On Sunday, 10 September, 1939, a fateful proclamation in the King's name was published in the Canada Gazette. It contained the words:
The First Canadians Overseas, 1939-1940
Canada Goes to War
Now therefore We do hereby Declare and Proclaim that a State of War with the German Reich exists and has existed in Our Dominion of Canada as and from the tenth day of September, 1939.
On 1 September, the German armies had surged into Poland. On 3 September, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in defence of the liberties of Europe. That same day a German sub-marine sank without warning the passenger liner Athena, killing more than a hundred civilians of whom a dozen were Canadians. On 7 September the Canadian Parliament assembled in emergency session; and it had now approved the recommendation of the Government that Canada should take up arms against the aggressor state whose policy threatened to destroy free government everywhere. For the second time in one generation, Canada was at war with Germany.
The country's immediate means for waging war were slender. Although Canada did not lack warlike traditions, and her forces had done great things on the battlefields of 1914-18, she had never shown much disposition to prepare for war in time of peace; only in moments of actual emergency did her people and her legislature look to their arms. Even the great cataclysm of the First World War, in which she sent overseas about 425,000 soldiers and maintained in the field a strong Corps which greatly distinguished itself on the Western Front, had left little permanent mark on Canadian military policy; for when peace returned the fighting forces were reduced very nearly to their 1914 level of insignificance. During the depression period of the thirties the country's total annual expenditure on its three defence services together fell as low as $14,000,000. When war came in 1939, Canada possessed only about 4500 professional soldiers, while the professional strengths of her naval and air forces were about 1800 and about 3100 respectively.
Nevertheless, she was not absolutely unprepared. Since 1936, while the international situation went from bad to worse, a modest programme of improvement of the defence services had been in progress. Canada's
total expenditure on her fighting services rose to $34,800,000 in 1938-39, and of this some $15,800,000 went to the Militia (army) services. The organization of the country's citizen army, the Non-Permanent Active Militia, had been revised in the light of modern requirements, and a very small beginning made on the task of re-equipping it. Larger appropriations had permitted somewhat more effective training. A coast-defence programme had been undertaken. Mobilization plans had been made. On the whole, Canada was better organized for war than she had been in 1914; but it must be emphasized that by world standards the nation was very far from a state of readiness for participation in a great conflict. After so long a period of neglect a country's defences cannot recover in a mere three years; and (as we can now see) the measures taken in those years, though sound and intelligent, were not proportioned to the magnitude of the crisis that was marching down upon mankind.
So far as the Militia was concerned, the greatest single point of weakness in 1939 was equipment. The arms available were almost entirely of 1914-18 pattern; the units, whether of the Permanent Force or the Non-Permanent Active Militia, possessed virtually no transport whatever, although the war now beginning would clearly be the most highly mechanized in history; the Dominion had only begun to develop the basic elements of a munition industry, and with the arms factories of the United Kingdom (Canada's traditional source of supply) working day and night to meet Britain's own requirements, the outlook for a rapid improvement in the armament of the forces was not bright.1 One specific item of equipment may be mentioned as exemplifying the general situation. Until 1938 the Canadian military forces did not possess a single tank. In that year two light tanks were received from England. Fourteen more arrived in 1939 on the actual eve of the declaration of war. Yet during the coming struggle Canada was to place in the field two armoured divisions and two independent armoured brigades.
The "Munich Crisis" in the early autumn of 1938 had shown how serious was the danger of war. In the following spring Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia in defiance of all agreements and assurances seemed to indicate that war was now actually unavoidable, and Britain took the unprecedented step of instituting compulsory military service in time of peace. Canadian apprehensions were reflected in legislative appropriations for the fighting services larger than any previously provided in peacetime:
the total sum for 1939-40 exceeded $64,500,000. These appropriations, however, came too late to bear much fruit before war began.
Before fighting actually began in Europe, the Government had already ordered such military precautions as the country's limited means allowed. The plans developed by the General Staff at Ottawa during the past few years were now put into effect. On the evening of 25 August, when' hostilities already seemed almost certain, the country heard the highly portentous announcement that certain units of the Non-Permanent Active Militia had been called out to assist in the protection of federal property; the guarding of essential communications and the manning of coast defences. The service was purely voluntary, the response highly satisfactory. For the first time since 1918, men of Canada's citizen army now took up their arms in the serious expectation of using them in defence of their country. The force thus called out amounted to roughly 10,000 men: and on the night of the 26th the Minister of National Defence (Mr. Ian A. Mackenzie) was able to announce that the programme for the protection of vulnerable points was "ninety per cent complete".
