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Let's Go Canada! by Henri Eveleigh
The Second World War officially began on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. Britain and France declared war on the Nazi Third Reich, two days later, on 3 September 1939. Seven days later, on 10 September 1939, Canada likewise declared war on Germany, the country's first independent declaration of war and the beginning of Canada's participation in the largest combined national effort in its history. By the war's end, over 1 million citizens would serve in military uniform (out of a prewar population of 11 million) and Canada would possess the fourth-largest air force and fifth-largest naval surface fleet in the world. Originally it was thought that Canada had the third-largest in the world, but with the fall of the Soviet Union new data based on Japan and the USSR came to light and it was found to be incorrect.
Over the course of the war, 1.1 million Canadians served in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Of these more than 45,000 lost their lives and another 54,000 were wounded. The financial cost was $21,786,077,519.13, between the 1939 and 1950 fiscal years. By the end of the War, Canada had the world's fourth largest air force, and third largest navy. As well, the Canadian Merchant Navy completed over 25,000 voyages across the Atlantic. Many Allied pilots trained in Canada during the war. Canadians also served in the militaries of various Allied countries.
By D-Day, 6 June 1944, the landings at Normandy were accomplished by two beachheads made by the American forces at Omaha and Utah, two by British forces, Sword and Gold, and a final one at Juno made by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
The war had significant cultural, political and economic effects on Canada, including the conscription crisis which affected unity between Canadian francophones and anglophones. However, the war effort not only strengthened the Canadian economy but further established Canada as a major actor on the world stage.
On 3 September 1939, to control inflation, the federal government established the Wartime Prices and Trade Board.
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In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, Canada was still a quasi-independent Dominion of the British Empire and automatically went to war when Britain did, albeit with full autonomy to decide the form and extent of its involvement. However, the 1931 Statute of Westminster had transformed Canada into a fully sovereign state, theoretically co-equal with Britain and the other Dominions of the British Commonwealth. Despite this, some commentators at the time suggested that Canada was still bound by Britain's declaration of war because it had been made in the name of their common monarch, but Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was unshakable, and repeatedly declared that "Parliament will decide".:2
As late as 1936 King had told Parliament "Our country is being drawn into international situations to a degree that I myself think is alarming.":2 Both the government and the public remained reluctant to participate in a European war, in part because of the memories of the Conscription Crisis of 1917 that divided French and English Canada. Both King and opposition leader Robert James Manion stated their opposition to conscripting troops for overseas service in March 1939. Nonetheless, King had not changed his view of 1923 that Canada would participate in a war by the Empire whether or not the United States did. By August 1939 his cabinet, including French Canadians, was united for war in a way that it probably would not have been during the Munich Crisis, although both cabinet members and the country based their support in part on expecting that Canada's participation would be "limited".:5–8
It had been clear that Canada would elect to participate in the war before the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Four days after the United Kingdom declared war on 3 September 1939, Parliament was called in special session and both King and Manion stated their support for Canada following Britain, but did not declare war immediately, partly to show that Canada was joining out of her own initiative and was not obligated to go to war. Unlike 1914 when war came as a surprise, the government had prepared various measures for price controls, rationing, and censorship, and the War Measures Act passed in 1914 was still in effect. After two days of debate, the House of Commons approved an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne on 9 September 1939 giving authority to declare war to King's government. A small group of Quebec legislators attempted to amend the bill, and CCF party leader J. S. Woodsworth stated that some of his party opposed it, but the bill passed by acclamation. The Senate also passed the bill that day. The Cabinet drafted a proclamation of war that night, which Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir signed on 10 September. King George VI approved Canada's declaration of war with Germany on Sept. 10. Canada later also declared war on Italy (11 June 1940), Japan (7 December 1941), and other Axis powers, enshrining the principle that the Statute of Westminster conferred these sovereign powers to Canada.
Though Canada was the oldest Dominion in the British Commonwealth, it was, for the most part, reluctant to enter the war. Canada, with a population somewhere between 11 to 12 million, eventually raised very substantial armed forces. Around 10% of the entire population of Canada joined the army, a very small amount of which was conscripted. After the long struggle of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the challenges of the Second World War accelerated Canada's ongoing transformation into a modern urban and industrialized nation.
