Canadian unit deployment in WW2 - our greatest mistake?

Discussion in 'Canadian' started by Chris C, Aug 20, 2017.

  1. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian layabout

    Ok, that's kind of a clickbait title, I apologize for that, but I wonder if it's true. The Dieppe anniversary and reading about some Canadians in Normandy got me thinking about this:

    In WW2 there was a government policy that our troops were not to be committed piecemeal to any theatre. This led to Canadian troops being stationed in Britain for a long time without any being deployed to North Africa.

    It also led to the army jumping at the opportunity of Dieppe to put some of the restless troops into battle. If it hadn't been for this restlessness, it's unclear to me whether Canadian troops would have been involved at all.

    The other issue is to the degree to which Canadian troops deployed in Normandy were still "green", both individual soldiers and most of the officers.

    In retrospect this feels like a mistake. Undoubtedly if we had gotten involved in the war in North Africa there would have been losses. But they might have been outweighed by fewer tactical errors in Normandy.

    Possibly this is an unanswerable question.
    17thDYRCH likes this.
  2. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    Terry Copp argues the case that the Canadian Army was no more inclined to tactical errors than other British units or formations.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2018
  3. idler

    idler GeneralList

    In that case, RUTTER could be seen as an opportunity for some Canadian troops to gain experience in a limited operation which could then be disseminated amongst the remainder. Presumably there's no record of such a decision, though, as it would have surfaced before now.
  4. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian layabout

    Sheldrake, that's true. But would there have been fewer? Was it the right decision to make?

    idler - yes, could have been, but it would have been a pretty terrible way to do it.
  5. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    Canadians fought together in NW Europe but were deployed piece meal in France 1940, Hong Kong and to a degree, in Italy. The political resistance to split up Canadian formations into British units was a legacy of WW1 and the sheer number of Canadian men in uniform.
  6. JohnS

    JohnS Senior Member

    When did this policy come into act? It must have been after France and Hong Kong. I've often wondered why no Canadian units fought in North Africa. Maybe they should have to gain experience.
  7. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian layabout

    That's a very interesting point, JohnS! I was a little surprised to learn that the 48th Highlanders landed as part of the second Expeditionary Force (truth be told I don't know if I really knew about that Force!) and then withdrawn. And then as you say, there was Hong Kong. I wonder if the losses in Hong Kong were responsible for the policy.
  8. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    The Statute of Westminster in 1931 had made Canada a fully independent nation but generally it aligned with Britain on most foreign affairs issues. Much of the friction between Crerar and Monty was the dual allegiance that Crerar maintained to the Allied coalition and the Canadian government. While the objectives and methods of the two were generally not mutually exclusive, Crerar's first obligation was always to Ottawa.
    I don't know if that was ever a formal policy but certainly, in practice, Canada did not relinquish it's right to discretion in the handling of Canadian soldiers. The bitter experience at Hong Kong and Dieppe, though fully approved by Canada, must have made this an acute sensitivity by 1944. In fact, Crerar bears much of the responsibility for the dispatch of Canadian troops to Hong Kong in November 1941.
    The reality is that it would have been politically suicidal and catastrophically damaging to the Canada/U.K. relationship if unfettered British direction of Canadian troops had led to another debacle.
    These issues did not begin with Crerar. His predecessor, Andy McNaughton, was dismissed from his role primarily at the instigation of senior British commanders over many of the same tensions. Ironically, Crerar was at that point seen as the more collaborative option.

    Terry Copp provides an interesting overview of the context in this Legion article.

    "Reviewing these political disputes with Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, it is difficult not to have considerable sympathy for the Canadian general. McNaughton had a constitutional duty and a personal commitment to the autonomy of the Canadian Army while Brooke wanted to control all Commonwealth forces as if they were British units. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa accepted British direction, why were the Canadians so difficult?"

    Examining A General’s Dismissal: Army, Part 16 | Legion Magazine
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017
  9. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian layabout

    Very interesting article - thanks Canuck!
  10. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    To most Canadians, including me, the following quote from the article is quite stunning:

    "However, at the time, McNaughton was simply informed that he was denied permission to land in Sicily. On his return to England, McNaughton spoke to Brooke who denied that the Canadian commander had any right to visit Canadian troops."

