Canada Enters World War II Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Canadian soldiers proved to be tough, battle-hardy fighters capable of major contributions to the Allied war effort. Troops from Canada were on the front lines of some of the war’s most dangerous campaigns.

Summary of Event

When Great Britain declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939, Canada was expected to do the same. In a show of independence, Canada waited one week before declaring war on September 10, 1939. With the nation’s experience during World War I still fresh, Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had promised the people of Canada that conscription would be instituted only for domestic military service and that Canadian citizens would not be forced to fight a foreign war. By 1942, however, it became clear that conscription Conscription, Canada for foreign military service could not be avoided. King decided to put the matter to a vote of the people, and on April 27, 1942, the Canadians voted three to one for conscription. [kw]Canada Enters World War II (Sept. 10, 1939) [kw]World War II, Canada Enters (Sept. 10, 1939) [kw]War II, Canada Enters World (Sept. 10, 1939) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian involvement [g]Canada;Sept. 10, 1939: Canada Enters World War II[10080] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 10, 1939: Canada Enters World War II[10080] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 10, 1939: Canada Enters World War II[10080] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 10, 1939: Canada Enters World War II[10080] [c]World War II;Sept. 10, 1939: Canada Enters World War II[10080] King, William Lyon Mackenzie King, William Lyon Mackenzie;World War II Churchill, Winston Hitler, Adolf Hitler, Adolf;World War II Mussolini, Benito;World War II

The Canadian troops’ first engagement in battle during World War II occurred not in Europe but in Hong Kong. In October of 1941, when troops were ordered to prepare for deployment in the Pacific, the threat of war with Japan was not yet imminent. The Canadian troops were not well prepared for battle engagements: The 1,975 Canadian soldiers assigned to the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong had expected to see only garrison duties.

On December 18, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Hong Kong. The Canadians fought gallantly, holding out until Great Britain surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese on Christmas Day. Of the 1,975 Canadian troops defending Hong Kong, approximately 550 died either in battle or as prisoners of war, and about 500 Canadian troops were wounded. The total casualty rate amounted to more than 50 percent, one of the highest in all of Canada’s wartime theaters.

The first Canadian battle on the European continent came on August 19, 1942, at Dieppe, France. Intended as a test for a large-scale invasion of Europe, the exercise was ultimately a huge disaster for the Canadians, who lost the element of surprise and were forced to surrender. Nearly 5,000 Canadian troops were committed to the one-day-long Battle of Dieppe; [p]Dieppe, Battle of (1942) of these, approximately 2,000 were taken prisoner and nearly 1,000 were killed. In this battle, the Canadian air force lost 13 aircraft and 10 pilots, and the British air force lost 106 planes and 81 crew members. These combined losses made August 19, 1942, the day of the Allied air forces’ greatest losses.

The Canadians’ next major effort took place in Italy. After recovering from the Battle of Dieppe, the First Canadian Army trained extensively in England and numbered 250,000 troops. The First Infantry Division and a tank brigade participated in the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943, but the four-week campaign took its toll on the Canadians. On September 3, 1943, Canada’s First Infantry Division and British soldiers landed at Italy’s southern tip. Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator, had already been removed from power, and the Italians had signed a secret armistice with the Allies. The Germans were still determined to defend Italy, however, and they posed a formidable threat to the Allies.

The most notable clash between the Canadians and Germans in Italy was known as Little Stalingrad, and it occurred in Ortona, Italy, in December of 1943. The Canadians fought fiercely and helped to clear the way for the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944, but at heavy cost. Approximately 93,000 Canadians fought in Italy, and the casualty rate there topped 25 percent casualties, including almost 6,000 killed in action.

While the Italian campaign occupied twenty divisions of German forces, the Allies were preparing for the massive invasion of Western Europe. Two days after the Allied liberation of Rome, the D-day invasion D-day invasion[D day invasion] began in France. For several months, the Royal Canadian Air Force had been bombing the area they planned to invade, preparing it for the Allied offensive. The Royal Canadian Navy contributed 110 ships and more than 10,000 sailors to the invasion effort. Canadian minesweepers cleared a path across the English Channel for the invading fleet, and Canadian destroyers pounded German beach fortifications while armed merchant cruisers ferried soldiers to the beach and later carried the wounded back to England.

The Canadian infantry and tanks that landed at Juno Beach in Normandy worked to eliminate the German fortifications that had escaped damage from the naval bombardment. The Canadian troops again proved themselves in battle, and by the end of the day they had destroyed the German fortifications covering the beach and were moving inland. Canadian losses at Juno Beach numbered approximately 340 dead, 600 wounded, and 50 prisoners of war.

The ensuing Battle of Normandy Normandy, Battle of (1944) was costly for both the Axis and the Allied powers. More than 300,000 Axis soldiers were killed, and they lost most of their equipment, including more than 2,000 tanks. The Canadians’ casualties numbered around 18,500, with more than 5,000 dead. Although these high casualty rates were partly due to misguided command decisions and lack of training, they were also the result of the particularly dangerous tasks to which the Canadians were assigned. Canadian troops were placed at the spearhead of the attacking forces and therefore suffered more casualties than others. Some scholars have claimed that the Canadians often volunteered for the more difficult tasks and so naturally suffered especially high casualty rates.

On July 25, 1944, the second-bloodiest day for the Canadians occurred near Caen, where the British and Canadians were to keep German forces contained while the Americans prepared an attack. The Americans were delayed by bad weather, and the Canadians were ordered to carry out an attack on their own. The Germans had laid many traps, and the Canadians paid a heavy price: The Black Watch regiment, for example, had 300 men at the start of the day and only 15 at its end. In total, the attack cost more than 1,500 Canadian lives.

After the invasion at Normandy, the Canadians were largely responsible for defending northwestern Europe. Their most notable concerns included clearing northern coastal France and capturing the rocket-launching sites that were still sending rockets toward England. The Canadians also reopened the Schelde Estuary to the Belgian port of Antwerp.

Significance

The Canadian military forces played a vital and effective role in all theaters of operation during and especially after World War II. Canadian troops—like the forces from other Allied nations—were ill prepared for the fighting, but they quickly became battle hardened. In places such as Dieppe and Caen, the Canadians’ willingness to meet the challenges posed by their experienced adversaries proved the soldiers’ bravery and constitution. Their active participation in operations from the Pacific to the Netherlands ensured their place in the top echelon of the Allied fighters.

In addition to its wartime sacrifices, Canada made some gains during World War II. The Canadians began the war with fewer than a dozen naval vessels and left it with well over a hundred. Moreover, Canada’s economic recovery after the Great Depression occurred very rapidly because of the war, and the nation established many social programs and support systems for war veterans. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian involvement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">French, David. Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany, 1919-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Details the assembly of the Allied forces that fought against the Axis countries during World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Adrian. Germany’s Lightning War: The Campaigns of World War II. Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles, 2000. Provides a vast amount of tactical information, some of which centers on Canadian involvement in World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Townshend, Charles, ed. Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Presents extensive discussion and photographs concerning the Canadian involvement in World War II.

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