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Sunday 20 November 2011

Canada - Britain's Greatest North Atlantic Ally II

Although Canada was entirely independent of Britain by September 1939, when the Second World War erupted, the Canadian government declared war against Nazi Germany on 10th September nonetheless and the following day issued a similar declaration against Mussolini’s Italy. As was the case elsewhere with many of the western allies, during the inter-war years Canada was thought to have put little investment into its armed forces and in common with its pre-First World War status had a relatively small full-time army of several thousand which was supplemented by a part-time militia, both of which were poorly trained and ill-equipped.

In common with most democratic countries of the time, Canada, along with its former allies, Britain, France, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, etc. had believed that the losses of the Great War would prevent such an event ever happening again, but as with all of the other allied nations, they were wrong. Fortunately for the allied cause, in common with the United States, Canada was reported to have had the capacity to become one of the world’s greatest industrial producers and like its southern neighbour was able to mobilise these vast manufacturing facilities to produce materials for the war, including ships, aircraft and wheeled vehicles. However, according to some sources, the most important products supplied by Canada during the Second World War were the vast amounts of both aluminium and nickel, both of which were necessary components of the allied war effort. The first military supply convoy reportedly left Canada just days after war had been officially declared and by June 1940, the first Canadian troops were said to have been landed in Europe, in an attempt to reinforce the British and French forces that were being forced back to Dunkirk by the advancing German army. Unfortunately, the Canadian troops were thought to have reached France far too late to prevent the large scale evacuation of the allied expeditionary force and were subsequently forced to withdraw from Europe, back to the isolated British mainland.

Rather frustratingly perhaps, for the Canadian troops, with Britain generally besieged and few foreign theatres in which to operate effectively against Germany and her Axis allies, most of these Canadian forces were thought to have been largely restricted to defending Britain’s mainland from the threat of an impending German invasion, which never actually happened. Thanks largely to a British Air Force which contained numerous Commonwealth pilots from around the world, including many from Canada itself; the German Luftwaffe was prevented from gaining air superiority, which was a prerequisite for the planned military invasion of Britain. With the Battle of Britain won by the RAF and its limited numbers of pilots and planes, Germany subsequently turned its attention to Russia, fatally wounding its own long term military ambitions by fighting on two separate fronts, one to the east and one to the west.

Apart from the ill-fated and largely unsuccessful raid on the French port of Dieppe in August 1942, most Canadian troops had to wait until 1943 before they could become formerly engaged on the European continent, when they were fully employed in both the invasion of Sicily and later the Italian mainland. However, elements of the Canadian army were said to have been involved with one of the conflicts most notable Special Forces units, the Devil’s Brigade, a mixed force made up of both American and Canadian troops. Although they were reportedly tasked for a number of extremely difficult missions, the unit’s first high profile operation was reportedly against Monte La Defensa in Italy, during December 1943, where they were reported to have scaled a seemingly impenetrable cliff face to overcome German positions that were stationed there. Having overcome their initial target, the Brigade were then said to have been used to attack a number of similarly difficult mountain targets, as a result of which some 70% of the unit was thought to have been either killed or wounded.

By January of the following year the Brigade was said to have been reinforced and put back into the frontline at Anzio, where they were first referred to as the “Devils Brigade”, having terrified the life out of the German forces that were opposing them. With the approach of the allied invasion of mainland Europe planned for June 1944, the Canadian forces were said to have allocated their own section of the Normandy coastline, codenamed “Juno” beach, where they suffered heavy casualties as they hurled themselves ashore to begin the long awaited liberation of Europe. Despite incurring heavier losses than any other allied force on the day, with the exception of the American troops on “Omaha” beach, the Canadian troops were reported to have still managed to penetrate deeper into occupied France than any other allied soldiers, save for those paratroopers who had been deliberately dropped inland in order to disable German communication systems, thereby preventing them from reinforcing their coastal defences, which were being attacked and overrun by the allies.

Canadian forces were later instrumental in helping to secure the port of Antwerp, leading a mixed British, Polish Belgian and Dutch force to secure the Scheldt estuary, which was still held by the Germans, thereby preventing the allies from using Antwerp as a supply point for their military operations in Europe. Suffering extremely heavy losses, of which some six thousand were reportedly Canadians, this force was said to have spent several weeks helping to secure the area around Antwerp, before turning their attention to the liberation of the Netherlands. Throughout the entire course of the Second World War, the Canadian people were reported to have contributed hundreds of thousands of their young men and women to the allied cause, who subsequently served in virtually every service, from the Army and Navy, to the Air Force and the auxiliary services, including Nursing and the Merchant Marine. Some one hundred thousand Canadian’s were thought to have been killed or wounded during the conflict, amongst which a significant number of gallantry awards were said to have been earned by Canada’s fighting forces, including several Victoria Crosses, the highest award that could be issued by the British military authorities.

