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RENÉ CHARTRAND, ILLUSTRATED BY RON VOLSTAD
Late summer 1940: the message of this Canadian poster was clear - now that France and most of western Europe had fallen, Canada was suddenly the largest country next to Britain still in the war. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers would have to be enlisted, trained, armed, uniformed, equipped and sent across the U-boats' Atlantic happy hunting ground if there was to be any chance to 'Lick Them, Over There!'. This was a tall order for a nation which had hardly any armed forces or military industries in 1939. In the event, learning from the mistakes of 1914, Canada's World War II mobilisation and gearing up for war production was achieved with remarkable speed and efficiency. (National Archives of Canada, C87131)
Was there ever a country so unprepared to participate in a world conflict as Canada when it declared war on 10 September 1939? With a population of some 11 million people, the Regular forces - army, air force and navy combined - totalled only 8,000 persons. The Volunteer Militia and various reserves accounted for perhaps 60,000 men. There had been no really compulsory military training since the War of 1812, and very few Canadians apart from veterans of the Great War of 1914-18 knew anything about the military. The available equipment and weapons were mostly a collection of pre-1930s antiques. There had been armoured regiments - on paper - since 1936, but three years later they still had no tanks. The country's shipyards were not building warships; the aircraft industry - military and civilian - was miniscule; there was no heavy armament industry, and the motor vehicle industry was not geared to anything like the mass production of military vehicles.
But then, why should Canada have had a strong military establishment and a war industry? It was far from Europe and the Far East, and its relations with its only neighbour, the United States, were an example of harmony to the world. The country had no colonial ambitions, and indeed was still divesting itself - in a characteristically calm manner - of the last effective remnants of British rule. Although an independent Dominion since 1867, its own foreign diplomatic services and supreme court dated only from 1931.
Nevertheless, all Canada's official institutions were patterned after British parliamentary, judicial, public and military models, from the manuals they used to the uniforms worn by policemen and officials. The country's flag was the British Red Ensign with the coat of arms of Canada in its field. Canadians were generally at ease with their British-inspired institutions. The troubles in Europe were worriesome but far away. Much more important to them was their economy, which had been badly hit by the Ten Lost Years' of the Great Depression; policies patterned after those of the 'New Deaf of American President Franklin D.Roosevelt were being adopted by Canadian Prime Minister William L.Mackenzie-King and his Liberal Party.
From the later 1930s, the Mackenzie-King government watched with some concern Hitler's and Mussolini's increasingly threatening behaviour in Europe, but there was hardly anything practical that Canada could do beyond giving moral support to Britain and her Continental allies. British diplomats, for their part, hinted to Canadian politicians that new arms should be obtained and levels of enlistments raised in the Regular forces to improve Canada's state of miliary preparedness. There were some improvements; the Militia was reorganised in 1936, and the defence budgets doubled between then and 1939, mostly for the purchase of a few destroyers and some Hawker Hurricane aircraft.
By the end of August 1939 the mood in the country had suddenly changed and become much more militant. On 1 September, mobilisation orders went out to part of the Volunteer Militia. Germany's invasion of Poland, followed by Britain's and France's declarations of war on 3 September, did the rest. The Canadian Parliament was convened and declared war on Germany on 10 September. Quite suddenly, Canada was at war, though almost totally unprepared and unequipped.
Volunteers came forward by the tens and eventually hundreds of thousands. Canadian industry made a truly extraordinary effort to gear up for massive war production within a few months. The aircraft, arms and shipbuilding industries were literally created out of nowhere. The accompanying Table 1 gives some basic statistics to illustrate the scale of this remarkable national achievement. Scientific research also made huge advances, notably in aeronautics and in atomic energy.
At first glance this group photo seems to show British troops in India. In fact, they are Canadian Volunteer Militiamen at summer training at Camp Borden, north of Toronto, in August 1939. While most of the items are of British patterns a closer look reveals that many wear the American pressed fibre sun helmet instead of the Wolseley pattern pith helmet. (Worthington Museum, Canadian Forces Base Borden)
In the summer of 1940, after the Netherlands, Belgium and France had fallen, Canada found itself the second largest country after Britain to be fighting Nazi Germany, which was joined in June by Mussolini's Fascist Italy. Canadians were gripped by the Battle of Britain, inspired by the valiant resistance of the British people and the defiance of Prime Minister Winston S.Churchill. Just as in Britain, there was a sigh of Canadian relief when Germany invaded Soviet Russia in the summer of 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 changed the course of the war utterly, and made its eventual outcome certain by bringing the almost limitless resources of the United States into the conflict. (Though few Americans - or British, for that matter - realise it, the tragic losses caused by the first Japanese offensives included two Canadian regiments lost in Hong Kong, where their commander, Brig.Gen.J.K.Lawson, was among those killed in the hopeless defence of the colony.) Nevertheless, Canada's war effort was mainly directed on the Atlantic and Europe, where many Canadians were already serving by early 1940.
The conscription issue In Canada itself, the population was deeply divided regarding the issue of military conscription for overseas service. Canadians have never been subject to, and abhor the idea of, obligatory military service in peacetime. However, in 1940 the National Resources Mobilisation Act (NRMA) allowed conscription for service in North America only. The government had promised not to introduce conscription for overseas service; but, facing great pressure from the military's forecasts of manpower shortages, it decided in 1942 to hold a referendum on the issue so as to be relieved of its earlier promise. Never a popular measure, overseas conscription was accepted as a necessary evil by most in English Canada; but the majority in French Canada were solidly against it, and the issue provoked a ferocious political crisis between the province of Quebec and the Canadian government
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