A brigadier at the war's outset, Crerar was promoted to major general in January 1940 and appointed chief of the Canadian General Staff six months later. In that capacity, he played a central role in dispatching two ill-trained Canadian battalions to Hong Kong—and Japanese captivity—in 1941, but he also built up a solid training establishment. Crerar, promoted to lieutenant general in November 1941, was ambitious, ruthless, and jealous of rivals. Posted overseas to command I Canadian Corps that year, he spent much of his time intriguing against Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton and had a major role in planning the disastrous Dieppe raid. He subsequently commanded I Canadian Corps in Italy from November 1943 until he was recalled to England in March 1944 to lead the First Canadian Army in the Normandy Invasion. With that appointment, Harry Crerar had reached the pinnacle for a Canadian officer.
Although historians have acknowledged his obvious administrative abilities, the excessively cautious and uninspiring Crerar was, at best, a pedestrian field commander. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, under whose command he served in the campaign in northwest Europe, had little confidence in him. His bitter rivalry with the abler Lieutenant General Guy Simonds was unjustified on any military grounds, and there is little doubt, for this and other reasons, that the latter would have replaced him had the war continued much longer. Operation veritable, the assault on the Reichswald region in Germany in February 1945, was Crerar's battlefield masterpiece, characterized by thorough preparation and the accumulation of vast resources.
Crerar deserves much credit for effectively representing Canadian interests in Allied councils and for building an overseas headquarters. He retired from the army in 1946 and died in Ottawa on 1 April 1965.
Patrick H. Brennan
English, J. A. Failure in High Command: The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign. Ottawa: Golden Dog Press, 1995.; Granatstein, J. L. The Generals: The Canadian Army's Senior Commanders in the Second World War. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart, 1993.