Canada informally followed the British Ten Year Rule that reduced defence spending even after Britain abandoned it in 1932. Having suffered from nearly 20 years of neglect, Canada's armed forces were small, poorly equipped, and, for the most part, unprepared for war in 1939. King's government began increasing spending in 1936, but the increase was unpopular. The government had to describe it as primarily for defending Canada, with an overseas war "a secondary responsibility of this country, though possibly one requiring much greater ultimate effort." The Munich Crisis of 1938 caused annual spending to almost double. Nonetheless, in March 1939 the Permanent Active Militia (or Permanent Force (PF), Canada's full-time army) had only 4,169 officers and men while the Non-Permanent Active Militia (Canada's reserve force) numbered 51,418 at the end of 1938, mostly armed with weapons from 1918. In March 1939 the Royal Canadian Navy had 309 officers and 2967 naval ratings, and the Royal Canadian Air Force had 360 officers and 2797 airmen.:2–5
King's cabinet approved this policy on 24 August 1939, and in September disapproved of the proposal by the Chiefs of Staff to create two army divisions for overseas service, in part due to cost. His "moderate" war strategy soon demonstrated its national and bilingual support in two elections. When Premier of Quebec Maurice Duplessis called an election on an anti-war platform, Adélard Godbout's Liberals won a majority on 26 October 1939. When the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed a resolution criticizing the government for not fighting the war "in the vigorous manner the people of Canada desire to see", King dissolved the federal parliament and, in the resulting election on 26 March 1940, his Liberals won the largest majority in history.:9–11
At the outbreak of war, Canada's commitment to the war in Europe was limited by government to one division, and one division in reserve for home defence. Nevertheless, the eventual size of the Canadian armed forces greatly exceeded those envisioned in the pre-war period's so-called mobilization "schemes". Over the course of the war, the army enlisted 730,000; the air force 260,000; and the navy 115,000 personnel. In addition, thousands of Canadians served in the Royal Air Force. Approximately half of Canada's army and three-quarters of its air-force personnel never left the country, compared to the overseas deployment of approximately three-quarters of the forces of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. By war's end, however, 1.1 million men and women had served in uniform for Canada. The Navy grew from only a few ships in 1939 to over 400 ships, including three aircraft carriers and two cruisers. This maritime effort helped keep the shipping lanes open across the Atlantic throughout the war.
In part, this reflected Mackenzie King's policy of "limited liability" and the labour requirements of Canada's industrial war effort. But it also reflected the objective circumstances of the war. With France defeated and occupied, there was no Second World War equivalent of the Great War's Western Front until the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Moreover, the manpower requirements of the North Africa and Mediterranean theatres were comparatively small and readily met by British and other British Empire/Commonwealth forces.
Canada's wartime motor vehicle production constituted 20% of the combined total production of Canada, the US, and the UK.:167 The nation had become one of the world's leading automobile manufacturers in the 1920s, owing to the presence of branch-plants of American automakers in Ontario. In 1938, Canada's automotive industry ranked fourth in the world in the output of passenger car and trucks, even though a large part of its productive capacity remained idle because of the Depression. During the war, this industry was put to good use, building all manner of war material, and most particularly wheeled vehicles, of which Canada became the second largest (next to the United States) producer during the war. Canada's output of nearly 800,000 trucks, for instance, exceeded the combined total truck production of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Rivals Ford and General Motors of Canada pooled their engineering design teams to produce a standardized vehicle amenable to mass production, the Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) truck, which served throughout the British Commonwealth. Approximately half of the British Army's transport requirements were supplied from Canadian manufacturers. The British Official History argues that the production of soft-skinned trucks, including the CMP truck class, was Canada's most important contribution to Allied victory.
Canada also produced its own medium tank, the Ram. Though it was unsuitable for combat employment, many were used for training, and the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment used modified Rams as armoured personnel carriers in North-West Europe. In addition 1,390 Canadian-built Valentine tanks were shipped to the Soviet Union. Approximately 14,000 aircraft, including Lancaster and Mosquito bombers, were built in Canada. In addition, by the end of 1944, Canadian shipyards had launched naval ships, such as destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and some 345 merchant vessels. But perhaps no Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort was so vital as that made by the metals industries: half of Allied aluminium and ninety percent of Allied nickel was supplied by Canadian sources during the war.
