Canada entered the conflict with a declaration of war on Germany on 10 September 1939 and encompassed major campaigns in Italy and Northern Europe. Canada was active in defending the shipping lanes in the North Atlantic and the Canadian Merchant Navy completed over 25,000 voyages across the Atlantic. Canadians were also active in the Pacific.


The military history of Canada during the Second World War began with a declaration of war on Germany on September 10, 1939 and encompassed major campaigns in Italy and Northern Europe. Canada was active in defending the shipping lanes in the North Atlantic and the Canadian Merchant Navy completed over 25,000 voyages across the Atlantic. Canadians were also active in the Pacific throughout the war.

At the beginning of the war, Canada was the oldest Dominion in the British Commonwealth. As a nation, it was, for the most part, reluctant to return to war. Nonetheless, Canadians entered the Second World War united with Great Britain, through Commonwealth association, and from a population of only 11 to 12 million, eventually raised very substantial armed forces. After the long struggle of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the challenges of the Second World War accelerated Canada's ongoing transformation into a modern urban and industrialized nation.

Early in the war, Canada's commitment to the British-French forces in Europe was limited to one division. Canada's military deployment reached corps-level strength for the invasions in Italy in 1943, and Normandy in 1944. Over the course of the war, 1.1 million Canadians served in the army, navy, and air force. Of these more than 45,000 lost their lives and another 54,000 were wounded. The suffering and the hardships of war affected many Canadians at home and abroad.

The war's impact on Canadian history was considerable, though it was likely not as significant as the First World War. The conscription crisis had a major effect on unity between French and English-speaking Canadians, though was not as politically damaging as that of the First World War. The war effort strengthened the Canadian economy, led to diversification in manufacturing and enhanced national thanksgiving. Canada's status as a nation was strengthened after 1945.

The Path to War

Memories of the First World War - the tragic loss of life, the heavy burden of debt and the strain on the country's unity imposed by conscription—made Canadians, including politicians of all parties, loath to contemplate another such experience. Initially, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King warmly supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing German leader Adolf Hitler. When Chamberlain postponed war by sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the Munich crisis of September 1938, King thanked him publicly, and Canadians in general certainly agreed. Nevertheless, the shock of this crisis likely turned opinion towards accepting war to check the advance of Nazism. Only gradually did ongoing Nazi aggression alter this mood to the point where Canada was prepared to take part in another great war. King himself had no doubt that in a great war involving Britain, Canada could not stand aside.


When the German attack on Poland on 1 September 1939 finally led Britain and France to declare war on Germany, King summoned Parliament to "decide," as he had pledged. Declaration of war was postponed for a week, during which Canada was formally neutral. The government announced that approval of the "Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne," which stated the government's decision to support Britain and France, would constitute approval of a declaration of war.

On September 9 the address was approved without a recorded vote, and war was declared the following day. The basis for parliamentary unity had in fact been laid in March, when both major parties accepted a program rejecting conscription for overseas service. King clearly envisaged a limited effort and was lukewarm towards an expeditionary force. Nevertheless, there was enough pressure to lead the Cabinet to dispatch one army division to Europe. The Allies' defeat in France and Belgium in the early summer of 1940 and the collapse of France frightened Canadians. The idea of limited and economical war went by the board, at which point the only limitation was the pledge against overseas conscription. The armed forces were rapidly enlarged, conscription was introduced June 1940 for home defense, and expenditure grew enormously.

Mobilization of Forces

Having suffered from nearly twenty years of neglect, Canada's armed forces were small, poorly equipped, and for the most part unprepared for war in 1939. The Permanent Active Militia (or Permanent Force (PF), Canada's full time army) had just 4,261 officers and men, while the Non-Permanent Active Militia (Canada's reserve force) numbered 51,000 partially trained and ill-equipped soldiers. Modern equipment was scarce all around. Attempts to modernize had begun in 1936, but equipment procurement was slow and the government was unwilling to expend money to equip the new tank battalions introduced that year.

