Canada's Second World War
Beginnings of the Second World War
The Second World War began on September 1 1939 when Adolf Hitler ordered the German invasion of Poland. By that point, it seemed like war was inevitable, and Canada had begun the preparations for a potential conflict. On August 25, 1939, the Canadian government under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie-King invoked the War Measures Act, a law that could give the government sweeping powers to regulate and control society. When Great Britain declared war on Germany on September 3 Canada did not follow. Instead, the government put into effect a number of measures using the power of the War Measures Act. The Canadian government did not declare war until the following week, followed by a debate and vote in Parliament. It was the first independent declaration of war by Canada.
Battle of the Atlantic
After the fall of western Europe to Nazi Germany in the spring of 1940, Britain and her empire (including Canada) stood alone against the Germans. Since Britain is an island, it was imperative for the war effort that supplies could arrive from overseas. The Germans tried to cut Britain off and starve the population into submission with their feared submarine fleet of U-boats.
The Royal Canadian Navy and the merchant marine tried to keep Britain supplied with food, weapons and fuel. At first, the losses were catastrophic as the U-boats hunted allied ships in “wolfpacks” and used encrypted radio communication to coordinate with each other. Gradually, the allies were able to get the upper hand as they adopted convoy tactics, expanded the protection of aircraft, and cracked the German’s secret codes.
Battle for the Skies
One of the reasons for the German’s success at the beginning of the war was their ability to win the war in the air. The German’s tried to knock Britain out of the war in 1940 by bombing British cities into submission and destroying the Royal Air Force. The Battle of Britain was fought in the skies above England and the English Channel to prevent the Germans from having the opportunity to eventually launch an invasion of Britain. A number of Canadians participated as fighter pilots in this battle.
Canadian air crews also flew bombers as part of the air war over Europe. The bombing campaign was designed to affect German war production and morale. But it came at a terrible cost. Being part of a bomber crew was incredibly dangerous. Of the 50,000 Canadians who served on bombers, almost 10,000 lost their lives. As well, the bombing campaign inflicted major casualties on German civilians and cities.
Great Britain was concerned about the defense of Hong Kong from possible Japanese attack Canada wanted to be involved and volunteered to send soldiers to defend Hong Kong however these soldiers were ill-equipped and under-trained when did Japan attack the United States at Pearl Harbor at the same time they launch the invasion of Hong Kong even though the Canadians fought valiantly they were overwhelmed by the superior Japanese numbers the Canadians who surrendered spent the rest of the war in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps where they were mistreated and malnourished.
In 1942 the allies launched a raid on the port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France. The force was mostly Canadian, but also included Americans and British commandos. The raid itself was a disaster, and many Canadians were either captured or killed. However, a secret motive for the raid, which was known as a pinch raid, meant that the British commandos captured a four-cylinder Enigma machine. This was very important to the war effort because it allowed their codebreakers to break the German navy’s secret codes so the Allies could avoid the U-boats.
Sicily and Italy
In 1943 the Allies launched an attack from North Africa on what they referred to as the soft underbelly of Europe - Sicily and Italy. Soon after the Allies had gained control of the island of Sicily, they launched an invasion of mainland Italy. They fought their way further north and faced some heavy resistance then when the Italian government fell and German troops moved to prevent the allied advances. Canadians played an important part of the Italian campaign, and faced heavy fighting in the town of Ortona, where they were forced to fight the Germans street to street and house to house.
In June 1944 the Allies launched their long-awaited invasion of Northern Europe. The invasion happened along the Normandy coast of France. Planning for the invasion had begun in Quebec City in 1943, where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the American President Franklin Roosevelt were hosted by the Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. For the invasion, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada were each assigned different beaches. The Canadian beach was code-named Juno. The invasion force was massive and combined naval, air and ground units. Paratroopers and airborne soldiers in gliders landed behind the German lines, while on the beaches infantry and tanks deployed off landing craft. After the landing on Juno Beach, the Canadians were able to break out into the countryside. French civilians in the area were amazed to see the Canadians, especially the Francophone soldiers from the Régiment de la Chaudiѐre on French soil. While the attack had taken the Germans by surprise, the following day they were able to reorganize and launch counter attacks against the Canadians.
Liberation of the Netherlands
After the breakout from Normandy, the Canadians fought along the northern coast of France throughout the summer of 1944. Re-supply was an issue, as the Germans had destroyed many of the French ports. Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, was a large port that could be used to re-supply Allied armies in northern Europe, but the port was 80km inland and the Germans controlled the river access. The Canadians were assigned to clear the Germans so the port of Amsterdam could be opened. After hard fighting amongst the canals and dikes, the Canadians were able to free the Dutch people from the Germans. To this day there continues to be a strong link between the Dutch people and Canada.
Texts by Matt Russell