On 1 September, with the guns already firing in Poland, the Department of National Defence issued a General Order authorizing the immediate organization of a "Canadian Active Service Force"2 of two Divisions with a proportion of ancillary troops. This force, sometimes referred to in pre-war discussions as a "mobile reserve", had been carefully designed in advance of the crisis, its composition and staffs being subjected to constant revision. It had, of course, been quite clear that in a major war the country would require such a field force, either for home defence if Canadian territory were directly threatened or for employment overseas if circumstances called for it. The force was firmly rooted in the existing Militia organization; unlike the Canadian Expeditionary Force organized in 1914, its units bore the names, badges and battle honours of established Militia regiments, chiefly of course of the Non-Permanent force. They thus drew strength from traditions and esprit de corps of long standing. To quote the comment of a distinguished Canadian professional soldier, "We had a citizen volunteer Army. It was that Army we mobilized and it was that Army and nothing else that fought our war". The Permanent Force made a contribution out of all proportion to its numbers; the ranks of all units, Permanent and Non-Permanent, had to be filled up, on mobilization, with civilian volunteers; nevertheless, it was the Non-Permanent Active Militia that made Canada's wartime Army possible, and the fact should be remembered.
Although enlistment into the Canadian Active Service Force was entirely voluntary, and medical standards were high, nearly all the officers and a considerable proportion of the other ranks of the units mobilized in 1939 came directly from the Active Militia. The rest of the men required were obtained with comparative ease by volunteering from the general public. No legislation providing for compulsory service was introduced at this time. The opinion, it should be noted, had lately been widely expressed in Parliament that in any new, war Canada's contribution was unlikely to take the form of intervention overseas with a large expeditionary force; and as recently as March of 1939 both the Prime Minister (Mr. W. L. Mackenzie King) and the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. R. J. Manion) had specifically committed their respective parties to a policy rejecting the idea of conscription for overseas service in the event of conflict.
The Beginning of the Canadian Army Overseas
Mobilization of the Active Service Force now proceeded (under serious difficulties imposed by shortages of clothing, boots and blankets); and the employment of the force was discussed. On 11 September 1939 the Minister of National Defence referred in the House of Commons to the possibility of using it overseas; and on 16 September a telegram informed Canada House, London, that the Government was considering sending, one division. The date of departure would depend upon the availability of modern equipment in England, and the War Office was to be consulted immediately on this point. Steps were now taken to re-attest all personnel already appointed or enlisted into the Active Service Force, that there might be no doubt of their having voluntarily accepted the obligation of general service either at home or abroad for the duration of the war.
The proposal to send troops overseas was warmly welcomed in London. A communication from Canada House dated 21 September reported the views of the War Office. It noted that the Allies were faced with a serious situation in the Western theatre (where British regular divisions were already taking up positions beside the French) and that the need for additional divisions was acute. The supply of equipment was the "limiting factor", but the War Office had given an assurance that the Canadian Division would certainly not be sent to the front with a scale of equipment inferior to that of the British Territorial formations then being prepared for duty there.
On 28 September the Minister of National Defence publicly confirmed that the 1st Canadian Division would be sent overseas, and the 2nd Division "kept under arms as a further measure of preparedness". Early in October Major-General A. G. L. McNaughton, a former Chief of the
General Staff who for some years past had been seconded for duty as President of the National Research Council, was appointed "Inspector General of the Units of the 1st Canadian Division". It was intended that he should assume command of the Division when it was concentrated.
During the latter part of October and the early days of November, the new Inspector General travelled across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver, visiting and reporting upon the units of his prospective command. On 20 October the British authorities were informed that the 1st Division would be ready to sail early in December. A suggestion from the War Office that it might be sent directly to the South of France was discouraged by the Canadian authorities, who felt that both obtaining equipment and maintaining morale would be more difficult there than in England. It had previously been arranged that the Division was to be concentrated at Aldershot, the great military centre in Hampshire; and this plan was proceeded with.
In the meantime, steps had been taken to set up in Britain a Canadian administrative headquarters which could make arrangements for the reception, accommodation and equipment of the troops and form a permanent point of contact with the War Office. The officer selected to head it was Brigadier H. D. G. Crerar, who as Director of Military Operations and Intelligence at the Department of National Defence had played a great part in drafting Canada's war plans, and at the outbreak of war was Commandant of the Royal Military College, Kingston. In addition to setting up the Headquarters, Brigadier Crerar would be Military Adviser to the head of a delegation which was going to England to confer with the British Government on the best methods of achieving maximum cooperation. This delegation arrived in London on 28 October, and Brigadier Crerar began work at Canada House.
