Manitoba History: Book Review: Larry D. Rose, Mobilize: Why Canada was Unprepared for the Second World War. Foreword by J. L. Granatstein
by Graham A. MacDonald
The author of this study seeks to answer one central question: how prepared were Canadians to go war in 1939? The wording of the sub-title suggests that they were not, but Mr. Rose does not just assume this to be the situation and does not, therefore, set out to simply selectively fulfill his own prophecy. Rather, his approach is to reveal, by a chronological enquiry starting in 1919, the diverse aspects and actions, which, he contends, make a cumulative case for unpreparedness in 1939.
His method is twofold. First, he sifts much of the best historical writing on Canadian military experience in the 20th century, along with a certain amount of primary material, such as the revelations in Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Diary. Second, he makes fine use of his own interviews with veterans of the Second World War along with others made by the historian J. L. Granatstein and by Reginald Roy. The author, an experienced journalist rather than a professional historian, knows how to tell a good story, and he does so here in a fair-minded way. Personalities come in for criticism, but if one is looking for an historical villain, then, quoting David Bercuson, Canadians should “look in the mirror.”
Mackenzie King, that long-serving Prime Minister, is a central figure in the story, having come back into power in 1935. While he comes in for a good deal of criticism as a leader, it is increasingly muted criticism as the story unfolds. The reader comes to see just how difficult a country Canada is to govern, given its intricate web of regional particularisms and shared federal-provincial powers. King understood this well before first coming to power in 1921, both through his earlier experiences in Parliament and his continuing association with Ernest Lapointe, the man who would become his influential Quebec lieutenant. Nothing in the later 1930s could be more erosive of his Quebec base than to raise the idea of another Canadian expeditionary force for Europe, let alone the idea of ‘conscription.’ King remained very consciously a master at leading from behind. He believed firmly in cabinet consensus. The inclination to appease Germany was not, of course, something in any way unique to King or his ministers. It was rampant in the leadership of England, Europe, and America and it was widespread in the exhausted host populations they represented. Nobody, it was thought, wanted another war.
Canada was a small county in terms of population in 1919, and it is hardly surprising that in the 1920s the build-up of the navy or army remained a low priority. Similarly, interest in new methods of military leadership or technologies for military purposes remained low on the public agenda. One of Rose’s main themes concerns how hard it became for Canada to suddenly play ‘catch-up’ in the later 1930s, when a tradition of military neglect and underfunding had been so long in place. The armed forces leadership was by then even older, many out of touch with developments, and still much under control by the British, despite the Statute of Westminster of 1931. The depression economy also worked against rapid renewal, although in 1936 some initial plans were made suggesting much more had to be done. Military reserve units were encouraged to form, and credible military initiatives were taking place behind the scenes. There was a good deal of disagreement, nevertheless, about how a renewed armed forces should be shaped and with what kind of training. There were a few strong personalities who had maintained an active interest in the military situation. General A. G. N. McNaughton had a low opinion of naval power, while Walter Hose of the navy was just as certain it should play a strong role. Renewal efforts remained half-hearted, however, in the budgetary sense, and it was only with the initial betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938 that alarm bells started to go off in England, Europe, and North America. The response was still rather slow, for many clung to hope and cheered the agreement. Not so the strong and long-time liberal editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, who editorialized: “What’s the cheering for?” With the signing of the Von Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939, the writing was on the wall for all to see, and even Cardinal Villeneuve in Quebec started to support the war effort.
By the time the war commenced, production of needed equipment, planes, and ships was far behind. Lagging also were men trained for actual warfare. Only now did King finally give in to Britain’s long urging that Canada should play a central role in commonwealth air pilot training, a program that gradually became an important contribution. It too, however, took time to swing into full operation, owing to King’s earlier obsession with not upsetting Quebec opinion.
The lack of preparedness came into full play in two famous initiatives. The Canadian Chief of the General Staff, Harry Crerar, a man in a hurry, pushed ahead a British-inspired plan to send Canadian troops to Hong Kong as an added show of strength against the Japanese. Two battalions were sent in the late fall of 1941, and it soon turned into a disaster, later resulting in a Royal Commission of enquiry. Late in life, interviewee George MacDonell of Listowel, Ont., a member of the Hong Kong expeditionary force, claimed that the reasons for Crerar’s decision remained unexplained. Then, in August of 1942, came the Dieppe Raid on coastal France, scene of one of Canada’s greatest military tragedies. The Chief of British Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had provided neither sufficient off-shore bombardment ships for backup nor supporting air cover owing to opposition by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
For readers not overly familiar with the years leading up to Canada’s participation in the Second World War, this book is an excellent place to start. Rose allows his many witnesses to speak for themselves on many points, and readers can make up their own minds about the various questions surrounding Canadian preparedness. The notes and bibliography provide an excellent guide to the available literature.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 13 November 2020