Canada - Britain's Greatest North Atlantic Ally

Watching a TV programme about the last heroes of World War II, I was struck by the numbers of former US and to a lesser extent British soldiers who fought in the final battles leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany and its wartime allies. Speaking personally, I have always believed that if Britain has one true ally across the Atlantic, then it is Canada, rather than the USA, who are our truest friends across the ocean, a fact that they have proved when our country has faced its darkest moments, but which has been largely overlooked by many commentators and historians. The following is an extract from my book “Mariners, Merchants and the Military Too – A History of the British Empire” relating Canada’s contribution to the British Empire during World War I alone…….

“As with many of Great Britain’s self governing colonies and dominions, the outbreak of the First World War proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of these former Imperial territories, marking their change from being an historic dependency of the British Crown, to becoming a recognisable international state in its own right. Through its political decision making, but more importantly through the valour and commitment of its armed forces, Canada was reported to have finally emerged upon the world stage as an independent democratic nation which willingly submitted itself to upholding the ideals of freedom and democracy. As in the other great British colonies and dominions throughout the globe, including India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, tens of thousands of young Canadian’s, both men and women, were reported to have rallied to Britain’s cause, willingly committing themselves to her defence. Despite only having a relatively small standing army of some several thousand men, within a matter of months, some thirty thousand Canadians were said to have volunteered to serve in Western Europe and were making their way across the Atlantic to take their place on the Western front. The first Canadian troops were thought to have arrived in France by the beginning of 1915 and elements of their 1st Division were reportedly some of the first allied troops to have been attacked with the poison chlorine gas which was commonly used by the German army. While large numbers of British and French troops were said to have fled the threat of this new weapon, the Canadians were thought to have quickly realised that the effects of the gas could be neutralised by the use of urine soaked rags being placed over their nose and mouths, helping them to hold their positions and preventing the enemy forces from advancing. However, even with their homemade defence against the poisonous clouds that were unleashed on their lines, it was still reported that some six thousand Canadian troops were affected by the gas, of which, a full third were thought to have died as a direct result of it being deployed against them.

Canadian forces were also an intrinsic part of the allied force that was marshalled in 1916 in preparation for the Battle of the Somme, which ultimately resulted in the largest number of allied casualties ever suffered by British and Dominion forces, nearly fifty eight thousand men killed or wounded in a single day. As much the result of poor planning, communications and inadequate leadership, as it was of complete incompetence, such enormous human losses were thought to have become a common feature of the First World War overall, although for the Canadian’s specifically, the Somme campaign alone was thought to have accounted for some twenty five thousand casualties, either killed or wounded. Despite such losses however, Canada’s frontline troops, continued to enhance their military reputation, reportedly being prepared to take on any military assignment, seemingly regardless of the cost and earning the everlasting esteem of their civilian contemporaries, as well as their political masters in equal measure. Vimy Ridge was said to be just one of the many battles which saw the Canadian military divisions take their place in the vanguard of various allied operations, designed to capture the German army’s well established defensive lines. Beginning on the morning of the 9th April 1917, a “creeping artillery barrage” was said to have cleared the way for the following Canadian troops, who then cleared the trenches of their German defenders, slowly, but surely moving the allied lines forward of their previous positions. By the afternoon of the following day the Canadian troops had not only taken a great deal of ground, but also captured several thousand German prisoners and killed many hundreds more. However, the victory had not come without a high price for Canada’s own young troops, who were reported to have suffered some eleven thousand casualties, either dead or wounded, a figure which underpinned their utter determination to achieve the objectives that they had been given.

