World War 2 Engagements
“What a miserable, rotten hopeless life… an Atlantic so rough it seems impossible that we can continue to take this unending pounding and still remain in one piece… hanging onto a convoy is a full-time job… the crew in almost a stupor from the nightmarish of it all… and still we go on hour after hour.”
Frank Curry of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) wrote these words in his diary aboard a corvette in 1941, during the Battle of the Atlantic, a battle that would be called the longest of the Second World War. During the darkest days of the war, thousands of Canadians in the RCN, the Canadian Merchant Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) faced perilous conditions that many of us can only imagine. The following account tells a tale of incredible bravery and sacrifice which all of us have a duty not only to remember but to pass along to future generations.
The Battle of the Atlantic – The First
From the very outset of hostilities in the Second World War in 1939, the Atlantic supply route from North America to the United Kingdom was threatened. Eventually gaining control of the entire coast of Europe, from the northern tip of Norway to the Pyrenees, the Germans set out from every harbour and airfield in western Europe to sever the lifelines to Britain.
For six long years the RCN, the Canadian Merchant Navy and the RCAF were central participants in what was to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic.
The sea lanes of the North Atlantic formed a grim battleground. Navigation was hazardous, and sailors in the navy and merchant marine died not only from enemy attack, but from exposure and accidents in the fog and winter gales. Nor was protection sufficient to prevent heavy losses. There were too few naval vessels and maritime patrol aircraft available, as well as a severe lack of training and modern equipment and technology.
In 1939, Canada possessed only a few dozen Canadian-registered merchant ships, six destroyers, five small minesweepers, two training vessels, and a single squadron of modern military flying boats. No one would have predicted that, from this tiny beginning, Canada’s forces would go on to play a large and significant part in the Atlantic war, and that the Canadian Merchant Navy would carry cargoes around the world.
Bridging the Atlantic was the key to strategic supply, and it was in maintaining the Atlantic lifeline that Canadian naval and air personnel played an increasingly vital role. To transport safely the vast amounts of goods and troops that were needed, ship movements had to be organized and controlled. In August 1939, Canadian-registered merchant ships and ships in Canadian ports passed from the control of their owners into the control of the RCN, which would determine routes and departures. Shipping on the more important and vulnerable routes was placed in convoy as the best means to regulate traffic and provide protection from both sea and air.
On September 16, 1939, the first convoy set out from Halifax for the United Kingdom, closely guarded by HM cruisers Berwick and York and by the Canadian destroyers St. Laurent and Saguenay. Soon, two convoys a week were sailing from Halifax. Slow convoys were also sailing from Sydney Harbour. By the end of 1939, some 410 ships in 14 HX convoys had crossed the Atlantic. Escort work would remain the RCN’s chief responsibility for the duration of the war. It was difficult and dangerous work and Canadians shared in the worst hardships experienced in the war at sea.
The Early Battles
In April 1940, the war in Europe took an ominous turn as German troops without warning seized Denmark and launched an invasion of Norway. In only a few weeks the Germans had conquered Denmark and Norway and isolated Sweden.
On May 10, Germany launched its blitzkrieg against Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. With German troops pressing from all sides, the Allied troops in Europe were forced to the Channel at Dunkirk with the sea as the only hope of escape. On June 22, 1940, France surrendered, and Britain and its dominions stood alone against a formidable enemy.
Although the United Kingdom proved victorious in the Battle of Britain and managed to stave off Hitler’s planned invasion, it remained under siege. London, many British cities and the English Channel ports were bombed unmercifully, and the U-boats, using their brand new bases in France, attacked convoys and independently-routed ships almost at will. The U-boats picked off solo ships and stragglers and made bold, single-handed attacks on convoys. These young aces, the German elite, raced each other for tonnage sunk. German naval commanders later referred to the period July to September 1940 as “the happy time.”
In September of 1940, for the first time, U-boats began using the so-called “wolf-pack” tactics. At night, groups of U-boats (often as many as six and sometimes more) attacked convoys sailing from North America to Britain. The results were calamitous. As many as 20 per cent of a convoy’s heavily-laden cargo ships were sunk.
Meanwhile, the blitz on London went on night after night to shatter its enormous port. The Channel was closed to shipping by October and all Atlantic convoys were rerouted north of Ireland to Liverpool and the Clyde in Scotland. Even this route was seriously threatened and four RCN destroyers, which had been stationed in British waters after France was invaded, strove to fend off submarine attacks while rescuing survivors of torpedoed merchant ships.
The shipping losses were staggering and British shipyards were heavily committed to naval construction. Great Britain could not produce new merchant ships at the pace needed to replace those being lost and turned to the United States and Canada. In the face of the urgent need, Canada embarked on a massive shipbuilding program. However, before these ships could come off the assembly lines, the Atlantic war grew more desperate.
The War Intensifies – 1941
With the approach of the spring of 1941, the enemy stepped up the scale of attack. In June alone, more than 454,000 tonnes of shipping were lost to U-boats.
Although the Royal Navy was able to assert its superiority over the German surface fleet, the menace from German submarines mounted. The U-boats concentrated at weak points in the naval defenses of the Allies. Ships were lost because their escorts had reached the limits of their endurance and had to turn back.
