Canada in the Second World War


Aggression and Impunity

Hitler’s vision of a strong Germany demands the re-establishment of its military power. He reintroduces conscription in 1934 and starts rebuilding the fleet. In March 1935, the existence of a reconstructed air force, the Luftwaffe, is made public. The League of Nations, from which Germany has withdrawn, condemns these re-armament activities but to no avail. As a measure of retaliation, Germany is forced to ratify the Anglo-German Agreement, which sets the maximum capacity of the German fleet at 35% of that of the British Imperial Fleet. Great Britain embarks on its own re-armament programme. In Europe, the arms race is on. The United States, however, fall back on their isolationist position and adopt the Neutrality Act in 1935.

High-ranking officials of the Nazi and Fascist Parties, circa 1936-1940. On the front row, left to right: Herman Göring, Benito Mussolini, Rudolph Hess, and Adolph Hitler.

High-ranking officials of the Nazi and Fascist Parties, circa 1936-1940. On the front row, left to right: Herman Göring, Benito Mussolini, Rudolph Hess, and Adolph Hitler.
The Weekend / National Archives of Canada, PA-114781.

Events are moving fast. Benito Mussolini, il Duce, using as a pretext a border incident between the Italian colony of Somalia and Ethiopia, sets his troops against that country in October 1935. The Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, appeals to the League of Nations for assistance against the invading forces. On a proposal from the Canadian Representative, Walter A. Riddell, the League of Nations votes an embargo on products essential to Italy’s war effort: oil, coal, steel and iron. France and Great Britain choose, however, to strike a separate agreement with Italy and do not support the embargo. In Canada, Riddell loses the support of his government as Liberal leader W.L. Mackenzie King replaces Conservative R. B. Bennett as Prime Minister after the October 1935 elections. The sanctions have no impact and during the summer of 1936 Italy conquers Ethiopia. The League of Nations, faced with its first international conflict, has failed to find a solution and to ensure collective security.

On March 7, 1936, German troops occupy Rhineland, the demilitarized sector along the Rhine bordering on France and Belgium. This violates not only the Treaty of Versailles, but also the 1925 Treaty of Locarno that finalized a joint agreement on Germany’s western border. France hesitates before the German threat. Great Britain recommends caution and appeals to the League of Nations. Uneasy Belgium proclaims its neutrality.

During the summer of 1936, civil war breaks out in Spain. A left-wing coalition, the Popular Front, democratically elected in February 1936, is in power, but the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco, backed by the Army and the Church, oppose the reforms planned by the Popular Front Republicans. An armed uprising erupts on July 17, 1936. Within a month the country is split in two. Franco’s Nationalists can count on the support of Italian troops, as well as of German aircraft and equipment. The Soviet Union provides troops and arms to the Republican side, who in its stand against fascism also receives help from international brigades of volunteers.

Soldier of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in a Trench, Spain, c. 1937-38.

Soldier of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in a Trench, Spain, c. 1937-38.
National Archives of Canada, C-067469.

The Spanish Civil War has been called a general rehearsal for WWII. Opposite ideologies, communism and fascism, are in open conflict and the country is used as a testing ground for the latest military material. Only the Western democracies are missing from the picture. The US Administration refuses to supply the Popular Front with weapons, while France and Great Britain choose to remain neutral. In Canada, the Mackenzie King government will not help a communist regime, even a democratically elected one, and prefers supporting Great Britain’s conciliation policy. Although Canadians are prohibited from taking part in a foreign armed conflict without their government’s authorization, some 1,300 volunteers enlist in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and fly to the rescue of Spanish democracy.

Canadians and their elected representatives were well aware of what was happening in Europe. In February 1937, the Minister of National Defence, Ian A. Mackenzie, asks the Commons for an increase to the defence budget. Opinions are diverging. Some support territorial defence and would even be favourable to assisting Great Britain in case of a European conflict. Others oppose such an involvement in European affairs, or believe that the arms race cannot but lead to another world war, as in 1914. Eventually, in 1937, the defence budget was increased by a modest amount, from 30 to 36,2 million dollars.

What role should Canada play if England goes to war? The question was on everybody’s mind, but the King government refuses to make a commitment, the PM’s official position being that it will be the Parliament’s responsibility to make the appropriate decision. Indeed, the Statute of Westminster has granted full powers to Canada with regard to its foreign policy and the Dominion is no longer under the obligation to support Great Britain in a war. That newly-found autonomy has never before been put to a test of such magnitude.

Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King receiving Nazi salute, Berlin, June 1937.

Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King receiving Nazi salute, Berlin, June 1937.
National Archives of Canada, PA-119013.

In May 1937, King is in London to attend the Imperial Conference and the Coronation of King George VI. Always cautious in his public statements, he reveals in a private conversation with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and Foreign Office Secretary Anthony Eden that he will indeed support Great Britain if war breaks out. At Buckingham Palace, he also meets German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, who invites him to a meeting with Hitler. After consulting with Chamberlain and Eden, the Canadian PM accepts the invitation and goes to Berlin on June 28, 1937. He has talks with General Hermann Göring, Foreign Affairs Minister Konstantin von Neurath and, the following day, with Hitler for more than one hour. Adopting the polite, moderate, and conciliatory tone of a gentleman, King tells Hitler that in case of conflict all British dominions would rush to England’s assistance. The meeting takes place in a very friendly atmosphere and King cannot imagine what unspeakable plans of military conquest and ethnic cleansing lurk behind his host’s apparently sincere demeanour.

When I was formally shown into the room which Herr Hitler received me, he quietly and pleasantly said he was pleased to see me in Germany… 
– W.L. Mackenzie King’s Diary, June 29, 1937.