This Is Our Army

"Canada's fighting men have been magnificent.. They deserve clear-cut upstanding policies to back them up"—Shapiro

L. S. B SHAPIRO December 1 1944

This Is Our Army

"Canada's fighting men have been magnificent.. They deserve clear-cut upstanding policies to back them up"—Shapiro

L. S. B SHAPIRO December 1 1944

This Is Our Army

"Canada's fighting men have been magnificent.. They deserve clear-cut upstanding policies to back them up"—Shapiro


Maclean’s War Correspondent

SOMEWHERE in Holland (By Cable)—The official designation of the subject we are about to discuss—the First Canadian Army—has the quality of brevity but not of accuracy, and if we are to endow the Canadian military effort in western Europe with the credit it deserves, which is considerable and should be a source of everlasting pride to the Dominion, we must explain the ineptitude of the designation. For it is this very unfortunate choice of designation which, far from detracting from the achievement of our commanders and troops at the front, actually adds lustre to what Canada’s fighting men have accomplished. The term “fighting men” is used advisedly—to differentiate between those who make policy at home and those who do battle overseas.

The word “First” is somewhat of an affectation, because at the present rate of Canada’s national and military expansion there will not be a Second Canadian Army within the lifetime of anyone reading this article. Then again the term “Canadian Army” is an organizational convenience rather than an actual fact.

The First Canadian is not a Canadian Army in the same sense that the Second British is a British Army or the Third United States an American Army. It is an agglomeration of many things — of Britain’s sympathetic consideration for Canada’s national pride, of Poland’s insatiable desire to fight Germans anywhere at any time, of Czech, Belgian and Dutch ambition to be represented on the battlefield at the showdown, of America’s superfluity of fighting troops, of the wreckage of Andy McNaughton’s highfalutin plan to scrape together a truly Canadian Army.

Out of all these various emotions, achievements, failures, facts and fancies, the First Canadian Army has emerged on the viciously testing battlefield of western Europe. This collection has fought under Canadian command, yet the Canadians in it have been deeply in the minority; indeed for a short period in Normandy there was not so much as a Canadian platoon fighting under command of the First Canadian Army. If, therefore, in the face of all these incon-

gruities the Canadian Army has functioned organizationally with distinction and Canadian troops have fought so well as to make their minority membership in their own Army vibrant enough to be heard clearly above this international pandemonium, then we begin to appreciate how much real pride Canada may honestly extract from the achievement of her fighting soldiers.

Definition of Army

PERHAPS I should explain here that the word Army is commonly used to denote a big body of fighting men, but the military use the word to describe the Army commander’s headquarters, from which he and his staff control the operations and administration of two or more corps. Each corps in turn looks after the operations and administration of a number of divisions, usually between three and five. When, therefore, some bigwig at the front announces he is going to see the Canadian Army, he usually means he is going to visit General Crerar’s headquarters. With three Canadian divisions announced as fighting in western Europe, Canada’s so-called Army consists really of a small corps. The remainder of the First Canadian Army consists of an unstated number of divisions, not Canadian, but all under General Crerar’s command.

The First Canadian Army—that is, an Army command post, not an Army of corps and divisions—came into being April 6,1942, under sponsorship of McNaughton. It boasted only of seven officers, a few dozen other ranks, and a lot of wonderful and workable plans. It expanded gradually, adding brigadiers, colonels and all necessary departments, until October, 1943, when it became a full-fledged Army organization. But it was all head and no body; it was an Army command post in search of an Army to command.

McNaughton’s original plan called for five Canadian divisions, distributed between two corps, which would operate under the First Canadian Army’s command.

This would be a minimum-sized Army but at least it would be a truly Canadian Army. How this Army was to be reinforced has never been made clear. Perhaps the General took at face value Ottawa’s assurances that the recruiting situation was well in hand. Perhaps he envisioned that the assault on western Europe would be fierce but of so short a duration that there would be no time for the reinforcement situation to become acute. In any case he formed his Army organization on the promise that five full divisions would be forthcoming from Canada and on the expectation that his Army would be held for the western European assault.

The collapse of this plan is past and painful

history. Two divisions—the First and Fifth—were dispatched to the Mediterranean. This was done to stroke Canadian pride and assuage Canadian impatience, not because of any Allied military necessity, and it was done in part at least against McNaughton’s counsel.

The General’s position thereafter became untenable and in December, 1943, he was retired on health grounds in a flurry of political bickering.

Early in 1944 the hard plan for Normandy’s D-Day came into being. The first and Fifth Divisions were locked beyond all returning in the Italian fighting, and the Canadian Army in England found itself with a corps of three divisions and no Army commander.

Couldn’t Dictate

AT THIS point. Ottawa lost control of the situation. rV The fate of the First Canadian Army command post and its three divisions became strictly the concern of the British War Office and of Montgomery, who had been appointed to command all Empire ground troops in western Europe. Ottawa was in no position to dictate the method of employment of three Canadian divisions in the huge and complicated operation of invasion.