To counteract this menace, new types of vessels were constructed and scientists worked desperately to design new methods of locating and destroying the U-boats. Canada’s fleet was augmented by several new types of vessels, of which the corvette was the most famous. Designed on the pattern of a whaler, it was 63 metres long, displaced 935 tonnes and had a maximum speed of 16 knots. They could be produced quickly and cheaply and had the ability to out maneuver a submarine. However, corvettes were known as “wet ships.” They had been designed for coastal patrols and were pressed into transatlantic service only because there was nothing else available. As the seas broke over them, salty water seeped through seams, hatches and ventilators. They were intolerably crowded and living conditions on board for a crew of some 60 sailors were terrible. Nevertheless, these small ships were invaluable in the anti-U-boat war. Of the 123 corvettes that served in the RCN, ten were lost to enemy action.
As enemy U-boats began to probe farther west, the British countered by establishing new bases for ships and aircraft in Iceland and Newfoundland. The Newfoundland bases would become a Canadian responsibility. On May 31, 1941, Commodore Leonard Murray, RCN, was appointed commander of the Newfoundland Escort Force reporting to the British Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches. A few days later, the first Canadian corvettes joined his command. In June, Canadian destroyers in British home waters returned to serve with the Newfoundland force. By July, the Newfoundland Escort Force totaled 12 groups of Canadian and British warships and was escorting convoys as far as 35 degrees west.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), meanwhile, had been flying patrols over Newfoundland’s waters and coasts since 1939 and the first maritime patrol squadron had been stationed at Gander since 1940. Reinforced by other RCAF squadrons, it now provided air support to the Newfoundland Escort Force and was an integral part of the RCAF’s Eastern Air Command. In the eastern Atlantic, the convoys were guarded by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Coastal Command which included RCAF squadrons. At this time, however, aircraft lacked the range to cover the central part of the Atlantic ocean, an area that became known as the “Black Pit” because of the heavy losses the U-boats were often able to inflict there.
The Campaign Moves to North American Waters
Although officially neutral, the United States had become increasingly involved in the war at sea. In September 1941, Canadian naval forces came under American “coordinating supervision.” This arrangement replaced control by the British commander-in-chief, based in England, with an American commander who was much closer to the situation in the western Atlantic. However, when the United States officially entered the war in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many of the American ships were withdrawn from the North Atlantic to meet burgeoning U.S. commitments elsewhere. This, unfortunately, weakened the Atlantic anti-submarine defenses.
As winter storms began to batter the convoys, marine casualties from causes other than enemy action also rose steadily.
In January 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic shifted to the Canadian and American seaboards where Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of German U-boat forces, suspected shipping would be poorly protected. The Canadian navy, however, now with more than two years experience in organizing convoys, immediately began to sail shipping in defended groups. Often the only protection available was a single armed yacht. It worked. The U-boats soon shifted their main offensive to the U.S. coast and the Caribbean where ships were still sailing alone.
It became another “happy time” for U-boat commanders as the U-boats wreaked havoc along the American coastline.
Night after night submarines rose to the surface and picked off merchant ships at will, many of them silhouetted against the undimmed lights of the shoreline. From January to July 1942, nearly 400 ships were sunk for the loss of only seven U-boats. Through the spring of 1942, the U.S. Navy gradually built up a convoy system, but was dependent on Canadian help. Canadian escorts, reinforced by some Royal Navy ships, escorted much of the transatlantic shipping from New York north. This was the Triangle Run, in which the Canadian escort groups shuttled convoys between New York or Boston, Halifax, and the eastern part of Newfoundland, where the Canadian and British mid-ocean escort groups took over the run to the British Isles. Other Canadian warships assisted the British and Americans in protecting the valuable tanker traffic from the Caribbean.
While the RCN and RCAF had been able to limit losses off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland during the first half of 1942, there was still a very large vulnerable area: the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The huge commitments on the ocean shipping routes, moreover, left very few aircraft and almost no warships to defend this inland sea. On the night of May 11, the freighters SS Nicoyaand SS Leto were torpedoed off the Gaspé Peninsula. The war was suddenly right at home and in sight of shore.
Once again, the navy organized convoys and the air force kept as many aircraft overhead as they could. These efforts made the great strain on the forces nearly unbearable but the U-boats continued to take a toll. The constricted shipping routes, the many deep-water hiding places, and the virtual blindness of underwater detection equipment in the complex waters of the Gulf and river seemed to make tested defense methods ineffective. By early October, seven U-boats had sunk two naval escorts and 19 merchant vessels in the Gulf and river. Then, on October 14, the ferry Caribou was sunk just 64 kilometres short of her Newfoundland destination. Of 237 passengers, 136 men, women and children perished.
The disaster seemed to confirm the wisdom of the navy in its decision a few weeks before to close the Gulf to overseas shipping. The immediate cause for this development had been yet another plea from Britain for more Canadian escorts for yet another new commitment — to support the Allied invasion of North Africa. These ships could only be provided by reducing the force in Canadian waters, and the naval presence in the Gulf was scaled back because of the problems encountered in defending against the U-boats. Paradoxically, the German records now available show that the Canadian air force and navy operations had by October almost completely discouraged the U-boats. The hit on Caribou had been a tragic piece of good luck for a U-boat that had almost given up the hunt in the Gulf.
