Winston Churchill waving to crowds in Whitehall on 8 May celebrating the end of the war.

Bob Brehl: Anniversary a lesson in Canada’s resolve

  • May 7, 2020

May 8 marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, V-E Day.

That triumphant moment, especially seen now during this COVID-19 crisis, should inspire us as a benchmark of resolve, endurance and sacrifice. The Allies defeated tyranny and freed Europe of “the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule,” as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously once declared.

While Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were the “Big Three” of the Grand Alliance, Canada’s role was significant for a country of only 11 million, less than one-third our current population. And we were in it from the start; two years ahead of the Americans and the Russians.

And Canada’s efforts involved virtually the whole country, whether by serving in the military or by serving on the home front in industry and agriculture. More than one million Canadians were in uniform — and 45,000 gave their lives while another 55,000 were wounded, according to the Veterans Affairs Canada website.

“From Murmansk to the Mediterranean, Canada’s navy — and merchant marine — played an enormous but often unsung role in delivering personnel and supplies to key strategic areas,” says Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, a charitable organization dedicated to enhancing awareness of Canadian history.

“We often overlook the fact that by the end of the war, we had the third largest navy in the world, after the U.S. and Great Britain, with more than 95,000 members and 434 commissioned vessels.”

As our lives are impacted by the pandemic, it’s easy to forget the Second World War went on for almost six years in Europe from Sept. 1, 1939 to May 8, 1945.

The following are little-known facts about Canada’s contribution over those six long years.

  • The financial cost of the Canadian war effort was astronomical. Expenditure for the fiscal year 1939–40 was a modest $118 million. The next year it rose to $752 million and in the peak year of 1943–44, it was $4.6 billion, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. Canada also made direct financial assistance to Great Britain of more than $3 billion (almost $50 billion in today’s dollars) when that country could not pay for Canadian food and munitions.
  • The first major battle Canadian troops faced wasn’t against the Germans, but the Japanese. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a series of attacks across the Asia-Pacific region. In Hong Kong, 1,975 Canadian soldiers fought bravely alongside British troops until they were overrun and taken prisoner on Christmas 1941.
  • The men who participated in the Dieppe Raid on Aug. 19, 1942 paid a great price, but the Canadians’ sacrifice was not in vain. The Allies identified their errors and corrected them for the success of D-Day in 1944. Of the 6,000 who embarked on the Nazi-occupied port of Dieppe, France, 5,000 were Canadian. Some 3,600 Canadians were either killed, wounded or captured.
  • The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was established in Canada in 1939 to develop the air forces of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The BCATP produced 131,553 aircrew or half the pilots, navigators, bombers, gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers of these countries from 150 Canadian training sites.
  • Nearly half the ground crew personnel and more than a quarter of the air crew strength of Britain’s Royal Air Force were Canadians.
  • By 1944, the Canadian army numbered almost half a million men, with a remarkable five-sixths volunteering for overseas service. They fought alongside U.S. and British troops in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. But the main military effort of the Canadian soldiers began in June 1944 with the landing on Juno Beach in Normandy and continued with the fight across France, Belgium, Netherlands and into Germany.
  • Canada’s industry also played an important role in the growth of our military and merchant navies. From 1941 to 1945, Canadian shipyards produced approximately 403 merchant ships, 281 fighting ships, 206 minesweepers, 254 tugs and 3,302 landing craft.
  • Lastly, a few words about the special relationship between Canada and the Netherlands that stems from the war and continues to bloom today.

It was Canadian forces who led the liberation of the Netherlands, and Canada even provided sanctuary for the Dutch royal family when their country was under Nazi occupation.

At war’s end, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada as a thank you and the Dutch still send 10,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa every year. The Canadian Tulip Festival, the world’s largest, is held each May, even this year, thanks in part to the Dutch royal family’s gifts.

There are now fewer than 33,000 living Canadian Second World War veterans; at the average age of 95. Our COVID-19 sacrifices seem pale by comparison to theirs.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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