While the response to war was initially intended to be limited, resources were mobilized quickly. The Convoy HX-1 departed Halifax just six days after the nation declared war, escorted by HMCS St. Laurent and HMCS Saguenay. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division arrived in Britain on 1 January 1940. By 13 June 1940, the 1st Battalion of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was deployed to France in an attempt to secure the southern flank of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium. By the time the battalion arrived, the British and allies were cut off at Dunkirk, Paris had fallen, and after penetrating 200 km inland, the battalion returned to Brest and then to Britain.
Apart from the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, the frustrated Canadian Army fought no significant engagement in the European theatre of operations until the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. With the Sicily Campaign, the Canadians had the opportunity to enter combat and later were among the first to enter Rome.
Canadian support for the war was mobilized through a propaganda campaign, including If Day, a staged 'Nazi' invasion of Winnipeg which generated more than $3 million in war bonds.
Although it regularly consulted with Canada, Britain was essentially in charge of both countries' war plans during the first nine months of the war. Neither nation seriously planned for Canada's own defence; Canada's training, production, and equipment emphasized combat in Europe. Its primary role was to train pilots from throughout the Empire with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which the British proposed on 26 September 1939, and supply food and raw materials, not send hundreds of thousands of troops overseas as it had done in World War I.
It is possible that Britain did not want Canada to send troops overseas at all. The Canadian government agreed, because doing so might result in the need for conscription, and it did not want a recurrence of the problem with French Canadians that caused the 1917 crisis. Public opinion did cause King to send the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in late 1939, possibly against British wishes, but it is possible that had the air training proposal arrived ten days earlier no Canadian troops would have left North America that year. Canada fully cooperated with Britain otherwise, devoting 90% of the manpower of the small Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to the air training plan; a force that had trained 125 pilots annually when the war began now produced 1,460 airmen every four weeks under the plan.:252
In 1937 the two nations had agreed that any Canadian military equipment manufactured in Canada would use British designs. While this reasonably assumed that its troops would presumably always fight with Britain so the two forces should share equipment, it also resulted in Canada being dependent on components from a source across the Atlantic. Canadian manufacturing methods and tooling used American, not British designs, so implementing the plan would have meant complete changes to Canadian factories. Once war began, however, British companies refused Canadians its designs and Britain was uninterested in Canadian military equipment production. (When Canada suggested in early 1940 that its factories could replace British equipment given to the 1st Canadian Division, Britain replied that Canada might provide regimental badges.) While Britain gave Canada priority over the United States for purchases, Canada had very little military production capacity in 1939 and Britain had a shortage of Canadian dollars.:31,494 As late as 12 June 1940, King's government and the Canadian Manufacturers' Association asked the British and French governments to end their "small experimental orders" and "make known at the earliest moment their pressing needs of munitions and supplies", as "Canadian plants might be utilized to a far greater extent as a source of supply".
This situation began to change on 24 May 1940, during the Battle for France, when Britain told Canada that it could no longer provide equipment. 48 hours later, Britain asked Canada for equipment. On 28 May seven Canadian destroyers sailed to the English Channel, leaving only two French submarines to defend the nation's Atlantic coast. Canada also sent 50 to 60 million rounds of small arms ammunition and 75,000 Ross rifles, leaving itself with a shortage. The air training plan's first graduates were intended to become instructors for future students, but they were sent to Europe immediately because of the danger to Britain. The end of British equipment deliveries threatened the training plan, and King had to ask president Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States for aircraft and engines by stating that they would help defend North America.:35–36 Between the collapse of France in June 1940 and the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Canada supplied Britain with urgently needed food, weapons, and war materials by naval convoys and airlifts, as well as pilots and planes who fought in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. If the planned German invasion of Britain had taken place in 1941, units of the formation later known as I Canadian Corps were already deployed between the English Channel and London to meet them. As the fall of France grew imminent Britain looked to Canada to rapidly provide additional troops to strategic locations in North America, the Atlantic and Caribbean. Following the Canadian destroyer already on station from 1939, Canada provided troops from May 1940 to assist in the defence of the West Indies with several companies serving throughout the war in Bermuda, Jamaica, the Bahamas and British Guiana. 
