Canada in the Second World War


Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns

Eedson Louis Millard (Tommy) Burns, born in Westmount, Quebec, on June 17th, 1897; died in Manotick, Ontario, on September 13th, 1985. Canadian Army officer and diplomat.

At the beginning of WWI, 17-year old Tommy Burns entered the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He stayed only a short while, long enough to be awarded a Special War Certificate; in June 1915, as soon as he was 18, he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Engineers and was sent to England the following year as a signaller. He was on the front in August 1916. During the following years, Burns, twice wounded, was awarded the Military Cross for laying and repairing communication wires while under enemy fire. When the war ended, he was a staff captain with the 12th Infantry Brigade.

Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns at I Canadian Corps HQ in Larino, Italy, March 18th, 1944

Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns at I Canadian Corps HQ in Larino, Italy, March 18th, 1944
Photograph by C.E. Nye. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-134178.

Burns pursued his military career with the Engineers Corps of the Permanent Force. He rose in the hierarchy, being promoted from a captain to a major in 1927, to a lieutenant colonel in 1939 (he received a lieutenant colonel’s brevet in 1935). He attended the School of Military Engineering in Chatham, England, in 1920-1921, the British Army Staff College in Quetta, India, in 1928-1929 and the Imperial Defence College from 1939 to the declaration of the state of war.

In the pre-war era, Burns wrote many articles for the Canadian Defence Quarterly or, under the pen name of Arlington B. Conway, for the American Mercury. He dealt with topics such the training of troops, mobility, the need for a fast motor vehicle to replace cavalry, the impossibility of destroying large cities through air bombings only, the organization of infantry and armoured divisions. When the war broke out in September 1939, Burns was viewed by his superiors as a brilliant officer, cut out for a promotion to a high-ranking command post.

During the war’s early months, Tommy Burns served as General Staff Officer at the Canadian Military Headquarters overseas. He was promoted to colonel in May 1940 and called back to Ottawa as Assistant Deputy Chief of the General Staff. He was back in England in May 1941 as Brigadier General Staff of I Canadian Corps, a position he was to occupy only for a few months.

Between August 1941 and February 1942, Burns served with the Canadian Armoured Corps as Officer Administering. He was then entrusted with commanding the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the creation of which had partly been his work. On May 1st, 1943, Burns was promoted to Major-General and put in charge of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. A few months later, on January 30th, 1944, he was commanding officer of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division.

At that time, the 5th Division had been involved in the Italy campaign for some ten weeks: it was Burns’ first experience as a commander in a combat situation, a positive one indeed as he was appointed commander of I Canadian Corps as early as March 20th, 1944. Burns successfully led the charge that broke through the German lines in the Liri Valley in May 1944, despite severe losses. A few months later, in September 1944, I Canadian Corps pierced the Gothic Line in Rimini, opening up the plains of northern Italy to the Allies. In spite of these successes, Burns was criticized for his lack of flexibility and leadership. On November 5th, 1944, he lost the command of I Canadian Corps and was transferred behind the lines as General Officer Commanding, Canadian Section, General Headquarters, 2nd Echelon, 21 Army Group.

After WWII, Burns was posted to the Department of Veteran Affairs, where he served as Deputy Minister between 1950 and 1954. That year, he was put in charge of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), a peacekeeping unit at the Israeli-Arab border. When the 1956 war broke out in the Middle East, Burns took command of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), remaining in charge until 1959. The following year, he was appointed counsellor for disarmament issues in the Canadian government, with the rank of ambassador.

Tommy Burns was brilliant man, one of the brightest Canadian officers of his generation, and one of the few who gave serious thought to the nature of the military profession and who published extensively on strategic and tactical issues. However, his introvert, unsmiling and austere nature hardly made him an inspiring leader for fighting men.

Many retired generals, since 1945, have become convinced that western civilization could be almost obliterated if there should ever be another great war. If war is obsolete for the settling of international disputes, should the injunction of Micah not be obeyed: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ If so, no one should teach war any more, or contribute to teach it.
E.L.M. Burns, General Mud, 1970

Suggested Reading:

  • E. L. M. Burns,General Mud: Memoirs of Two World Wars, 1970.
  • E. L. M. Burns, A Seat at the Table; the Struggle for Disarmament, 1972.
  • E. L. M. Burns, Defence in the Nuclear Age : An Introduction for Canadians, c, 1976.
  • J.L. Granatstein, The Generals, The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 1993.