Second World War

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Questions to ask yourself:

How did events of the inter-war years lead to the Second World War?

What were the elements of Canadian autonomy prior to the war?

What were the effects of the war on Canadian society and on Canada’s autonomy?

What you will be able to do:

Characterize the situation in Europe before WW2.

Identify and explain the causes of the Second World War.

Explain Canada’s growing autonomy prior to the Second World War, and characterize Canada's active role during the War.

Characterize the issues and realities on the Canadian Wartime Home Front.

Explain the impact of WW2 on the society, economy, and politics in Canada?

The Second World War broke out in September 1939 when France and Britain declared war on Germany after the latter had invaded Poland.

Canada, which had been autonomous since the Statute of Westminster in 1931, and who had a choice in which position to take, decided to assist their ally Great Britain, by joining the war on 10 September 1939. Canada, at the time, was in an economic depression, so the decision made sense because it created jobs as well.

Whatever the reasons for joining, a large number of Canadians ended up taking part in the war, whether they were members of the armed forces or citizens who had stayed at home. This six-year conflict, described as "total", involved Canada economically, militarily and socially.

Texts adapted from French original texts by RECITUS, with additions by C. Clarke

Image source: Lieut. Donald I. Grant, Infantrymen of the Régiment de la Chaudière sitting on an M-10 A1 armoured vehicle during the attack on Elbeuf, France (1944), Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3520748. Licence: Public Domain.

World War Two overview (by RECITUS)

This video is part of the online course on the History of Quebec and Canada by the RÉCIT Univers social. You can view the original French version at Seconde Guerre mondiale (1939-1945)

Note: If ever the video at left is not playable, another version is available for download here.

Image source: My Boys! ArtistArthur George Racey. 1937-38. Public Domain. musee-mccord

The Situation in Europe in the 1930s

In the 1932 election in Germany, the Nazi party won the most seats, but not a majority in the parliament. Adolf Hitler was offered the chancellorship, and following a fire at the parliament in early 1933 that was blamed on the communists, Germany declared emergency powers and the Nazis quickly consolidated their power. They put their political enemies in concentration camps and began their persecution of Jewish people in Germany.

Adolf Hitler's foreign policy was based on reversing the Versailles treaty, uniting German-speaking peoples in one country, and in finding living space for Germans in Eastern Europe. In defiance of the treaty, Germany began to expand its military. In 1936, the Germans reoccupied the Rhineland, between France and Germany that had been demilitarized under the Versailles treaty. Despite these violations of the treaty, neither France, nor Britain did anything to stop Hitler.

Germany and Italy became emboldened. Germany intervened in the Spanish Civil War by providing air forces to help the fascist government of General Franco. Italy, under Benito Mussolini, wanted to expand its empire and attacked Ethiopia. The governments of France and Great Britain did little to stop them. France and Britain had little appetite for war in the 1930s. For both countries, the horrors of the First World War were still too painful for many to consider stepping in against Germany or Italy at this time.

Hitler, who was born in Austria, dreamed of uniting Germany and Austria together as one country. The unification of Austria and Germany was called the anchluss. When the Germans entered Austria, they immediately began their persecution of the Jewish people in that country. Hitler's next target was Czechoslovakia. He wanted to bring in the German-speaking people of the Sudetenland (the area bordering Germany) into his new empire. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain travelled to Germany to negotiate a settlement. The Munich agreement of 1938 would allow the Germans to annex the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. In return, Hitler promised not to attack the rest of Czechoslovakia. A few months later in 1939 Hitler broke his promise and took over the remaining parts of the country. The British and French then proclaimed that if Germany would invade Poland that would mean war with France and Great Britain

During this time, Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a nonaggression treaty that had a secret provision to split up Poland between them in the event of War. The Germans wanted to attack Poland so they could have the return of the city of Danzig that had been lost to them by the Versailles treaty, along with the so-called Polish corridor between East Prussia and the rest of Germany. Hitler also envisioned that Poland would eventually become an area of colonization for Germans. On September 1, 1939 Germany involved Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on September the 3rd. Canada would declare war for the first time on September 10, 1939.

Texts by Matt Russell

Sherbrooke daily record, 25 August 1939, Friday 25 August 1939, page 4.

Competency 1 Task idea: Map Key Locations

Explore the situation in different countries around the world prior to WW2.
Research one area or event further and share what you find on the map and with your classmates.

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 3rd, Canada did not follow at first. 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 aircrews 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.

Hong Kong: 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.

Dieppe: 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.

