From One World War to Another (1919-43)

The Army to 1942

An Army at War

A private equipped for Alpine winter combat training, 1943

Caption: A private equipped for Alpine winter combat training, 1943

At top combat strength in 1943, the army had five divisions: three infantry and two armoured, plus two armoured brigades. The 1st Division reached England in December 1939 under the command of Major-General A.W G. McNaughton, who would later be promoted to commander of the 1st Canadian Army. In May 1940 the 2nd Division, initially planned for territorial defence, left for the U.K. and the formation of the 3rd Division was announced. The danger had become very real.

Those who lived through this early period of the war remember that the volunteers would often have no uniforms, boots or winter coats and little or no field equipment. And because her armament was deficient, Canada would once again have to rely on the mother country, at least for the time being.

In theory, a Second World War Canadian infantry division had 18,376 men. The core of this formation comprised 8,148 infantrymen, representing 44.3 percent of its strength - the lowest percentage in this category of all Allied and enemy infantry divisions. The other members of this division could be found in its field artillery (2,122), quartermaster and service corps (1,296), engineers (959), medical service (945), electrical and mechanical technicians and craftsmen (784), signalmen (743), antitank group (721) and a plethora of other small, specialized groups. When the first 7,400 men of the 1st Division arrived in England in December 1939 they discovered the cold and rain of Salisbury Plain that their predecessors had known so well in 1914. The division would not reach full strength until February 1940. The leaders, who genuinely sought to make a contribution to victory, would be well served. However, their desire to see their country acknowledged as an Allied military power would be denied by the politicians at home, who refused to participate in meetings at the strategic level.

Prior to 1943 the Canadian army was involved in a number of actions, not all successful. On 12 and 13 June 1940 elements of the 1st Brigade (artillery and logistics) penetrated Brittany and advanced towards Laval and Le Mans. Before the irresistible German advance, they were ordered to fall back. On 17 June they re-embarked with their guns and some of their equipment, having destroyed the rest. The Breton enclave would not be defended; on British soil, only the 1st Canadian Division, during the long months after Dunkirk, would have enough equipment to defend the beaches of southeast England against a potential German invasion - this would be its mission.

In June 1940, 2,500 men of the 2nd Division were sent to Iceland, an important control point for the North Atlantic. The soldiers' lives there were tough and boring, but no fighting occurred. The following October they rejoined their comrades in Britain, except for the Cameron Highlanders, who would stay in Iceland until the spring of 1941.

Additional Images

Pieces of a German torpedo run aground on the beach at St Yvon near Gaspé in 1942