Canada is often ignored when considering the contributions of the Allies to victory in World War II, with most concentrating on the efforts of the United States, Great Britain, the USSR, and China. The Canadian contribution was huge, and a list of ten major contributions is barely scratching the surface. Prior to the Second World War Canada, as a territory of the British Empire, relied on the Royal Navy to protect its ports and shipping. When the war began the Royal Canadian Navy comprised just 7 warships. When the war ended Canada boasted the third largest fleet in the world.
Canadian troops fought in the wars several theaters with distinction while its naval commanders coordinated the massive convoys which carried the tools of war from North America to Great Britain and Europe. Its factories produced weapons, clothing, and equipment. Its fields produced food, its reserves of coal, iron, and oil helped fuel the Allied effort to destroy Hitler and the imperialist Japanese. At the same time, Canada provided refuge for the exiles of Europe, and securely housed the prisoners of war taken by its own troops and those of the British Empire. Here is just a small part of Canada’s contribution to the Allied victory in World War II.
10. The Battle of the Atlantic
Of all the operations of the European Theater during World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic was the most critical to the success of the Allies. Ships carried weapons and vehicles, food and clothing, medicines and supplies, from the industrial bases of North and South America to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. To put it bluntly, whoever controlled the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean would win the war. Germany recognized this fact, and strove to close the Atlantic to shipping through their U-Boat offensive, through surface raiders early in the war, and through bombing or otherwise destroying the port facilities of their enemies. They sank over 13.5 million tons of shipping, not including the 175 warships fighting to stop them, over the course of the war.
To defeat the Germans the Allies created the system of convoys to ensure the products of the west reached the war zone. Besides responsibility for the critical port of Halifax, as well as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, large swathes of ocean traversed by convoys from New York, Boston, and other ports were protected primarily by Canadian forces. Canada built dozens of small, fast, multi-purpose ships of a type known as corvettes. Smaller than destroyers and manned mostly by reservists, these ships patrolled the seas between the North American coastline and Iceland, one of the favored hunting grounds of the U-boats in the early years of the war. The Royal Canadian Navy was not limited to operations in the North Atlantic; Canadian escorts accompanied coastal convoys as far as the South American ports participating in the war against the Axis.
9. Fortification of the Atlantic Coast and Newfoundland
Newfoundland was self-governed, a British Dominion legally separate from Canada until 1934, and in a practical sense remained independent when the war began in 1939. In fact, possession of the territory of Labrador was a matter of dispute between Newfoundland and Canada in 1939. The war changed the relationship. Both the United Kingdom and the United States recognized the strategic importance of Newfoundland early in the war, and the Bases for Destroyers Agreement of 1940 allowed the United States to install military bases to guard the American coast, manned with American troops, and maintain American aircraft and ships. When the war began, Canada installed a military presence of its own.
The Americans and the Canadians worked together to ensure Newfoundland and Labrador became forward areas for the protection of the North American coast and importantly, the sea lanes between it and the Iceland – Greenland Gap. The latter area, which includes the Denmark Strait, was critical to shipping between North America and Europe. The Canadians built defenses which included airbases at Gander, Torbay, and Goose Bay, all of which provided defense against the German U-boat threat. About 6,000 Canadian troops occupied Newfoundland during the war, joining about 10,000 American allies.
Together, the Americans and Canadians ensured Newfoundland and Labrador remained in Allied hands, protecting the port of Halifax and the St. Lawrence estuary from German attack. Occupation of Newfoundland by the Germans was a very real threat in 1940, with the British powerless to stop it in the aftermath of the Dunkirk debacle and the United States not yet in the war. German bases in Newfoundland during the war is not a far-fetched idea. They established a weather monitoring station on the island early in the war, which neither the Canadians nor Americans were able to locate for decades.
8. The Dieppe Raid: joint strike against Nazi controlled France in 1942
The 1942 Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) was originally a British show. It was an attack on the French mainland, always intended to withdraw after destroying some German facilities and infrastructure, rather than to establish a second front in Europe. As such it was largely a commando-type operation, but rather than assign it to commando troops, the British placed responsibility for the raid on their Canadian allies. It was essentially intended to be a hit and run operation; the Allies would land, supported by armored troops, capture the port of Dieppe, destroy it and support facilities, and withdraw back to the sea from whence they came.
