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Legion Magazine – Oct 2004 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – Oct 2004

This column has two segments, firstly an attempt at explaining the belated, but seemingly genuine interest of Canadians in what their forebears did in World War II; and secondly my tributes to three good books about war in a variety of guises.
The mass of exposure given Operation Overlord on its 60th anniversary in June staggered me. And next May comes the 60th anniversary of the victory in Europe. It should elicit even grander recall, notably in Canada and Holland, particularly for those still around who were there.

Files of press clippings I built up long ago make for a crude measure of national opinion about Canadians at war. Generally we have had lesser memorializing of great happenings in our history than the Americans, British, and French. Nonetheless, I generalize after comparing clipping files from the 40th and 50th anniversaries of D-Day, or Operation Overlord, with my notes about the 60th anniversary to this effect: Six decades after WW II, Canadians in this new century seem to have a wider, somewhat deeper historical interest than ever before in what their soldiers, sailors, and aircrew did—and its significance—in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

Why at this late date, 2004, more press coverage, biographical recall, and documentaries than in 1984 and 1994? It seems to me much of this coverage was given the basic stimulus of more informed content 10 to 15 years ago following a relative rush to recall publicly what serving men and women were witness to in WW II and who in retirement and their old age turned back in time to tell their grandchildren and the rest of us about the war of their early prime. Some of such recall was robustly defensive, for example in responding to the defamation by those anti-military and anti-British critics like Brian and Terence McKenna with their denigration of Canadians at Hong Kong, in Normandy, and in bombing Germany—i.e., the film series The Valour And The Horror in 1992.

Some of it surely came from the studious zeal and late maturing of a vigorous, substantial cadre of Canadian military historians, many of whom like Jack Granatstein, Terry Copp, and David Bercuson, aiming for, and getting big readerships, not just of fellow academics—and so were top-flight journalists like Pierre Berton and Ted Barris in recalls of such semi-forgotten battles as Vimy Ridge or against the Chinese in Korea. Much of such works were revisiting and revising—mostly upward—the worth of Canadian participation, in Italy and Northwestern Europe, within Bomber Command, or in the harsh, costly battle against the German U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Also, a lot of the opportunities to recall this greatest of wars came to Canadians as major voyeurs and so critics of America’s historicity as presented in a lot of recent films such as Saving Private Ryan.

One must also add that the aging factors in the present population, including WW II veterans, has tweaked what penchant there is in Canada for anything sentimental beyond hockey. The more than 1 million in a population of around 12 million who served in WW II, most as volunteers, have dwindled below 300,000, and the average age of the survivors is 82 to 83. It is a rare obituary list in the dailies nowadays without notice of some veterans. Further, at recent nationally televised occasions there have been so many moving cameos of aged and proud folks in, or marching past, ceremonies of honour and remembrance, getting their due from what now seems a commonly held patriotism which neither they nor several following generations would display a few decades ago with such prideful interest.

Probably I make too much of this latter-day exposition and recognition but the dearth of it over the years from 1945 to the mid-to-late 1980s always bothered me, and I put it down to several factors, beginning with the rush of those discharged to get on with civilian living and its rounds after the demobilizations of 1945-46, which, to the surprise of so many of us, went so much better in social and economic terms than expected. Another factor is still a sensitive topic politically, and that was the undoubted mind set of the government led by Mackenzie King not to make too much postwar of the glorious victory and the huge military contribution to it by Canadians. Why not? National unity! That is, the relatively smaller input to the military of French Canadians, particularly those in the province of Quebec.

This issue of the smaller Francophone contribution has elements in it which made it quite unfair there should be either governmental soft-pedalling or Anglo-Canadians still fuming over the desperate, infantry reinforcement crisis of the army in Europe by the fall of 1944. Why so? The answer is in the sterling record of so many French Canadians in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy, plus the valour shown and the heavy casualties suffered in Europe by such Quebec regiments as the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Chaudiere Regiment, and the Fusiliers Mont-Royal.

My own bother over the low level of recall and remembrance for the bravery, endurance, and so much achievement was not, so far as I recall, centered on those of us who came home intact and well, but on those killed and mostly buried out of country or those who came home severely handicapped because of wounds, nor did it have much to do with any major shortcomings in the rehabilitation programs provided veterans by our federal government.

The latter programs were generally sound, and in our posterity we can thank the governments and the parliaments then and since, and the veterans associations, led by the Legion, which critiqued and lobbied for wider and better provisions.

And those readers who know well the history of benefits for veterans appreciate that those of us who got them after WW II could thank those who came home from WW I and then queried, lobbied, marched, and by and large won the basics in the programs which were to benefit so many of us engaged in WW II. I, myself, had the backing for seven years of university.