On 13 November the advance party of officers and other ranks for "Canadian Military Headquarters in Great Britain" landed from the Antonia at Liverpool. The party was commanded by Colonel P. J. Montague. Space was obtained in London in the building of the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada at 2 Cockspur Street, adjoining Canada House, and the little Headquarters--it was to grow steadily throughout the war as Canadian overseas activity increased--began to function immediately.
During the first days of December, at various points across Canada, the units of the 1st Canadian Division were entraining for Halifax. In contrast to the procedure followed in 1914, when the whole of the 1st Canadian Division of that day was transported overseas in a single great convoy, it was now considered desirable to lessen the risks of transit by dispatching the force in groups of between 7000 and 8000 men. The "First Flight", which amounted to about 7400 all ranks at embarkation,
was carried in five ships, the Aquitania, the Duchess of Bedford, the Empress of Britain, the Empress of Australia, and the Monarch of Bermuda. At this time these vessels still carried their peacetime fittings and the troops travelled in a degree of comfort unknown in later stages of the war, when liners had been stripped and one ship frequently carried as many men as crossed the Atlantic in the five large vessels of this first convoy.
The Admiralty had provided a powerful naval escort; it comprised the battle-cruiser Repulse, the battleship Resolution, the cruiser Emerald, the aircraft-carrier Furious, and, for the first stage of the voyage, six destroyers, of which four were Canadian. The convoy began to move out of Halifax Harbour at noon on 10 December. The passage was virtually uneventful (except for a collision in fog on the last day between the Aquitania and the S.S. Samaria, which very luckily caused no serious damage to either vessel) and no sign of enemy activity was seen. On 16 December the convoy made rendezvous with twelve destroyers from the United Kingdom, and on the following morning the ships were passing up the River Clyde. "All along the narrow channel", wrote one unit diarist, "the Scots poked their heads out of windows and doors, waved flags and bunting, and shouted a welcome to us".
By noon the convoy had reached Greenock; and an official party including Mr. Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for the Dominions, and Mr. Vincent Massey, High Commissioner for Canada, came aboard the Aquitania (in which were General McNaughton and his Headquarters) to greet the Canadians. A message from His Majesty the King made them welcome. "The British Army", he wrote, "will be proud to have as comrades-in-arms the successors of those who came from Canada in the Great War and fought with a heroism that has never been forgotten". The troop trains were already pouring men into Aldershot when on 18 December Mr. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, announced to the world that the Canadians had arrived.
The Second Flight, slightly larger than the first, was carried in seven ships. It sailed from Halifax on 22 December with an escort including two battleships--the British Revenge and the French Dunkerque. Christmas was kept at sea, and the ships entered the Clyde on 30 December. Thus virtually the whole of the 1st Division was in the United Kingdom by the end of the year. The Third Flight, consisting mainly of ancillary and technical troops additional to the Division,3 did not reach Scottish waters until 7 February, 1940. With its arrival the first programme for the despatch of Canadian troops overseas
was complete. On 21 February the strength of the Canadian Active Service Force in Britain was 1066 officers and 22,238 other ranks.
The Canadians in 1939 were more fortunate than their predecessors of 1914: they escaped the miseries--now a part of national legend--of a winter under canvas on Salisbury Plain. Nevertheless, although they spent them in the permanent barracks of Aldershot, their first months in the United Kingdom were quite sufficiently disagreeable. In the opening days of January, 1940, "Britain experienced the coldest conditions since 1894". In many places the thermometer fell to zero (and the visitors discovered that that temperature in England was as trying as much lower ones in their own country). No English buildings, and certainly not the Aldershot barracks, were designed for such conditions; and this abnormally severe winter of 1939-40 the first of a series of cold war winters--brought the Canadians no little discomfort.
To make matters worse from the point of view of morale, the war was in the doldrums. Poland had been beaten down in a brief campaign without her allies being able to give her any effective aid; the -Western Front was static, the combatants watching each other from their fortifications and waiting for the spring; the anticipated air attacks on Britain had not materialized, not a single bomb having yet been dropped on the British mainland; it was the period of "the phony war". The peaceful appearance of affairs was deceptive, as events in April and May would amply show; but in the meantime it had its effect on men's minds, and neither Canadians nor Englishmen had yet formed an accurate estimate of the desperate nature of the crisis. Although the Canadians received much hospitality in and around Aldershot, the people of that area were in general too well accustomed to the presence of soldiers to make much of any newly-arrived formation, whatever its origin; and taking all the circumstances of the time into account it is not surprising that the Canadians, fresh from their homes and as yet unused to the discomforts of military life, sometimes became unduly sorry for themselves. "Boredom, homesickness and a feeling of not being really needed", was one observer's explanation for the grumbling that was chronic among the men that winter.