During rehearsals in Britain, mishap followed mishap. Lord Mountbatten, ill-experienced for such an operation, commanded it and after reviewing the training operations and the flaws they revealed British General Montgomery canceled the plan, up-to-then called Operation Rutter. But Churchill liked it, since it indicated support of Stalin for a Second Front in Europe, and it went forward. The operation was a disaster. The British lacked air superiority, so they refused to risk capital ships for a pre-invasion shore bombardment (the Japanese, with air superiority, had recently sunk two British capital ships off the Malay Peninsula). British intelligence of the landing areas was inaccurate and incomplete. The force committed was insufficient to overwhelm the defenses they encountered.
A little over 5,000 Canadian troops went ashore at Dieppe, encountering heavy German resistance from ground troops, artillery, and the Luftwaffe. Supported by about 1,000 British commandos they forced their way inland, where their units were cut to pieces by German resistance. The Canadians suffered about 3,300 killed and wounded, and nearly 2,000 more men were captured by the Germans (casualty counts vary by source), a devastating casualty rate. Churchill called the raid a success, citing the lessons learned as key to the later victory at Normandy. In Canada it was and still is considered a disastrous example of hubris, which cost dearly, though the courage and capabilities of the Canadian troops were established beyond a doubt among both Allied and German leaders.
7. Feeding and arming the Allies
During World War II Canada, like its neighbor to the south and the South American allies even further away, faced the task of feeding the Allies confronting Germany and Japan. At the same time Canada needed men, to staff its army, navy, and air forces, and to operate the machinery which built the engines of war. The Canadians, like the Americans, replaced men in industrial jobs with women, freeing more Canadians to wear the uniforms of their country. With a much smaller population than the United States, Canada was forced to take more drastic actions. One step was lowering the age at which one could obtain a driver’s license. Younger drivers helped the shipping pipeline, and freed more adults for other duties.
Canadian shipyards produced hulls for cargo, as well as warships for its rapidly expanding navy. Aircraft were produced under license from American and British manufacturers. Canadian factories built tanks and trucks, jeeps and ambulances, weapons and blankets, uniforms and shoes. Lumber was harvested, hewn, and hauled to factories. Fields produced grains and vegetables, orchards produced fruit, and the meatpacking industry flourished. Canada, one of the world’s leading wheat producers before the war, was forced to curtail that valuable crop and instead concentrate on growing coarser grains, necessary to feed the cattle and hogs demanded by the warring allies. Canada’s farms rose to the challenge, by 1944 they produced more than twice the pre-war number of hogs for slaughter.
Production of beef, of eggs and dairy products, of vegetables and fruits, all rose correspondingly during the war years. Farm implements and machinery came under rationing restrictions, and labor shortages on Canadian farms threatened production until interned Germans and Japanese were put to work in the fields and processing plants. Later they were supplemented by German and Italian prisoners of war, sent to Canada for the duration of the conflict. Canada’s agricultural production was one of the most important contributions to victory in World War II.
6. Canadians took part in the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943
The Anglo-American Allies began their ground war against Nazi Germany with the landings in North Africa in late 1942. American, Free French, and British troops joined the British Expeditionary Army in the campaign against the Italians and Germans in North Africa, and by early 1943 they were ready to move against the continent of Europe. There was debate over how to accomplish that. Churchill wanted an invasion of the Caucasus. The Americans preferred either southern France or Italy. As it became evident that Italy would win out as the Allied strategy, beginning with the capture of Sicily, Canadian Prime Minister William McKenzie King demanded Canadian troops be included in the active forces engaged.
Although the Sicilian operation was under the overall command of American General Dwight Eisenhower, British forces fell under the command of Bernard Law Montgomery. Montgomery considered himself the most experienced of the Allied commanders, and initially opposed the inclusion of Canadian troops, before relenting and assigning them under his command as part of XXX Corps, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
Canadian operations in Sicily established them as front-line troops equal to their contemporaries in capabilities and fighting spirit. Following the German evacuation of Sicily the Allies invaded Italy in September, 1943; the same day Italy surrendered. Canadian troops fought Germans and Italians forced to continue fighting by their German “Allies” in some of the toughest fighting along the Italian boot. The Canadians fought in rugged mountain terrain, in winter mud which paralyzed tanks and vehicles, and in villages and towns in vicious urban house-to-house combat. Despite heavy casualties and strong resistance by the Germans, everywhere they prevailed.