For several weeks Mongomery pondered three possible plans. The first was to distribute the Canadian

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This Is Our Army

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ci i v isions singly among British corps. The second was to use the three divisions as a full corps under British Army command. The third was to use the Canadian Army organization and appoint a British general to command it.

None of these plans was adopted. In March General Crerar was named to command the Canadian Army, and the British, sensitive to Canada’s urge of proper credits in conformity with her over-all war contribution, agreed to fill out the Army by inserting British corps. For the British this was a concession of considerable magnitude. They were entrusting to the untried Canadian Army organization not only some of their best divisions but also, eventually, the pride of the Polish, Dutch, Belgian and Czech nations. Two factors prompted the British to make this concession: first was respect for Canadian public opinion, and second was the efficient manner in which the Canadian Army organization conducted itself during the spring’s large-scale exercises in England.

In this correspondent’s opinion an error was made in continuing to designate this collection of corps and divisions as “First Canadian Army.” It was certainly an Army in numbers and quality but it was not a Canadian Army, and it was known as early as last March that it could become even less a Canadian Army as new foreign units joined it. A more apt title would have been the “First Army” or the “2.r)th Army” or the “99th Army”— any number so longas a national name was deleted. An Army so designated, with a magnificent Canadian Corps fighting as part of it and with a Canadian general and his predominantly Canadian staff in command, might easily have resulted in throwing much more lasting credit to the Dominion than an affected title like “First Canadian Army,” which is gradually being revealed as fraudulent.

There was precedent for this course. The Fifth Army, which assaulted at Salerno and has fought brilliantly in Italy ever since, was originally the Fifth United States Army. When British Corps joined it a few weeks before the Salerno landing, it became simply the “Fifth Army,” even though half its troops and its command were American.

But in the case of the Canadian Army someone insisted that the title be retained. Thus it was that the Army approached the heavy tasks of the European offensive with its multifarious problems aggravated by a potentially troublesome point of natt ional jealousies.

When D-Day dawned on June 6, the Third Canadian Division swarmed ashore as part of a British corps. Later that month the Second and Fourth Canadian Divisions arrived in Normandy and the Third joined them to fight, as a Canadian Corps under command of General Dempsey’s Second British Army. The First Canadian Army was still inoperative.

On July 23, at noon. General Crerar’s First Canadian Army opened for business in the little Normandy town of Amblie. At that time the Canadian Corps was fighting desperately to break the German hold on the Caen plain, and it was considered inopportune for the Canadian Corps to sw itch Army commands in the midst of a battle. The upshot was that the Canadians, comprisingallthreeCanadian divisions, con« tinued to fight under Second British Army command. And the first Army organization in Canada’s history began its fighting career in command of a

purely British Corps, which was transferred to General Crerar’s command, and for a few days the so-called First Canadian Army was at least half Canadian.

A few days later General Stanislaus Maczek’s magnificent Polish armored division joined the Canadian Army, followed almost immediately by the Belgian and Dutch formation. In September the Czechoslovak unit came under Crerar’s command and in October an American formation, to help finish off the troublesome campaign in south Holland.

Growing Pains

This then is the organization background of the First Canadian Army. I suspect few Armies in modern history have had more obscure and aggravating beginnings; certainly no other Allied Armies have had such severe administrative, political and social problems as are bound to arise when seven nations are represented in an organization which is named after and controlled by a minority group.

In spite of these terrible birth pains and this jigsaw upbringing, the fact remains that the First Canadian Army —and this term refers to the whole amazing shebang under Crerar’s command—has played a proud and distinguished role in the historic victories of France, Belgium and Holland. This Army had a most exacting and irritating task—perhaps the most difficult of any Allied Army in the west— and the manner in which it was accomplished is a tribute both to Canadian military talent on the high level of field command and to the quality of the footslogger in the line of fire.

In order to underline the purely Canadian achievement in the plethora of magnificent performances by seven different national formations in the Canadian Army, it is necessary to divide the available material into two distinct categories: the first is the achievement of General Crerar’s command in handling his intensely complicated Army, and the second is the achievement of the three Canadian divisions in close quarters battle. We will examine first Crerar’s command.

When Crerar took command of his Army in the field, July 23, Montgomery’s classic plan for envelopment and destruction of the German Seventh Army was nearing its critical stage. The Canadian corps was fighting for a favorable position on the Caen plain. The British were exerting extreme pressure in the Bocage country, and the Americans were beginning their breakout manoeuvre from the Cherbourg Peninsula.

Thus within two weeks of assuming operational command, Crerar was given the task of smashing through the strongest German position in all of France—the Falaise screen. Failure to break through would have meant failure of the whole plan, involving four Allied Armies. Here then was an assignment of classic proportions and it was given to Crerar and his untried staff of Canadian officers. The new Army held in the palm of its hand a world-shattering responsibility and yet it went into the planning stage with the aplomb of a scarred and experienced organization.

On Aug. 7 the plan was complete. Crerar summoned correspondents to his headquarters and outlined to us the offensive which was to begin at 11.30 that night. He closed his remarks writh a reminder that 26 years before, on Aug. 8, 1918, the Canadian breakthrough at Amiens proved by German admission to be the blackest day in German military history. He ventured the prediction that this Aug. 8 might again be a black day for Germany.

