View Full Version : Culture Shock - Canadians Errant (1 and 2)

5th November 2011, 21:58
I was thinking of submitting this on the 5 November Biggles thread of RAF training in Canada, but thought better to throw it in as a new post. It was written in a previous life (that of being with the Canadian War Museum) and when published it was edited (read censored); I leave you to spot which parts were cut. Given its length, I offer it in two parts. Having been composed nearly 20 years ago, I suppose several readers will be prepared to advise me as to where I was off the rails:


As Canadians enlisted in the armed forces, they embarked upon both a crusade and an adventure. They were not without worldly experience; even in 1939 the majority of Canadians lived in cities and large towns. Moreover, before proceeding overseas, most went through a lengthy apprenticeship of training and sometimes of service in Canada itself. An aircrew trainee, for example, might be ten months in the RCAF before qualifying as a pilot, navigator or air gunner; early in the war he might also be retained in Canada, either as an instructor in the expanding British Commonwealth Air Training Plan or as part of the Home War Establishment, protecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or operating internal air transport services. A typical Canadian soldier had also spent a year of training at home before going overseas, including instruction in such specialist fields as signals, field engineering, vehicle maintenance and artillery observation.

Once abroad, Canadians were thrust into many and varied situations. Canadians were killed and captured in Malaya and Sumatra. Small numbers served in odd places like Australia. Canadian aircrew flew anti-submarine patrols out of West Africa; units of the Royal Canadian Engineers dug tunnels in Gibraltar. The crew of HMCS Uganda fought briefly in the Pacific campaign of 1945. Several hundred members of the RCAF were stationed in Ceylon and Burma as members of Nos.413, 435 and 436 Squadrons as well as scattered through RAF units. Canadian sailors were engaged on convoy runs to northern Russia as well as the more common routes between North America and Europe. The bulk of Canadians, however, came to know two areas abroad; some 500,000 spent time in Britain (1939-1945); most of the 100,000 who served in Italy (1943-1945) had also passed through Britain.

The Army and air force had the most intimate, prolonged contact by overseas nations; most naval personnel and merchant seamen were transitory figures. The men in Canadian landing craft, motor torpedo boats, and destroyers engaged in coastal warfare were exceptions; so were the hundreds of officers and men assigned to administrative and liaison duties overseas. Otherwise, Canadian sailors lingered only when ships were under refit and repair.

At sea the hardships varied with climate, assignment, season, type of ship, and the quality of leadership. There were advantages to being on convoy runs that regularly connected with North America and the Caribbean; clearly a "48" in Jamaica had advantages over one in Belfast. Trips to Russia were infinitely more harsh (and the welcome more spartan) than runs to Britain. The general rule was that the smaller the ship, the more uncomfortable the living; the corvettes were notorious for bobbing about; it was said they would "roll in a heavy dew".

Yet even the most crowded ship could house a cheery, satisfied crew. The work itself was democratic; officer and rating alike could be wet, cold and seasick. An officer with too much interest in shining brass in port could undermine morale; a commander who bent over backwards to improve the messing even marginally could send morale soaring.

Most Canadians in Britain would remember the climate, made all the more vivid by inefficient British stoves and the near-total absence of central heating; in Nissen huts, the term "heating system" would be a virtual oxymoron. The Canadians expected hard living when in the field; they lived happily under canvas when campaigning. They were disgruntled when called upon to endure spartan conditions over several years of what amounted to garrison duty in Britain.

The fall and winter of 1944-45 were different; the Canadian Army and much of the RCAF was now fighting in Northwest Europe. Life was hard but challenging, and it was easier to blame the enemy for one's discomfort than one's own officers. The closer one came to the front, the more harsh the conditions. Soldiers lived in bunkers which they constantly upgraded, either as defences (enlarging fields of fire) or as shelters (improving drainage and even running in electricity). Beyond the immediate range of enemy guns, they were billeted in anything still habitable - farm buildings, village inns, schools, convents - which the proper civilian owners may or may not have abandoned. Some of the best billets were barracks built by the Germans over four years of occupation. At Eindhoven, RCAF airmen salvaged scrap lumber for miles about and built their own accommodation.