Nevertheless, the eventual size of the Canadian armed forces greatly exceeded those envisioned in the pre-war period's so-called mobilization "schemes". Over the course of the war, the army enlisted 730,000; the air force 260,000; and the navy 115,000 personnel. In addition, thousands of Canadians served in the Royal Air Force. However, taken as a percentage of the population, Canada's enlistment of 1.1 million military personnel represents a proportionately smaller mobilization than that which occurred in Great Britain, Australia, or New Zealand. Approximately half of Canada's army and three-quarters of its air-force personnel never left the country, compared to the overseas deployment of approximately three-quarters of the forces of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. By war's end, however, 1.1 million men and women had served in uniform for Canada. Her navy of only a few ships in 1939 grew to over 400 ships. This maritime effort helped keep the shipping lanes open across the Atlantic throughout the war.

In part, this reflected Mackenzie King's policy of "limited liability" and the labour requirements of Canada's industrial war effort. But it also reflected the objective circumstances of the war. With France defeated and occupied, there was no Second World War equivalent of the Great War's Western Front until the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Moreover, the manpower requirements of the North African and Mediterranean theatres were comparatively small and readily met by British and other British Empire/Commonwealth forces.

Consequently, the bulk of the Canadian army overseas did not engage in sustained combat until mid-1944. Many of the young soldiers of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, overseas since December 1939, could claim, by 1943, to have spent more of their adult lives in England than in Canada. Nevertheless, this guard duty served as a bulwark, along with British counterparts, in combating the threat from German occupied Europe during the time when the threat of invasion was at its greatest. Indeed, apart from the Dieppe Raid in August 1942 which provided important information to war planners, the frustrated Canadian Army fought no significant engagement in the European theatre of operations until the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. Dieppe, however, was primarily a Canadian undertaking and saw 907 killed, 2,460 wounded and 1,874 became German prisoners of war. With the Sicily Campaign, the Canadians had the opportunity to enter combat and later they were among the first to enter Rome. King was able to delay the conscription crisis he so dreaded until late in the war. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the landings at Normandy were accomplished by two beachheads made by the American forces at Omaha and Utah, two by British forces, Sword and Gold, and the final was a Canadian effort at Juno with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division penetrating further into France than any other Allied force. After the Normandy landings a Canadian spearhead drove northeast into the Netherlands, where the Canadians liberated that nation. The profusion of colourful tulips that grace the gardens in front of the Peace Tower in Ottawa are a thank-you gift to the people of Canada for this deliverance.

Industrial War Effort

Canada had become one of the world's leading automobile manufacturers in the 1920s, owing to the presence of branch-plants of American automakers in Ontario. In 1938, Canada's automotive industry ranked fourth in the world in the output of passenger car and trucks, even though a large part of its productive capacity remained idle because of the Depression. During the war, this industry was put to good use, building all manner of war materiel, and most particularly wheeled vehicles, of which Canada became the second largest (next to the United States) producer during the war. Canada's output of nearly 800,000 trucks, for instance, exceeded the combined total truck production of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Rivals Ford and General Motors of Canada pooled their engineering design teams to produce a standardized vehicle amenable to mass production, the Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) truck, which served throughout the British Commonwealth. Approximately half of the British Army's transport requirements were supplied from Canadian manufacturers. The British Official History argues that the production of soft-skinned trucks, including the CMP truck class, was Canada's most important contribution to Allied victory.

In addition, Canada produced its own medium tank, the Ram. Though it was unsuitable for combat employment, many were used for training, and the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment used modified Rams as armoured personnel carriers in North-West Europe. Approximately 14000 aircraft, including Lancaster and Mosquito bombers, were built in Canada. In addition, by the end of 1944, Canadian shipyards had launched naval ships, such as destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and some 345 merchant vessels. But perhaps no Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort was so vital as that made by the metals industries: half of Allied aluminum and ninety percent of Allied nickel was supplied by Canadian sources during the war.

Early Campaigns

Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Canada supplied Britain with urgently needed food, weapons, and war materials by naval convoys and airlifts, as well as pilots and planes who fought in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. If the planned German invasion of Britain had taken place in 1941, units of the formation later known as I Canadian Corps were already deployed between the English Channel and London to meet them.

From 1939 through to the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Merchant Navy played an especially vital role in the Second Battle of the Atlantic. Canada was the primary location of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, still the largest air force training program in history; over 167,000 Commonwealth air force personnel, including more than 50,000 pilots, trained at airbases in Canada from 1940 to 1945. More than half of the BCAT graduates were Canadians who went on to serve with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)and Royal Air Force (RAF). One out of the six RAF Bomber Command groups flying in Europe was Canadian.

