On September 11, 1939 Canada followed England and declared war on Germany, the country's first independent declaration of war in its history heralding the start of Canada's largest national effort in its history. By the end of WW2 over 1.1 million Canadians had served in the armed forces, and Canada would have the fourth largest air force and the third largest naval fleet in the world.
During World war Two, a total of 42,789 Canadian armed forces men and women (72) were killed in service with a further 97,988 wounded, many of them severely, from a population of just 11.2 million people.
In the Air
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) airmen served with both RAF fighter and bomber squadrons in the Battle of Britain and the bombing campaigns against Germany playing a major part in the ongoing air war in Europe, especially in Bomber Command. 10,000 Canadian airmen were killed in action in Bomber Command in WW2. Bomber Command crew had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I and the crews suffered a terrible casualty rate: 55,573 killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew (a 44.4% mortality rate) with a further 8,403 wounded in action and 9,838 becoming POWs. Although many RCAF personnel served in the RAF, No. 6 Group RAF Bomber Command was formed entirely of RCAF squadrons. In total 48 separate RCAF squadrons flew in Northwest Europe, the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia theatres of war as well as playing a major role in the Dieppe raid. The RCAF was also quite prominent in antisubmarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic. RCAF personnel also provided close air support for Allied forces during the Battle of Normandy and subsequent ongoing support in Europe after D-Day. To free up male RCAF personnel who were needed on active operational or training duties, the RCAF Women's Division was formed in 1941.
At the outbreak of WW2 Canada did not have a navy of any significance with only 7 warships and approximately 3,500 men. On entering the war Canada required a total naval overhaul in order to fight as a cohesive force and aid the British. By September 1940 the RCN had grown to 10,000 men. The progression Canada made from 1939 to 1945 with their Navy was astonishing, going from the limited amount of warships they had to becoming the third largest navy in the world by 1945.
The Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian merchant marine also played a crucial role in the Battle of the Atlantic providing escort ships to guard commercial ship convoys against German U-Boats bringing essential food and war munitions to the United Kingdom from 1939 - 1945 during the longest battle of the entire war - the Battle of the North Atlantic. Many Canadian merchant marine men died in appalling weather conditions on the Atlantic convoy run from the ferocious U-Boat attacks on their convoys. Without those convoys however Britain would have starved to death in 1940. By the end of the war however the RCN was arguably the best anti-submarine force in the world.
Initially the Germans were most successful in severely hampering these supply lines and approximately 350 merchant ships were sunk by U-boats during the last six months of 1940 and by the end of 1941 U-boats had destroyed 600,000 tons of cargo. After 1941 with the experience of the last 2 years and with vastly improved anti submarine defences the RCN did a superb job in both managing the logistics of the convoys and protecting them. The RCN became increasingly involved in all three countries' (United States, Canada, and Britain) shipyards, docks, railways, road transport and air force to ensure the continual flow of the merchant convoys. Throughout the war the RCN made 25,343 successful escort voyages delivering over a staggering 165 million tons of cargo. The Germans attributed the RCN as responsible for the loss of 52 submarines in the Atlantic for 59 Canadian merchant ships and 24 warships sunk during the battle of the Atlantic. British Admiral Sir Percy Noble is quoted as saying: "Canadians solved the problem of the Atlantic convoys"
Canada was also given the responsibility of covering two strategically key points in the Atlantic, the "Mid-Atlantic Gap", located off the coast of Greenland which was a very hostile point in the supply line which was very difficult to take control. 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 with their tasks to cover the flanks of the invasion to ensure submarine defence of the invasion fleet. They were also to provide outer patrols of the southern flank of the invasion area, and lastly to prevent submarine flotillas in the channel from gaining reinforcements .The Normandy invasion totally relied on the RCN to cover British and American flanks to ensure a successful landing on the beaches of Normandy.
On the Ground
Hong Kong 1940
Two Canadian infantry battalions, (2000 men in total) were involved in the failed defence of Hong Kong. They were quite badly treated on their return to Canada after the war and it was not until 2000 that the Canadian government recognised them and their terrible deprivation as prisoners of war with full war pensions.
