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Legion Magazine – Dec 2004 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – Dec 2004

Firstly, I wish to ask you to consider writing a short note of support to Dr. Jean-Pierre Benamou, a Frenchman in Bayeux, Normandy. He was largely responsible for getting a museum going about the Battle of Normandy. It is now threatened with closure as a consequence of anti-war activists.

Secondly I have some suggestions on the minister of Veterans Affairs, in part because of the talents of Albina Guarnieri, a Liberal MP for a Toronto riding, first elected in 1988.

Lastly there are thumb-nail reviews of three books.

I met Benamou two years ago in Ottawa through his friend George Blackburn, author of The Guns Of Normandy. Blackburn had found the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux useful in filling him in about both on-the-ground civilian witness and many of the battle’s artifacts. The museum’s program follows the paths of each of the Allied armies from the beachhead on D-Day.

I was taken with Benamou’s grasp on the Canadian army’s thrusts and his responsibility as a Frenchman to honour those who served and were killed or wounded in freeing France. He now needs support to stave off a triumph by latter-day peace zealots over those who envisaged and developed the museum. If you have an interest and the time please send a card or a short letter to him at the following address. Ask him to table you as one who supports the central purpose in the museum as it is: to explain and so remember the invasion and its aftermath as a liberation of people and a mortal blow to fascism. The address is: Dr. Jean-Pierre Benamou, Conservateur du Musée Mémorial de la Battaile de Normandie- Bayeux, Conseil en Histoire, 9, rue de Bayeux, 14250 Tilly Sur Seulles, Normandie, France, benamou.jp@wanadoo.fr.

We’ve had a department of Veterans Affairs since the end of WW II and, except for brief intervals, the political minister for it has only represented the department at the cabinet table. The exceptions were when a minister of National Defence also headed Veterans Affairs. Several times since 1945 there was talk of enveloping VAC in the Department of National Defence and once I recall Hill chatter about slipping Veterans Affairs Canada under the mantle of what is now Health Canada.

As my memory has it there has never been much speculation publicly about abolishing VAC as an entity with a full member of the federal cabinet, even though—again, as I see it—the role of the post has largely become ceremonial and representational at commemorations of our military past, onerous largely because there are so many trips abroad.

Not since the days of George Hees in the mid-1980s has there been any significant identification of the Veterans Affairs minister with a new program for veterans. In his case it was the Veterans Independence Program.

At its inception and for a decade or so the department had an obvious constituency in the one million to 1.2 million Canadians who had served in the military in WW II, plus 150,000 some veterans of the Great War. The latter are down to a handful; the WW II veterans are nearing the 200,000 mark. The growth factor that continues is in the responsibility towards retired regular forces personnel since the close of the Korean War.
The bureaucracy which serves the veterans seems to have been adaptable and is both well experienced and by and large well regarded by its clients, whether individuals or the various associations.

The question I pose is inspired by a growing dismay over the inordinate clutter of a ministry with two score politicians, banked by an almost as numerous array of 40 parliamentary secretaries. That’s an assembly, not an executive. Some of the secretaries go beyond being an aide to a minister to assignments as spokespersons in parliament for a specific interest like aiding refugees or intervening for Canadians in trouble abroad.
More and more it’s commonplace to identify what used to be called lobbyists as stakeholders or parties “with a main interest” or as one of a specific group tagged as NGOs or non-government organizations. What has been one consequence of this proliferation of secretaries and ministers of state beyond extra pay, expenses, and staff for them?

The core consequence has been more power to the most central of all agencies, the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO is surrounded by the Privy Council Office, headed by the No. 1 public servant, the clerk of the Privy Council.
The shaping of legislation and the spending agreed upon is less and less a matter for most ministers and more and more of issues managed by the PMO-PCO establishment in concert with the senior mandarins of the central agencies.

So a lot of the present 40 odd ministers are more figureheads than policy framers and decision makers, including the Veterans Affairs minister. Guarnieri is an MP whose vigour, sharpness, and industry I will vouch for, indeed one of the ablest MPs in the score or so of veterans ministers I’ve known since 1957. Not all such ministers since then have been as able as Guarnieri, indeed almost half of them seemed to have been chosen because of either their geography or there being no other alternative MPs in a small province which doesn’t merit a minister with a heavy portfolio.

It seems to me VAC is a good place to start a trial discussion on drastically reducing the so-called executive arm of the federal government. It has a constituency inevitably eroding. It has an experienced, rather well regarded bureaucracy working under long-tested legislation. And its commemorative side is still of such worth it is too sensitive to be manipulated much for partisan purposes. Further, such a discussion on folding VAC as a department would comport with the general national tenor to a global role for Canada under the aegis of United Nations institutions and charter and a phasing out of close military alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the North American Aerospace Defence Command. In short, this would shift us towards what so many Canadians now idealize: i.e., “soft” power, strong in cherishing and sharing, while de-emphasizing militarism and Canada’s past military successes as largely irrelevant in the 21st century world.

