Horton Journal of Canadian History [H.J.C.H.]
"Canadian Military Excellence of World War II"
by Brodie Rhodes
The history of Canadian readiness and execution in the face of danger during wartime conflicts and battles is legendary. Due to the exceptional training and discipline instilled in every Canadian soldier they have been considered the best infantrymen of the world. Although the formation of Canada as a country is relatively recent compared to America and other European nations, Canada has assembled a track record for ourselves as second to none in both competent wartime endeavors as well as peace keeping missions to preserve the balance of power on a global scale. Perhaps this was no better illustrated than with the Canadian involvement during World War II.
Originally brought into global conflicts on the whims of mother Britain, as evident during World War I, Canada would eventually form a voice of its own and decide the direction of which she would take in regards to wartime efforts. It was on September 10, 1939 that Canada began her first steps as a nation capable of proposing independent decisions (Gieseler, 2). It was on September 10, 1939 that Canada thrust itself onto the world scene as she declared war on the Nazi Germany and the rest of the Axis powers. Even though the decision to become involved with the second World War was done on her own accord, Canada still had deep rooted relations with Britain that still in part influenced our entering the greatest conflict in history.
With the initiation of the Canloan project, Canada began to supply the British army and air force with many of their best trained soldiers to combat the massive loss of life suffered by the British throughout the early stages of the War. Canadians would supply the depleted Allied forces with an infusion of 673 Lieutenants and Captains. Of the 673 Canadian commanders that became part of the Canloan project, 127 would fight to their death and an addition 338 would be wounded in the line of duty or captured in the various theaters and taken prisoner. A testament to the amazing courage and determination displayed by the Canadian commanders of the Canloan project was that of the 673 recruits, 41 were singled out as going above and beyond the call of duty, and for their efforts were awarded the distinguishing military cross (Readers Digest, 441).
For many of the Canadian soldiers embarking on the long and treacherous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the battle fields of Europe, this would be the first military engagement that they would be involved with apart from the basic training exercises received at home. Beginning in Halifax harbor, dozens of ships containing young Canadian soldiers set forth on a journey that would mold them as individuals, as well as help to establish the reputation that still endures to this day concerning Canadian military competence. Despite being hastily prepared and shipped off to fight in a war that would take the world's stage, Canadian troops would learn quickly and force themselves out of being pigeon holed as role players into a role of command and technical know how.
One of the many young Canadians who would give up some of the best years of their early lives to serve their country was Ronald Walsh of Avonport, Nova Scotia; a man who saw action throughout the war, lasting from the initial raid on Normandy to the final days of the war. The first step to becoming an officer in the Canadian army was to first enlist; enlistment procedures took place in Halifax and lasted in the case of Walsh for one month. After the initial enlistment procedures had been taken care of, Walsh was shipped off to Yarmouth to receive basic training for a time period of three months. Once basic training had finished, and anyone who could not meet the expectations set by the Canadian armed forces, the remaining infantry men were sent to Camp Aldershot for advanced training.
At Camp Aldershot the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, commonly referred to as the North Novies, received additional training to better prepare them for conditions that may await them on the battle fields of Europe. Training would be extended for three more months until the members of the North Novies boarded the ships in Halifax harbor to begin the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to England. For the next five days the H.M.S. Louis Pasteur would be their home as they crossed the turbulent seas of the Atlantic. Unlike previous troop transport missions, the H.M.S. Louis Pasteur would cross the ocean on her own, not in a convoy of ships, as had been the practice earlier in the war. As it crossed, the H.M.S. Louis Pasteur continued on a zigzag course that helped to conceal its navigational route from the numerous German U-boats that patrolled the Atlantic and sunk hundreds of Allied supply ships. The conditions on the ships were very congested as over 12 000 men crowded onto the ship in order to reach Europe as quickly as possible. Conditions were so cramped that stacked hammocks had to be used to save space on the ship. Landing in Southampton, the Canadian North Novies then boarded a train that would take them to a small town near the Scottish border. Held in reserve, the North Novies engaged in vigorous training exercises that were designed to keep them in fighting condition for a large-scale invasion.
Returning to a town outside of London, the North Novies were informed that they would be taking part in a large-scale invasion on Hitler's fortress Europe (Interview). On June 2, 1944, after boarding a ship in Liverpool, England, the ship sailed out into the English Channel where it remained until June 5, 1944. Arguably the most infamous date in history, June 6,1944 was the day that Allied forces launched an assault on the beaches of Normandy to reclaim the unjust annexation of France and other European countries from the control of Nazi Germany. The location of Normandy had been chosen as the point of invasion due to the fact that it was within air cover range, and was less heavily defended than the more obvious Pas de Calais (Valour and Horror).
Divided into five main beach assault units code named, Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah and Omaha, the North Novies were right in the middle of the Operation Overlord. Carrying a sixty pound pack on their back, and carrying a 303, bolt action rifle, the men of the North Novies and other Canadian regiments faced the full force of the German machine guns and artillery shells that were directly aimed at their heads. Despite all of the training and preparation instilled in the Canadians before they landed on the beaches of Normandy, the landing did not proceed as initially planned as the amphibious assault vessel became lodged on a sand bar that required the North Novies to wade through the water until they reached the beach. Even though the barb wire fences had been cut on the beaches the night before by amazingly brave special forces divers, the North Novies still had to avoid the machine gun fire of the Germans as well as the sixteen inch guns mounted on the hillside. Once off the beach, the nerves of the North Novies were tested as an Allied bomber flew over head dropping bombs that ignited, and destroyed an German oil truck parked only a few hundred feet away from them (Interview).
