, C. P. Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1970.
Sherwood S. Cordier