Canada in the Second World War


Return to Peace

On May 8th, 1945, crowds of civilians and soldiers, shouting and dancing in the streets, gathered to celebrate V-E Day, the Allies’ victory in Europe. In London, in Paris, throughout liberated Europe, parades, and speeches, hugging and rejoicing marked that special day. Canada also celebrated: in Toronto, tickertape flowed from up high as people danced in the streets, in Ottawa people gathered on Parliament Hill. Every city, every community found its own way to celebrate the return of peace and – at long last! – of those who served overseas. In Halifax where bars had been closed for the day, sailors raided downtown beer and alcohol outlets. The party turned into a riot…

In the Netherlands and in Germany, Canadian soldiers celebrated as well, but in a more reserved manner. They had been fighting for months, for years even. A few days ago, they were still under enemy fire. The end of war seemed somewhat unreal; despite their joy, victory had a bittersweet taste.

The effect on the men of the news of the unconditional surrender of all Germans on our front was not very evident. There was rather an air of unbelief, as though it were difficult to realize that the fighting was actually all over, than of celebration. The men were quiet and went about their duties as before or fell to discussing among themselves, how soon it would be all over and how soon they would be making the home bound trip across the Atlantic.
– The Algonquin Regiment, War Diary, 5 May 1945

War was over but much remained to be done before peace could be restored.

Final Duties; Demobilization

Repatriation of Canadian troops - scene on the aft deck as the tender left the pier, Greenock, Scotland, June 1945.

Repatriation of Canadian troops – scene on the aft deck as the tender left the pier, Greenock, Scotland, June 1945.
Photo by Harold D. Robinson. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-177085.

Before troops could be demobilized, there were still two tasks to be taken care of: the security of occupied territories and the war in the Pacific.

Under the command of Major-General Christoper Vokes, Canadian occupation forces set up their HQ in Bad Zwischenahn, Germany. In July 1945, they counted 568 officers and 15,477 troops of other ranks. Their role was not to rule over defeated Germany but to ensure law and order. They also had to build a relationship with the German population, help displaced people in their attempts to locate relatives or return to their homes. With winter approaching, they stocked up on firewood, as there was no coal available any more. Their duty done, occupation troops were sent back home in the spring of 1946.

War in Europe ended on May 8th, 1945, but it went on in the Pacific. Canada planned to dispatch an infantry division to fight against Japan. Some 1,024 officers and 20,829 other ranks joined the Canadian Army’s Pacific Force (6th Infantry Division) under Major-General B.M. Hoffmeister. The men who volunteered but were still in Europe were brought back as a priority; they got a 30-day leave and were told to show up at one of nine training centers in Canada. Since the Pacific Force had to operate jointly with US forces, it changed its structure to be regiment-based, rather than brigade-based. But Canadians did not fight in the Pacific, as Japan surrendered on August 14th, 1945, after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first atom bombs. The Pacific Force had no longer a purpose and was officially disbanded on September 1st.

Meanwhile, there were 280,000 soldiers in Great Britain and throughout Europe who had to be brought back home, not to mention the airmen. To move such a huge number of men and women in a few weeks was not feasible, as there was no transportation available for so many people. A scoring system based on seniority was devised to determine a priority order for repatriation, and married men were shipped back home before bachelors.

To keep up morale and prepare the return to civilian life, activities were organized for troops waiting for their demobilization orders. Courses were set up on academic, technical and professional subjects, as well as a Canadian civic education programme. Sports and cultural activities were also available. The repatriation of troops stationed in the Netherlands went on until the fall of 1945, but there remained many airmen and soldiers on the British Isles as well, who where still waiting for a place on a ship for Canada. The last ones left in 1946.

Economic and Social Measures to Ensure the Return of Peace

Brides and children of Canadian military personnel en route to Canada, Greenock, Scotland, April 17th, 1944.

Brides and children of Canadian military personnel en route to Canada, Greenock, Scotland, April 17th, 1944.
Photo by W.J. Hynes. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-147114.