The Grimmest Period
While taking on the new responsibilities on the North American coast and in the Mediterranean, the RCN also maintained a major presence on the transatlantic run between Newfoundland and Northern Ireland. Moreover, they were often responsible for the slowest convoys, the ones most likely to fall victim to U-boat attacks. During the summer and fall of 1942, as Dönitz scaled back the offensive in Canadian and U.S. waters because of improved defences there, he concentrated large numbers of submarines in the mid-Atlantic. Despite bombing raids on German construction yards and bases, the U-boat force increased. In the fall of 1942, with nearly 300 submarines available—over ten times as many as at the outbreak of war—Dönitz was able to send 20 or more against a single convoy.
At first, the Canadian groups held their own, but as the size of the “wolf packs” increased and winter storms swept the Atlantic, several convoys escorted by the RCN suffered heavy losses. Canada’s navy had expanded rapidly. By late 1942, the RCN had 16,000 members serving in 188 warships, a number that was still too few for the enormous commitments. The strain told in the performance of the Canadian groups, which could not be reinforced adequately or supplied with the latest weapons or advanced training programs. The RCAF’s Eastern Air Command did its best to help the beleaguered convoys pushing its aircraft to the limits. The Canadian airmen achieved outstanding results on several occasions, destroying and damaging U-boats 500 miles and more out in the Atlantic. They did not, however, have the latest “very-long-range” aircraft needed to reach the dreaded “Black Pit” where the U-boats could attack in relative freedom.
The Battle of the Atlantic reached its climax in March 1943; in that month, the U-boats sent 108 Allied ships—569,000 tonnes of vital shipping—to the bottom. These figures were lower than in November 1942, but what was so disturbing was that 85 of the ships lost had been in convoy or straggling and most had been sunk in the North Atlantic. The only glimmer of hope lay in the success of the air and naval escorts in exacting a toll of 16 U-boats.
The Tide Turns
The U-boat success threatened the war plans of the western alliance. Dependable delivery of troops, equipment and supplies were vital to build up forces for the liberation of Europe. An all-out Allied effort, especially by the British, against the submarines was needed. In May 1943, outstanding defense of convoys compelled Dönitz to change his U-boat strategy in the North Atlantic.
This was not, however, the end of the U-boat menace. Dönitz still had more than 200 submarines, and German industry and science was rapidly replacing losses and providing improved equipment. The RCN continued its rapid expansion, but now with better equipment and improved ships. For example, large Canadian-built frigates, unlike the little corvettes, were expressly designed for trans-ocean escort. The RCAF’s Eastern Air Command also received better aircraft in the last half of 1943, including very-long-range Consolidated Liberator bombers that could—and did—make patrols right across the Atlantic, helping to close the “Black Pit.”
In addition, three RCAF anti-submarine bomber squadrons had been organized in the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command to carry out patrols from Great Britain. Many RCAF personnel also served in British anti-submarine squadrons. Thus the RCAF, like the RCN, had a major presence across the whole Atlantic. Other technological developments helped the Allied cause as well, with new weapon, radar and code-breaking developments contributing to the turning of the tide against the U-boats.
Both Canadian services took on an increased share of convoy defense in the North Atlantic to release British warships and aircraft to prepare for the Allied invasion of France. During the last months before the Normandy invasion, the RCN assumed responsibility for all North Atlantic escort. Canada’s now very substantial and capable anti-submarine fleet and air squadrons also played a prominent part in protecting the Allied invasion fleet as it crossed the English Channel. Canadian air and naval units were among the most successful among the Allied forces in finding and destroying U-boats during and after the invasion.
Yet, the U-boat fleet continued to launch new offensives. New snorkel technology, for example, enabled the submarines to operate continuously underwater and allowed them to hover close off the entrances to British and Canadian ports. Although the U-boats were unable to regain the initiative, they had significant successes until the very end of the war. A stealthy snorkel U-boat sank the minesweeper HMCS Esquimalt just off the entrance to Halifax harbour on April 16, 1945.
Canada’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic was large and significant. Starting from a tiny base of ships, aircraft and personnel, and an infrastructure of meager proportions, Canada became one of the foremost Allied powers in the Atlantic war. By 1942, Canada was able to carry a major share of the defense of North American waters and, at the same time, was Britain’s principal partner in the defense of trans-ocean convoys. By 1944, Canadian forces had developed the strength and capability to provide a significant contribution to the British and Americans in other theatres of the war.
Canada’s Merchant Navy Veterans bore much of the brunt of the war in the Atlantic. Many of the sailors aboard merchant vessels had survived the mines and submarines of the First World War and chose to sail again, some two decades later. They sometimes sailed in rusty old ships, but more often in highly inflammable tankers or in freighters loaded with ammunition. With each voyage the odds of survival seemed to grow longer. Still, voyage after voyage, men who had been torpedoed or had seen ships go down about them, sailed and sailed again.
The most important achievement of the war in the Atlantic was the more than 25,000 merchant ship voyages made from North American to British ports under the escort of Canadian forces. These vessels delivered approximately 165 million tonnes of cargo to sustain the United Kingdom and made possible the liberation of Europe. In the process, Canadian warships and aircraft sank, or shared in the destruction of some 50 U-boats.