Canadian troops were withdrawn from Italy in early 1945, needed elsewhere on the Western Front. During their engagement in the Italian Campaign the Canadians over 5,500 killed, and over 20,000 wounded, a casualty rate which exceeded 27%, serving as testament to the tough resistance they encountered and their own tenacity as front-line troops in the Allied forces in Europe.
5. Canadian troops were murdered by German captors during the Normandy Invasion in 1944
The Normandy invasion, known to history as D-Day despite it being one of scores of “D-Days” initiated during the war, began on June 5, 1944 when Anglo-Franco-Pole-American troops parachuted into France. They were followed by the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches on the morning of June 6, 1944. British, American, and Canadian commands attacked assigned beaches, supported by commandos from France, Poland, and other Allied nations. The Americans were assigned Utah and Omaha Beach as objectives; the British Gold and Sword Beaches. The Canadians, with British support, were assigned Juno Beach, located between Gold and Sword.
During the hard fighting which occurred, some Canadian troops fell into the hands of their opponents, among them the 12th SS Division, a unit known as the “Hitler Youth’ Division. According to survivors’ accounts over 150 surrendering Canadians were executed by their German captors. Eventually, two German officers were charged with war crimes over the atrocities.
Of course, the objectives of all the troops participating in the seaborne landings of June 6, known to the Allies as Operation Neptune, was not merely to occupy the beaches but to seize critical points by advancing inland. At the end of the day’s major combat operations the Canadians advancing from Juno had reached further inland than any other Allied forces involved in the invasion. Nonetheless, it was but the beginning of hard fighting which would engulf the Allies on the Western Front for the rest of 1944, and into the spring of 1945.
4. The Battle of the Scheldt
During the summer of 1944 British troops under Montgomery seized the Belgian city of Antwerp, which promised a major boon for the Allies. Antwerp and its invaluable port facilities were seized, intact, by units of the Belgian Resistance in the summer. In September they were reinforced by the British 11th Armored Division. Antwerp was in Allied hands, its port ready to provide badly needed logistics to the advancing Allied armies, but it could not, as yet, be used. The Germans had mined the estuary, and established heavily reinforced positions to defend it against allied incursion. Until the estuary was cleared Antwerp was of no use to the Allies. Montgomery was ordered to make clearing the Scheldt his top priority; he chose instead to concentrate on Operation Market Garden and preparations for an assault into Germany’s Ruhr Valley. He assigned the opening of Boulogne, Calais, and other Channel ports to the Canadians.
Clearing the estuary, which had been fortified, with sections flooded and the waterways heavily mined, fell to the Canadian First Army. Beginning in mid-September Canadian troops, supplemented by some British units and Polish commandos, began the difficult task. The Canadians fought against prepared defensive positions and nearly impassable terrain, suffering mounting casualties as they advanced, slowly grinding down the German resistance. On Friday, October 13, the 5th Infantry Brigade, known as the ”Black Watch”, was virtually destroyed while attempting to flank a German position. Montgomery took the opportunity to criticize Eisenhower and nominate himself for command of all Allied ground forces the following day. Eisenhower responded that Montgomery’s refusal to obey orders was the cause of the debacle, and threatened to fire him if the Scheldt was not made a top priority.
Montgomery responded to his boss’s ire and committed more troops to clearing the estuary on October 15. Despite the realignment of commitments, hard fighting in the region continued into early November. In the Battle of the Scheldt the Canadians suffered over 6,300 casualties, about half of the total suffered by the Allied forces. The port of Antwerp, captured by the Belgians in early September, opened for use by Allied shipping on November 28. Montgomery’s actions and decisions regarding Antwerp and Operation Market Garden have remained controversial ever since. The Canadian contribution to clearing the Scheldt, one of the most difficult operations of the land war in Europe, has long been overlooked.
3. Canada housed enemy interns and prisoners of war throughout World War II
Beginning in North Africa, and throughout the remainder of the war, Italian and German troops surrendered to the British. German airmen fell from the skies during the Battle of Britain and in ensuing campaigns, likewise becoming prisoners of war. Great Britain had few facilities to house them for a long term, and in an island under severe restrictions little to feed and clothe them with. Although senior prisoners were often retained and housed in British facilities (Latimer House was a favored location), by 1941 ships which delivered goods from the Americas to Great Britain often returned bearing prisoners of war. Those captured by the British and Dominions’ troops went to Canada.
