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Western Canada
During World War II

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Reginald H. Roy

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountrySomeone once said that Canada has too much geography and not enough history. One can take that with a grain of salt, perhaps, since European settlement on the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States began within a few years of each other. It would be more apt to say that we have too much geography and not enough people.

In September 1939, when Canada declared war against Germany, our population was estimated at 11,295,000. Of this number, about sixty percent lived in Ontario and Quebec, while Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, had a combined population of only 3,239,766. To look at it another way, under half the population of New York City occupied an area of 1,124,940 square miles.

Aside from its sparse population, there are one or two other things that should be kept in mind before we take a closer look at Western Canada and the Second World War. The area was basically a producer of primary products whose economic health depended on exports of such material as grain, cattle, timber, pulp and paper, and fish. The West had been severely hit by the decade-long Depression that started in 1929. Added to that, as with the Western United States, the drought had increased the economic woes of the prairie farmers. When war did come, there is little doubt that thousands of young men joined the services to get off the relief rolls as well as to fight for king and country. But as the war dragged on and the demands for wheat and timber increased, there were many who resented being called to the colours, especially when for the first time in at least a decade the family farm or ranch began to show a profit.

There is one other aspect about Western Canada at the beginning of the war that should be remembered - one that it shared with the nation as a whole. This was our complete unpreparedness for war, either on the sea, on the land, or in the sky. In the post-"Great War" period, Canada like most other nations, had reduced its armed forces to a minimum. With a friendly country to the south, the Arctic wastes in the north, and the oceans to the east and west, Canadians saw no threat to their security. In the 1930s when the Germans, Italians, and Japanese began to flex their military muscles, Canada was caught up in an economic depression that severely limited and then reduced even the minuscule defence budget. For example, in fiscal year 1930-1931, the total expenditure of the Department of National Defence was $23,732,151. Two years later, in 19321933, this had been slashed to $14,145,361. Although more funds were given for defence as the decade wore on, nevertheless two decades of neglect had its impact. At the outbreak of the war, to use the army as an example, there were only 4,261 in all ranks in the regular force and a little over 51,000 in the reserves. Poorly trained and ill-equipped, this force offered no means for rapid intervention in an overseas theatre of operation.

Despite this low base, to look forward for a moment, by the end of the war Canada had raised a force of 1,029,510 servicemen and 45,423 servicewomen. Of these, Western Canada was to provide 325,728 of the total, of whom two thirds went into the army, the remainder into the Royal Canadian Navy [33,539] and the Royal Canadian Air Force [82,251]. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the overseas exploits of Western Canadian units, it is interesting to note that when the 1st Canadian Infantry Division went overseas in December 1939, it included a "Western" brigade made up of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and the Edmonton Regiment. It was one of the formations that landed in Sicily in July 1943. Similarly, the 3rd Canadian Division called the 7th Brigade its "Western" formation. It was made up of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifle Regiment, and the Canadian Scottish Regiment. It, too, was used as an assault formation on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944.

The outbreak of the war brought about the implementation of the War Measures Act, which gave the federal government immense powers over almost every aspect of the nation's activities. Since Canada had permitted its defences to wither to a dangerously low level, there was a great deal to be done. The surge of young men to enlist resulted in a large and immediate demand for barracks, uniforms, mess halls, warehouses, hangars, drill halls, armaments, dockyards, aerodromes, training areas, and weapon ranges, as well as a wide variety of vehicles and equipment.

The demand for material and facilities of all kinds was far greater than the supply, particularly as Canada had almost no armaments industry. Everything had to be built from scratch. Moreover, Western Canadian defences did not have the priorities of Eastern Canada. The threat of German submarines in the Atlantic, to say nothing of German surface vessels, had to be balanced until the end of 1941 against the lack of any threat in the Pacific. Canada's only naval base in the West was at Esquimalt, British Columbia. Well situated at the tip of Vancouver Island to protect the major seaport of Vancouver, its location also guarded the entrance of the Juan de Fuca Strait and the sea approaches to Puget Sound and Seattle. There were four destroyers at Esquimalt when the war broke out, and half of these were sent immediately to Halifax. Steps were taken to improve and enlarge the naval base, which would serve not only Canadian naval vessels but units from the Royal Navy as well. New oil depots, wharves and jetties, machine shops, warehouses, barracks, ammunition bunkers, and a host of other needs began to receive long-overdue attention as did the coastal fortifications of the main harbours. The largest ship to enter Esquimalt during the war was HMT Queen Elizabeth, 85,000 tons, and extensive dredging operations had to be carried out in the harbour before it could enter the drydock.

Although a great deal of work was done to improve Esquimalt as a naval base, it never became as important as Halifax. No great convoys were assembled in the harbours of Vancouver or Victoria to be escorted across the Pacific or south to the Panama Canal. The small fleet of corvettes and minesweepers stationed at the naval base were not intended to take part in any great sea battles, but instead were used for offshore duties. The long coastline of British Columbia needed surveillance, but this could be done by the Fishermen's Reserve. Throughout the war, their small, lightly armed vessels poked into the innumerable bays, coves, and inlets but found nothing alarming.

The greatest scare of the war occurred on 20 June 1942, when a British vessel was torpedoed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On the same day, a Japanese submarine shelled the lighthouse at Point Estevan, a remote spot on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This was the only recorded instance during the Second World War of an attack from the sea on the West Coast of the Dominion.

What the threat might be, of course, could only be estimated while the war was in progress. This was reflected in the number of naval vessels based at Esquimalt which varied from a low of twelve to its greatest strength of 31 in June 1942. The danger to Canada's Western shores was determined by fleet actions far out in the Pacific, well beyond the range of even the long-distance RCAF aircraft based in British Columbia.

Even before the declaration of war, there had been a considerable amount of discussion between Canada and Great Britain respecting the establishment of what came to be known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [BCATP]. It was realized that thousands of pilots, navigators, and other aircrew would need to be trained. Britain, with its limited available space for aerodromes, looked to Canada for assistance. As one writer put it:

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