Beginning the war with a mere 13 vessels and 3,500 personnel, the Royal Canadian Navy grew to become, for a brief time at least, the third largest of the Allied navies. At war’s end, the RCN comprised 373 fighting ships and more than 110,000 members, including 6,500 women who served in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Services. The principal Canadian anti-submarine forces at that time included 261 sea-going escorts (Bangors, corvettes, frigates and escort destroyers). Hundreds of other craft—Fairmile launches, tugboats, coastal tankers and the other kinds of transports—protected Canadian waters, serviced the fleet and kept the bases running. All but a handful of the RCN ships, moreover, were built in Canada—an accomplishment of critical importance to the Allied cause. During the dark years of 1941 and 1942, when Canadian production came on stream, the larger Allies simply had no other source of escorts.
The RCAF’s Eastern Air Command reached a peak strength of 21,233 personnel, including 1,735 members of the Women’s Division, at the end of January 1944. Of this total, more than 1,200 were air crew. The rest managed the bases, communications, navigation systems and other services needed to operate multi-engine aircraft over the vast expanse of the northwest Atlantic. At this same time, nearly 2,000 RCAF air crew were serving in both Canadian and British squadrons of the Royal Air Force Coastal Command.
The main objective of Canada’s Atlantic forces was always the protection of shipping. The outcome of the war was dependent on the success of the Atlantic convoys—on the merchant ships reaching the United Kingdom.
In 1939, Canada had only 38 ocean-going merchant ships averaging little over 6,000 dead weight tonnes (DWT), with a total of about 290,000 tonnes and manned by approximately 1,450 Canadian seamen. Following the outbreak of war, captured enemy ships and ships of occupied nations were added to the roster. There was also a large Canadian Lake fleet, and in the desperate wartime situation even they became ocean-going vessels. Yet, over the course of the next six years, the wartime world’s fourth largest merchant navy would emerge, almost all of it built in Canadian shipyards.
The number of ships that poured from Canada’s shipyards during the war was extraordinary. In fact it was described by an official of the British Ministry of War Transport as “remarkable,” “astonishing” and “magnificent.” From the first delivery in December 1941 to shortly after war’s end in 1945, Canada produced three hundred fifty-four 10,000 tonne DWT cargo ships; forty-three 4,700 tonne DWT cargo ships; and six 3,600 tonne DWT cargo ship. Simultaneously, they turned out astonishing numbers of naval vessels; 281 escort ships (destroyers, corvettes, frigates), 206 minesweepers, 254 tugs and 3,302 landing craft.
The remarkable achievement by the Allied shipyards was an important reason for the turn of the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic. By mid-1943, it was clear that no matter how many merchant ships German U-boats still could send to the bottom, torpedoing could no longer outpace the production of new ships.
The Cost of War
With this expanded participation came a high cost. Approximately 2,000 members of the RCN were killed, all causes and theatres combined, the vast majority in the Battle of the Atlantic—752 members of the RCAF died in maritime operations as a result of enemy action and flying accidents in the unforgiving environment. The Book of Remembrance for the Merchant Navy lists by name nearly 1,600 Canadians and Newfoundlanders, or those who served on ships of Canadian or Newfoundland registry. It includes the names of eight women. Many other Canadians, whose names are unknown, were lost serving on ships of Allied merchant marines.
Those who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic achieved and sacrificed much in their efforts to help bring peace and freedom to the people of Europe. These combatants were among the more than one million men and women who served in Canada’s armed forces during the Second World War. More than 42,000 Canadians gave their lives in the war. Canada recognizes the sacrifices and achievements of all the Canadians, like those who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic, who accomplished so much and left such a lasting legacy of peace.
The Battle of the Atlantic was a pivotal struggle that was won, just in time, with massive help from Canada—from its navy, its airmen, its merchant marine and from its civilian population.
A Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest gallantry medal, was posthumously awarded to a member of the RCAF for his courageous leadership during the Atlantic campaign. Flight Lieutenant David Hornell, of Mimico, Ontario, was pilot of a Canso amphibian aircraft which came across a surfaced U-boat north of the Shetland Islands in June 1944. Although his aircraft had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, and was burning and vibrating violently as a result, Hornell managed to destroy the submarine and land the aircraft on the water, where it soon sank. Having only one small dinghy among the eight of the plane’s crew, Hornell gave up his seat in the raft to a wounded crew member. Two Canadians died of exposure, and the rest were rescued 21 hours after crash-landing. Hornell, blind and exhausted, died shortly after his rescue.
When Canada entered the conflict on September 10, 1939, the RCAF was our country’s smallest military service. By the end of the war, we had the fourth-largest air force of the Allied powers. Approximately 250,000 brave men and women served in the RCAF, many of them with Bomber Command.
In the early years of the Second World War, Germany had invaded much of continental Europe. The Allies needed time to build the massive resources that would be required to liberate the conquered countries but that didn’t mean the fighting there had stopped.
They turned to an air campaign, bombing tactical and strategic targets in Germany and occupied Europe to reduce the enemy’s military and industrial capacity. The bomber campaign caused considerable damage to German resources and was an important contribution to the final push for victory in the Second World War.
