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Legion Magazine – September/October 2003 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – September/October 2003

Those of us of the WW II generation are aware of the steady loss of friends and good acquaintances. One sees it in the composition of the obituary columns in papers in recent years. The 1.1 million Canadians who served in our military between 1939 and 1945 is nearing the 300,000 mark. Soon, say 15 years, the remnants will be like the veterans of the Great War today, almost all gone.

Veterans make little about this decline in the living. I am into the topic because of the death in May of a late-in-life friend of mine, Ed Houston, once a Bomber Command man, then a prisoner of war and postwar a lawyer, a judge, a busy, and almost always positive, man.

Houston was a frank, opinionated and convivial person. He would be in a huff at my singling him out as representing a particular camaraderie through the years since 1945. Over time I realized his was not quite the same mutual cherishing that comrades in combat from the same regiment or squadron or ship have for each other. It seemed to me more supportive and continuing through social contacts and mutual help.

I had known three other WW II PoWs, or ‘kriegies’, (now gone) before I met Houston a dozen years ago—Tom Miller, a history professor; Ray Silver, a writer and an authority on nuclear power; and Gordon Olmstead, a telecommunications expert, who led the long postwar lobby by wartime merchant seamen.

Like Houston, each of the three was outstanding in his working career. Each always seemed to be about to visit or returning from one to a fellow PoW, near or far. They shared something intangible to me—a brotherhood from joint experiences which had sorely tried them. Yes, they survived, but more than that, they came out of it forward-looking. Such positivism is a tribute to the society and values which they crystallized within the stark containment of barbed wire and guns.

This postwar time and respect for each other had nothing of glorifying their durance or of wanting recognition and compensation for it—for example, the terrible long march away from the advancing Russians in late winter of 1945.

Let me turn from this reflection on bonding among PoWs to some new books, three of which are exceptionally interesting, the first for old soldiers, the second for old sailors, and the third for all veterans interested in what happened to our military from 1945 to 2003.

Most Legion Magazine readers have relished stories in the magazine of WW II campaigns by historian Terry Copp. Over years of concentrating on the Normandy battles, from the Allies landing on the beaches to reaching the Seine and then the Scheldt, he was laying the way for a major revision of the conventional postwar wisdom which posited that the Canadians (and their comrade British units) had been outfought by better trained and led German troops, and that victory in Normandy had largely come through overwhelming superiority in the air and on the sea and in materials and supply. The result is his new book, Fields Of Fire: The Canadians In Normandy, published by the University of Toronto Press.

One example among many alleged Canadian and British inadequacies Copp has gathered was a comparison by historian Russel Hart of American, British, and Canadian performances in Normandy. The Americans demonstrated a capacity to learn quickly “whereas the British (especially) and Canadian armies were poorly trained, badly led and slow to learn.”

The myth of such inferiority was not fashioned only by American or British or German military critics. Some Canadians, including the dean of our military historians, C.P. Stacey, took this line in his magisterial book, The Victory Campaign, even openly basing it on a high opinion of German will and skill given him by Charles Foulkes, commander for a time in Normandy.

After years of study, including walking the battlefields of Normandy summer after summer, Copp decided “to examine exactly what happened” through the records of leaders at every level and the diaries of almost every unit. He found “the evidence demonstrates that the achievement of the Allied and especially of the Canadian armies in Normandy has been greatly underrated while the effectiveness of the German army has been greatly exaggerated. The defeat and near destruction of two German armies in just 76 days was one of the most remarkable military victories of the Second World War.”
Copp’s cogent conclusion is that “…it is time to recognize the extraordinary achievements that marked the progress of the Canadians across Normandy’s fields of fire.”

He insists “the Canadian army played a role out of all proportion to its relative strength among the Allied armies. This was especially true within 21 Army Group where due to a mixture of Canadian pride and the British desire to limit their casualties Canadian divisions were required to fight more often than their British counterparts. The oft-quoted statistics which show that the Canadians suffered considerably heavier casualties than other divisions in 21 Army Group are the product of a greater number of days in close combat with the enemy, not evidence of operational or tactical failure.”
There’s much in the book on generalship—of Montgomery, Dempsey, Crerar, Simonds, Bradley and Patton—much of it critical of Montgomery’s hesitations when the situations were rather fluid or when major actions were stalling to a close. Most of the research, however, is of particular Canadian, British, and German units in specific battles like the D-Day landing and the advance from Juno Beach and the big, planned lunges south of Caen through the slow, bitter slugging to reach Falaise and “close the gap.”
As the book jacket asserts, this is “a stunning reversal of accepted military history.” It is, and it will create debate and bring some countering by both historians and journalists. My hunch, however, is the Copp thesis is too well sustained by data and his careful common sense for it not to establish for a literate posterity the high achievements of gunners, infantrymen, and tankers in what my commanding officer at the time—Jim Roberts of the Manitoba Dragoons—called in his postwar memoir, The Canadian Summer.