It might be thought that things were better in the Mediterranean; "sunny Italy" is a phrase that springs to mind. Even in Sicily, however, the dust could be stifling; the winter campaigns in central Italy were as cold, damp and dreary as any other wartime theatre. A member of the British Columbia Dragoons wrote:

"It was next to impossible to keep clean. In about six weeks I managed one bath in a pail of cold water... Finally everyone got transported to a mobile laundry and bath set-up with a wretched building. You took your dirty underwear and socks and exchanged them for clean darned ones and you had a shower with lukewarm water. It was primitive but it made you feel better."

The experiences of Canadians overseas were mixed in the extreme. C.P. Stacey and Barbara Wilson have studied the Canadian wartime presence in Britain. While many on both sides fondly remember the wartime relationship, the fact is that at the time it was a very uneven one. Canadians were not rural "colonials", although many British officers and NCOs regarded them as such. On the other hand, most Canadians came from a society steeped in Puritanical values and encountered a more easy-going British atmosphere. The contrast between a dreary Ontario "beverage room" or Manitoba "beer parlour" and the cheery English pub was evident, and many complaints were subsequently lodged about rowdy Canadians who drank excessively.

Two things tended to mitigate these problems. One was billeting procedures. When living in camps and barracks, Canadians tended to be isolated from the civilian populace and thus were more rambunctious when off duty; troops billeted with civilians were more akin to members of the community and tended to be more respectful.

The other factor was activity. The worst military-civil relations existed when the Canadians were idle, as during the "phoney war" period of 1939-1940 and during the long guard duty of 1941-1943. For aircrew, the most frustrating time was the six months spent after arriving overseas and before assignment to an operational squadron; some of this with flying lessons already learned in Canada, although much was also adapting the theory of earlier training with wartime realities and practices. Soldiers were happiest when training (including realistic exercises) was laid on; airmen were keen when sent to combat units, even though enemy action and battle fatigue might thereafter exact a toll. Above all, shared experiences such as aerial bombing brought mutual respect; the best public relations was accomplished when Canadian anti-aircraft gunners joined in defending Britain, or when Canadian demolition crews disarmed German bombs.

Relations with civilians varied not only with circumstance but with location. Naval centres like Portsmouth were more popular with Canadian sailors than dour industrial ports like Liverpool. For soldiers and airmen alike, Scotland seemed more hospitable than England. The long RCAF presence in Yorkshire, where most of its bomber squadrons were based, led to particularly close bonding with the county and its citizens. As problems were sorted out, Canadians were invited regularly to stay at British homes - some common, some stately. Flight Lieutenant George Starkey, for example, spent seven days at a Buckinghamshire estate whose owner left daily for London while his servants waited on visiting airmen. "I never had an empty glass the whole time I was there", Starkey recalls.

Once Canadians moved to the Continent, their relations with civilians changed. The troops were now fully engaged in campaigning. They might be cheered as liberators by French or Dutch crowds, buy fresh produce from farmers, host a Christmas party for children. Nevertheless, the soldiers and airmen were preoccupied with the business of war itself - more training, combat, and waiting for things to happen. Occasional 48-hour passes might be spent in Paris or Brussels, but prolonged contact with civilians had to wait until after VE Day.

Curiously, RCAF personnel stationed in Iceland were more popular (or at least less disliked) than other nationalities. Authorities were aware that many Icelandic families had migrated to Canada in the late 19th Century, and it appears that a conscious effort was made to post Canadians of Icelandic extraction to that outpost.