The men who served in Bomber Command faced some of the most difficult odds of anyone fighting in the war. For much of the conflict, the regular duration for a tour of duty was 30 combat sorties. The risks were so high, however, that almost half of all aircrew never made it to the end of their tour. Despite the heavy losses, Bomber Command was able to maintain a steady stream of aircraft flying over U-boat bases, docks, railways and industrial cities in Germany, as well as enemy targets in occupied Europe from Norway to France.
Life as a bomber aircrew member was difficult. Usually seven men flew in a typical four-engined bomber like the Halifax and the Lancaster. These men worked together under great pressure on their night sorties. Take-offs were often tense, with a roaring aircraft loaded with tons of bombs and more than 6,000 litres of highly-flammable aviation gasoline racing down the runway. At high altitudes, the aircrew shivered in sub-zero temperatures, their oxygen masks sometimes freezing up. German fighters waited for them in the night skies over Europe and powerful searchlights and flak batteries guarded their targets, turning the skies into a hail of shrapnel. Evading the enemy defenses made for challenging flying that sometimes caused aircraft to go into a spin, while the pilot fought for control. Escape from a damaged plane was difficult and many of the Canadians who survived being shot down over enemy territory would become prisoners of war.
Women also played a role in Bomber Command. Members of the RCAF Women’s Division (WD) were stationed in England during the war years. While women did not serve in combat roles, they did perform important support work on the ground like being coding technicians, operating radios and plotting aircraft positions.
By the end of the Second World War, No. 6 Bomber Group had carried out more than 40,000 sorties. Approximately 8,000 decorations for bravery were awarded to its members. There were exceptional acts of courage that would earn two Canadian airmen – Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette – the Victoria Cross, our highest honour for military valour.
During the Second World War, Canada had a population of only about 11 million people. Yet, from that relatively small population, more than one million men and women would join the military to fight for peace and freedom. There were many roles in which a Canadian could serve in uniform during the Second World War but few held as much risk as the Air Force’s Bomber Command. All told, some 55,000 of its Allied airmen, including approximately 10,000 Canadians, would lose their lives in training accidents, in the skies over Europe or in prisoners of war camps.
D-Day and the Battle of Normandy
By the spring of 1944, Germany had occupied France and much of the European continent for almost four years. A narrow stretch of water, the English Channel, was all that separated the German forces from Great Britain.
An Allied raid on the French coast at Dieppe in August 1942 had resulted in heavy losses, particularly for Canada, but by 1944 the Allies had made strong gains against German troops in both Italy and the Soviet Union.
The Allies knew they would have to defeat Germany in Western Europe to win the war and decided to mount a major campaign for 1944. Planning lasted more than a year, taking great effort and involving many elements. Ground, sea and air forces rehearsed endlessly to make sure their timing and coordination was perfect. Great numbers of troops, boats, tanks, supplies and equipment were gathered in total secrecy in southern England. Portable docking facilities were built for the supply ships to off-load their cargoes in the days after the Allies had landed. A long flexible pipe, called “Pluto,” (Pipe Lines Under The Ocean) was even built to carry fuel under the sea from England to Normandy, the region of northwestern France where the Allies would come ashore.
Even with all these preparations, the Normandy campaign would be very difficult. The shores of Northwest Europe were littered with German land mines, barbed wire, heavy artillery batteries and machine-gun nests. There were also anti-tank walls, shelters constructed of thick concrete, anti-aircraft guns and many other types of defensive positions. For these reasons, the coastline from Denmark to the south of France was known as “Fortress Europe.”
For the Allied offensive to be successful, harbours along the continent’s coastline would have to be secured for the many transport ships that would be needed to ferry food, medical supplies, weapons and fresh troops after the initial landings. As well, Allied armies would continue to need “Pluto” to help transport the fuel needed to liberate occupied Europe.
An Allied defeat on the beaches of Normandy would have meant certain disaster as there would be no way to remove troops to safety. But if the landings succeeded, the Allied forces would finally gain that all-important foothold in western Europe and a chance to liberate France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark from German occupation.
On Land, Be Sea, In the Air
Allied aircraft paved the way for the landings, bombing the coastal defense in the months leading up to the attack. On June 6, 1944—D-Day—a massive Allied force crossed the English Channel to engage in Operation Overlord. Their destination: an 80-kilometre stretch of the heavily-defended coast of Normandy. There were five landing zones, given special code names: Juno Beach (Canada); Gold Beach (United Kingdom); Sword Beach (United Kingdom and France); and Utah Beach and Omaha Beach (United States).
Seven thousand vessels of all types, including 284 major combat vessels, took part in Operation Neptune, the assault phase of the D-Day offensive. Destroyers and supporting craft of the Royal Canadian Navy did their part and shelled German targets while many Royal Canadian Air Force planes were among the 4,000 Allied bombers (plus some 3,700 fighters and fighter bombers) which attacked the German beach defenses and inland targets.
More than 450 Canadians parachuted inland before dawn on June 6 and engaged the enemy. A few hours later, some 14,000 Canadian troops began coming ashore at Juno Beach in the face of enemy fire. Their mission: to establish a beachhead along an eight-kilometre stretch fronting the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer, and Saint Aubin-sur-Mer. Once secure, the troops would push inland to capture the city of Caen, an important communications centre for the Germans.