Sources differ, but between two dozen and forty individual prison camps were established across Canada to house prisoners from Germany, Italy, and Japan, though the vast majority were Germans. Sub-camps and labor camps also were created, usually on a seasonal basis to support work gangs and crews. The camps were guarded by reserves of the Veteran Guards, for the most part veterans of the First World War. Eventually about 33,000 prisoners of war were housed in Canada, over 400,000 remained in Great Britain. Despite the difficulties in feeding and housing them, the British elected to keep them to use as a labor source during the war. Labor was voluntary, and paid, though remuneration was a pittance.
Canada also served to house interns, civilian nationals who were in Dominion lands when the war was declared, such as embassy personnel, news correspondents, businessmen and their families, and so forth. They came under the auspices of the International Red Cross, which ensured their well-being while in custody. Before America entered the war, German prisoners entertained the idea of escaping to America, a neutral country, and through diplomatic machination to freedom. In one escape, perhaps apocryphal, a group of Germans turned themselves in at Camp Ozada after escaping, only to encounter a Canadian Grizzly as they made their way to freedom. Though bears weren’t uncommon in Germany, nothing like the monstrous Grizzly lived there, and it undoubtedly gave them reason to reconsider the wonders of the New World.
2. Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) bombing missions against Nazi Germany
It is a longstanding myth that precision aerial bombing was perfected by the Allies during the Second World War. The legendary Norden bombsight, which allegedly enabled such daylight bombing by the Americans, never achieved the level of accuracy advertised by its proponents. Instead the Allies relied on area bombing, destroying cities and towns as well as the factories and infrastructure they supported. The devastating fire raids of Dresden, Cologne, and Hamburg stand as testament to this long standing myth of the Second World War. The casualties suffered by the Americans, British, Free French, Poles, Norwegians, and other airmen over the course of the bombing campaigns were horrendous.
Add to them the casualties suffered by the Canadians. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) operated within RAF commands until 1943, when the Canadian squadrons were united to form 6 RCAF Group, which continued to operate under the control of the RAF’s Bomber Command. Eventually 6 RCAF group consisted of 14 squadrons of heavy bombers, which flew missions both in conjunction with and separately from the RAF, as operational requirements dictated. As with their British cousins, casualties were heavy throughout the war.
Canada conducted training programs even before hostilities commenced, creating a pipeline of trained pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and air crew to the RAF, including trainees from throughout the Dominions. Its contribution to the air war thus exceeded the number of its own who flew in British (and American) aircraft in a variety of roles, including heavy bombing, tactical bombing, reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare, and close air support. Canada lost over 8,000 airmen who died during the war, part of the over 57,000 airmen who died serving the RAF Bomber Command, a fatality rate of over 46%.
1. Canada played a major role in the Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project is remembered (and widely fictionalized) as the United States’ super-secret effort to develop and deliver an atomic bomb ahead of the Germans and thus ensure victory in World War II. Although it was highly-classified, it was not solely an American effort. In some critical areas, Canadian scientists were actually ahead of Enrico Fermi in the development of a uranium reactor in 1940. In 1942 joint British-Canadian research and development work was underway in Canada. Information exchanges between Canadian, British, and American scientists and researchers continued throughout the war, though many were limited due to security restrictions imposed by all sides.
In 1943 the leaders of Great Britain, the United States, and Canada (Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and McKenzie King) met in Quebec. Full cooperation between the three powers was agreed upon. The following year General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, and British leaders including James Chadwick agreed to construct a heavy-water reactor using the Canadian design. Canadian-British-American cooperation and shared research was a major factor in the development of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, especially the contribution of Canada, a fact too often ignored by history books.
At Quebec, Roosevelt and Churchill added nuclear research and weapons to the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain, with Canada one of the British Dominions. Post-war, Great Britain developed an atomic, and eventually a thermonuclear weapon of its own. Canada did not. However, as of August 2022, 19 nuclear power plants in Canada generate about 15% of the nation’s electrical needs. Canada has from the beginning been a leader in the development of nuclear technology, a fact nearly a secret to most of the citizens of its friendly neighbor to the south.