Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History World War Ii

Ten Decisions

Canada’s Best, Worst, and Most Far-Reaching Decisions of the Second World War

by (author) Larry D. Rose

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2017
World War II, Post-Confederation (1867-), Western
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Oct 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2017
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


In the chaos of the Second World War, Canada faced cruel choices, both on the battlefield and in the world of politics. Of all these life-and-death choices, ten stand above the others in their importance, their agonizing stakes, and the impact they have on the country to this day.

About the author

Larry D. Rose is the author of Mobilize! Why Canada Was Unprepared for the Second World War. His articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and other publications. He was born in Trail, BC, and has an MA in public administration from the University of Victoria. He worked for 24 years at CTV News, including six years as producer of CTV National News with Lloyd Robertson. Larry lives in Toronto

Larry D. Rose's profile page

Excerpt: Ten Decisions: Canada’s Best, Worst, and Most Far-Reaching Decisions of the Second World War (by (author) Larry D. Rose)

Canada in 1939: On the Edge of War

In 1939 Canada was unprepared for war and totally unprepared for total war. That was obvious in many ways but most of all in the state of its army, navy, and air force. There were only 4,169 officers and men in Canada’s regular army at the start of the Second World War.1 The uniforms the soldiers wore looked just like those from 1918 because, in fact, they were those from 1918. The army was not able to buy new uniforms or much new equipment until the months before the war broke out. There were about twenty-five thousand men in the army reserves and most were untrained. In pre-war years some summer artillery exercises had to be cancelled because artillery shells were too valuable to actually be fired. The biggest training exercise of the decade was held in 1938 and it was a shambles. Most senior army officers were too old or too sick to be effective, and drinking was a serious problem. As memorably described by John English in The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign, the army shamefully neglected the study of war in those years.2 Top officers instead spent most of their time running relief camps or on ceremonies and parades.

The Royal Canadian Navy had six serviceable destroyers and four minesweepers, but those ships had to cover two long coasts. Before the war the Canadian destroyers trained alongside the big ships of the Royal Navy. The British believed the principal threat they faced would be from German surface ships while submarines were a menace that could be managed. On the outbreak of war there were 1,189 officers and men in the regular RCN. There were three reserve formations: the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve (RCNR), made up mostly of officers and sailors in the merchant marine; the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), mostly weekend sailors and yachtsmen; and the very small Fishermen’s Reserve. Together the three made up another 1,900 officers and ratings. So when the war broke out the navy had a grand total of about three thousand men.

There were 275 aircraft in the Royal Canadian Air Force. With the exception of a few new Hurricane fighters, most of the planes appeared to have been stolen from a museum. One squadron operated the Armstrong Whitworth Atlas, an army co-operation biplane that first flew in 1925. On the outbreak of war the air force was supposed to have fifteen squadrons, but it had to scrape together everything that flew just to muster twelve. There were about 4,100 officers and men in the regular air force and air force reserve combined.

In 1939 there were eleven million people in Canada. In many ways the country was British. No maple-leaf flag flew on any flagpole, but instead the Canadian Ensign, or more commonly, the Union Jack. There were pictures of the young king, George VI, in every school, including, presumably, King George School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, King George School in Saskatoon, and King George VI School in Kenora, Ontario.3 And all those British products — Lipton tea, Royal Doulton china, and, from the tiny village of Port Sunlight, near Liverpool, Sunlight soap — lined Canadian store shelves.

Canadians in most parts of the country were proud to be part of one of the great empires of history, the British Empire. For the true Empire boosters the biggest moment of their lives was the Royal Tour of May and June 1939. King George and Queen Elizabeth had been invited to Canada after their coronation in 1936, but no one could have imagined the trip would take place on the very edge of war. The Royal Tour was a sensation and helped rally the nation to the Empire in a time of dire need. Even in Quebec most people welcomed the King and Queen with uncommon warmth. In most other respects, however, the three and a half million people who made up French Canada, were the “great exception” in the nation. The differences were fundamental and historic. Most important in 1939 was the French-Canadian view of possible war in Europe. Francophone Canada was determined that it would not be part of any new “Imperial” war. Through most of the Second World War this French–English divide would command the political agenda again and again.

In the pre-war years multiculturalism was unheard of. There were people from Germany in Kitchener, Ontario, people from Iceland in Gimli, Manitoba, and minorities from other countries scattered across Canada, but they were often shut out of the mainstream. Some minorities remained at the bottom of the social ladder. When conscription became an issue later in the war, recent immigrants simply wanted to be left to their farms and workbenches. Most were barely scratching out a living, anyway, only trying to survive.

At the beginning of the war Canada was an economic weakling. It was a wounded country, still in the grip of the Great Depression. Factories had produced steel, durable goods, and clothing in earlier years, but hundreds of those plants had shut their doors. In the 1920s Canada had been the second largest auto producer in the world, but by 1939 only a handful of plants remained open. Between 1929 and 1939 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total of goods and services the country produced, dropped 40 percent.4 World wheat prices were dramatically lower than they had been a few years before. Parts of the prairies were dust bowls, having suffered years of drought. In tiny Minton, Saskatchewan, most of the population of 890 depended on government relief or charity; even the chickens in the town depended on relief feed.

Because of the economic problems, because some Canadians did not want to be part another war under any circumstance, and because of the French-Canadian aversion to any new “Imperial” conflicts, Canadians chose to ignore the events in Europe year after year. As journalist Bruce Hutchison memorably commented, in the face of a growing crisis, “Canadians turned out the lights and hid under the bed. ”5

Editorial Reviews

Well chosen, well argued, and well-written, Ten Decisions takes a fresh look at the key Canadian events of the Second World War. The crucial military and political struggles are laid out clearly and concisely, and both novices and experts will find much to consider.

J.L. Granatstein

Other titles by Larry D. Rose