Fight to the Finish: Canadians in the Second World War, 1944-1945
By Tim Cook
Allen Lane Canada, 570 pages, $45
The Best Little Army in the World: The Canadians in Northwest Europe 1944-1945
By J. L. Granatstein
HarperCollins Canada, 336 pages, $32.99
On a list of neglected historical events, the Second World War would rank nowhere near the top. For those of us growing up in the 1960s and '70s, the 1939-45 descent into hell felt like anything but ancient history. Scarcely a day passed without some reminder.
Every adult you knew was touched by it in one way or another. Then there was the regular diet of Hollywood blockbusters: The Longest Day, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare, The Battle of Britain, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton.
TV kept the memory alive with the action series Combat!, Twelve O'Clock High and The Rat Patrol, as well as popular sitcoms Hogan's Heroes and McHale's Navy. Every living room bookshelf, it seemed, held a copy of Herman Wouk's 1971 door-stopping epic The Winds of War, which owned a spot on The New York Times' bestseller list for 64 weeks running.
While the torrent has slowed over time, the multiplex has frequently screened reincarnations, notably Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, The Pianist, Inglourious Basterds and The Imitation Game.
But where is Canada in all of this? The Queen's Own Rifles, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Nova Scotia Highlanders and numerous other Canadian units joined their U.S. and British counterparts in storming the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, although moviegoers would gain little awareness of Canada's crucial role from D-Day dramas Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day.
While Christopher Plummer represented the Royal Canadian Air Force in The Battle of Britain, you would never know from The Great Escape that many of the principal figures in the historical event fictionalized by that popular movie were Canadian prisoners of war.
In our own culture, the Second World War has largely taken a back seat to its 1914-18 predecessor. Remembrance Day, Canada's national observance, grew out of the First World War. That conflict also gave us John McCrae's iconic poem In Flanders Fields, as well as the debatable notion that Canada came into its own as a nation during the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The First World War has figured prominently in our fiction, from Timothy Findley's The Wars to Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road. On our stages, there has been nothing to rival the popularity of Billy Bishop Goes to War, although a case can be made for John Murrell's Second World War drama Waiting for the Parade as iconic Canadian theatre. It should also be said that Michael Ondaatje's bestselling Second World War-era novel The English Patient, adapted for the screen, features Canadians in its international cast of characters.
Historians, at least, continue to hold up their end. Two current volumes by esteemed Canadian academics zero in on the last years of the Second World War, while debunking the previously held but unjust view that Canada had a negligible role to play as an ally to Britain and the United States.
J. L. Granatstein's The Best Little Army in the World: The Canadians in Northwest Europe 1944-1945 and Tim Cook's Fight to the Finish: Canadians in the Second World War 1944-1945 closely follow Canadian troops from their D-Day landing on Juno Beach to their crucial role in the Battle of the Scheldt. Both books offer the assessment that Canadian troops, while not always well commanded, were hard-nosed, determined and fought with increasing effectiveness as the war dragged on.
It is worth remembering that Canada had few men in uniform when the war began. The volunteers who eagerly enlisted to fight in Europe were not professional – or even weekend – warriors, but teachers and doctors, farmhands and factory workers. Prior to the declaration of war, these "citizen-warriors," as Cook calls them, had little ability or appetite for combat. Trained in Britain, their odds of surviving unharmed after deployment, while never great, improved with the amount of experience gained in battle.
Granatstein, a former director of the Canadian War Museum, takes pains to point out that Canadian soldiers didn't become "the best little army in the world" overnight. Even after D-Day, Canadian troops were held at least partly responsible for allowing retreating Germans to escape during the battle for the Falaise pocket south of Caen.
The Canadians were "too slow, too unco-ordinated, some too poorly trained and too weakly led in a complex, fluid battle, and simply too green to beat a desperate skilled enemy," writes Granatstein, in the equivalent of a midterm report card. The author goes on to show Canadian commanders and their charges steadily growing in confidence, skill and efficiency over time.
Fight to the Finish, the concluding volume in Cook's authoritative, two-part history of the war, offers equally meticulous battlefield reconstructions, but potentially holds more interest for the general reader. Cook, a military historian at the Canadian War Museum, enlivens his narrative with chapters on the conditions faced by Canadian prisoners of war and the important battlefield role played by a medical staff of dedicated doctors and nurses frequently required to deal with wounds that were as psychological as physical.
He also gives a grunt's eye view of the camaraderie among the troops, the unfathomable ferocity of combat, the inevitable battlefield fatigue and the joy of receiving letters from home, unless the news was that your sweetheart had found another man.
The most familiar place names on the map of Canada's involvement in the Second World War are Dieppe, where Canadian troops were mowed down during an ill-conceived 1942 raid, and Juno Beach, where the final seeds of victory were sown.
But both of these books make a case for the Scheldt battle – a protracted, muddy slog through an estuary of dikes – as Canada's finest hour, opening Allied access to the port of Antwerp and paving the way for the eventual liberation of the Netherlands. The Canadians, deprived of a victory march through Paris, more than received their due from the Dutch, who expressed their gratitude in a variety of different ways.
At the end of the war, 1,886 Dutch brides crossed the Atlantic with their newlywed Canadian husbands, as well as 428 children conceived in the Netherlands. An estimated 6,000 other children fathered by Canadians were raised by Dutch women and, presumably in some cases, their unwitting husbands.
Hard to imagine there aren't the makings of a novel, movie or TV miniseries in there somewhere.