On All Fronts

From the home front to the front lines, Canadians everywhere did their bit to help the Allies win the Second World War.

Written by Governor General's History Awards LaurelTim Cook, 2013 recipient of the Pierre Berton Award

Posted August 24, 2020

When Britain and France went to war with Germany on September 3, 1939, Canada had a decision to make: Stand with its allies or stay neutral. Canadians chose war.

Tens of thousands enlisted in the army, navy, and air force, but Canada was deeply unprepared. Even as our government sent troops to defend England, shored up defences on Canada’s coasts, and engaged in naval convoy work, the fall of France in June 1940 to the mechanized and marauding German forces came as an utter shock.

Stunned by France’s defeat, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King ushered in limited conscription for home defence. With much of continental Europe occupied, a new resilience — tinged with panic — drove the creation of new military units and an intense acceleration of weapons production. The shocking German victory, and the follow-on threat to Britain by attacking aerial armadas, forced Canada to expand its commitment rapidly.

Canadians would go on to serve and to fight around the world: in the Pacific and Far East, especially in Hong Kong and Burma; in the Mediterranean and Italy; on the oceans, primarily in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic; and in the air war to defend Canada and Britain, and then to take the war to the Germans in the skies over many countries.

Finally, Canada made an immense contribution in the land campaign to liberate Europe, which began on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and continued in tooth-and-nail combat through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

As James Alan Roberts, a pre-war ice cream salesman who rose in the army to the rank of brigadier, wrote after the war, “Canada is not a warlike nation [but] we played an unbelievably important role ... in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.”

Unlike the United States, Canada was engaged with the war from the start. The Americans initially stayed neutral, believing that North America was safe from invasion and that the calamity in Europe did not demand the sacrifice of American lives. That changed with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and German dictator Adolf Hitler’s ill-advised declaration of war on the United States a few days later.

The Americans were not ready. On the East Coast, German U-boats savaged shipping along the seaboard from early 1942. Fortunately, by then the Royal Canadian Navy had won hard-earned experience in fighting the enemy and was able to assist the beleaguered Americans.

Both countries were involved in protecting the convoys across the Atlantic or in the Caribbean, although the Americans increasingly siphoned off their naval forces for the war in the Pacific. The Canadian navy and air force took up the slack.

Canadian corvette warships again assisted the Americans in North Africa, and the two countries fought together in Sicily and in mainland Italy, although rarely side-by-side. Off the west coast of North America, Americans and Canadians launched an invasion to take back the Japanese-occupied Kiska Island, part of the Aleutian chain of Alaska, in late 1943.

In Italy and France, Canadians and Americans fought together from under a unique 1st Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade.

Canadian bombers attacked the same targets as the American bombers, while American divisions fought alongside and sometimes within General Harry Crerar’s First Canadian Army in 1945.

In all, 1,086,343 Canadians served in uniform, along with twelve thousand merchant navy sailors who were only later considered veterans. By war’s end, some forty-five thousand Canadians had been killed and another fifty-five thousand had been injured.

Almost everyone in Canada was affected by the war, whether they assisted in the many British Commonwealth Air Training Plan bases and airfields, worked in the essential war industries, were patriotically involved in raising money, or grieved the loss of family members and friends.

This generation served and bled for victory. Whether at the many fighting fronts or backing the attack from home, Canadians understood the importance of defeating Hitler and his minions. They mobilized like never before, and the country was transformed due to their unwavering commitment to victory in this necessary war.

Governor General's History Awards Laurel Tim Cook is a historian at the Canadian War Museum and the author of twelve books, including The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War (2020). He is a director for Canada’s History Society, a recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media (the Pierre Berton Award), and a member of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Canada.

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2020 issue of Canada’s History.

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