A Hard-Won Victory
Many Canadian soldiers in the Normandy campaign were young and new to battle, but their courage and skill meant they often helped lead the Allied advance against a determined enemy. Canadians soon captured three shoreline positions on D-Day and established themselves near the village of Creully, but this was to be only the beginning of the struggle to liberate France. Savage fighting in Normandy continued and grew even more intense as Canadian forces faced powerful German Panzer tank divisions in the struggle for Caen.
Through the summer of 1944, the fighting continued through choking dust and intense heat. The conditions were terrible and the enemy was ruthless, but the troops moved forward. Canadians played an important role in closing the “Falaise Gap” in mid-August as the Germans finally retreated in the face of the Allied offensive. On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the Allies, bringing the Normandy campaign officially to a close.
Against difficult odds, the Canadians advanced against the best troops the enemy had. Victory in the Normandy campaign, however, would come at a terrible cost. Three hundred and forty Canadians were killed on Juno Beach on D-Day alone and the Canadians would suffer the most casualties of any division in the British Army Group during the Battle of Normandy. More than 5,000 made the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives, and lie buried in a place far from their homes and loved ones. Others returned home with injuries to body and mind that they carry to this day.
Victory in Normandy would be only the beginning of many months of hard fighting on the ground in Western Europe. Canadians would play an important role in the offensives that would finally defeat the Germans and end the war in this part of the world.
The brave Canadians who served in the Normandy Campaign were among the more than one million men and women who served in the cause of peace and freedom during the Second World War.
The Dieppe Raid
Canada’s experiences in times of war have been marked by great triumphs but also by harsh setbacks. The Dieppe Raid during the Second World War was one of the darkest chapters in our country’s military history but it was also marked by great courage and helped lead to important lessons being learned.
By the summer of 1942, the Second World War had been raging for almost three years and things looked grim; Nazi Germany had pushed east deep into the Soviet Union, enemy forces were advancing in North Africa and u-boats were making the Atlantic a deadly place for Allied shipping. The British Isles were the only Allied holdout after the Germans had invaded and occupied much of Western Europe in 1940. The continent’s west coast was studded with enemy troops, machine guns, artillery, barbed wire, concrete pillboxes and offshore obstacles. It truly was on its way to becoming “Fortress Europe.”
Why Raid Dieppe?
Many factors contributed to the decision to mount a large raid into occupied Europe in 1942. The Soviet Union was pressuring the Allied forces to open a second front in Western Europe. The Allies, however, needed more time to build up their military resources before undertaking such a massive effort. They felt that a large raid on the coast of France, however, could force the Germans to divert more of their military resources away from the Soviet Union and also help in the planning for the full-scale Allied assault that would eventually have to take place.
Canadian soldiers had been training since the outset of the war in 1939 and, except for the Battle of Hong Kong, had yet to see significant action. There was political pressure at home to finally get the Canadians into battle, as well as impatience within the army itself.
Dieppe is a resort town situated at a break in the cliffs along the northwest coast of France and was selected as the main target of the raid partially because it was within range of fighter planes from Britain. The Allies’ plan was to launch a large-scale amphibious landing, damage enemy shipping and port facilities, and gather intelligence on German defenses and radar technology. Recent research has suggested that the desire to capture a top secret Enigma code machine and accompanying code books was also an important factor in mounting the raid.
The Dieppe Raid, code-named “Operation Jubilee,” saw more than 6,000 men come ashore at five different points along a 16 kilometre-long stretch of heavily defended coastline. Four of the attacks were to take place just before dawn at points east and west of Dieppe, while the main attack on the town itself would take place half an hour later. The raiding force was made up of almost 5,000 Canadians, approximately 1,000 British commandos and 50 American Army Rangers.
Things immediately went wrong for the landing force on the eastern flank. They encountered a small German convoy and the ensuing firefight alerted the enemy. The soldiers that came ashore at Berneval and Puys consequently were met with overwhelming fire and some of the heaviest Allied losses took place there.
Some objectives on the western flank were achieved and the enemy gun batteries at Varengeville were destroyed. In Pourville, the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders came ashore and pushed towards their goals. The mounting German resistance, however, would force them to withdraw with heavy losses.
Running behind schedule, the main force going ashore at Dieppe landed as daylight was breaking. The German troops, now alerted to the raid, cut down many Canadians as they waded in the surf. Nevertheless, many of our soldiers fought their way across the cobblestone beach to the relative protection of the seawall. The same cobblestones and seawall made it hard for the Allied tanks to move off the beach and the fierce enemy fire prevented engineers from clearing the way for them to push their way into the town.
Small groups from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish Regiment were able to fight their way into the bullet-swept streets of Dieppe. It was clear, however, that the raid could not continue and the retreat soon began. Trying to evacuate everyone, however, would mean the probable destruction of the Allied naval force. Through great courage, many men were taken off the beaches under heavy fire, but by early afternoon the last boat had departed. Left in a hopeless situation, the remaining Canadians were forced to surrender. The raid was over.
Many acts of great courage took place during the Dieppe Raid and two Canadians would earn the Victoria Cross, our country’s highest award for military valour. Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt earned the medal for courageously leading his men from the South Saskatchewan Regiment across the River Scie at Pourville in the face of heavy resistance. Once the regiment could go no farther, he then led a dangerous retreat that allowed most of the men to escape back to Britain. Merritt himself was captured and spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war.
