The Second World War, which lasted six years from 1939 to 1945, totally involved the Canadian people. The nation’s men and women served in huge numbers, 10 per cent of the population of 11 million putting on uniform. Millions more worked in war plants, in the mines and fields, and in the bureaucracies supporting the government. And that government, learning from the 1914-18 war experience, handled the difficult question of compulsory service with greater skill than in 1917-18, and managed the economy brilliantly. In every respect, this war was a far bigger affair than the previous conflict. The one exception was that the number of Canadian military personnel killed was smaller, more than 45,000 compared to more than 60,000 in the first.
The reason there were fewer casualties was that Canada’s army was not in full action until 1943 in Italy and 1944 in Northwest Europe. Hong Kong in December 1941 and Dieppe in August 1942 were disasters for Canadian arms, but the toll was not as great as in sustained combat over many months. The Royal Canadian Navy fought the enemy from the outset, but only slowly accrued strength, and naval successes and losses took time to develop. The Royal Canadian Air Force was similar. Although it had a fighter squadron in the 1940 Battle of Britain, it did not reach its maximum effort overseas until 1943 when it manned No. 6 Bomber Group. Even so, Canadian air force casualties of 17,100 dead were all but inconceivable in 1939.
Indeed, Canada’s war had been impossible to visualize at the outset. The intention had been to fight a “limited liability” war, one constrained by political and economic difficulties at home and by the intention to minimize casualties overseas. However, the German victories in the spring of 1940 changed everything and total war—a maximum effort in every area except that of compulsory service overseas—resulted.
The new situation also forced Canada into striking its first defence alliance with the United States, an effort to protect North America while, at the same time, permitting Canada to give maximum support to Britain. Meanwhile, popular expectations of a better postwar life emerged and forced the government to begin planning for and implementing social welfare measures, along with huge spending on reconstruction and, happily, on veterans’ benefits.
Canada’s soldiers, sailors and airmen helped win the war—their victories in Europe, their ultimately successful struggle versus U-boats, and their efforts over the Ruhr and Rhineland helping to smash Nazi tyranny. But Canada also won a victory, its people emerging from the Depression and war into a much better, more prosperous future.
Canada went to war on Sept. 10, 1939, for the second time in 25 years, one week after Britain and nine days after Adolf Hitler sent his armies into Poland. The government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King determined that Canada would act on its own this time.
Convoys offered a way to protect 20 to 100 merchantmen more effectively but there were always too few escort ships and the submarines were much better equipped and, soon, much more numerous than in 1914-18.
The opportunity to fight on land came in August 1942 when, at the urging of Canadian commanders, the 2nd Division played a major part in a raid on the French port of Dieppe. Badly planned, badly carried out, the raid was a disaster on every front.
Led by Major-General Guy Simmonds, 1st Division formed part of the Eighth Army, attacking northward through eastern Sicily. There were gruelling marches in the heat, hard fighting and heavy losses as the Germans staged repeated delaying actions in the rough mountainous terrain.
With the RCAF enlisting a quarter-million men and women, Canadians served in every theatre of war, in transport squadrons, in Coastal Command flying boats, in fighter squadrons, in Bomber Command, and in the Far East in India, Burma and Ceylon.
The war made Canadians yearn for a peace without economic turmoil, and the government listened if only, some say, to counter the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. In 1940, it implemented unemployment insurance and the baby bonus.
The D-Day landings were massive, a carefully planned and co-ordinated assault to break through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The air forces swept the Luftwaffe away and Allied naval power completely controlled the waters of the English Channel.
Canadians wanted their men to come home, they wanted their lives back, and they wanted jobs. Soldiers and workers had saved money during the war and now they needed housing, appliances and furniture, all of which created jobs in factories and construction.