Soldiers of the Canadian Army fought in the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941 against the Japanese and in the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942, when the second Canadian division supported by British commandos and a small unit of American rangers launched a failed landing at the French port of Dieppe. Canadian troops participated in the North African campaign. Early in the war, Japanese troops invaded Alaska. Canadian air force planes flew anti-submarine patrols against the Japanese while on land, Canadian troops fought side by side with American troops against the Japanese. Eventually, the Japanese were repulsed. After the African campaign, Canadian soldiers went ashore in 1943 in the Allied invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy, then fought through the long Italian Campaign. Many of the very first Allied soldiers to enter Rome were Canadian commandos in the Devil's Brigade. The Canadians helped greatly throughout the campaign, capturing the town of Ortona and playing a vital role in breaking the Gothic Line. During the course of the Italian Campaign, over 25, 000 Canadian soldiers became casualties of war.

Squadrons of the RCAF and individual Canadian pilots flying with the British RAF fought with distinction in Spitfire and Hurricane fighters during the Battle of Britain. By January 1, 1943, there were enough RCAF bombers and crews in Britain to form No. 6 Group, one of eight bomber groups within RAF Bomber Command.

The Dieppe Raid

The Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) of 19 August 1942, landed nearly 5,000 soldiers of the Second Canadian Division and 1,000 British commandos on the coast of occupied France, in the only major combined forces assault on France prior to the Normandy invasion of June 1944. Despite air support from Allied fighters and bombers and a naval fleet of 237 ships and landing barges, the raid was a disaster. While Dieppe did provide valuable information on the absolute necessity of close communications in combined operations, of nearly 6,000 troops (composed mainly of Canadians) landed over a thousand were killed and another 2,340 were captured. Two Canadians were recognized with the Victoria Cross for actions at Dieppe; Lieutenant Colonel "Cec" Merritt of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Honorary Captain John Foote of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. The value of the Dieppe Raid is a matter of some controversy; some historians feel that it was largely because of Dieppe that the Allies decided not to attempt an assault on a seaport in their first invasion of occupied western Europe, others would point to the large number of amphibious operations before and after Dieppe as evidence that nothing new was learned there.

The Invasion of Europe

The 1st Canadian Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily in Operation Husky, 10 July 1943 and also the Allied invasion of mainland Italy on 3 September 1943. Canadian participation in the Sicily and Italy campaigns were made possible after the government decided to break up the First Canadian Army, sitting idle in Britain. Public pressure for Canadian troops to begin fighting forced a move before the awaited invasion of north-eastern Europe. Troops fought on through the long and difficult Italian campaign until repatriated to North-West Europe in February-March 1945 during Operation Goldflake. By this time the Canadian contribution to the Italian theatre had grown to include I Canadian Corps headquarters, the 1st Division, 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division and an independent armoured brigade. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian Army troops in Italy; Captain Paul Triquet of the Royal 22e Régiment, Private Smokey Smith of The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and Major John Mahoney of The Westminster Regiment (Motor). Notable battles in Italy included the The Moro River Campaign, the Battle of Ortona and the battles to break the Hitler Line.

On 6 June 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division landed on Juno Beach in the Battle of Normandy and sustained 50% casualties in their first hour of attack. By the end of D-Day, the Canadians had penetrated deeper into France than either the British or the American troops at their landing sites, overcoming stronger resistance than any of the other beachheads except Omaha Beach. In the first month of the Normandy campaign, Canadian, British and Polish troops were opposed by some of the strongest and best trained German troops in the theatre, including the 1st SS Division, the 12th SS Division and the Panzer Lehr Division. Several costly operations were mounted by the Canadians to fight a path to the pivotal city of Caen and then south towards Falaise, part of the Allied attempt to liberate Paris. Canadian troops played a heavy role in the liberation of Paris.

One of the most important Canadian contributions was the Battle of the Scheldt, involving the II Canadian Corps. The Corps included the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division. Although nominally a Canadian formation, II Canadian Corps contained the Polish 1st Armoured Division, the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, the Royal Netherlands Motorized Infantry Brigade, and the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division.

The British had liberated Antwerp, but that city's port could not be used until the Germans were driven from the heavily fortified Scheldt estuary. In several weeks of heavy fighting in the fall of 1944, the Canadians succeeded in defeating the Germans in this region. The Canadians then turned east and played a central role in the liberation of the Netherlands.

