Canada in the Second World War


It Promises to be a Long and Exhausting Struggle…

As early as September 1939, volunteers flooded recruiting offices. They came from all parts of Canada, English-speaking or French-speaking, workers, students, or unemployed. Some dreamed of getting warm clothes and regular meals, others were looking for excitement, others wanted to give a meaning to their lives. World War I veterans showed up to wrap up the job they had started; kids under 18 lied about their age. For most, there was no sense in trying to explain why, it was just something that had to be done.

The Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force desperately needed these men. They had to set up a territorial defence system and prepare for the battle that Britain was about to wage against the Third Reich. Experts believed this would be a war of attrition, a long, exhausting conflict that could last at least three years.

In July 1939, the Army’s Permanent Force was 4,261 strong, all ranks included, and the Non-Permanent Active Militia counted some 50,000 volunteers. Following mobilization orders, many of these militiamen joined the active forces. With that contribution plus the many civilians who signed up, the Army already had 3,001 officers, 55,255 other ranks, and 81 nurses by the end of September 1939. But the units were under-equipped: they lacked barracks, uniforms, boots, vehicles, weapons. Many men were poorly housed, some suffering from the cold, and training conditions were difficult.

Canadian Army owned few and obsolete tanks. Here, Renault tanks are demonstrated for federal Members of Parliament at Camp Borden, Ontario, May 14th, 1941.

Canadian Army owned few and obsolete tanks. Here, Renault tanks are demonstrated for federal Members of Parliament at Camp Borden, Ontario, May 14th, 1941.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-114518.

When war broke out, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was 4,061 strong, including both reserve and regular forces. Among them, there were only 235 pilots, less than the number of Canadian pilots serving with the Royal Air Force. And they flew a heterogeneous fleet of 275 bombers, fighters, transports and trainers. Among its most modern aircraft, there were 19 Hawker Hurricanes and, for training, 23 Tiger Moths, 21 Airspeed Oxfords, 10 Fairey Battles, and 2 Westland Lysanders. Some older planes, already close to the end of their useful lives, such as Stanraers, continued to be used and provided reliable service almost to the end of the war. The balance of the fleet was made up of obsolete aircraft of little use. Fortunately, civilian aviation had created a network of airports that could be used for transportation and training purposes, while new military facilities were being built.

During the summer that preceded the proclamation of the state of war, the Royal Canadian Navy had 1,674 ratings and 145 officers. It owned 15 ships, including 6 destroyers, 5 small minesweepers, and 2 training ships. The Esquimalt Naval Base in British Columbia served the Pacific theatre, while Halifax in Nova Scotia, was the HQ for the protection of the Atlantic seaboard. The Navy had its own reserve forces, the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, with bases throughout Canada near major cities. Canada could also rely on its merchant navy, on which rested a significant part of the country’s international and inland trade. As early as August 26th, 1939, the Admiralty ordered that the merchant navy be placed under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy, as had been done everywhere else in the British Commonwealth. Halifax was once again a military harbour and the complex transatlantic convoy system was established, in spite of the opposition of ship owners and captains.

Old but still efficient, the Supermarine Stanraer flying boat flew coastal patrols until 1944. Stanraer 916 QN:P of No 5 Squadron, RCAF, was photographed in June 1940 in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Old but still efficient, the Supermarine Stanraer flying boat flew coastal patrols until 1944. Stanraer 916 QN:P of No 5 Squadron, RCAF, was photographed in June 1940 in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-136889.

The Canadian Government Announces its Action Plan

While Canada was mobilizing all it resources and setting up its defences, Germany tightened its grip on Poland. Invaded once again on September 16th, this time from the east by the Soviet Army, Poland surrendered on the 27th; its territory was partitioned between Germany and Russia. This lightning-fast assault gave rise to the word Blitzkrieg, “lighting war”. But during the following, months, given the relative quiet on the European theatre; western media often used the phrase Sitzkrieg, the “phoney war”. Nobody questioned that the situation was dramatic, though, and the Canadian government, in an agreement with the British government, actively prepared its action plan.