Seven months later and largely because of their tenacious reputation, Canadian troops were reported to have been redeployed to the Ypres area, in readiness for yet another allied offensive that later became known as the Second Battle of Passchendaele, which was fought between October and November 1917. In conjunction with British and Anzac troops, Canadian soldiers were tasked with pushing the German’s front line back, allowing the allied positions to be advanced, so that the town of Passchendaele could be recovered by the allies. Although there were several instances of allied reversals and occasional failures to reach individual objectives, the operation itself proved to be successful, although the entire campaign was said to have cost some sixteen thousand Canadian casualties, with at least a quarter of that number being killed. Despite these losses though, Canadian troops were thought to have been so vital to the allied offensive strategy that they were intensively employed throughout much of 1918, most notably during the famous One Hundred Days Offensive, which saw Canadian troops and others, participate in the Battle of Amiens, Cambrai and the vital breaking of the Hindenburg Line which ultimately forced Germany to agree an Armistice on 11th November 1918. As with a number of other former British colonies, including Australia and New Zealand, by the end of the First World War, Canada’s international reputation as one of the principal victorious allied nations, had been assured and the military worth of its fighting forces had likewise been enhanced. Back in Canada itself, its own people began to see themselves as an integral part of the international community, a country with its own culture, traditions and now with a reputation and standing that was equal to its previously more dominant American and British counterparts. Although Canada was thought to have been largely independent of Britain, since the beginning of the 20th century, its emergence after World War I, was thought to mark the period when most Canadians began to see themselves as Canadians, rather than being historically tied to or associated with Britain or indeed the United States”

(Extract from: Mariners, Merchants and the Military Too by Phillip E Jones)

I'm Not European - I'm British And Proud Of It!!

Don’t you just love it, when the foreign press attack us for being “British”, as if that’s something that we should all be ashamed of! What most foreigners fail to understand is the very characteristics that annoy them so much, are the very traits that make our country so unique and previously helped our tiny little island nation become one of the greatest trading and military empires that the world has ever witnessed; and will probably never see again.

The British people are also unique because they share no single common origin, but are largely the result of an amalgam of peoples, from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as those regular waves of invaders and refugees from continental Europe, who have settled on our shores and subsequently been absorbed into our general population. The Anglo Saxons, Normans, Danes, Dutch and Norwegians have all played a part in helping to create Britain’s national identity, bringing with them the very best and worst of their own cultural heritage; thus helping to create a mongrel race who are unlike any other national population in Europe. It is little wonder therefore that other modern European’s fail to fully understand the British people, when we have so little in common with them.

Although the idea of being “British” has tended to wane in the past few decades, mainly because there is no unifying purpose to tie the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh populations together, one suspects that most people living in England, would typically describe themselves as British, rather than English. With Scotland, Ireland and Wales all having achieved some degree of political and regional independence in recent years, with the establishment of their own national assemblies, so their citizens have increasingly begun to see themselves as Scottish, Irish or Welsh, rather than British, thus undermining the historic links to the Union that once tied all four nations together.

It’s difficult to try and identify specific British characteristics, other than the stereotypical whiners, who incessantly talk about the weather, which is the way most foreigners seem to regard the British people. Of course, the British people that they choose to forget are those many millions who have died in order to preserve other countries democratic rights, or the British public who have welcomed millions of refugees over the centuries; and who have made them welcome on our shores. They also forget the tens of thousands of British people who regularly donate to various charities every year, to feed and clothe those less fortunate in Africa and Asia, not because they have to, but because they choose to do so.

It’s perhaps worth remembering that although we might be painted as a nation of beer swilling, telly watching, wannabe celebrities, the vast majority of the British public are not only generous of spirit, but are also prepared to sacrifice themselves, their sons and daughters, in order that international law and basic human rights are observed by less compliant states. It’s a mistake to judge the British people by the standards of their political leaders, many of whom are completely unlike the citizens that they purport to represent. As seems to be the case throughout the world, for the past four or five decades Britain has been unfortunate enough to be led by a succession of low grade politicians who have somehow managed to attain the highest office in the land, without having the slightest clue of what to do once they get there. As a result, the entire country has fallen into an economic, political and social malaise that seems to get worse with each succeeding government; and that requires financial trickery and deliberately invented property bubbles to keep the country from erupting into civil disorder. Is it any wonder that the British public eye all politicians, foreign or domestic with such unbridled cynicism. As somebody commented on a newspaper thread “Cameron, Clegg and Miliband may be idiots, but at least they’re our idiots and we can choose to elect them or not”, unlike those unelected politicians across the English Channel, who want us to simply dispense with our hard won independence; and then threaten us with all sort of economic reprisals if we continue to refuse their offer.

Speaking for myself, such overtures simply help to confirm my personal view that I am not European, never was, never have been and never will be! I’m British and proud to be just that. We may have our problems and a pretty poor set of politicians, most of whom lack the credibility, principles and leadership qualities of previous generations,, but they’re ours nonetheless and we’ll have to make do with them, till something better comes along. We may lack the discipline of the Germans, the flair of the French, the passion of the Italians, Spanish and Greeks, but give me the independently determined and slightly impoverished character of the British any day of the week.