D-Day: 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

Aircrew and groundcrew of a No. 428 Squadron RCAF Lancaster bomber

"In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered the future Queen Juliana and her family for the preceding three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. To this day, you can see tulips in front of Parliament hill in Ottawa. Every year, Canada receives tulip bulbs in recognition of our war effort."

Source and image source:

Competency 1 Task idea: Mapping Involment By Canadians

Map the various involvements by Canadians in the Second World War.

Use a mapping application like Cartograf or Google My Maps to indicate the locations of various key areas mentioned above.

Le devoir, Montréal, Tuesday 28 April 1942,

Issues in Canada During the War: Plebiscite and Conscription

As a candidate for Parliament during the First World War, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had witnessed first-hand how the issue of conscription not only divided the country but also his Liberal Party. King was opposed to conscription in 1917 and lost the election as a result. More than twenty years later, as the wartime leader during the Second World War, he was resolved that the issue of conscription would not drive the country apart during a time when unity was needed the most.

In the year before the Second World War, when it became clear that Canada might have to fight alongside Great Britain, opinion in Québec was against participation in a European war. King and the Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe turned the debate from one of participation to one of conscription. In 1939, King vowed that there would be no overseas conscription in Canada. Lapointe repeated this during the debate on Canada’s participation in the war, declaring: “my colleagues and I in the Cabinet from Québec declare that we would never consent to conscription, that we’d never be part of a government that would try to apply conscription…” Many in Québec saw the war as Britain’s war and the military as an Anglophone institution. Despite the pronouncements of the Liberal government, the majority of Francophones in Québec were suspicious about the war effort and feared that once again, the government would impose conscription. However, by 1940 mandatory service in Canada was accepted by some in Québec. This form of conscription only for home defence was permitted under the National Resources Mobilization Act that was passed after the fall of France. Initially, registered men would be required to train for one month, which was extended to four months in 1941 and then potentially for the duration of the war. During the war, some 60 000 men were registered, but many in society viewed them derisively and they were known as “zombies” because they were unwilling to serve at the front.

In December of 1941, the war escalated with the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour and on the Canadian garrison at Hong Kong. Despite Canada’s whole society being almost totally directed towards the war effort, Conservative politicians and other English Canadians began to advocate for conscription. Unlike the First World War conscription crisis, Canada at this point was not facing a manpower shortage, but the political winds had turned. King decided to remove the decision from parliament and have the population decide on the conscription issue in a plebiscite - a vote on a question. The vote was held on April 27, 1942. Canadians were asked:

“Are you in favour of releasing the government from any obligation rising out of the past restricting the methods of raising men for military service?”

The results were clear. The nine English speaking provinces voted “yes” by 80%, while Québec returned a “no” vote of 73%. The government then proposed and passed Bill 80, which authorized the deployment of men registered under the National Resources Mobilization Act for overseas service. However, King refused to concede that Canada would even use this power stating, “Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.”

After the D-Day landings in June 1944 and heavy losses in the fighting in Italy, calls began again for the government to impose conscription under Bill 80. At first, King resisted, even replacing his pro-conscription Minister of Defence. But the pressure was too much and King relented in November. In the end, only some 12 000 conscripted soldiers were sent overseas and of those 2463 fought in the front before the end of the war in 1945.

By taking away the decision from Parliament, King was able to maintain party unity, something that was important because the issue of conscription had torn the Liberal Party apart during the First World War. However, the national vote exposed deep divisions within the country; all of the English-speaking provinces voted for conscription with only Québec voting against. In the end, of the over 1 million Canadians who served in the war, only a small percentage were conscripted. Historians have credited King with keeping the country unified during the war when the issue of conscription once again exposed deep divisions between Anglophones and Francophones.

Texts by Matt Russell

Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and members of the Cabinet broadcasting messages to the Canadian people following the special emergency Cabinet meeting following Great Britain's declaration of war. by National Film Board of Canada. Copyright: Expired.

Canada declared war on Japan on December 7th, 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbour. (Source) Though Pearl Harbour is the most notorious, that same month Japan also launched offensives against a variety of targets in Southeast Asia. 📷 Victoria Daily Colonist on December 8, 1941, via

Sherbrooke daily record, April 28, 1942.

Note all English Canadians supported conscription!

"In Nov. 1944, thousands of Canadian soldiers based in Terrace, B.C. paraded through the streets carrying banners like this one protesting the governement's efforts to send them overseas. (Photo from Heritage Park Museum)

RECITUS - Impact of Second World War on society, economy, politics.

Consequences activity:

What was the impact of the Second World War on society, the economy and politics in Canada?