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The War Begins


British Prime Minister Winston ChurchillNumerous factors contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War: outstanding German grievances stemming from the terms of the 1919 peace treaty signed at the end of the First World War, the failure of the world community to check the Nazis’ military rearmament, and the implementation of Germany's expansionist policies during the 1930s. Germans had always believed the terms of the 1919 peace treaty imposed on them by the western Allies at the end of the First World War had been too harsh. In particular, they were resentful about the size of the reparation payments Germany was forced to pay to France and Belgium. Hitler was determined to “right these wrongs” on behalf of the German people by punishing France for this injustice.

The League of Nations, founded at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, failed to achieve its goals of avoiding military confrontations through negotiation and diplomacy and of achieving collective security through disarmament. Specifically, the League proved incapable of preventing German rearmament and territorial expansion during the 1930s. The United States' absence from the League and the lack of a unified and representative standing army in Europe, compounded by Britain and France’s desire to appease Hitler, contributed to the League’s shortcomings and ultimate failure.

Lebensraum (German for “living space”) was the underlying principle upon which Hitler’s expansionist plans were based. The Nazi dictator envisioned a greater Germany encompassing much of Eastern Europe—Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the western portions of the Soviet Union—for the purpose of accommodating all German-speaking peoples. The annexation of Austria, or Anschluss, on 12 March 1938 was the first of several steps undertaken by Hitler in order to make Lebensraum a reality. National Socialist (Nazi) policy and legislation became the rule of law. Members of the Austrian army had the choice of serving in the German Wehrmacht or of being subjected to imprisonment or death. Austrian opponents of this action were arrested. Jews were deprived of their civil rights, detained, and eventually transported to work or death camps.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler emboldened the Nazi leader. Following the successful annexation of Austria, Hitler turned his attention to the Sudetenland (western regions of Czechoslovakia), home to approximately 3 million Sudeten Germans. Seeking to avoid an armed conflict over this issue, Chamberlain sought a compromise with Hitler. The two leaders reached an accommodation, known as the Munich Agreement, on 29 September 1938. The French signed the agreement three days later; no representatives of the Czechoslovakian government were consulted or present at the negotiations. The Munich Agreement handed control of the Sudetenland to Germany and Hitler assured Chamberlain he had no further territorial ambitions. Chamberlain returned to England claiming war had been averted and “peace for our timehad been achieved.

Canada's Commitment

Upon formal entry into the war, Canada’s military leaders submitted requests to parliament for well in excess of $500 million. After much wrangling and debate, Parliament approved $100 million for mobilization. By comparison, Germany’s annual war budget was an estimated $12 billion. Prior to, and during the early stages of the war, King continued to assert that Canada could best contribute to the Allied cause by providing Britain and other Allied countries with the supplies needed to fight a war with Germany. Homefront preparedness, not the establishment of a large expeditionary force, became the priority. The Royal Canadian Air Force was the early beneficiary of this strategy. Bolstering the capacity of the Air Force was required to ensure the security of Canada’s coastal defenses, sea ports, and shipping lanes. Increasing the size of the Air Force for these purposes, as opposed to sending large numbers of troops overseas, would not create the same kind of domestic political turmoil for the government on account of the anti-war sentiments harboured by most Quebecers and many other Canadians during these early stages of the war. 

Britain began pressuring the Canadian government to send troops and supplies overseas as soon as Canada formalized its entry into the war. Pressure mounted on the King government and the Prime Minister’s plans to limit Canada’s involvement began to unravel. The government commenced negotiations for the establishment of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), hoping this would forestall the deployment of troops overseas. It didn’t. The Army’s First Division, which ironically included the Royal 22e Regiment (the “Van Doos”) based in Montreal, was dispatched to Britain in the fall of 1939 before a formal agreement on the BCATP was finalized in December of that year. The Second Division also commenced recruiting and preparations for possible overseas deployment. By February 1940, 23,000 Canadian military personnel were stationed in Britain.

Once up and running, the BCATP trained in excess of 20,000 Commonwealth and Allied pilots and crew members annually. Crews from as far away as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Fiji, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, and the United States took part in the program. Canada was the optimal location for the implementation of the Plan, offering plenty of open spaces for flying, training, and the development of landing strip, relatively good flying weather, and access to aircraft production and fuel refining facilities. Additionally, there was little threat of attack from enemy forces, yet the newly trained aircrews could be easily transported to both the European and Pacific theatres of war.

The “Plan” maintained 231 training sites, utilized more than 10,000 aircraft and employed 100,000 military personnel. Over half of the 131,553 BCATP graduates were Canadian, most destined for squadrons based in Britain and, eventually, Europe. The “Plan” trained pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, radio operators, air gunners, and flight engineers. Canada contributed $350 million toward the implementation and operation of the BCATP. The total cost of the “Plan” exceeded $600 million. American President, Franklin Roosevelt referred to Canada as “the Aerodrome of Democracy”.


Kennedy, Paul. Strategy and Diplomacy 1870–1945. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

Morton, Desmond. A Military History of Canada: From Champlain to Kosovo. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1999.

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