The 1st Division when it arrived in Britain had had only elementary training (it was estimated in advance, that four months' further training would be required there) and was very incompletely equipped for modern war. The men, it is true, had personal equipment, including rifles and respirators, but not including steel helmets. The infantry had light machine-guns; but they were Lewis guns--a type at best obsolescent. These were gradually replaced with Brens from British sources. (A contract for 7000 Bren guns which had been placed in Canada in 1938 had not yet had time to produce results.) A considerable number of
artillery pieces were brought from Canada with the Second Flight, but these were the 18-pounders of the last war or other obsolescent guns of heavier types. Replacing them with 25-pounder and 5.5-inch gun-howitzers proved a very slow process. The provision of transport also turned out to be difficult, but in March of 1940 the first vehicles from Canadian factories began to reach the units in England.
As soon as the Division had settled down in Aldershot vigorous training began. It continued through the winter, somewhat hampered however by the severe weather and by shortage of modern equipment. Unit collective training commenced in March, and the battalions contrived fairly realistic exercises in spite of the dearth of transport. But before the programme could be completed it was interrupted by the impact of tremendous events on the continent.
It had been universally assumed that the Canadians would go into action as part of the British Expeditionary Force which was now deployed on the Franco-Belgian frontier; and in January both the 1st Canadian Division and the Canadian ancillary units were tentatively allotted to the 4th British Corps, which was expected to join General Lord Gort's command in France early in the summer of 1940. On 25 January, however, the Canadian Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that the Government proposed to send a second division overseas "as soon as may be possible". This inevitably suggested the possibility of forming a Canadian Corps at a comparatively early date, and preliminary discussions with such a development in view were accordingly undertaken overseas. The Canadian Government did not at once authorize this further expansion, which involved providing some 8000 more Corps Troops. After discussion, however, the Cabinet early in April approved an arrangement by which, pending the organization of a higher Canadian headquarters, the 1st Division and the ancillary troops would constitute together a self-contained Canadian formation directly under G.H.Q. in France.
Alarums and Excursions: Norway
On 9 April 1940 the "strange and unnatural calm" in Western Europe was rudely disturbed by dramatic events in Scandinavia. On that day the Germans, without diplomatic preliminaries of any kind, made an utterly unprovoked attack upon two weak neutral states. Carrying out this piratical enterprise with all their customary skill in aggression, they overran Denmark completely in a few hours and in a scarcely longer period obtained so firm a grip on Norway that they were evicted thence only after the general collapse of their European system in the spring of 1945. In the face of gallant and not wholly ineffective Norwegian resistance they seized Oslo, Bergen, Trondhjem and Narvik at the very
outset, and thus placed themselves in possession of the keys of King Haakon's kingdom.
Although limited military preparations had been made in Britain at the beginning of April with an eye to the possibility of a request from Norway for intervention, the British authorities had neither appropriate plans nor adequate forces ready for the northern campaign thus suddenly forced upon them, and they were compelled to improvise as best they could. As finally settled, their campaign plan envisaged two main military operations, directed towards the recovery of the ports of Trondhjem and Narvik. The Trondhjem enterprise was the more important of the two, since this centrally-situated port controlled the communications which held out the hope of effectively supporting the Norwegian resistance. The plan for assailing it comprehended diversionary landings at the little ports of Namsos to the north and Andalsnes to the south, followed by a frontal attack upon Trondhjem itself.
