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Legion Magazine – November/December 2000 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – November/December 2000

The sparks for this column come from three new books that in part defend the good calibre of Canadian soldiers in battle in WW II, particularly during the Normandy Campaign that began in June 1944. A general proposition has developed over the years from assertions that Canadian units were mediocre in combat, in contrast to the German enemy and well below the superb attainments as the best in battle earned by the Canadian Corps in WW I.

The books are The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps: An Illustrated History by John Marteinson; Victory At Falaise: The Soldier’s Story by Denis and Shelagh Whitaker with historian Terry Copp; and Fighting For Canada: Seven Battles, 1758-1945, edited by Donald E. Graves.

Taken more narrowly, the criticisms of the Canadians were largely evoked by some American and British analysts who based their cases on the slow, stuttering Canadian advances in taking Caen, then in reaching Falaise to seal the trap on the German forces in Normandy.

A Canadian military historian, John A. English, raised a diverse array of critical judgments of Canadian soldiers in 1991 with The Canadian Army And The Normandy Campaign: A Study Of Failure In High Command.

To telescope the critiques, their general conclusions were that of the three offensive branches—artillery, infantry and armour—the Canadian gunners were very capable and often figuratively saved the day; the infantry that took staggeringly high casualties ranged from passable to good, given the uneven quality of both their training for battle and their leadership, regimental and upwards; and the armour did badly, in particular the tank regiments using the Shermans.

Even granting the Sherman as an undergunned, thin-skinned flamer in contrast to the German tanks’ quality, the judgments were unflattering: Canadian tank units were assessed as uneven in quality and the weakest of the three offensive arms in Normandy.
John English put it baldly: “…Canadian infantry units when intelligently commanded and led were capable, despite their inferior weaponry, of more than holding their own against the enemy. If not so obviously superior an arm as the artillery, relative to the German, the infantry nevertheless performed better than Canadian armour. Without question, the tank arm remained the weakest link in the Anglo-Canadian order of battle…. It seems incredible, in short, that the tank arm with a significantly lower casualty rate often remained behind while forlorn hopes of infantry, torn by enemy and friendly fire alike, plodded ever onward.”

A few years ago, Jack Granatstein took issue with low estimates of Canadian soldiers’ effectiveness along the line of battle in his 1993 book The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders In The Second World War. So did George Blackburn in his Guns trilogy. In a new, thick paperback volume of The Guns Of War, which elides Blackburn’s best-selling Guns Of Normandy and Guns Of Victory, the former forward observation officer remarks on “… inaccurate, irresponsible conclusions…regarding the training and fighting qualities of Canadian officers and men in WW II. And these inaccuracies—insulting to the memory of all those Canadians who died facing the enemy while the official record-keepers sheltered miles to the rear—are being perpetuated by British and American writers and even built upon by some domestic revisionists.”
Blackburn continued: “Armchair strategists…have spent more time wondering why Canadians were so slow getting down past Falaise to meet up with the Americans. They should have spent more time wondering how men ever summoned up the necessary moral courage and physical stamina to get there at all.”

The new history of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps by John Marteinson covers both the cavalry heritage of the corps into and through WW I and the tangled story of its armoured experiences in France through peacetime to 1939, then through WW II, and on to the present. For example, the bleak tale of the misfortunes created by former Defence Minister Paul Hellyer’s unification of the Canadian Forces is unfolded from an armoured corps viewpoint. More than half the history focuses on the units and formations of the corps in WW II.

This illustrated history is a handsome, big volume book with a most readable format. The maps are many and ingenious and the illustrations wondrous, in particular the many reproductions of Canadian war art. The author has not used any particular chapter to deal with the developed harsh critique on the shortcomings of our tank units in battle, even in the slow, bitter push towards Falaise. His defence of the tankers’ work in battle comes in snippet analyses, mostly in the narrative of battles and actions from D-Day in June 1944 to jumping the Seine River that August.

Marteinson deals at some length with one criticism because “there were instances in early battles, both in Italy and Normandy, when armoured units did not perform especially well.” He asks and gives reasoned answers to the moot question “whether formations and units of the Canadian Armoured Corps were as well prepared to go into battle as they might have been, given the relatively lengthy period of training in Britain.” And his answer is summed up this way: “It is probably fair to say that most units, especially the armoured regiments, were not adequately prepared for their first battle. They did, however, have the essential skills that enabled them to learn from their early mistakes and adapt relatively rapidly to the ground over which they were to fight and the tactics employed by the enemy.”