Here was a stunning demonstration of confidence by the new Army.

How w.ell the Canadian Army organized this attack by Canadian, Polish and British troops was attested by Field Marshal von Kluge himself. A few weeks ago our intelligence staffs unearthed an official German document containing a stenographic report of telephone conversations between German commanders during the battle of the Gap. Among the conversations recorded was one on the night of Aug. 8 between General Eberback, commander of the German Seventh Army, and Field Marshal von Kluge in command of northwest France. Eberback, speaking from the Mortain-Bocage area, was begging for reinforcements. This is what Von Kluge replied: “Risk everything with what you have. A break-through below Caen has just occurred, the like of which has never occurred before.”

Such was the auspicious start of the great battle for the Falaise Gap— a battle which ended when the Polish division plugged the last escape route of the Germans and climaxed a classic victory, which was destined to liberate not only the bulk of France but all of Belgium and most of Holland. The Canadian Army command post had done its first job well and truly, as Mongomery might say.

But this was just the first of a series of exciting assignments destined to fall to the Canadian Army. The next job came quickly. While the British and American Armies dashed across the Seine and moved to their assigned fronts along the Dutch and German frontiers, the Canadian Army was ordered to clear the Channel ports from Le Havre to Antwerp.

Here was an organizational problem to tax the machinery of the most experienced Army command. It is more than 300 miles from Le Havre to Antwerp and troops under Canadian Army command were fighting simultaneously at both places. This was not all. At the same time Canadian Army troops were fighting for Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk and on the Leopold Canal. In short six actions had to be directed simultaneously over an administrative area of 300 miles with all their accompanying entanglements of supply and signals and battle guidance.

Moreover they were tough battles. Along the Channel coast were elaborate concrete defenses which the Todt organization had consLucted for four years. At the Leopold Canal the flat flooded country created special problems which called for special forms of attack. North of Antwerp the battle was being fought among dikes, sluice gates, basins and canals, and an intimate knowledge was required of the marine engineering system of this huge and complicated port. Fighting these actions was surely a test of an Army organization. A routine land front such as the other Allied Armies occupied, no matter how strenuous the opposition, was simple in comparison. Crerar’s Army staff accomplished the tasks, unflustered and undaunted.

Almost immediately the Army was faced with clearingtheScheldt Estuary, including the three partially flooded islands of North and South Beveland and Walcheren. These strongholds were attacked both from their landward causeways and by sea-borne expedition, and this involved the mounting of three distinct assault landings, while at the same time Polish and American troops under Canadian command were attacking Breda and moving toward the Waal.

The foregoing brief outline will provide some idea of the unique and difficult campaign which fell to Crerar’s command post between August and November. In addition to the natural military problems involved in this

campaign, the Canadian Army had to devise a system of language liaison staffs in order to overcome difficulties of translation and interpretation between headquarters and various national units. Moreover there was the problem of national credits. British divisions quite justifiably did not want their achievements to be blanketed under the term “Canadian Army operations,” nor was it always easy to keep the deeds of other national units in proper focus.

Amidst all these multifarious problems one outstanding fact protrudes itself: the First Canadian Army socalled has not suffered a single major failure from Normandy to south Holland, and this must be accepted, even by the most sceptical, as proof that Canadian military staff work has attained its majority with distinction and éclat. The faith extended by the British War Office last spring has been fully justified. Canadians at home may be proud.

The achievements of purely Canadian fighting troops within the Army have already attracted millions of words in the world’s Press and the unstinted praise of Eisenhower and Mongomery. I will list briefly the actions which may safely be called Canadian actions as distinct from Canadian Army actions.

The Third Canadian Division’s performance from the beach between Courseulles and Saint Aubin to Caen has already become legend. The legend. The great break-through to Falaise was made by the Second Canadian Corps, comprising three divisions, under the command of brilliant General Guy Simonds. The Polish armored division, which plugged the gap at Trun, came through the breach made by the Canadians. The investment of Dieppe was a Canadian Second Division affair; so was the capture of Letreport. The smashing of Germany’s main Channel fortifications, including Boulogne, Crisnez and Calais, was a purely Canadian job, done at considerable cost against Todt defense works embedded in the earth under cement walls sometimes 15 feet thick. The smashing of the Breskens’ pocket in Holland was another Canadian action fought under atrocious conditions and yielding more than 12,000 prisoners. The conquest of North and South Beveland and capture of the key t own of Bergen op Zoom were distinctively Canadian shows.

Canada’s fighting men have been magnificent. There can be no doubt of this. The cloudy and hesitant policy which has backgrounded their entry into battle cannot detract from their achievement.

General McNaughton assumes the highest direction of a fighting machine which must be rated the best in the Dominion’s short military history. The men in the field feel it is up to him to make it even better, by removing the causes which have complicated its course and which threaten to hamper its future progress. Canada has clear-cut upstanding fighting men. They deserve clear-cut upstanding ' policies to back them up.

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