Operation Apollo is a lengthy, lucid, photo-rich account of operations by today’s Canadian Navy during its responses to terrorism. The author, Richard Gimblett, is a retired Royal Canadian Navy officer, and the book was published by Magic Light Publishing of Ottawa.

The forward by Vice-Admiral Ron Buck, chief of the maritime staff, makes clear this work is not the official history of Canada’s naval contribution to the post-Sept. 11, 2001 campaign against terrorism. “It is an authorized account of it … an accurate overview of … the navy’s contribution to this major conflict, through the eyes of an informed but independent author.”

Close-up knowledge of the RCN has never been a strong point of mine, so I learned much that shook me up about the range and quality of our navy’s capabilities and the diverse skills of its personnel, plus the importance of decisions pending in Ottawa on keeping up such strength by replacing worn or out-of-date ships and equipment. In short, for Canada to make a fist of competent, inter-allied service in the next decade or even in guarding its own shores, there has to be much renewal. Indeed, the author suggests the Apollo Operation may have been “the apex” of the modern Canadian Navy in putting to distant seas a multi-purpose, interoperable force. A submarine component is far from ready; the replenishment ships are due retirement; both patrol aircraft and modern helicopter support need much bolstering; and the command and control destroyers are close to the end of operational life, plus the frigates are late in mid-life.
So author Gimblett concludes with a serious question: “When the next threat or contingency operation arises—and there is always a next one, and it is always unexpected—will there be a Canadian Navy with the capabilities necessary to be first in the fray yet again?”

Two other books I want to recommend, particularly to those hooked as I have been on knowing more about what our German enemy in WW II was doing and what his machines, guns and supply systems were. The first is a made-in-Canada product of high quality, Another Place, Another Time: A U-Boat Officer’s Wartime Album by Werner Hirschmann with Donald E. Graves, and published by Robin Brass, Toronto; the second, published in England last year by Aurum Press, is titled Panzer: The Illustrated History Of German Armour In WW II, and was written by military historians Niall Barr and Russell Hart.

Oh how splendid the quality and range of the photos, a wondrous spread of Tigers, Panthers, Mark IIIs and IVs, mostly caught at or near the front in North Africa, Normandy, Italy, and on the long Eastern Front from Poland to the Balkans. The text sketches the use and the utility of German armour in the campaigns.
The scenes and the vehicles, whether whole or holed and abandoned, somewhat overpowers the narrative, even though the latter is cogent and graphic. I wished for more information on the crews’ duties and training; even so, I was satisfied, in particular with the authors’ emphasis on the quality of the guns and the gunnery, and the worth in the thick weight of the German tanks’ front and side armour against anti-tank weapons.
The story of Werner Hirschmann, for many postwar decades a comfortable Canadian citizen, covers his training and service in the undersea forces of Hitler’s Reich, beginning in 1940 at 18 when he became a candidate naval officer. He was trained thoroughly, then served in action, then trained some more, becoming both a specialist officer and a relative veteran before he was 22. His book, on the text alone—ignoring the splendid photos, maps, and documentation—may become a classic personal memoir of one sailor’s war. Its author eventually became the chief engineering officer of a U-boat. He experienced a number of depth-bomb attacks during sorties in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic before his boat and crew surrendered to the RCN after the war in Europe ended in early May 1945. His boat had sunk HMCS Esquimalt.

This memoir is not overladen with the dangers and their anguish and dread for those who manned the U-boats, particularly after the Battle of the Atlantic turned against the Germans by late 1943. Much of the dour bleakness implicit in the most dangerous of all war roles to its combatants was broken by leaves with his family and romantic encounters with girls who loved a sailor. Through the war there was a genuine esprit de corps in this arm of the German navy.

He recaptures life from boyhood to relishing Canadian citizenship for some 40 years. He began his Canadian days at a pleasant, well-run prisoner of war camp at Gravenhurst, Ont., and soon decided he would find “the girl” back home, marry her, and come to Canada. After he did that he came to know and exchange experiences and build friendships with Canadian veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Naturally I was looking for some appreciation by the author of Nazism, Hitler, the Holocaust, the racism and the brutality of the regime. He doesn’t duck it; indeed, an interesting early chapter is of his “boy scout-like” experiences in the Hitler Youth movement’s programs. He writes that he bears the shame with his fellow generations in Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, and both accepts and grieves about it. He also stresses that he and his own family were never really clued in to the scope, dastardliness and wanton cruelty at the core and at the head of Nazi Germany.