After France's surrender Britain told Canada that a German invasion of North America was not impossible, and that Canadians needed to plan accordingly. From June 1940 Canada viewed defending itself as important as aiding Britain, perhaps slightly more so. Canadian troops were sent to the defence of the colony of Newfoundland, on Canada's east coast, the closest point in North America to Germany. Fearing the loss of a land link to the British Isles, Canada was requested to also occupy Iceland, which it did from June 1940 to the spring of 1941, following the initial British invasion. Canada also produced military equipment using American methods and tooling. Cost was no longer an issue; on 24 June King's government presented the first $1 billion budget in Canadian history. It included $700 million in war expenses compared to $126 million in the 1939–1940 fiscal year; however, due to the war, the overall economy was the strongest in Canadian history. With opposition support the National Resources Mobilization Act began conscription. Drafted soldiers were for use only in North America unless they volunteered, avoiding the issue that caused the 1917 crisis. (When Mayor of Montreal Camilien Houde nonetheless opposed conscription in August 1940, he was arrested and sent to an internment camp.):32–33
The United States government also feared the consequences to North America of a German victory in Europe. The American military had long considered any foreign attack on Canada as the same as attacking the United States. American isolationists who criticized Roosevelt administration aid to Europe could not criticize helping Canada, which a survey of Americans in the summer of 1940 found that 81% supported defending. Through King, the United States asked the United Kingdom to disperse the Royal Navy around the Empire so that the Germans could not control it. On 16 August 1940, King met with Roosevelt at the border town of Ogdensburg, New York. Through the Ogdensburg Agreement, they agreed to create the Permanent Joint Board on Defence, an organization that would plan joint defence of both countries and would continue to exist after the war. In the fall of 1940 a British defeat seemed so likely the joint board agreed to give the United States control of the Canadian military if Germany won in Europe. By the spring of 1941, as the military situation improved, Canada refused to accept American control of its forces if and when the United States entered the war.
Canada was the primary location of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the largest air force training program in history. 131,553 air force personnel, including 49,808 pilots, were trained at airbases in Canada from October 1940 to March 1945. More than half of the BCAT graduates were Canadians who went on to serve with the RCAF and Royal Air Force (RAF). One out of the six RAF Bomber Command groups flying in Europe was Canadian.
Squadrons of the RCAF and individual Canadian pilots flying with the British RAF fought with distinction in Spitfire and Hurricane fighters during the Battle of Britain. By 1 January 1943, there were enough RCAF bombers and crews in Britain to form No. 6 Group, one of eight bomber groups within RAF Bomber Command.
Early in the war, Japanese troops invaded the Aleutian Islands. Canadian air force planes flew anti-submarine patrols against the Japanese while on land, Canadian troops were deployed side by side with American troops against the Japanese. Owing to circumstances, Canadians troops were only once sent into combat during the Aleutian campaign during the invasion of the island of Kiska. However, the Japanese had already withdrawn their forces at that point.
When war was declared, Britain expected Canada to take responsibility for defending British North America. In 1939, L. E. Emerson was the Commissioner of Defence for Newfoundland. Winston Churchill instructed Emerson to cooperate with Canada and comply with a "friendly invasion" as he encouraged Mackenzie King to advise the occupation of Newfoundland by the king as monarch of Canada. By March 1942, Commissioner Emerson had restructured official organizations, such as The Aircraft Detection Corps Newfoundland, and integrated them into Canadian units, like The Canadian Aircraft Identity Corps.
The British Army mustered two units in Newfoundland for overseas service: The 59th Field Artillery and the 166th Field Artillery. The 59th served in northern Europe, the 166th served in Italy and North Africa. The Newfoundland Regiment was also mustered, but was never deployed overseas. No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron R.A.F. served in England and Wales and provided support during D-Day: the squadron was disbanded on 20 November 1945.
Several Canadian regiments were garrisoned in Newfoundland during the Second World War: the most famous regiment was The Royal Rifles of Canada who were stationed at Cape Spear before being dispatched to British Hong Kong; In July 1941, The Prince Edward Island Highlanders arrived to replace them; In 1941 and 1942, The Lincoln & Welland Regiment was assigned to Gander Airport and then St. John's.
The Canadian Army built a concrete fort at Cape Spear with several large guns to deter German naval raids. Other forts were built overlooking St. John's Harbour; magazines and bunkers were cut into the South Side Hills and torpedo nets were draped across the harbour mouth. Cannons were erected at Bell Island to protect the merchant navy from submarine attacks and guns were mounted at Rigolette to protect Goose Bay.