What significance, indeed what stamina, is there likely to be in and from the rise and expanding spread of notice and interest among Canadians about war and preventing wars?

We should not go overboard in expectations. There is interest in the military past but not much enthusiasm, as I read the federal political parties, for the current and future forces beyond that they have a capability from training and equipping to be geared to peacekeeping, and not to the combat roles which peacemaking requires. Also the rising pressure from the United States to join in a common defence of the continent may seem a pragmatic necessity for over-all Canada-U.S. relations but this prospect of missiles in space seems opposed by majority opinion in Canada.

Now to the three books I recommend, each of which is splendid in its paper, print, layout, illustrations, and maps. The first is titled: More Fighting For Canada; Five Battles, 1760-1944, edited by Donald E. Graves, with each battle analysed by a military historian. The publisher is Robin Brass Studio, Toronto.

The second is titled Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, written by a British journalist, Frederick Taylor, and published by Harper Collins, N.Y.
The third is titled A Question Of Honour The Kosciusko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II, by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, and published by Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y.

In 2000 Robin Brass published Seven Battles, 1758-1945, a forerunner to this 2004 edition. In each volume most of the battles are local, immediate, and rather brief, not operations of grandeur like Vimy Ridge or Overlord. The aim is for succinct narratives which cover the strategic, tactical, and operational aims and eventualities.

My favourite is the Battle of Sillery in which the French defeated the British in a more fierce contest with higher casualties than Wolfe’s famous triumph over Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. But this victory came too late and was almost meaningless because the British navy had such close control of the St. Lawrence.

Of the second battle that much intrigued me—that of a 5th division force crossing the Melfa River in Italy in the spring of 1944—this was a circus performance in heroism and see-sawing fortunes, featuring close-up tank and anti-tank fights, confused communications, and bad weather. Rough terrain and chaotic roads held up fire support for the Lord Strathcona and Westminster regiments surrounded in their bridgehead.
The strangest battle in the book was an encounter at Cut Knife Hill in Saskatchewan during the Riel Rebellion. In it some 400 or so soldiers, mostly militia, were led by Colonel William Otter, a Torontonian. The troops had been rushed from Eastern Canada in the spring of 1985 largely along an incomplete railway. Their impetuous charge was ambushed at Cut Knife Hill by several hundred dismounted Indians and Métis led by a Cree chief, Poundmaker. The stories of the battle and its aspect of an Indian victory of sorts dominated eastern papers for weeks with much controversy. Political Ottawa and the Toronto and Montreal press appraised the heroes, the bumpkins, and the less than brave.

Both the other books have sharp critiques for Winston Churchill, the most heroic leader of the Allied nations. In Dresden he gets low marks for the way he reacted to the widespread horror in the West at the deaths and destruction at Dresden. This was first fanned by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda regime and eventually taken up by the East German communist government as a prime example of Royal Air Force and U.S. Air Force “terror bombing.” Dresden, until then little damaged, was a handsome city, rich in art and historical buildings. The estimated death count from this one raid ranged from 25,000 to 30,000, the more accurate range, to several hundred thousands. This knockout raid came with the Russian army less than a hundred miles to the east. Arthur Harris, the Bomber Command chief, was instructed to stop such area mobbing. Thereafter, Churchill figuratively turned his back on the RAF which had done so much early in the war to buoy British spirits and which had weakened Germany, not least by diverting so much in air and artillery power from the ground war to defend German cities and industries.

Dresden, the book, is a model of wide, thorough research presented fairly and crisply. It revisits the ill-famed raids on Coventry and London by the Germans, and the burn out of Hamburg in July 1943. Its survey of high quality weapon and aircraft components made in Dresden for the Nazi war machine blows away the insistence that Dresden merited an “open city” status.

The book about the Polish squadron is much more than an inspiring account of the contribution some 14,000 Polish aircrew and mechanics made to the Allied cause, largely in RAF squadrons, including a squadron with the highest score of downed German aircraft. This is also, substantially, the story of the short, cruel shifts Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt gave Polish interests from the day Germany invaded the Soviet Union. They wanted Russia and Joseph Stalin to survive and become major factors in defeating Germany, and Stalin wanted a permanently divided and Communist-governed Poland to his west.

And so the men in the several Polish divisions which fought in Italy and Normandy for the Allies and the thousands who did so well in the RAF faced a dismembered Poland at the end of the war, and a Communist dictatorship in charge of the rest.
The tale woven in A Question Of Honour is sad, and because Poland’s return to democracy was not to come for some four decades and by then so many of them were buried in Britain, Canada, the U.S. and Australia, not on home ground.