Honourary Captain John W. Foote, a chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, also earned a Victoria Cross. For eight hours, he continually braved enemy fire on the Dieppe beach to bring the wounded to first aid posts. When his own landing craft was about to leave, he intentionally stayed behind to be captured so that he could minister to the many men who were going to be taken prisoner.
1942 was one of the darkest periods of the Second World War. But the fact that the Allies had come ashore in occupied France gave the French people some hope and the Dieppe Raid let them know that they had not been forgotten.
While the losses were heavy and the raid did not meet most of its objectives, many historians feel that the lessons learned there played an important role in the success of later actions. For example, the Dieppe Raid and subsequent wartime beach assaults contributed to improvements in Allied amphibious landing techniques. While the cost of gaining this knowledge was steep, it likely saved many lives on the beaches of Normandy when the Allies returned to the shores of continental Western Europe to stay on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The men who participated in the Dieppe Raid paid a great price. Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked on the mission, only approximately 2,200 returned to England and many of those had been wounded. More than 3,350 Canadians became casualties, including a total of 916 who lost their lives as a result of the raid and approximately 1,950 more who were taken prisoner. A total of 210 British and American personnel also lost their lives.
Those who were captured faced especially harsh treatment in prisoner of war camps and most would remain in captivity for more than two-and-a-half years. As the end of the war neared, many of them also had to endure forced wintertime marches as the Germans moved the prisoners away from the advancing Allied forces who otherwise could have liberated them.
The Dieppe Raid also took a considerable toll on the ships and aircraft that supported the assault. August 19, 1942, saw the Allies’ worst single day losses for aircraft of the entire Second World War, with 119 of their warplanes being shot down as they tried to protect the landing force.
The Canadians who fought in the Dieppe Raid were among the more than one million men and women from our country who served in uniform during the Second World War. The efforts of all of these brave Canadians helped the Allies eventually achieve victory. The sacrifices and achievements of those who gave so much to restore peace and freedom to the world will never be forgotten.
The Italian Campaign
The Second World War began in 1939. Soon, much of Europe was under German control. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and vicious fighting broke out on the Eastern Front. By 1943 the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, asked for help from the other Allied leaders to ease the pressure of this attack. The Allies agreed to help and decided to use Italy (which was aligned with Germany) as a platform to attack enemy territory in Europe and help divert German resources from the Eastern Front. This effort became known as the Italian Campaign.
The Italian Campaign was an important military effort for Canada during the war. More than 93,000 Canadians, along with their allies from Great Britain, France and the United States, played a vital role. As they pushed from the south to the north of Italy over a 20-month period, Canadians faced difficult battles against some of the German army’s best troops. They fought in the dust and heat of summer, the snow and cold of winter, and the rain and mud of the spring and fall.
Coming Ashore in Sicily
The Italian Campaign began with the Allied landings on the island of Sicily in the south of Italy. Canadian soldiers from the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1stCanadian Armoured Brigade had an active and important role in this effort, code named Operation Husky.
It was a difficult task. Just getting men and equipment to the region was dangerous. Three ships carrying Canadian troops from Great Britain to Sicily for the attack were sunk by enemy submarines in early July 1943. Fifty-eight Canadians drowned and 500 vehicles and a number of guns were lost.
The operation began in the early morning of July 10, 1943 when Canadian and British troops came ashore along a 60-kilometre stretch of coastline near Pachino at the southern tip of Sicily. The Americans who also attacked that morning covered another 60 kilometres of the Sicilian coast. The assault was one of the largest seaborne operations in military history, involving nearly 3,000 Allied ships and landing craft.
The fighting in Sicily would last more than four weeks for the Canadians who would battle through hundreds of kilometres of difficult mountainous country. More than 2,300 Canadians became casualties, almost 600 of which were fatal.
Taking Sicily was important. It helped secure the Mediterranean Sea for Allied shipping and contributed to the downfall of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The new Italian government surrendered to the Allies; however, the Germans were not prepared to lose Italy and seized control. The fall of Sicily cleared the way for the Allies’ next step: landing in mainland Italy.
Liberating Mainland Italy
The Allies came ashore in mainland Italy on September 3, 1943. After losing Sicily, however, Germany was determined to hold the Italian mainland. To slow the Allied advance, the Germans took advantage of the mountainous landscape and turned the length of the Italian peninsula into a series of defensive positions which stretched from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea. These defensive lines were well protected with machine gun nests, barbed wire, land mines, and artillery positions.
Canadians joined other Allied troops in what amounted to a painstaking crawl up the Italian mainland over poor roads and through challenging weather. One of the most difficult battles for the Canadian troops was the Battle of Ortona during the Christmas of 1943. Ortona was an ancient town of castles and stone buildings located on a ledge overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Its narrow, rubble-filled streets limited the use of tanks and artillery. This meant the Canadians had to engage in vicious street fighting and smash their way through walls and buildings—“mouse holing”, as it was called. The Canadians liberated the town on December 28 after more than a week of struggle.