The 1st Canadian Division, General Crerar4 recorded on 8 April, was now the "most forward" division in the United Kingdom in both training and equipment. It was thus natural that in this crisis the War Office should turn to the Canadians; and on 16 April they were asked to help, "in view of lack of other trained troops". It was proposed that they should share the honour and the peril of the Trondhjem frontal attack, providing the infantry parties (eight detachments of 100 men each) which were to land from destroyers and silence the forts of Trondhjem Fjord, clearing the way for two battalions of the Guards, supported by French Chasseurs Alpins, who would push through to occupy the vital Trondhjem aerodrome. An immediate decision was necessary. General McNaughton at once agreed to cooperate, and set about organizing the force required for this desperate venture. As finally constituted it consisted not of 800 men but of 1300, commanded by Colonel E. W. Sansom and composed in the main of two units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade--Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and the Edmonton Regiment.5
The Canadian assault force left Aldershot on the evening of 18 April and arrived next day at the Scottish port of Dunfermline, where it was intended that it should embark. But it did not embark. The plan had been changed--chiefly, it would appear, as a result of a revised estimate of German strength, and particularly air strength, in the Trondhjem area. On 26 April Colonel Sansom's men were back at Aldershot. The frontal attack on Trondhjem was never made; the diversionary attacks had been delivered but were not successful. Narvik was ultimately taken too late to affect the campaign as a whole, and had
to be relinquished again. By early June all Allied troops had been evacuated from Norway. For the Allied cause, the campaign there had been the first of a series of disasters; for the Canadians in particular, it was the first in a singular succession of disappointments and frustrations. The second was not far behind.
Alarums and Excursions: Dunkirk
Before the Canadians could take their allotted place in the British Expeditionary Force in France, that, quiescent front suddenly flamed into violent activity and the B.E.F. became involved in an Allied déb‰cle far worse than that of Norway.
On the morning of 10 May 1940 the Germans assailed two more unoffending neutral countries with the same lack of scruple and the same brutal efficiency which they had displayed in the case of Denmark and Norway. The French had never really extended the great Maginot Line fortifications facing Germany to cover the Belgian frontier; though the weak existing defences there had been materially improved during the past winter. Now Hitler's armies poured into both the Netherlands and Belgium in a well-calculated attempt to outflank the Maginot works. As soon as the German move was clear the British and French forces lining the Belgian frontier left their fortified positions and advanced into Belgium in a great wheel pivoting on the region of Sedan.
The result was disaster. Nothing could be done for Holland; the Dutch Army surrendered on 15 May, and the Dutch Government took refuge in England. Simultaneously the whole Allied position in Belgium was imperilled by rapid German penetration across the Meuse to the south. The Sedan pivot was smashed and a great bulge created in the Allied line. The British and French armies in Belgium were ordered to fall back, and did so. It proved impossible, however, to prevent the Allied forces being cut in two. By 20 May the Germans were in Amiens; by the 21st an armoured spearhead had reached the Channel coast near Abbeville. The British, Belgian and First French Armies were isolated in the north; and the British, now back in roughly their original positions on the Franco-Belgian frontier, were in imminent danger of having their communications with England wholly severed as the German scythe-blade swept up the Channel coast.
At this point the possibility of employing the 1st Canadian Division, or a portion of it, as part of an effort to restore the situation, came to the fore in London. On 23 May General McNaughton was called to the War Office and told by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (General Sir Edmund Ironside) that it was proposed to dispatch him to France to restore the threatened communications of the B.E.F. The object was to "re-establish the road and, railway line through Hazebrouck and
Armentières"; the new line of communication would be opened through Calais if possible or, failing Calais, through Dunkirk. General McNaughton was to take command of all troops in the area, including a brigade group which had just been sent from England to Calais; and it was intended to reinforce him with one brigade from his own Division, followed by a second if this seemed desirable.
In the course of the same day all arrangements were completed for the movement of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Armand A. Smith and composed of the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, and the 48th Highlanders of Canada, with the 3rd Field Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery, two anti-tank batteries and some engineers attached. In the early hours of 24 May these units began to arrive in Dover by rail; by eleven o'clock the first flight of the Brigade was embarked and ready to sail. But it did not sail.
On the evening of 23 May General McNaughton, accompanied by his senior general staff officer, Colonel G. R. Turner, and a small party of officers and men, had left Dover in H.M. destroyer Verity to see for himself the situation in the French Channel ports and to form opinions as to what could or should usefully be done there. He went first to Calais and spent two hours there interviewing British and French officers and gathering information; then the Verity carried him on to Dunkirk (being several times attacked by enemy aircraft on the way). Here he met Admirals Leclerc and Abrial and General Fagalde and was able to establish that the enemy was now astride the road between. Calais and Dunkirk and that the prospect of re-opening it seemed remote. It was very clear also that the general situation in the area was entirely chaotic and that communications of every sort were uncertain and unreliable. At eleven a.m. on the 24th General McNaughton and his party re-embarked in the Verity. What he had seen and heard had produced in his mind the conviction that the Dunkirk area was already quite sufficiently congested; what the troops there needed was not reinforcement but organization.
