Bungling the bat­tles

Cana­dian troops in over their heads in Sec­ond World War’s early days

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ron Robin­son

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

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