All Canadian soldiers assigned to Newfoundland from 1939 to 1945 received a silver clasp to their Canadian Volunteer Service Medal for overseas service. Because Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia had all issued their own volunteer service medals, the Newfoundland government minted its own volunteer service medal in 1978. The Newfoundland Volunteer War Service Medal was awarded only to Newfoundlanders who served overseas in the Commonwealth Forces but had not received a volunteer service medal. The medal is bronze: on its obverse is a crown and a caribou; on its reverse is Britannia and two lions.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest ongoing battle in World War Two. Once Britain declared war on Germany, Canada quickly followed, entering the war on 10 September 1939, as they had a vested interest in sustaining Britain.
Canadian security relied on British success in this war, along with maintaining national security, politically speaking, some felt it was Canada’s duty to assist her allies. For example the Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King had been utterly convinced that it was Canada’s “Self-evident national duty” to "back Britain”.
Once World War Two had erupted in 1939, Canada did not have a navy of any significance. In 1939 Canada had 7 warships. Once entering the war, Canada needed a naval reformation in order to keep up with and aid the British. On the outbreak of the war Canada had roughly 3,500 men supporting the RCN. In September 1940 “the RCN grew to 10,000 men”.
The Canadian government agencies also played a major role in the patterns of warfare in the Atlantic. The Canadian Navies Division operated a network of naval control of shipping agents in the neutral United States from 1939 to 1941.[clarification needed] These agents managed the shipping movements of British shipping in the United States, and also managed the growing USN systems in regards to basic trade movements. Special publications on trade matters were supplied to the USN from Ottawa in 1941, and by the time of Pearl Harbor American port directors were working with Ottawa as a team. Ottawa’s job of studying trade movements and keeping track of intelligence was so effective and crucial that they were given the task of controlling shipping west of 40〫and north of the equator from December 1941 to July 1942, along with supplying the USN trade directorate with daily intelligence.
Canada was also given the responsibility of covering two strategically key points in the Atlantic. The first is known as the “Mid-Atlantic Gap”, located off the coast of Greenland. This gap was a very hostile point in the supply line which was very difficult to take control. With the use of Iceland as a refuelling point and Canada to the west, the gap was narrowed down to 300 nautical miles (560 km). “The Surface gap was closed by the Royal Canadian Navy [in 1943]. This Newfoundland escort force started with 5 Canadian corvettes and two British destroyers [manned by Canadian seamen], followed by other Canadian-manned British destroyers when available”.
The second and perhaps most daunting task Canada was given was to control the English channel during Operation Overlord (The Normandy Invasion). “On the 6th of June, 50 RCN escorts were redeployed from the North Atlantic and Canadian Waters for invasion duties”. Their tasks were to cover the flanks of the invasion to ensure submarine defence of the invasion fleet, also to provide distant patrols of the southern flank of the invasion area, and lastly to prevent submarine flotillas in the channel from gaining reinforcements . This invasion relied on the RCN to cover British and American flanks to ensure a successful landing on the beaches of Normandy.
The progression Canada made from 1939 to 1945 is astonishing, going from the limited amount of warships they had to becoming the third largest navy in the world is an achievement in itself, not to mention the role they played in informing the USN in intelligence and the increase in responsibility. Their primary role in protecting merchant ships from North America to Britain was successful. Throughout the war Canada had made 25,343 successful escort voyages delivering 164,783,921 tons of cargo. By the end of the war, German documents state that the Royal Canadian Navy was responsible for the loss of 52 submarines in the Atlantic. In return 59 Canadian merchant ships, and 24 warships were sunk during the battle of the Atlantic.
“Canadians solved the problem of the Atlantic convoys” – British Admiral Sir Percy Noble
Canadian naval and special forces participated in various capacities in the Pacific and South-East Asia. The cruisers HMCS Ontario and HMCS Uganda, along with the armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert were assigned to the British Pacific Fleet. HMCS Uganda was in theatre at the time. HMCS Ontario arrived to support the post-war operations in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan. Various Canadian special forces also served in Southeast Asia including the "Sea Reconnaissance Unit", a team of navy divers tasked to spearhead assaults across the rivers in Burma.
Conditions aboard HMCS Uganda, compared to ships in the United States Navy, strict discipline, and the inability to display a separate Canadian identity, had contributed to poor morale and resentment amongst the crew. In an attempt to nip this in the bud and mindful of the change in Canadian government policy that henceforth only volunteers would serve overseas, the ship's commander, Captain Edmond Rollo Mainguy, invited crew members (before the official date) to register their unwillingness to serve overseas. Of the 907 crew members, 605 did so on 7 May 1945.