Before five p.m. he was again in Ironside's room at the War Office, conferring with the principal officers of the War Office and General Crerar. This conference was followed immediately by another attended by the new Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill), the heads of the three British defence departments and the Chiefs of Staff. General McNaughton reported at length. No final decision as to sending troops to Dunkirk was taken; but it was agreed that this should not be done for the moment, and orders were sent for the units at Dover to disembark and return to Aldershot. It was a bitter pill for the 1st Brigade.
By 26 May the Belgian army was weakening under the weight of the very heavy German attacks and Lord Gort was forced to undertake a
withdrawal to the coast and evacuation through Dunkirk. On the previous day he had already inquired of the War Office whether a Canadian brigade could be dispatched "to provide a nucleus of fresh and well trained troops on the bridgehead position". The result, shortly after midnight on the night of 25-26 May, was orders for the same Canadian troops designated on the 23rd to be ready to move the following night.
During the 26th the project was fully discussed at the War Office. Both McNaughton and Crerar were convinced that it was militarily unsound; but the former made it clear that if higher authority thought the expedition desirable he was quite prepared to undertake it. Major-General R. H. Dewing, the Director of Military Operations and Plans, was strongly opposed to the scheme on the grounds that "it would be throwing good material into a quicksand which is already on the way to engulfing far too much" and would imperil troops who might be badly needed shortly for the defence of England. General Sir John Dill, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was of the same opinion; but the plan had been approved by the War Cabinet, and it was necessary to seek the concurrence of Mr. Churchill before ANGEL MOVE, as it was called, was cancelled. Even then, the 1st Brigade's transport was left loaded at Aldershot and the units remained on eight hours' notice. And on 27 May the scheme was revived a second time; McNaughton and Crerar agreed upon a revised composition for the force, with a view to committing as few men as possible to what more and more appeared to them a useless sacrifice; but in the afternoon ANGEL MOVE was finally abandoned.
The same day the King of the Belgians asked the Germans for an armistice. The evacuation of the B.E.F. through Dunkirk was now beginning. During the next week some 338,000 British and Allied soldiers were successfully withdrawn, though virtually all their heavy equipment had to be left behind. While these great events were taking place the Canadians in Britain were not idle. It was now quite possible that Hitler might attempt an immediate invasion of the United Kingdom; as Mr. Churchill said on 4 June, "We must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France". General McNaughton, strongly of the opinion that the direct defence of the United Kingdom was now the Canadians' paramount task, had taken steps, on 25 May, to organize them for it in a new manner. The 1st Division and the ancillary troops were to form four self-contained brigade or equivalent groups, capable in turn of being broken down into battalion groups constituting flying columns of all arms. The object was to turn the Canadian force into a "highly mobile, quick acting, hard hitting reserve"; and General McNaughton suggested that it should move to a central area from which it could strike at an invader crossing any portion of the coast. G.H.Q. Home Forces agreed; the War Office found additional transport for the Canadians; on 27 May they were ordered to an assembly area in the
vicinity of Northampton; and on 29 May the whole body, including both the Division and the ancillary troops, was formally constituted as a self-contained organization known as "Canadian Force". The same night the move from Aldershot to Northampton began.
The people of Northampton and the neighbouring towns gave the arriving Canadians a great welcome--a welcome that many of them have never forgotten; but they were not allowed to linger long in this pleasant area. The enemy had no immediate intention of attacking England. The destruction of the surviving armies of France was now his object, and on 5 June he assailed General Weygand's line on a broad front. It was the policy of the British Government to sustain the French at almost any cost; and on this same day, accordingly, the War Cabinet took the bold resolve to form a "Second B.E.F." and dispatch to the continent every division fit to move. Two British divisions--the 51st (Highland) and the 1st Armoured, neither of which had joined Gort's army before it was cut off in the north--were still on French soil and fighting under Weygand. The only ones in Britain ready for immediate action were the 52nd (Lowland) and the 1st Canadian; and it was now proposed to send these to France immediately, with the 3rd British Division (then reequipping and reinforcing at top speed after its return from Dunkirk) following as soon as possible. The whole British force--a "forlorn hope" if ever there was one--was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Brooke.
On 6 June the Canadians were ordered back from Northampton to Aldershot. By 8 June the move had been completed, and that day, in glorious weather, units of the Division were inspected by Their Majesties the King and Queen. The significance of this visit was not lost upon the troops; they rightly interpreted it as presaging a trip to the fields across the Channel where in these bright summer days the Third French Republic was fighting its last desperate battle.
