Arrival of the Second Canadian Division, 1941
Canada's Weekly, 20 December 1940. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Arrival of the Second Canadian Division, 1941

The rapid defeat of the Allies in France created a need for additional Canadian forces in Europe. The second division would provide the manpower necessary first to help defend Britain and second to launch an eventual counter-attack against the enemy. After the fall of France, in short, Canada's war effort would no longer be one of "limited liabilities," as Canadian Prime Minister W.L.M. King proclaimed over a year earlier.

By the end of the first year away from home the battalion was as close to being an effective fighting unit as any in the Canadian Army, and much closer than most. Although it had not yet been involved in combat, the Edmonton Regiment had experienced approximately a 50 percent turnover of personnel by the beginning of 1941. (8) A few men were sent back to Canada for medical reasons but most left the battalion because of the demand for trained men created by the very rapid expansion of the army. The 2nd Division had arrived during the summer, creating the need for a corps headquarters. The crushing defeat in France led quickly to plans for the creation of two additional divisions in 1941 along with an armoured brigade. Analysis of the defeat led to the conversion of the 4th Division to an armoured division and the addition of another, for a total of five. The need for experienced military administrators to handle first a corps, then an army, led to the transfer of Colonel Stillman to the staff in London and his replacement by the second-in-command, Major E.B. Wilson.

By early 1941, the battalion itself had become a vastly more complex organization than the one that had arrived in England a year earlier. Most of the changes were in the Support and Headquarters companies. The Support company now included an anti-aircraft platoon and a carrier platoon with ten Bren gun carriers. The mortar platoon had its quota of three-inch mortars; the signals platoon had radios that worked most of the time; and the pioneer platoon had the equipment it needed for demolitions, mine-laying and removal and field construction. The anti-tank platoon still made do with the Boys anti-tank rifle. Headquarters company's transport section grew to fifty trucks, more than a dozen motorcycles, and assorted jeeps and staff cars with all the drivers and the mechanics necessary to maintain them.

The battalion spent the first half of 1941 in training exercises of increasing size and complexity. Exercise WATERLOO in June involved more than 100,000 men. But great events were unfolding elsewhere in the war. The British Army captured huge stretches of North Africa from the Italians, leading to German intervention there. Greece fell to the Germans in April and Crete in May. Then, in June, Hitler launched his massive attack on the Soviet Union, an effort that dwarfed all previous operations in the war. The Edmonton Regiment, like all the rest of the Canadians in England, were bored, restless and tired of being spectators. The tedium was relieved briefly in mid-summer. On 1 July 1941, King George VI presented colours to the Edmonton Regiment and the Carleton and Yorks. In August, the battalion along with the Patricias and ancillary troops were selected for an expedition to occupy the remote Spitzbergen Islands (now called Svalbard) 800 kilometres north of Norway so they could be used as a naval base to support convoys to Russia.

King George VI Presents Colours to Carleton & Yorks and the Edmonton Regiment, Britain, 1 July 1941.
National Archives of Canada (PA-169991, photo by Laurie A. Audrain).

King George VI Presents Colours to Carleton & Yorks and the Edmonton Regiment, Britain, 1 July 1941.

For many members of the Edmonton Regiment, the presentation of the colours was one of the few activities that interrupted what had been a summer filled with the routine of training exercises.
A Mining Town in Flames, Spitzbergen, Norway, September, 1941.
Canada's Weekly, 19 December 1941. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

A Mining Town in Flames, Spitzbergen, Norway, September, 1941.

In September, a Canadian expedition, which included the Edmonton Regiment, raided the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitzbergen. The Canadian forces evacuated the population before they destroyed the mines.

The force went by train to Glasgow and embarked on the Empress of Canada. After a week of rehearsing boat landings, however, plans changed. Instead of occupying the islands, the revised scheme called for destruction of the coal mines, weather stations, and port facilities to deny them to the Germans and evacuation of the inhabitants. No serious opposition was expected so only an augmented company of the Edmonton Regiment, an engineer company, and a few British and Norwegian troops were sent. The operation went off without interference from the Luftwaffe because the landing force immediately captured the weather stations and sent back continual reports of fog.

Soon after the battalion was reunited in September of 1941, General Bernard Montgomery took over South Eastern Command, which included 1st Canadian Division. Montgomery had commanded a division during the fall of France and had first-hand knowledge of what it took to fight the Germans. The training immediately became more realistic, with the use of live ammunition, unarmed combat, and obstacle courses. Even the most rigorous training gradually palled, since everybody seemed to be in on the fighting except the Canadians. As 1941 passed into 1942, the great events of the war continued to happen elsewhere. Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States entered the war. The Soviets were desperately trying to hold the Germans at Leningrad and Moscow. The Royal Canadian Navy was in the thick of a life and death struggle with U-boats in the North Atlantic that could decide the course of the war. British, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, and South African soldiers were all fighting in the desert war in North Africa.

A.G.L. McNaughton, by Margaret Fulton Frame.
Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 89314).

A.G.L. McNaughton, by Margaret Fulton Frame.

General McNaughton's insistence that the Canadian forces remain unified limited opportunities for the deployment of such forces during the mid-stages of the Second World War.

The Canadians were not in North Africa for a variety of reasons. The main ones were that the shipping needed to get them there did not exist at the time and that General McNaughton insisted on keeping the Canadian Army together, on the theory that their principal role would be in the eventual invasion of western Europe. None of this information was public knowledge at the time, of course. For the soldiers of the Edmonton Regiment, the training exercises appeared to stretch on endlessly. When the Canadian Army did become involved in the ill-fated Dieppe raid in August of 1942, it was the 2nd Division that learned the bitter lessons about how hard it would be to force a return to the shores of France. That summer another change in command occurred when Colonel Wilson was promoted to a staff position with 1st Division. Major George Kitching, coming from the Royal Canadian Regiment, became the first commanding officer to have no previous service with the regiment. Under the circumstances, his six months with the regiment might have been difficult, but his exceptional leadership skills kept things firmly under control until he left for higher command in December. His replacement was James Curry Jefferson, who had been with the regiment since his days as a teen-aged private in the First World War.

 
 

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