This volume tells the story of 333 days of fighting by Canadian soldiers, from the Normandy beaches to the valley of the Weser and the shores of the Baltic.
During this period the First Canadian Army advanced some 450 miles in a direct line, and fought and won a series of battles as terrible as any in the history of the ancient and famous lands where the campaign took place. Reckoned in terms of numbers, the Army’s contribution was small in proportion to the whole Allied force that fought under General Eisenhower; of the Supreme Commander’s 90 divisions Canada produced but five, and the total personnel establishment of her field force at the end was about 170,000.1 Some 237,000 men and women of the Canadian Army* served in North-West Europe during the operations.2 The defeat of Germany was effected only by a mighty effort by a coalition of great states, several of which were far stronger than Canada.
Nevertheless, it was given to the Canadians to stand in the forefront of perhaps the fiercest and the most significant encounters of this vast and fateful campaign. In his final report Eisenhower spoke of “three episodes as being the most decisive in insuring victory”. They were the battle of the Normandy beaches; the battle of the Falaise pocket; and the battles west of the Rhine during February and March. In all three, as it happened, Canadian soldiers played important parts. Beside these three may stand, both for difficulty and for strategic significance, the Battle of the Scheldt, in which the First Canadian Army—and, primarily, the 2nd Canadian Corps—cleared the approaches from the sea to the port of Antwerp and thereby made it possible to maintain the Allied armies during the final advance into Germany. This record might command respect even by the standards of the greater powers.
At the end of the fighting, Intelligence computed that First Canadian Army had encountered during its ten months of operations 60 divisions of the German forces (the remains of one or two others which had fought against Canadians earlier in the campaign had vanished from the theatre before the Army took over a portion of the line). The comment was made, “These have ranged from the fanatical SS and tenacious parachutists to the mediocre training and GAF divisions. But throughout the campaign in the West, the High Command has paid First Canadian Army the compliment of consistently opposing our forces with some of the best troops available to them.” In certain of the periods of hardest action, not a great number of prisoners fell into Canadian hands; many of these formidable fighters preferred death to surrender. Nevertheless, from 23 July, when First Canadian
* The total of the personnel of the Army reported as serving in North-West Europe, 1940-45, is 257,978. Deducting those who went to Brittany in 1940 or to Dieppe on 19 August 1942, or who were dispatched to the Continent after 8 May 1945, the total arrived at for the campaign is 237,009.
Army became operational, through 4 May when the fighting ended, 192,000 prisoners* were taken from the enemy on the Army front.3
As the reader is well aware, the Army that fought under General Crerar’s command included large numbers of troops who were not Canadian. In this the First Canadian Army resembled the Eighth British Army that fought in North Africa and Italy, in which at times divisions from the United Kingdom were a decided minority. Canada contributed a corps to the Eighth Army, and until that corps returned from Italy late in the campaign its place in First Canadian Army had to be taken by other troops. At one point, indeed—the early stages of the Battle of the Rhineland in February 1945, when the 30th British Corps with a great part of the normal fighting strength of the Second British Army under its command fought under General Crerar—there were nine British divisions in the Army. General Crerar particularly asked the newspaper correspondents at his headquarters to give credit to the “English, Scottish and Welsh formations” engaged in this battle.4 So they did; but that did not wholly prevent comments such as that of a London newspaper whose military correspondent remarked that the Army was “‘Canadian’ in name because its commander and staff are Canadian”.5 It was always difficult for some people to comprehend how fluid the composition of an Army in the field was; and contriving to give proper credit to the national components of an international force was a difficult public relations problem throughout the war.
Of all the Armies that fought in North-West Europe, the First Canadian Army was the most international, and tribute must be paid to the Commonwealth and Allied forces that fought under its headquarters. For several brief periods, United States divisions served in the Army, and the only Canadian regret was that these periods were not longer. The 1st Polish Armoured Division, on the other hand, was almost a permanent component of the Army; and its exploits in the Falaise Gap are still freshly remembered. The 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade and the Royal Netherlands Brigade (Princess Irene’s) came under First Canadian Army when they entered the theatre in August 1944, and though they were not part of the Army throughout they were serving under it again when final victory came, and the association with them was a happy one. The 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group also served in the Army for several weeks in the autumn of 1944, investing the Germans in Dunkirk, a task in which, as we have seen, some French units likewise had a share. The friendly, smooth and effective cooperation of all these varied national elements under the operational direction of First Canadian Army was a special and inspiriting aspect of the campaign.
It is of the British formations that one must speak most particularly, and not merely because they were the largest. The special links which the Canadians had established with the British people and the British Army during the long garrison years in the United Kingdom were strengthened during the campaign on the Continent. Much good British blood was shed in the battles of the First Canadian Army; and the association with the 1st and 30th British Corps, and the gallant
* It is satisfactory to note here that only 2248 Canadian soldiers became prisoners of war during the entire campaign. The present writer’s statement in Six Years of War, that the Army lost more prisoners in nine hours at Dieppe than in eleven months in North-West Europe in 1944-45, is wrong (the Dieppe prisoners numbered 1946); but it is not very far wrong.
divisions that composed them, is a part of Canadian history. The Canadians who served in North-West Europe have reason to remember and respect the military skill and the unostentatious, long-enduring valour of the British soldier.
The Canadian divisions, however, were always the core of the Army. The part they played in eleven months of desperate and bloody fighting finds its sad reflection in the fact that over 11,000 Canadian soldiers fell in action during the campaign. These men now rest in honoured graves in France, Belgium and the Netherlands; and their memory is kept green, not only by their comrades and their countrymen, but by the grateful people of the lands they helped to liberate.
Like other formations that went into the struggle without benefit of battle experience, the Canadian divisions in the beginning had, we have seen, a good deal still to learn; and some of it they learned hard. But this phase passed, and they moved on from Normandy a body of battle-hardened soldiers whose mastery of every aspect of their task was more and more strongly marked as the campaign proceeded. In the later months of it the Army was an exceptionally efficient fighting machine. Sound, sure and intelligent command at all levels; competent and painstaking staff work; expert and energetic support by the technical arms and the services; and, above all, consistently resolute and skilful fighting by the troops in contact with the formidable enemy—these were the characteristics of the First Canadian Army in its maturity. They made it a force to be feared and remembered.