The royal family of the Netherlands eventually moved to Ottawa until the Netherlands were liberated, and Princess Margriet was born during this Canadian exile. In 1944-45, First Canadian Army was responsible for liberating much of the Netherlands from German occupation. Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, the only child of then-Queen Wilhelmina and heir to the throne, sought refuge in Canada with her two daughters, Beatrix and Irene, during the war. During Princess Juliana's stay in Canada, preparations were made for the birth of her third child. To ensure the Dutch citizenship of this royal baby, the Canadian Parliament passed a special law declaring Princess Juliana's suite at the Ottawa Civic Hospital "extraterritorial". On 19 January 1943, Princess Margriet was born. The day after Princess Margriet's birth, the Dutch flag was flown on the Peace Tower. This was the only time a foreign flag has waved atop Canada's Parliament Buildings.

Canada was a full partner to the Allies, and contributed much to the western Allies' victory. Overcoming the crippling, rapid expansion from a territorial power to a major contributor to the western European theatre, her casualties were higher than the should have been, but a price that had to be paid to create the Canadian Army that could outfight their Axis opponents.

The Air Campaign

The war effort of the Royal Canadian Air Force was deeply affected by its management of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Great numbers of Canadians served in units of Britain's Royal Air Force, and the growth of a national Canadian air organization overseas was delayed. Nevertheless, by the German surrender, 48 RCAF squadrons were overseas, virtually completely manned by Canadian officers and men. A landmark was the formation of No. 6 (RCAF) Bomber Group of the RAF Bomber Command on 1 January 1943. It grew ultimately to 14 squadrons. It was commanded successively by Air Vice-Marshals G.E. Brookes and C.M. McEwen. The Bomber Command's task was the night bombing of Germany, a desperately perilous job calling for sustained fortitude. Almost 10,000 Canadians lost their lives in this command.

Canadian airmen served in every theatre, from bases in the UK, North Africa, Italy, northwest Europe and southeast Asia. Squadrons in North America worked in antisubmarine operations off the Atlantic coast and co-operated with US air forces against the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands. At one time or another seven RCAF squadrons served in the RAF's Coastal Command over the Atlantic. RCAF aircraft destroyed or had a part in destroying 20 enemy submarines. In the northwest Europe campaign of 1944–45 , the RCAF deployed 17 squadrons. During the war 232,632 men and 17,030 women served in the RCAF, and 17,101 lost their lives.


The impact of the Second World War in Canadian history was significant, but arguably less than that of the First. During the war, 1,086,343 Canadian men and women performed full-time duty in the three services. The cost in blood was heavy: 42,042 lost their lives. National unity between French and English was damaged, though not so seriously as between 1914–1918. The economy was strengthened and its manufacturing capacity much diversified. National pride and confidence were enhanced. The status as an independent country, only shakily established in 1919, was beyond doubt after 1945. Canada was a power in her own right, if a modest one.

References & Resources

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved March 4, 2010, from

From Canadian Soldiers
Retrieved March 6, 2010, from

From Canada at War
Retrieved March 6, 2010, from

Canadian War Museum "The Italian Campaign". Retrieved on: August 5, 2007.

Canadian War Museum "Liberating Northwest Europe". Retrieved on: August 5, 2007.

Veterans Affairs Canada "The Historic Contribution of Canada's Merchant Navy". Retrieved on: August 5, 2007.

Canadian War Museum "Counting the Cost". Retrieved on: August 5, 2007.

Stacey, C. "World War II: Cost and Significance". The Canadian Encyclopedia online (Historica). Revised by N. Hillmer. Retrieved on: August 5, 2007.

Hall, H. Duncan and Wrigley, C. C. Studies of Overseas Supply, a volume in the War Production Series directed by M. M. Postan, published as part of the History of the Second World War. United Kingdom Civil Series edited by Sir Keith Hancock. Her Majesty's Stationery Office and Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1956, pp. 51-52.

Tonner, Mark. The Kangaroo in Canadian Service (Service Publications, 2005. See also The Ram in Canadian Service Vol 1. and Vol 2., same publisher.

Bercuson, David J. Maple Leaf against the Axis: Canada's Second World War. Toronto: Stoddart, 1995. p. 152.

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.