Approach to Villa Grande, by Dr. Charles Fraser Comfort.
Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 12224).

Approach to Villa Grande, by Dr. Charles Fraser Comfort.

German and Canadian soldiers fight amid the wreckage of tanks and other weapons. Tank battles were prominent in most European theatres during the war.

Combat in the Second World War had little in common with combat during the First World War. The weaponry was even more potent. Mechanized warfare had now come of age, and the destructive capacity and overall efficiency of weapons had been greatly enhanced.

Mechanized warfare meant that the basic tactics of battle had also changed. Warfare in the First World War had been dominated by static defensive positions. Through much of the war, both sides had constructed extensive defensive networks, and then conducted costly frontal assaults. Combat during the Second World War depended upon rapid deployment and increased mobility. Although operations did sometimes revert to static defensive lines (in the winter months in Italy, for instance, when muddy hills and mountains became impassable to mechanized units), warfare was generally characterized by manoeuvrable formations of tanks and armoured vehicles.

Canadians Land in Sicily, July 1943.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-215, Box 8).

Canadians Land in Sicily, July 1943.

New-style military barges deposit men and supplies on the beaches of Sicily. This amphibious landing began the campaign to conquer Italy and retake Europe from Hitler and Mussolini.

On a strategic level, perhaps the most significant difference between the two world wars was that the latter conflict was truly global in scope. The First World War involved a geographically diverse group of combatants, but fighting was essentially limited to Europe. The Second World War was different. Combatants waged war in a variety of theatres, each of which possessed unique characteristics.

The very nature of combat depended greatly on the weaponry, tactics, and theatre of operations. For example, Canadian forces were involved in several amphibious landings -- a form of invasion that carried with it particular demands and inherent risks. In operations of this type, troops were carried by water to attack points on the enemy's coastline. This initial assault was designed to secure a beachhead from which a full-fledged invasion force could be launched. Such landings were extremely dangerous. Although troops could be transported in large ships for the first stage of the journey, the final attack was undertaken in smaller boats. These craft were often vulnerable to heavy seas and capsized long before they reached the shore. For those soldiers who were able to survive the trip over open water, their reward was often a withering barrage of enemy artillery and machine gun fire.

Canadian Soldiers Disembark Their Landing Crafts, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4).

Canadian Soldiers Disembark Their Landing Crafts, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Canadian troops leave their cramped landing vessels. Exposed to enemy fire and struggling under the weight of several pounds of weapons, ammunition, supplies, and other equipment, they trudge towards the beach.

In Italy, conditions were perhaps even more extreme. The Italian climate was a study in contrasts: the summers were relatively benign, the winters, very severe. Indeed, the two winters that the Allies spent in Italy were the worst the country had experienced in twenty years. Torrential downpours were commonplace. The incessant rain not only left the soldiers soaked but also created a morass of mud that made it almost impossible for armies to function. As in the First World War the constant barrage of artillery and the unending movement of men and heavy equipment commonly turned the battlefields of Europe into a quagmire. Italy's mountainous terrain -- stony, bare of cover, and extraordinarily dangerous to traverse -- presented an entirely different set of problems.

The Fortyniner, No. 38, January 1944; No. 39, July 1944; No. 40, January 1945; No. 41, July 1945.

Loyal Edmonton Regiment Fatalities.

The slideshow presents photographs of many soldiers from The Loyal Edmonton Regiment who perished during the Second World War. Most of them were, as one can see from their faces, very young when they died.

Combat in such trying conditions had a severe impact on the Canadian soldiers. Many were killed and injured, but the stresses of battle were psychological as well as physical. The pressures involved in attempting to survive under such circumstances are perhaps incomprehensible to anyone who has not experienced the reality of combat. Indeed, the physical and mental fatigue associated with performing the activities essential to combat duty was overwhelming for many soldiers. "Battle exhaustion" -- a term that covered a number of emotional and mental crises -- was a major concern for all the combatants. The number of soldiers affected was certainly significant. At the height of the Normandy campaign, for example, perhaps one quarter of the non-fatal casualties were due to psychological factors.

 

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