For one month after the invasion of Normandy, the Canadians established a beachhead and engaged in shellings of the Germans only a couple kilometers off in the distance. Canadians would pay a serious price for their acquisition as 18 444 were wounded and 5 021 gave their lives. As many deaths to Canadians occurred in two and one half months of fighting in Normandy than occurred in over eleven months in Italy (A Taste of Canada). Finally, on July 4, the North Novies started out on an advance to the city of Caen. The progress would be slow as the Canadians ran up against some of the fiercest fighting of the War, and the legendary Panzer divisions of the German tank army. After intense fighting that resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, the city of Caen would fall on July 10 (Gieseler 27-28).
Perhaps the greatest contribution by the Canadians throughout the war, Caen signified that the Canadian army was on par with the other militaries of the world. Operation ATLANTIC as it was to be referred to was the code name for the Canadian part in the invasion of Caen. Although Canadians had gained the vast majority of the territory, they were still disappointed in the poor operational preparations that had been assigned to them, and the relatively limited roles allowed to them in the larger operation known as GOODWOOD (Hasting). It has been recorded that once Caen fell, Hitler himself began to feel the squeeze of the Allied forces and became concerned by the direction the war was taking for the Germans (Man, 109).
The invasion of Normandy, and the capture of Caen were not the only conflicts that Canadians experienced in France. The operation that developed a pocket to encircle the Germans at the Falaise Gap united the American forces to the south with the Canadians in the north, among them the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. An incredible 50 000 Germans were taken prisoner by the successful completion of the Falaise Gap, and once again displayed the great skill and ability of the Canadian army (Gieseler, 28). Once Paris had been liberated on August 25, the Canadians turned their attentions to the liberation of both Belgium and Holland. Stationed in the city of Nijmegen, directly on the border with Germany, the North Novies engaged in several border wars and patrols along the immense stretches of dikes. Every night in the dead of winter, a small group of North Novies would crawl on their bellies into enemy territory to conduct surveillance operations in an attempt to discover any weakness in the German resistance before the advancing assault. When the orders came to advance into the country of Germany the fighting was so intense that the experience has been described as ''walk all night, and fight all day'' (Interview).
Another demonstration of the courage and readiness of the Canadian army, and the North Novies in particular is the fact that they were the first regiment to cross into the German territory and settle into the town of Oldenburg. Canadians were utilized in several more key- and decisive battles and operations that greatly increased the effectiveness of the Allied invasions. Canadians played an integral part in the liberation of Antwerp and the battle of the Scheldt. Not all of the battles involving Canadians resulted in triumphant victories however, perhaps the most disastrous of all occurred on August 19, 1942 on the raid of Dieppe. With an invading force of 6000 of whom 5000 were Canadian, the Dieppe assault was doomed even before the force made land fall. A small German convoy intersected the Dieppe invasion force and engaged them in open water alerting the coastal forces, this all but destroyed any hope for success. Many of the landing crafts never made it to shore and those that did were quickly overwhelmed by German forces. Pinned down by machine gun fire, evacuation was impossible, of those who landed 220 were killed, the heaviest toll suffered by a Canadian battalion in a single day of fighting throughout the entire war (Gieseler 13-14).
Due to unforeseen circumstances and bad luck, Dieppe was seen as a failure for the Canadians and may have lost them respect for a while. Despite the set back of Dieppe, Canadians rebounded triumphantly and restored themselves to a level of unmatched proficiency. Several opinions can be formulated on the subject of Canadian effectiveness during the Second World War. Some believe that they were extremely competent in their actions, while others believe that the Canadians played a minor role in shaping the outcome of the war. It can be argued that in comparison to the numbers of British and American soldiers fighting in Europe, the number of Canadians formed a relatively small percentage of the Allied forces. Despite accounting for a small percentage of the Allied forces, Canadians received more than their fair share of life threatening assignments. Initially the Canadians were thrust into what were thought to be lost causes that if they were able to hold their own, or somehow gain some territory would be viewed as a major victory. Apart from the skill and readiness that the Canadians displayed during their defense of Europe, they simultaneously managed to conduct their actions with the greatest of class and distinction. To this day the efforts of Canadians in Belgium and the Netherlands is viewed as legendary and immeasurable.
Canadians managed to make friends wherever they served throughout the war, something that many of the other Allied countries cannot claim. Numerous stories of Canadians being invited into the homes of the Dutch to share in their dinners and be provided a place to sleep occurred during the war (Lotz, 134). Through their great courage and loyalty to the people they protected the Canadians developed a reputation for themselves that still exists today. For all of the reasons proposed in the paper, and for the thousands of stories that no one will ever hear about, it can be said that the Canadian army represented Canada without a blemish of shame, and strengthened a reputation of military preparedness and excellence that we uphold and feel so strongly about to this very day. Perhaps that is why it has been said that, "The Canadian regimental soldier at his best had no superior" (Readers Digest, 488).
When one's head is filled with the facts and figures of Canadian involvement during the war, and is trying to compose an opinion of Canadian exploits, perhaps the Canadian experience of World War II can be summarized by the following: "The Canadian Army began as a group of amateurs who became highly skilled and professionals in the crucible of war. They fought and defeated tough, skilled, experienced German regulars. But the price of their learning came high. From D-Day to VE Day, Canadians suffered just under 48,000 casualties, including 12,579 dead" (Lotz, 135).
"An interview with Ronald Walsh", April 2 and 5, 2000.
"A Taste of Canada- Canada at War", http://www.ATasteofCanada- CanadaatWar.com
Hastings, Max. Overlord, D-Day, June 6, 1944, New York, 1984.
Lotz, Jim. Canadians at War, Hong Kong, 1990.
Man, John. The D-Day Atlas, New York, 1994.
Readers Digest, The Canadian at War 1939/1945, Toronto, 1969.
"The Valour and Horror of Canada at War", http://www.valourandhorror. com
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