* * *

It is hard to imagine there could be a Royal Canadian Navy veteran of WW II or their survivors or friends who would not appreciate the text, photos, maps and diagrams of a handsome, big paperback produced by Robin Brass Studio of Toronto: The Peril On The Sea: The Royal Canadian Navy And The Battle Of The Atlantic, written by Donald E. Graves and published and distributed for Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, and led off by an apt foreword by former rear admiral D.W. Piers and an informative introduction by former vice-admiral Hugh MacNeil.

Although the reach of this popular history of the RCN goes from before the Great War to the Gulf War of the 1990s, some 150 of its 250 pages are about the Battle of the Atlantic, and “its legacy.” The author deals with the slowness in naval headquarters in Ottawa in responding astutely to the U-boat menace. He is frank about tragic losses because of inadequate equipment and a dearth of well-trained seamen which bedeviled the RCN until the crisis of heavy convoy losses in 1942 and early 1943 was met and surmounted. If our army’s crucial dilemma in WW II became a grave shortage of trained infantrymen, the navy’s was inadequacies on the science and technology side in developing and installing anti-submarine devices and in progressively improving the corvettes, the core craft in convoy security. Best of all in the book, to an army type like me, is its handy details on dress, food, gear, quarters, ranks, responsibilities, ports, recreations, even unto a succinct, convincing explanation of the Halifax Riots in May 1945.

The third “buster of a book” I recommend was a surprise to me because years ago I knew its author well, and while I respected his talents as a journalist, he always seemed too much a Grit or capital “L” Liberal in outlook for my comfort or pleasure. He is Andrew Cohen, now a Carleton University teacher on international relations, a former reporter for the Financial Post and the Globe & Mail, and author of the excellent While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place In The World, published by McClelland and Stewart in Toronto. This is an exceptionally easy book to read—popular but built on much academic scholarship and masterly in its smooth transitions between the two narrative pillars of the book. The first is the theme built around the three seminal characters in providing Canada competent diplomacy as we changed in the 1920s and 1930s from being a colony to a nation—Lester Pearson, Hume Wrong, and Norman Robertson, the most golden trio in Canada’s “golden age of diplomacy.”

The complementing contributions of the trio become informative leads into less personal, pocket histories of Canada as soldier in WW II and Korea, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the North American Aerospace Defence Command as benefactor providing foreign aid, as trader with the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement and as an operator on the world scene. There’s a clear, trenchant chapter on how federal governments since Pierre Trudeau’s advent gradually let the Canadian Forces slip into ineffectiveness while we, cruising under the American umbrella, convinced ourselves we were a respected model globally as pioneers at peacekeeping and a continuing, admirable witness to the magnificent values in multiculturalism and bilingualism.

Cohen’s conclusions are not shrouded by gloom. We do have the money, the talents, and the compassion to be abler and better at defence, aid, trade, diplomacy, “and consistent managing of relations with the U.S.” The examples of the genius in the careers of Pearson, Wrong and Robertson merit resurrection as models once we jettison both our peacekeeping myth and the notion we are a beacon for the Second and Third World nations. Inspired by them we can get back on the tracks they made half a century and more ago.

Now to mention a few books of narrower compass, created in honour of some who have served in our military. The first has an ethnic and geographical raison d’être. It is: Memories On The March: Personal Stories Of The Jewish Military Veterans Of Southern Alberta, written by Tyler Trafford, and published by Jewish War Veterans of Canada in Calgary.

This large layout paperback assembles some 40 accounts of individual Jewish veterans plus a handful of families with more than one volunteer. The full “honour roll” at a banquet at Calgary held by the B’nai B’rith in 1946 listed some 230 Jewish veterans, a clear majority of whom had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This book gave me a lift because it confirmed what I did know about high Jewish enlistments and what I also knew about several of the veterans.

The next book, in hardback, is a blockbuster in size and weight. A host of persons are recalled, many tersely but a lot in considerable, colloquial detail. It is: Remembering: Lennox And Addington Veterans Of World War II And The Korean Conflict by Stephen M. Fochuk, published under the auspices of the Lennox and Addington Historical Society in Napanee, Ont.

The last book I note is a small and odd one, but engaging. Red Soil: A P.E.I. Soldier’s Life At The Front, is by Felix (LeRoy) Perry, and was published by Nimbus Publishing of Halifax. This paperback is an ingenuous and ingenious recall by a soldier’s offspring, based on their father’s postwar stories and on his letters home during his months with the West Novas in Italy and Northwestern Europe. The best parts for me are in the familial scenario created by the soldier’s marriage to a Newfoundlander early in the war and its largely happy consequences despite the adversities of poverty and separation. Perry had to have been one great guy to get such a warm, posthumous tribute.