On October 31st, 1939, Prime Minister King addressed the Canadian public on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s airwaves to present the outline of that plan.

The most competent military authorities believe this is not likely to be a short war. They advise that we prepare for a war of at least three years’ duration. All we know certainly is that we must prepare for a long and terrible struggle in which staying power, the power to hold out to the end may well be the decisive factor. 
– W.L. Mackenzie King, October 31st, 1939

In his speech, the PM summarized the ongoing actions and highlighted his government’s priorities:

  • territorial defence and the protection of the Atlantic Coast by the Army, the Navy and the Air Force;
  • the dispatch of two infantry divisions overseas;
  • the training on Canadian soil of airmen from all over the Commonwealth;
  • the creation of a Department of Munitions and Supplies to ensure procurement and production of war material;
  • the creation of a Wartime Prices and Trade Board to prevent hoarding and excess profits;
  • the imposition of a heavy tax on excess profits;
  • the creation of a Censorship Coordination Committee.

Reading between the lines, one realized that the military intervention policies were moderate, defence-based, and relying on the development of industrial and agricultural production. King supported the creation of an ambitious programme, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) that would earn Canada the nickname of “the aerodrome of Democracy”. He wished to avoid sending a large expeditionary force overseas, lest the conscription crisis that tore the country apart during WWI be revived. The thought of sending men to the front line slaughterhouse repulsed him.

Crisis in Quebec

Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis addressing the crowd.

Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis addressing the crowd.
CBC / National Archives of Canada, C-019526.

From the very beginning of the war, King’s government was faced with a political crisis: the province of Quebec harboured strong anti-war feelings, some parliamentarians and intellectuals even suggesting that Canada declare its neutrality in the conflict. The province’s Premier, and leader of the Union Nationale Party, Maurice Duplessis, stated his opposition to any participation in the war. Actually, he was even more strongly opposed to any kind of involvement of the federal government in provincial affairs, as made obvious by the censorship guidelines. In the fall of 1939, he called a provincial election, making the conscription the key issue of the campaign. The leader of the Liberal Party, Adélard Godbout, claimed that enlistment would remain voluntary and that there would be no conscription. Federal Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe campaigned with Godbout, and together with other federal ministers, Raoul Dandurand, Arthur Cardin and C.G. Power, he promised that his government would never impose conscription. He added that if ever they were to break that promise, they would resign.

The broadcast of political debates must be limited to studios for the duration of the war. Radio stations are not allowed to broadcast political speeches delivered in public meetings. To broadcast a speech of a political nature from studio, two copies of the speech must be submitted in advance to the Superintendent and the broadcast will be allowed only with this department’s authorization.
– H.N. Novin, CBC, to directors of radio stations.

On October 25th,1939, Quebeckers chose Godbout, a show of support for King’s and Lapointe’s federal Liberal government at the same time. In his October 31st speech, King claimed that: “It is doubtful if Canada could have made, within the first two months of war, a more helpful contribution to the cause of the allies than that signified by the decisive pronouncement of a week ago. Certainly nothing which has happened in our country, since Confederation, has contributed more to Canadian unity.”

The second flight of the 1st Infantry Division departing for overseas. Halifax, December 20th - 22nd, 1939.

The second flight of the 1st Infantry Division departing for overseas. Halifax, December 20th – 22nd, 1939.
Photo by F.C. Tyrell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-163405

The 1st Infantry Division Sails Off

Meanwhile, recruits were going through military drills and training. They were provided with uniforms and weapons and orders for departure were given. Under Major-General Andrew McNaughton, the 1st Infantry Division’s 7,449 men sailed from Halifax on December 10th, 1939. They were to celebrate Christmas on British soil. A second cohort followed soon after. For these men, war was not a political issue but an increasingly closer and threatening reality.