Bungling the battles
Canadian troops in over their heads in Second World War’s early days
RARELY a day goes by when the extensive Winnipeg Free Press obituaries do not include a picture and a mention of one of our fellow Winnipeggers who served in the Second World War. It’s a reminder that ours was a largely voluntary citizen military, a point driven home in Tim Cook’s engaging and wellresearched addition to the mountain of military books on the war. Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum; along with his previous books, his Pierre Berton Award for popularizing Canadian history is reinforced with this book. Imagine if a Little League team were playing the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Now you have an idea of what Canada’s military faced in 1939 against a German decade of preparation and experience — first in Spain in 1936, followed by the ruthless, lightning-fast strikes that began the official hostilities. According to Cook, the Royal Canadian Navy performed its Atlantic convoy duty with insufficient ships, outdated equipment, not much training and with little regard to the breaking point of either men or ships. Indeed, Cook is prepared to lay blame and make judgments — unusual for a professional historian. He blames Percy Nelles, the Canadian chief of the naval staff, because he “did not fully grasp the value of the radar” and did not push the Brits to share their advanced radar technology. Cook manages to involve all five senses in recreating the experience of serving on a corvette: unpleasant in the extreme, relieved only by the comradeship of youth and the memory of the soul-destroying years of the Depression. Worth noting as well is his salute to the Canadian merchant navy, who were dismissed at the time as “overpaid, oversexed, undisciplined mercenaries” (a dismissal reinforced for years after the war by successive Canadian governments). In terms of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Cook concentrates on Bomber Command. His approach to the controversy that erupted at our War Museum over the bombing of German civilians is to explain the impossibility of accuracy given the equipment of the day, the distances involved along with the weather, the need to satisfy Stalin that a second front was coming, the willingness of the British population and politicians of an eye for an eye, and the need to slow German military production that occurred after 1943. As for the Canadian Army, Cook devotes most space to the debacle that was the Dieppe raid as well as the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Reviewing Dieppe, he blames Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been given the command of the Combined Operations Headquarters in 1942 in order to “take the war to the Germans.” Cook’s evaluation: “Promoted far beyond his competence.” Regarding Italy, he quotes a soldier’s summation: “a raving madhouse.” Here Cook reinforces the high cost of learning to fight and defeat a battle-hardened, professional army in terrain that favoured the defenders, and a climate that offered malaria, dysentery, damp and mud. The newspaper obituary reminders of our neighbours’ service and cost will vanish all too soon. Cook’s book is a welcome and needed reminder of his primary view that “war is about combat and death,” in what he concludes was “a war of utter necessity.”
Ron Robinson’s father served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian
Light Infantry from 1939 to ’45.
The mostly volunteer soldiers in the Canadian Army learned to fight in miserable conditions against a battle-hardened professional German force.
ThThe NecessaryN War: W Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939
43, Volume One