To France After Dunkirk
The 52nd Division and the 1st Canadian Division were to move to France in that order. Brigadier Smith's 1st Infantry Brigade Group, which had suffered such bitter disappointment at the time of the "Dover Dash", was to form the first flight of the Canadian movement; and its advanced parties left Aldershot on the evening of 8 June. Vehicles and the inen accompanying them were embarked at Falmouth, while parties travelling by rail moved through Plymouth. The leading vehicle parties disembarked at Brest on 12 June, but the main body of the Brigade began landing there only in the early morning of the 14th. In the meantime General McNaughton had set up his Advanced Divisional Headquarters at Plymouth. He planned to move to France on the evening of the 14th, and
expected to find his advanced units assembled close to Brest.
It is not, perhaps, wholly surprising that subsequent events indicate that all parties concerned were not fully clear or fully in agreement as to the proposed operational role of the Canadians. A great State, its armies defeated and its leaders hopelessly divided among themselves, was tottering tragically to its fall; an alliance that had seemed the hope of mankind was breaking asunder; and in such conditions it is extremely difficult either to make firm operational plans or to ensure that the plans when adopted are known, understood and acted upon by all those concerned with them across a broad theatre of war.
The Canadians, however, were fairly definite in their own minds as to their immediate role, partly because General Brooke had visited Aldershot and discussed the matter with McNaughton. A draft divisional Operation Instruction (prepared with a view to distribution after the Division had arrived in France, but, as things turned out, never issued) records their commander's understanding of the situation and defines their task as follows: with the other forces of Brooke's command, they were to "threaten", from a general line running across the base of the Brittany peninsula through Rennes, the flank of any German advance south-westwards towards Nantes, and relieve pressure on the French by drawing German forces westward. The Canadian units, landing at Brest, were to assemble "north-east of the port".
The plan thus sketched is obviously related, though in a somewhat indefinite manner, to a project which was under discussion within the dissolving French government, and between French and British leaders, in these days: the possible defence of a "redoubt" in Brittany. The scheme came to nothing; it was rejected, not only by the defeatist politicians who were now in the act of seizing control in France, but also by competent soldiers of both nations who pointed out that there were no longer enough well-organized troops available to make it practicable. And so far as the Canadians were concerned, their expectation as to their role was not realized in any single detail. Only the 1st Brigade Group got to France; and that group, instead of moving, as General McNaughton had expected, to an assembly area close to Brest to await the rest of the Division, was immediately sent forward deep into the interior--for the authorities on the Lines of Communication who were now in control of the movement had not received such instructions as the Canadians had been led to expect. The British Headquarters at Brest.had been ordered merely to carry out the same routine followed in the movement of the original B.E.F. to France in 1939, and the Canadian units were sent to the same assembly area--about Laval and Le Mans--which had then been used. This area, roughly halfway between Brest and Paris, was now becoming decidedly exposed. In accordance with these orders, the road parties were sent
forward from Brest in little groups of vehicles moving independently; the rail parties were put on trains which carried them rapidly inland.
As a result, the Canadian troops, by the night of 14-15 June, were extraordinarily scattered. A large part of the Division was in Aldershot preparing to move (one Engineer unit in fact was still back at Northampton); other elements were at Plymouth and Falmouth, embarked or preparing to embark; still others were at Brest or scattered along the roads between there and Le Mans; the 1st Field Regiment, R.C.H.A, was in billets at Parcé in the assembly area; and three trains--carrying, respectively, the Headquarters of the 1st Brigade with the 48th Highlanders, the Royal Canadian Regiment, and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment--were approaching that area.
By this time, however, it had been decided to cancel the whole movement. Early on the 14th the Germans entered undefended Paris. The same morning General Brooke, who had set up at Le Mans his extremely rudimentary headquarters (one of his staff said later that they had "not even a typewriter"), discussed the situation with Generals Weygand and Georges. It was quite apparent from these conferences that the French Army was falling into a "general state of disintegration". Brooke therefore at once recommended to the War Office that all movement of British forces to France should be stopped, and arrangements made for evacuation. That afternoon orders arrived from London for the withdrawal to England of all parts of the B.E.F. not actually fighting under French orders.