The disastrous Dieppe raid i(Operation Jubilee) of August 19, 1942 involving the the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division is now forever enshrined in Canadian history. Approximately 5,000 soldiers of the Second Canadian Division and 1000 British commandos were landed at Dieppe in occupied France in the only major combined forces assault on France prior to the Normandy invasion of June 1944. The air and naval support promised by the British did not happen and consequently Canadian forces were decimated assaulting an extremely heavily defended coast line with no support. From nearly 6,000 combined troops landed over a thousand were killed and another 2,340 were captured. Two Canadians won the Victoria Cross for actions at Dieppe: Lt. Colonel "Cec" Merritt of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Hon. Captain John Foote of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. The value of the Dieppe Raid is still debated today as some historians put it forward that it was largely because of Dieppe that the Allies did not attempt any further assaults on a seaport in occupied western Europe, and other say the large number of amphibious operations before and after Dieppe showed nothing new was learnt.
Sicily and Italy 1943
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division along with tanks and armour of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade landed in Sicily in July 1943 and then took part in the successful Allied invasion of Italy then fought through the long Italian Campaign. Canadian forces played an important role in the long and bitter advance north through Italy, eventually coming under their own corps headquarters in early 1944 after fierce battles on the Moro River and at Ortona. The invasion of Sicily was the first full scale combat operation by full Canadian divisions since World War I. During the course of the Italian Campaign over 25,000 Canadian soldiers were casualties of war.
D-Day and Normandy 1944
On D-Day the 6th June 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division and tanks of the independent 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade landed on Juno Beach in the Battle of Normandy. The casualty numbers were high, with over 500 killed in that first day and more than 800 wounded- taking 50% casualties in their first hour of attack, defeating stronger resistance than any of the other beachheads except Omaha Beach. Canadian paratroopers and gliders also landed earlier on D-Day behind the beaches. By nightfall on the same day the Canadians had penetrated 12 miles inland - deeper than any of the five Allied invasion forces. Canadians continued to play an important role in the battle of France in the ongoing fighting in Normandy, with Canadian reinforcements - the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division arriving in July and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division in August. Both a corps headquarters (II Canadian Corps) and eventually an army headquarters, for the first time in Canadian military history were activated.
Several major operations with accompanying casualties were mounted by the Canadians as they fought a path to the pivotal city of Caen and then south towards Falaise as part of the Allied attempt to liberate Paris. Canadian troops played a major role in the liberation of Paris and by the time the First Canadian Army linked up with U.S. forces, the destruction of the German Army in Normandy was nearly complete. Three Victoria Crosses were earned by Canadians in Northwest Europe in these battles: Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment won the Victoria Cross for his actions at Saint-Lambert-sur-Dive, 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.
Holland - The Battle of the Scheldt 1945
The Battle of the Scheldt involved the II Canadian Corps which included the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division. Although basically a Canadian unit, II Canadian Corps contained the Polish 1st Armoured Division, the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, the Royal Netherlands Motorized Infantry Brigade, and the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. Although the British had liberated Antwerp the port of Antwerp could not be used until the Germans were beaten back from the heavily fortified Scheldt estuary. This campaign was amongst the most difficult and gruelling in WW2 with bitter fighting in the winter cold and mud in Holland as the Germans had flooded the whole area by blowing up the dykes that held back the North Sea so that much of the fighting took place in freezing water. Here they defeated a professional, highly trained and motivated heavily entrenched German force - and in the process sustaining great casualties to open Antwerp up to Allied shipping, which was essential to the subsequent Battle of the Rhine. The Corps then turned east and played a central role in the liberation of the Netherlands.
Battle of the Rhine and Germany 1945
The First Canadian Army continued to fight in two more major campaigns; the Battle of the Rhine during February - March, clearing the path to the River Rhine in anticipation of the assault crossing into Germany and the subsequent bitter battles on the far side of the Rhine inside Germany in the last weeks of the war. The 1 Canadian Corps returned to north-west Europe from Italy in early 1945 reuniting with the First Canadian Army to assist in the liberation of the Netherlands including the rescue of the Dutch from quite serious near-starvation. It is no coincidence then that the Dutch people remember Canadians with great affection and regard as their liberators, even today.
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. 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.