The Minute Book
Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Canadian Army in the Second World War
Topic: Canadian Army

The Canadian Army in the Second World War

Maple Leaf Against the Axis; Canada's Second World War, David J. Bercuson, 1995

A Canadian infantry division was a large and complex body of men. Commanded by a major-general, its basic war establishment was some 18,376 men. The largest single group of those men were the 8418 infantrymen organized in nine infantry battalions (the eventual infantry battalion establishment was thirty eight officers and 812 men). Each battalion had a support company, and four rifle companies. Each rifle company was made up of a company headquarters and three platoons of one officer (a lieutenant) and thirty-six men. The support company would eventually comprise a carrier platoon, a mortar platoon, a pioneer platoon, and an anti-tank platoon. Three battalions would be joined in an infantry brigade, commanded by a brigadier; an infantry division had three infantry brigades.

The bulk of the men in a Canadian division were not infantry; they were a combination of field artillery (2122 men), Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (1296), engineers (959), medical personnel (945), Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (784), signal corps (743), anti-tank artillery (721), and others. A study done after the war by Major-General E.L.M. Burns (who was a corps commander in Italy) concluded that Canadians allocated more men to medical and other ancillary services than they needed to…certainly more than the British did…and that Canadian divisions had far fewer combat troops as a proportion of their total strength than did American infantry divisions (which contained 14,037 men). Yet Max Hastings, who has written extensively on the Second World War, pointed out in his book on the Normandy campaign that only 65.56 percent of an American division consisted of fighting soldiers, against 89.4 percent in a German panzergrenadier (mechanized) division.

In general, therefore, Canadian divisions were far weaker in overall fighting strength than those of their allies and their enemies. That imbalance would later prove a source of great difficulty in combat and would hamper the Canadian Army in its efforts to keep its front-line units up to proper fighting strength. Put bluntly, the Canadian Army contained too many cooks and bottle-washers and too few riflemen, and the blame for this must be laid totally at the door of National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) in Ottawa, which set the establishment for Canadian divisions.

Lack of equipment, lack of space for training, and a poorly designed divisional structure were not the only difficulties hampering the Canadian Army; leadership was a major problem, especially in the early stages of the war when most of the officers in charge of army units were incapable of leading men into battle. Since most of the army units being prepared for war in the fall of 1940 were militia units, most of the officers were militia officers. Few of them lasted even until their units entered battle; many of those who did succeed them in command proved inadequate. Many were veterans of the First World War and too old or too set in their ways to fight a new kind of war. For one thing, they did not have the physical stamina that younger men possessed.

When British General Bernard L. Montgomery reviewed Canadian units and their commanders in the spring of 1942, he concluded that almost one-quarter of the battalion commanders were totally unsuited to the job of training their men or leading them in combat. As a result, there was a wholesale housecleaning of officers right up to the divisional level. But in an army as wedded to the regimental system as the Canadian Army was, some of the retired battalion commanders were replaced by men who were little better. Still, there were some militia officers who were excellent and, by the time the war moved into its final year, they had come to the fore from the battalion level right up to divisional commands. Two of Canada's best field generals…Bert Hoffmeister, who eventually commanded the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, and A.B. Matthews of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division…were both militiamen.

Canadian Army Battle Honours

Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT

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