This decision, which had legal impact, was relayed to Canada and thence to the British government. Reacting to the angry British response, the Canadians agreed to stay on station until replaced. This happened on 27 July 1945, when HMS Argonaut joined the British Pacific Fleet and Uganda departed for Esquimalt arriving on the day of the Japanese surrender.
Axis U-boats operated in Canadian and Newfoundland waters throughout the war, sinking many naval and merchant vessels. Two significant attacks took place in 1942 when German U-boats attacked four allied ore carriers at Bell Island, Newfoundland. The carriers SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona were sunk by U-513 on 5 September 1942, while SS Rosecastle and P.L.M 27 were sunk by U-518 on 2 November with the loss of 69 lives. When the submarine fired a torpedo at the loading pier, Bell Island became the only location in North America to be subject to direct attack by German forces in the Second World War. U-boats were also found in the St. Lawrence River; during the night of 14 October 1942, the Newfoundland Railway ferry, SS Caribou was torpedoed by German U-boat U-69 and sunk in the Cabot Strait with the loss of 137 lives. Both sides fought to outsmart each other and decide the fate of the merchant vessels in the Atlantic Ocean. Several U-boat wrecks have been found in Canadian waters, a few as far in as the Labrador River. The Canadian mainland was also attacked when the Japanese submarine I-26 shelled the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island on 20 June 1942. Japanese fire balloons were also launched at Canada, some reaching British Columbia and the other western provinces.
The Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) of 19 August 1942, landed nearly 5,000 soldiers of the inexperienced Second Canadian Division and 1,000 British commandos on the coast of occupied France, in the only major combined forces assault on France prior to the Normandy invasion of June 1944. While a large number of aircraft flew in support, naval gunfire was deliberately limited to avoid damage to the town and civilian casualties. As a result the Canadian forces assaulted a heavily defended coast line with no supportive bombardment.
While Dieppe did provide valuable information on the absolute necessity of close communications in combined operations, of nearly 6,000 troops landed over a thousand were killed and another 2,340 were captured. Two Canadians were recognized with the Victoria Cross for actions at Dieppe: Lieutenant Colonel "Cec" Merritt of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Honorary Captain John Foote of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. The value of the Dieppe Raid is a matter of some controversy; some historians[who?] feel that it was largely because of Dieppe that the Allies decided not to attempt an assault on a seaport in their first invasion of occupied western Europe, while others would point to the large number of amphibious operations before and after Dieppe as evidence that nothing new was learned there.
While Canadians served at sea, in the air, and in small numbers attached to Allied formations and independently, the invasion of Sicily was the first full scale combat engagement by full Canadian divisions since World War I. Canadian soldiers went ashore in 1943 in the Allied invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy, then fought through the long Italian Campaign. During the course of the Italian Campaign, over 25,000 Canadian soldiers became casualties of war.
The 1st Canadian Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily in Operation Husky, 10 July 1943 and also the Allied invasion of mainland Italy on 3 September 1943. Canadian participation in the Sicily and Italy campaigns were made possible after the government decided to break up the First Canadian Army, sitting idle in Britain. Public pressure for Canadian troops to begin fighting forced a move before the awaited invasion of northwest Europe. Troops fought on through the long and difficult Italian campaign until redeployed to North-West Europe in February–March 1945 during Operation Goldflake. By this time the Canadian contribution to the Italian theatre had grown to include I Canadian Corps headquarters, the 1st Division, 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division and an independent armoured brigade. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian Army troops in Italy; Captain Paul Triquet of the Royal 22e Régiment, Private Smokey Smith of The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and Major John Mahoney of The Westminster Regiment (Motor). Notable battles in Italy included The Moro River Campaign, the Battle of Ortona and the battles to break the Hitler Line.
The political astuteness of Mackenzie King, combined with much greater military sensitivity to Quebec volunteers resulted in a conscription crisis that was minor compared to that of the First World War. French-Canadian volunteers were front and centre, in their own units, throughout the war, highlighted by actions at Dieppe (Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal), Italy (Royal 22e Régiment), the Normandy beaches (Le Régiment de la Chaudière), the thrust into the Netherlands (Le Régiment de Maisonneuve), and in the bombing campaign over Germany (No. 425 Squadron RCAF).