When they came back home, Canadian soldiers found a country that had gone through dramatic changes, economic and social conditions had been modified by the war effort, and women were more openly emancipated. Some soldiers had been away for quite a long time. They experienced a life structured by military discipline; now they had to learn how to be masters of their own destinies.

Think of it, not everybody had spent one?sixth of their life in a Japanese prison camp. I was twenty when Hong Kong was captured and I was twenty?four when we got home. Canada was a changed place…
– I Shook Her Hand, excerpt from Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years 1939-1945.

After the joy of being reunited with their loved ones, men had to learn a new intimacy with their spouses, bonding with children they had not seen in years. Some relationships made fragile by distance and the passing of years could not be mended. Couples separated. In addition, many came home with a British or Dutch wife, with a couple of kids, who had to adapt to a foreign, sometimes hostile, environment. It is estimated that 41,351 war brides were brought to Canada by servicemen, together with 19,737 children.

Canadians were big stuff in Holland. There was this old man, Van Voort, the mother, a grandmother who didn’t say much, and three daughters…
– A Canadian Boyfriend, excerpt from Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years 1939-1945.

events_peace_3Fortunately, most Canadian soldiers found favourable conditions for their reinsertion into civilian life. Demobilization of the men and women serving in the Army, Navy or Air Force had been in preparation for a long time. As soon as they were back, they were granted a 30-day leave and then returned to civilian life. The Department of Veteran Affairs, created in 1944, gave them $100 to buy civilian clothes, plus $7.50 per month of service and $0.25 per day overseas, plus one week salary extra for each six-month period overseas. In addition, since regular deductions had been made on their pay for government bonds, some came back to significant savings.

Many government programmes were created to help reinserting veterans. Agricultural lands or mortgages were offered to those who decided to settle on a farm, and loans to those who wanted to start a business. There were rehabilitation programmes for the wounded or the psychologically traumatized. Finding a new job was made easier through technical and professional training. Veterans who wanted to undertake or complete university studies were welcome in colleges and universities.

Soldiers who enlisted in 1939 left a country still very much affected by the Depression. When they returned, they found a welfare state with a solid social security net: unemployment insurance, child allowances and an improved pension plan for the elderly or the handicapped.

Canada’s war debts never grew beyond the country’s capacity to pay and the war effort proved to be a tremendous incentive to industrial growth. Created in 1944 under the direction of C.D. Howe, the Department of Reconstruction implemented the government’s motto: methodical deregulation. Wartime constraints and guidelines that controlled production and employment were made less stringent. War production factories were reconverted to meet new requirements for housing, transportation, furniture and household appliances that Canadians demanded. An era of prosperity began.

Canada Among the World Powers 

During WWII, Canada gave much more than what its alliance with Great Britain demanded in terms of its war effort against Nazi aggression and for the restoration of democracy in Europe. Over a million Canadians served as volunteers in the military; this represents 10 percent of an 11-million population (in 1939). In six years, Canada built the world’s fourth largest navy, a significant national air force including fighters, bombers and submarine warfare patrol aircraft, trained some 130,000 airmen, levied five army divisions that bravely faced the world’s most formidable war machine in history. Canadians proved their valour in the fiercest battles: Ortona, the Liri Valley, Normandy, the Scheldt, the Rhineland.

By standing up for principles judged to be fundamental, Canada earned a respected place among world powers. Part of the United Nations, of which he was a founding member, since 1945, Canada also joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Canada’s External Affairs Secretary of State, Lester B. Pearson, made a proposal towards the creation of the world’s first multinational peacekeeping force, under General E.L.M. Burns. During the Cold War and since, Canada remained committed to its mission of world peacekeeping.

May Their Memory Endure…

Between 1939 and 1945, Canadians listened to the voice of their conscience and took up arms with courage and steadfastness. Many gave up their lives for the good of humankind; others were gravely wounded in body or in spirit. May their memory endure forever…