To reverse the movement of troops still in England, or on shipboard at Plymouth, or even Brest, and turn them back towards Aldershot, was a simple matter; to extricate the units in France was not quite so easy. Lt.-Col. J. H. Roberts, commanding the 1st Field Regiment, got the news in the early morning of the 15th and incidentally received confirmation of the order from General Brooke himself in a chance meeting. The Hastings train was turned about at Laval, that of the R.C.R. near (it appears) Chiteaubriant. These units were re-embarked at Brest and arrived safely at Plymouth early on the 17th. Somewhat more exciting was the experience of Brigadier Smith's headquarters and the 48th Highlanders. The train carrying them had reached its destination at Sablé-sur-Sarthe before the reversal order was received. It came from the mouth of a Railway Traffic Officer whom the Canadians at first suspected of being a "fifth columnist" but who identified himself satisfactorily. The train, after some delay and some argument with the engine-driver, pulled out of Sablé pointed back towards Brest, with officers and men of the 48th riding the engine as an emergency crew and two men with tommy guns on the tender "to look after the recalcitrant engineer or any person trying to stop the train".
With all possible preparations made for defence, and every carriage bristling with assorted weapons, the train rolled on throughthe countryside, a little moving island of Canadian territory, with the French Republic dissolving into ruin all about it. At Rennes a mistake was made in routing--with the result that the train ended up not at Brest but at St. Malo. Such an error might have been fatal; but by very good luck there was a British transport alongside the quay. She took the Canadians aboard, sailed, much overloaded, on the morning of the 16th, and reached Southampton that afternoon. Luck, indeed, had been with the 1st Brigade. It is a remarkable fact, in view of the conditions then existing in France, that only six Canadians were left behind across the Channel. One was dead, having been killed in a motorcycle accident. Four were interned in France by the Germans or the French Vichy government, but succeeded in escaping and made their way back to England during 1941. The sixth man remained a prisoner of war until the end of hostilities.
With respect to transport the story was less happy. The authorities at Brest had been ordered to destroy vehicles and equipment that could not be loaded; and Canadian reports indicate that in fact very little was allowed to be loaded. The officers in control on the Lines of Communication were evidently fearful that attempts to save material might interfere with the saving of men. So the 1st Brigade lost the vehicles that had been so slowly and painfully collected, most of which had only lately been issued. A total of 216 Canadian vehicles was lost; only one is known to have been saved--a station wagon which the Hastings and Prince Edward managed to embark on a trawler.
Equipment, as distinct from transport, was almost entirely lost save for personal weapons. There was, however, one very notable exception: the 1st Field Regiment brought back its guns. Its War Diary tells how Lt.-Col. Roberts went to Headquarters, Brest Garrison, and "fought hard for nearly two hours to save the guns". The order to destroy them was twice given; but the Garrison Commandant (an ex-cadet of R.M.C., Kingston) finally obtained from the G.O.C., Lines of Communication, permission to proceed with loading. Lt.-Col. Roberts was given two hours to put aboard ship as many guns as he could. In that time he embarked all his own and in addition a dozen light anti-aircraft guns and a number of special vehicles belonging to British units. Thus a not unimportant group of weapons was saved for the protection of England.
All these developments in France had been quite unknown to General McNaughton at Plymouth. His first intimation that the movement had been reversed was word that Movement Control had ordered the Toronto Scottish (who were on shipboard waiting to sail) to disembark. He then telephoned the War Office and was told by General Dewing that his troops were needed for "another battlefield". Speaking
over an open line, Dewing could not particularize further; but he meant that the task now was the defence of Britain.
On 21 June General Dill, who had become Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote to his friend McNaughton a characteristic letter:
My dear Andy,
I cannot tell you how much I regret all the disappointments you have had. It was with many misgivings that I saw you start for France, and yet while there was a hope that the French Army might still succeed we felt that they ought to have the best the Empire could give. I do hope that you won't think that it was wrong of us. Then when it was quite clear that the French Army was ceasing to offer any effective resistance we came to the conclusion that it would be a crime to let you enter the cauldron. Even you and the Canadian Division could not have saved the situation.
It is all rather a sorry tale but I am sure in the circumstances you will realise what our difficulties were and will forgive us for all the inconvenience you have been caused.
Writing in reply some days later, General McNaughton mentioned his own chagrin at the failure to concentrate the Division close to Brest and at the loss of transport, which he called "very bitter medicine". His letter concluded:
We are now squarely set for what I have long thought was the important task, the defence of these islands. Two out of three of our Brigade Groups and our reserve of Artillery, Engineers, Machine Gun Battalions, etc., all on wheels, are poised to go in any direction and you and the C.-in-C. can count on a quick moving, hard hitting, determined force which will be prompt to execute your orders.
There are many lessons to be learned from our experience and sometime I hope we may go over them together but, meanwhile, we have other work to do and you can be sure that we stand with you with all our hearts.
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