Drawing Equipment and Stores, Britain, n.d.
Canada's Weekly, 20 December 1940. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Drawing Equipment and Stores, Britain, n.d.

The British government asked Canadian troops, including the Edmonton Regiment, to support a British invasion of Norway, which the Germans had recently occupied. By the time that the Canadians were ready to depart for Norway, however, it became clear that the operation was a failure. The Canadians never did make it into battle.

It was assumed in January of 1940 that the 1st Division would spend about four months training and equipping and then would cross the channel to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alongside the French. The Germans had crushed Poland in a few weeks, but, by the time the Wehrmacht had rested and turned back to the west, the likely onset of winter was too close for an attack on the allies. Much of the German success in Poland had rested on its overwhelming superiority in air power. Bad weather would deprive Germany of that advantage against France. The British and French, for their part, were in no position to go on the attack, and, until Churchill took over as Prime Minister, the will to do so was conspicuously absent. From September of 1939 until May of 1940, there was a curious period of war without fighting, which the British called the 'twilight war' and the Germans Sitzkrieg, although the Canadians probably preferred the American 'Phony War.' The British army was not much better off in terms of equipment than the Canadians, and at first all the available modern armaments went to France to try to make the BEF into something of a match for the Germans. How far they were from achieving that goal may be judged from the fact that by May the British had 200 tanks at their disposal as opposed to 2700 for the Germans. (6)

Canada had no arms manufacturing capacity whatever at the beginning of the war so that for the first year, all new weapons had to come from the British. The sole advantage of the Canadian units was that the Canadian auto industry began producing large quantities of military vehicles immediately, and these began to appear in late May, 1940 to replace the hodgepodge of requisitioned civilian trucks and buses. By April, the Edmonton Regiment had yet to start training at divisional or even brigade level. They were firing blank ammunition from their Lee-Enfields and wooden bullets from the few Bren guns they possessed. (7)

Churchill Visits General A.G.L. McNaughton, Britain, 1940.
Canada's Weekly, 20 December 1940. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Churchill Visits General A.G.L. McNaughton, Britain, 1940.

The British government, which was led by Winston Churchill by May 1940, asked General McNaughton to provide a brigade of Canadian troops to support the British Expeditionary Force in France. Canadian troops were never sent, however, largely because by late May, British forces were in full retreat from the pursuing Wehrmacht.

When the Germans launched their invasion of Norway that month, however, and the British asked for some Canadian units to help meet the emergency, the Edmonton Regiment and the PPCLI were judged best prepared for the job. About 1300 men from the two units were hastily loaded onto trains and sent to the Scottish port of Dumferline. From there, they were to be shipped to Trondheim to try to stop the German advance. The German assault on Norway caught the British completely by surprise, and the hastily improvised plans changed almost from hour to hour.

The Canadians were ordered to make a temporary camp until the situation clarified. Within a week it had become all too clear that the Norwegian campaign was a disaster for the Allies. The British and French forces around Trondheim, which the Canadians were to support, were completely outnumbered. After the sinking of the carrier Glorious, no air cover could be provided. Both regiments returned to Aldershot and training after nearly becoming the first Canadian army units to face the Germans in this war.

Embarkation of Canadian Troops Destined for France, 1940.
Canada's Weekly, 20 December 1940. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Embarkation of Canadian Troops Destined for France, 1940.

By mid-June 1940, Canadian forces did finally make it onto French soil. The 1st and 2nd Brigades, of which the Edmonton Regiment formed part, were deployed in Brittany in northwestern France in an attempt to establish a redoubt from which to fight the advancing German army. The operation was called off after the French government capitulated to Germany and Canadian troops returned to England.

They hardly had time to settle back into their barracks when the panzer divisions began pouring into France and Belgium. The German attack and the rapid collapse of the French and British front brought for the Edmonton Regiment a month in which orders changed almost daily. The crisis meant that the 1st Division went on alert for movement at two hour's notice. On 23 May, the CO of the Canadian Corps, General McNaughton, was asked to provide one and possibly a second brigade to help shore up the lines of communication for the BEF. The 1st Brigade got on board ship at Dover on 26 May, but by that time the situation had deteriorated so badly that the operation was cancelled. In fact the evacuation of most of the BEF and thousands of French soldiers from Dunkirk was already under way. For the Canadians attention was shifting to their role in a possible German invasion of England.

The 1st Division was reorganized into four independent battle groups, each consisting of an infantry battalion with attached artillery, anti-tank, engineer, machine gun, and heavy mortar support, all mounted on trucks so that they could move quickly. Canadian Force, as it was now called, was moved to the area around Northampton, a central location from which the force could move to reinforce any of the possible coastal landing areas or deal with landings by paratroops. The Edmonton Regiment, in their new trucks, went to the town of Kettering for a week or so until they were ordered to prepare once again to go to France. Winston Churchill was now Prime Minister. In his usual pugnacious fashion, he had decided that there must be a final effort to prevent the complete collapse of France by establishing a redoubt in the Brittany peninsula. The British 52nd Division and the Canadian 1st Division were to be shipped to Brest to join two other British divisions still fighting with the French.

This time the 1st Brigade actually crossed the channel, landed, and by 14 June were well inland. An advance party of the 2nd Brigade, including Captain A.A. Gilchrist of the Edmonton Regiment, made it to Brest but returned after one night on French soil after the French government capitulated. The hasty deployment, which had no chance of even slowing down the German advance, was a measure of how desperate Churchill was at this stage of the war. The Canadians were fortunate to lose only the vehicles of the 1st Brigade. As soon as the Brittany excursion was called off, the Edmonton Regiment returned to its mobile role in opposition to a German invasion that seemed increasingly likely. On 23 June, they moved north to Aylesbury for a week and then south of London to Surrey as part of 7th Corps, which included the 1st British Armoured Division and two New Zealand brigades.

Battle for Britain, by John P. Cuthbert.
Canada's Weekly, 20 December 1940. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Battle for Britain, by John P. Cuthbert.

The Battle of Britain was a furiously fought air battle between the Royal Air Force and Germany's Luftwaffe. Aside from preparing for an invasion that would never materialize, there was little else that the Edmonton and other Canadian regiments could do during the battle.

The decision about whether or not the Germans would launch operation 'Seelöwe,' (Sea Lion) the planned invasion, depended on the outcome of the mighty air battle that filled the skies of southern England in the summer of 1940. There was little the battalion could contribute to the Battle of Britain, apart from rounding up the occasional downed German airman and burying those who failed to survive. Anti-aircraft guns were still not to be had for infantry battalions, but the soldiers fired away at the occasional low-flying raider with Bren guns, tommy guns, and rifles. The German invasion, which was, in fact, intended to land on the south coast on 21 September exactly opposite the area where the Canadians were stationed, was postponed several times and finally cancelled in mid-October. By then, Germany knew it had lost the battle for air superiority. The battalions of the 1st Division then settled in to a winter of three week rotations guarding stretches of the south coast

  • 6. Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint and John Pritchard, The Penguin History of the Second World War (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 130.
  • 7. The Forty-Niner, 1, 31 (July, 1940), 6.
 

Copyright © 2015 The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum
Prince of Wales Armouries Heritage Centre
10440 - 108 Ave, Edmonton