Fighting in the Italian Campaign continued as the Allies made their way north through many German defensive positions. Notable for Canada was the Battle in the Liri Valley, with the ensuing liberation of Rome by the American army on June 4, 1944. In the late summer and fall of 1944, the Allies broke through Germany’s “Gothic Line” in the north. Fighting continued into the spring of 1945 when the Germans finally surrendered. Canadian troops, however, did not participate in the final victory of the campaign. By February 1945, they had been transferred to Northwest Europe to be reunited with the First Canadian Army. There they joined the Allied advance into the Netherlands and Germany to help finally end the war in Europe.
Canadian casualties in the Italian Campaign totaled more than 26,000, nearly 6,000 of which were fatal. Most of the Canadians who died in Italy are buried in the many Commonwealth war cemeteries there, or are commemorated on the Cassino Memorial, located in the Cassino War Cemetery south of Rome.
The brave Canadians who fought in Italy were among the more than one million Canadians who served during the Second World War. Coming from all walks of life, these Canadians accomplished much and sacrificed greatly in the fight for the rights and freedoms of others.
For many Canadians, war is something that happens somewhere else, far away, and most of us have had no personal experiences of war. Today, however, the belief in freedom and fundamental human rights for all people is a part of our everyday life. We can be proud that Canadians continue to help defend these rights, at home and around the world. We honour Veterans when we learn about Canadians, past and present, who have served in the cause of peace and freedom.
The Liberation of Belgium
Canada played an important role in the liberation of Belgium during the Second World War. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen helped defeat the Germans and restore peace to the country after more than four years of occupation.
Germany occupied Belgium and most of Europe for much of the Second World War. The Germans transformed the continent into what came to be known as “Fortress Europe.” Formidable defenses bristled along the coasts as the Germans watched and waited for the Allies’ move to retake the continent. The Allies came ashore in Italy in 1943 and began to battle their way north. Then on June 6, 1944—D-Day—the opening move to free Europe from the west finally came in Normandy, France.
The Canadians Break Out
In the months following D-Day, the embattled Germans began to give way and the Canadians broke out north and east against the retreating German defenses. The First Canadian Army was tasked with securing the ports along the English Channel as they pushed their way up through coastal France and into Belgium and the Netherlands on their way toward Germany itself.
The Canadian advance held extra importance because the Allies were in need of a good port. They were still using the vulnerable temporary facilities they had constructed on the Normandy beaches to supply their forces. Ensuring that the flow of Allied men and materiel into the battle zone continued was vital.
By early September of 1944, the First Canadian Army—with some British, Polish and other troops under their command—had liberated much of the French coast north of Normandy and pushed on into Belgium (although several fortified coastal towns in France would still have to be captured with great effort in the ensuing weeks). As the Canadian Army swept along the coast, they encountered abandoned V-1 (or “Buzz Bomb”) launch sites. Knocking these powerful and terrible weapons out of action offered great relief to the people of southeast England, who were their primary targets, and gave the Canadians much satisfaction.
It seemed the German resistance was faltering in places and Allied hopes were high for a quick end to the war. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, was liberated in the first days of September. Some Belgian villages were empty of the enemy when Canadian soldiers got to them, and others had to be fought for in what were usually brief but costly affairs. Large parts of western Belgium were quickly liberated as the Germans marshaled their defenses in certain key areas. It was not always this fast, however, as the battle to cross the Ghent Canal was a bitter one.
The Battle of Scheldt
The first ports liberated in Northwest Europe were either too small or too damaged to solve the Allies’ supply problems. Antwerp, a major port in Belgium, was taken relatively undamaged in early September. The problem was that it was 80 kilometres from the open sea. Between it and the English Channel lay the West Scheldt estuary, passing through parts of Belgium and the Netherlands that were still controlled by the Germans. In mid-September, the vital task of clearing the enemy from the Scheldt and allowing the Allies to make use of Antwerp fell largely to the First Canadian Army.
Much of the Battle of the Scheldt took place over flat and often flooded terrain that offered little cover for the advancing Canadians. Mud that stuck to men and machines, the many dikes and canals that had to be crossed, and an entrenched, battle-hardened enemy made the struggle to clear the area a mighty effort. Indeed, some of the toughest fighting of the war would be to cross the flat, wet, ditched terrain around the Leopold Canal in the north of Belgium.
Despite the challenges, the Allies persevered and the last German defenders were defeated by early November. The Scheldt was then cleared of mines and by late November Antwerp was finally opened to shipping. Interestingly, the first Allied ship to arrive was the Canadian-built freighter SS Cataraqui.
Many Veterans would tell the story of entire Belgian towns coming out to joyously greet the Canadian soldiers, showering them with flowers as they passed through in dogged pursuit of the retreating Germans.
However, victory in Belgium only came at a high cost. More than 6,000 Canadian soldiers would become casualties during the Battle of the Scheldt and more than 800 are buried in Belgium, having made the ultimate sacrifice in helping drive out the enemy and liberate the country. Others returned home with injuries to body and mind that they would bear for the rest of their lives.
The Canadians who helped liberate Belgium were true heroes, but these heroes were regular people—volunteers willing to fight for their country to uphold the basic human rights of others and to defeat the forces of tyranny. Our country and the world owe an everlasting debt of gratitude to these brave men and women who have achieved and sacrificed so much.