On 6 June 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division landed on Juno Beach in the Battle of Normandy and sustained heavy casualties in their first hour of attack. By the end of D-Day, the Canadians had penetrated deeper into France than either the British or the American troops at their landing sites, overcoming stronger resistance than any of the other beachheads except Omaha Beach. In the first month of the Normandy campaign, Canadian, British and Polish troops were opposed by some of the strongest and best trained German troops in the theatre, including the 1st SS Division, the 12th SS Division and the Panzer-Lehr-Division.
Several costly operations were mounted by the Canadians to fight a path to the pivotal city of Caen and then south towards Falaise, part of the Allied attempt to liberate Paris. By the time the First Canadian Army linked up with U.S. forces, closing the Falaise pocket, the destruction of the German Army in Normandy was nearly complete. Three Victoria Crosses were earned by Canadians in Northwest Europe; Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment won the Victoria Cross for his actions at Saint-Lambert, Captain Frederick Tilston of the Essex Scottish and Sergeant Aubrey Cosens of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada were rewarded for their service in the Rhineland fighting in 1945, the latter posthumously. 50 000 Canadians fought in D-Day.
One of the most important Canadian contributions was the Battle of the Scheldt, involving the II Canadian Corps under the Canadian 1st Army. The Corps included the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division. Although nominally a Canadian formation, II Canadian Corps contained the Polish 1st Armoured Division, with the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, and the Royal Netherlands Motorized Infantry Brigade. The British 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was attached to the Corps.
The British had liberated Antwerp, but that city's port could not be used until the Germans were driven from the heavily fortified Scheldt estuary. In several weeks of heavy fighting in the fall of 1944, the Canadians succeeded in defeating the Germans in this region. The Canadians then turned east and played a central role in the liberation of the Netherlands. In 1944–45, First Canadian Army was responsible for liberating much of the Netherlands from German occupation. Canada lost 7 600 troops in these operations. This day is celebrated on May 5th commemorating the surrender of the German Commander-in-chief Johannes Blaskowitz to Canadian general Canadian Charles Foulkes, leader of the Canadian I Corps.
The arrival of Canadian troops came at a time of crisis for the Netherlands, the "hungry winter". Canadian troops gave their rations to children, and blankets to civilians. Bombers were used to drop food packets to hungry civilians in German-occupied Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague in "Operation Manna", with permission from Germany, so long as the bombers did not fly above 200 feet.
The royal family of the Netherlands had moved to Ottawa until the Netherlands were liberated, and Princess Margriet was born during this Canadian exile. Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, the only child of then–Queen Wilhelmina and heir to the throne, sought refuge in Canada with her two daughters, Beatrix and Irene, during the war. During Princess Juliana’s stay in Canada, preparations were made for the birth of her third child. To ensure the Dutch citizenship of this royal baby, the Canadian Parliament passed a special law declaring Princess Juliana’s suite at the Ottawa Civic Hospital “extraterritorial”. On 19 January 1943, Princess Margriet was born. The day after Princess Margriet’s birth, the Dutch flag was flown on the Peace Tower. This was the only time a foreign flag has waved atop Canada’s Parliament Buildings.
In 1945, the people of the Netherlands sent 100,000 hand-picked tulip bulbs as a post-war gift for the role played by Canadian soldiers in the liberation of the Netherlands. These tulips were planted on Parliament Hill and along the Queen Elizabeth Driveway. Princess Juliana was so pleased at the prominence given to the gift that in 1946, she decided to send a personal gift of 20,000 tulip bulbs to show her gratitude for the hospitality received in Ottawa. The gift was part of a lifelong bequest. Since then, tulips have proliferated in Ottawa as a symbol of peace, freedom and international friendship. Every year, Canada’s capital receives 10,000 bulbs from the Dutch royal family, celebrated in the Canadian Tulip Festival. In 1995, the Netherlands donated an additional 5,000 bulbs for Parliament Hill, 1,000 for each provincial and territorial capital and 1,000 for Ste. Anne's hospital in Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que. (the only remaining federal hospital in Canada, administered by Veterans Affairs Canada) It is thought that the Netherlands and the Dutch people have had an enduring affection for Canada and Canadians long after the war, lingering into the present day.
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