    That a British senior officer would seek to deny access for a Canadian officer to visit Canadian troops speaks volumes about old colonial thinking and the lack of respect for an independent nation. If that attitude was pervasive in the British high command then it fully explains to me why Canadian leaders continued to push back and defend their autonomy. Rightly or wrongly, there was no shortage of Canadian veterans who returned with the bitter perception that the British were always willing to "fight to the last Canadian".
    17thDYRCH likes this.
  11. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian layabout

    Not to mention the desire for them to have British generals in charge of Canadian divisions, referenced in that article.
  12. JohnS

    JohnS Senior Member

    If the British were to apply the same method to Canadian divisions as they did with Indian divisions then every infantry brigade would have one British and two Canadian battalions with probably a British commander. That would have been weird and there would be no First Canadian Army to help liberate The Netherlands. I am glad that didn't happen.
    Chris C likes this.
  13. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    The evolution to a distinct Canadian Army is a very long, complex story but I think it is safe to say that the British/Canadian relationship changed fundamentally after Passchendaele. The scale of Canadian casualties, without any appreciable Canadian input, was essentially the last straw. Afterwards, then Prime Minister Robert Borden demanded and received real changes. Canada's large wartime commitment, in troops and war production, gave him the leverage to insist on having a more independent voice.
    JohnS likes this.
  14. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    What was different about the way the CEF functioned after Passchendaele? What independence did Currlie enjoy - over and above the recognition of a fine achievement at Passchendale.
  15. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian layabout

    I'm trying to find information about it online and coming up short.

    It might undermine celebrating those battles as victories...
  16. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    The CEF may not have noticed the difference, at that point. It was a political change and the stage for that was set prior to the actual battle.

    It was the creation of The Imperial War Cabinet by David Lloyd George in the spring 1917 that recognized the increased contribution by the dominions and provided a formal setting for increased consultation with dominion governments on the conduct of the war. In April 1917, at an Imperial War Conference, a Canadian resolution (IX) was passed which committed to a post war conference in order to change existing constitutional arrangements "based upon a full recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth", and should give the Dominions and India "a right... to an adequate voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations."

    Sir Robert Borden was quoted as saying to Lloyd George, at one of these cabinet meetings, "‘Mr. Prime Minister, I want to tell you that, if there is a repetition of the battle of Passchendaele [where the Canadian Corps suffered about 16,000 casualties], not a Canadian soldier will leave the shores of Canada so long as the Canadian people entrust the government of their country to my hands.”
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  17. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    I think this is part of the context for Lloyd George's decision to withhold troops from the Western Front in 1918.

    As it happens the Canadians went on to fight through 1918 and suffered some 45k casualties out of a force nominally 100k strong. Amiens to Mons was a long had fight - but possibly the Canadian military's finest hour.
    canuck likes this.
  18. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    I would agree and led by possibly the finest Canadian military leader of all time, Sir Arthur Currie. A man, who in 1897 was a part-time soldier in the Canadian militia.

    It was, however, not without controversy as the Canadians suffered 20% of their total battle casualties for the entire war during that period. There was much lingering criticism leveled at Currie for being a callous and cold-hearted leader who sacrificed Canadian soldiers for the sake of his own reputation. Particularly over the casualties incurred in capturing Mons in the final days when it was known that the armistice was imminent.
    The First World War secured Canada's nationhood but domestically was also exceptionally divisive.

    For "The Hundred Days," August 8 to November 11, 1918, the Canadian Corps was in the vanguard of the offensive throughout. The four divisions retained the original Canadian organizational structure and fought as a homogeneous formation. The approx. 100,000 men of the Corps. engaged and defeated elements of over forty seven German divisions, one quarter of the German forces available. They advanced 130 kilometers, captured 32,000 prisoners and nearly 3,800 artillery pieces, machine guns and mortars. By WW1 standards, the Canadian casualty rate, for the duration of the campaign and the results achieved, was actually quite moderate.

    A British historian, Denis Winter, described the seizure of the Drocourt-Quéant switch by the Canadian Corps as the "greatest single achievement" of the British Expeditionary Force during the entire war, and praised Currie for his ability to bring "unprecedented" concentrations of artillery and machine gun together with flexible infantry sections that were adjusted for the situation.
  19. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    I admire Currie for his quite precise awareness of the cost of operations. He said he could take Passchendaele village, but it would cost 16,000 casualties, and managed to achieve the objective within the estimate.

    The criticism of continuing to press at the last hour isn't fair. It was allied policy to continue operations to the last. Until the Germans actually stopped fighting it was possible that they might have reneged.
    canuck likes this.
  20. canuck

    canuck Closed Account

    I completely agree. It isn't over until it's over. There was an unfinished job at hand and orders to obey.

    In Currie's case, he had political enemies in Canada (Sam Hughes) who quite deliberately seized upon casualty numbers as a pretext to damage his reputation. A regrettable and ironic slight on a brilliant commander who arguably, compared to his WW1 Allied contemporaries, did more to change failed strategies and minimize the losses incurred. Through a combination of philosophy, innovation, thoroughness and leadership his ratio of success to losses I believe stands up to any scrutiny.
    In both wars there has been that same criticism leveled over casualties taken in the final weeks or months. There is tragic irony attached to those late stage losses but in the broader view, are they really any different from the tens of thousands who fell before them.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2018

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