The history has a long, vivid and clear account of Operation Totalize, the grand attack launched Aug. 7, 1944, master-minded by General Guy Simonds and designed to breach the strong German defences anchored on Verrières Ridge and get to Falaise along the axis of the Caen-Falaise road. Marteinson is frank about what went wrong. In assessing this costly, limited success in which hundreds of Allied Shermans were destroyed, he does not spare Simonds, notably by describing his treatment of his brigade and regimental commanders.

The Whitakers and Terry Copp in Victory At Falaise take aim at the detractors of Canadian (and British and American) achievements against the unrivalled German soldiers in Normandy. In a prologue, Denis Whitaker writes that: “… many historians have focused on the ‘battle of the generals.’ Few have tried to portray ‘the soldiers’ story, the battle from the point of view of the fighting men. Yet, with no experience in actual combat, it is difficult for anyone to fairly assess the efforts of men at the sharp end…. I fought with the men of Normandy until I was wounded, and I rejoined them to fight for seven months through Belgium, Holland and Germany. I believe they were damned good soldiers. We weren’t fighting a war of individuals; we fought in cohesive, disciplined, well-trained units that pulled together to take objectives.”

In 15 pages titled The Last Word, Copp reviews judgments made on Normandy and the Canadians, including the thesis developed by Colonel C.P. Stacey, our official historian for the campaign in Northwest Europe, that “the Allies won because of numerical and material superiority and the paralysing effect of air power. The Canadians, like their comrades in the American and British armies, were, he suggested ‘overcautious’—they failed to maintain the momentum of attack and were ‘too easily satisfied.’”

As a former trooper in an armoured car regiment active in Normandy, I literally cheered historian Copp’s sweeping analysis of the victory in Normandy campaign. After a succinct comparison of the casualties in the battles of WW I, which show that in a time period in 1917 equal to the 105 days of battle in Normandy, the Allied casualty rate in the earlier war averaged 2,121 a day. In Normandy it was 2,500 a day. 75 per cent of the latter casualties were “of combat troops at the sharp end who had to carry the battle to the enemy. It was their valour, their endurance and their ability to adapt that won the battle of Normandy and launched the liberation of Western Europe.”

Wow! How I savour that chapter. Well, I found a convincing parallel to it in an unusual collection of seven “battle” studies, edited by Donald Graves, the author of the splendid regimental history of the South Alberta Regiment. The battles range from Montcalm’s victory over a larger army of British regulars and American colonial militia at Ticonderoga in the 1700s, through the battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 to a rout by Fenian raiders at Ridgeway in 1866 to an action against the Boers in 1900 at Leliefontein to a cavalry charge at Moreuil Wood in 1918, concluding with two accounts of small, sharp, costly attacks on Germans in WW II.

Four of the authors of these clear, well-organized studies are serving officers in the Canadian Forces. Their editor begins with a disquisition on how so much military history does not deal with “the tactical level of war, that is the sharp end where soldiers kill and are killed and where personal leadership, training, weapons and experience are of paramount importance.”

He goes on: “It is at the tactical level of war that the human element plays the greatest part and this level is most susceptible to the dictates of Murphy’s Law that if anything can go wrong, it will.”

Graves posits that “… most Canadian historians avoid studying battles… Most of the so-called military history produced in Canada is actually concerned with matters on the periphery of the central military act and the study of battles has become the province of official historians, popularizers and journalists…. This aversion to dealing with the real business of war is influenced by prevailing academic and social norms about the unthinkability of armed conflict in a nuclear age and also by a cherished national myth that Canadians are reluctant warriors.”

The editor concludes: “Fighting For Canada does not make for untroubled reading, nor should it, because, stripped of its essentials, the central military act is an exercise in hot- and cold-blooded killing.”

Although my experience of battle in 1944-45 was largely as a close bystander of the lowest rank, I certainly knew through oral gossip about the two calamitous actions of WW II analysed so succinctly in Fighting For Canada. We heard of “the debacle at Le Mesnil-Patry.” It had been murderous, with 52 tanks destroyed and a death bill among the 1st Hussars’ tankers and the Queen’s Own Rifles of 160 men.

As for Operation Elephant, the stupid assault on Kapelsche Veer, a bleak, soggy island in the Maas River, Holland, my outfit was along the river to the west and almost immediately heard of the bitter reactions to this folly by ordinary soldiers, packaged later in an ironical sentence: “If only we had the wisdom of our generals.” In this action the key general was Chris Vokes, their divisional commander. He directed this costly capture of a barren island on a static front, a pimple of a battle that cost 522 men killed or wounded.