Many Canadian servicemen sought out their roots. Those of English and Scottish extraction frequently knew of aunts, uncles, and cousins living in "The Old Country", or at least knew from which counties their immediate ancestors had sprung. Those of Irish extraction found things much less "homey", partly because of Eire neutrality and partly because it was so time-consuming to visit even Ulster, much less the Irish Republic. French-Canadians had the hardest time, especially those with little or no command of English; they could not even claim family ties with Britain, and when they landed in Normandy it was scarcely a homecoming; they were plunging headlong into battle in a land their ancestors had left at least 200 years previously.

Lonely Canadians took up with British women; when units moved to Europe there would be contact with European women as well. The forces discouraged marriages, but the troops persisted, especially as the war ended. Between 1944 and 1947 the Department of National Defence repatriated 41,351 service wives and 19,737 children to Canada. The vast majority of the wives were British, but there were also 1,886 Dutch and 649 Belgian brides.

Unhappily, Canadian servicemen were also noted for high VD rates. For much of the war the rate of infection overseas was about 31 per 1,000 personnel, which various regulations and education programmes did not curtail. After VE Day the figure jumped alarmingly; troops on the Continent had an infection rate of 144 per 1,000 men and the figures were only slightly less in Britain itself. The figures for RCAF personnel were somewhat lower as compared to the Army but higher than their RAF counterparts. In matters sexual, the Canadians really were naive and incautious.

5th November 2011, 22:00
Herewith, Part 2

There were other dark aspects of the Canadian experience abroad -bigamy, broken marriages, and illegitimate children. The very nature of these subjects made them hard to document and quantify. However, it is estimated that Canadian servicemen fathered about 5,000 children during their extended stay in Holland - roughly one child for every Canadian killed in that country !

The relationship with foreign military also varied. Training schemes and operational organization meant that Canadians seldom dealt at the working level with Americans overseas, although they met frequently in social contents. As part of British formations -escort groups, armies, air force commands - the Canadians were thrown together with British officers and men, as well as those European forces-in-exile (notably Polish units) that served in the same formations. Curiously, the Canadians had particularly warm relations with the British Home Guard.

While there were fraternal bonds between Canadian and British military personnel, there were also areas of friction. The Canadians were better paid than their British counterparts; a Canadian private received $ 1.30 a day vs. roughly 50 cents a day for "Tommy" and an RCAF Flight Lieutenant serving in a British unit would be better paid than the RAF Squadron Leader who commanded it. Not surprisingly, the British servicemen resented this. The pay difference would have been even more galling but for the Canadian policy of encouraging personnel to buy war bonds as an investment for postwar civil life. This tactic was surprisingly successful, perhaps because memories of the Depression were fresh and vivid.

The wartime Canadian arriving overseas was usually awestruck at the situation. He or she had left a peaceful country with limited rationing and arrived in a world of total war. Soldiers docking in Liverpool in 1941-42 were shaken at the destruction around the port. Everything that followed reinforced the first impressions; there was a war going on and it was going to be long, hard, and frightening. The blackout was total and terrifying. Barrage balloons and old bomb craters reminded one of potential air attack. Posters everywhere advised about procedures during air raids, cautioned against loose talk and asked travellers, "Is your trip necessary ?" The absence of road signs (taken down during the invasion scare of 1940) was confusing in Britain. The regional accents, as found in Cornwall and Yorkshire, were equally baffling.

The Canadians were at the mercy of service cooks. "Military cuisine" was never inspiring, although Canadian food services personnel tried harder than their British counterparts. On occasion whole units (Army and air force) protested. Part of the problem was simply the scale of feeding; it is amusing to read an Army cookbook which prescribes recipes to be served to 500 men. On the other hand, some messing officers were clearly incompetent; the RAF base at Chivenor, Devon, was notorious for bad food and dirty facilities. Aircrew returning from night raids suggested that emergency landings at American bases might yield excellent breakfasts, as coffee, steak and eggs were always available to the USAAF. Some veterans of the Mediterranean theatre reported that the best cooks were Italian prisoners of war !

The Canadian soldier and airman brought part of his homeland overseas. They never took to cricket or soccer; instead they played hockey, baseball and football with a fierce competitive spirit. The historian of the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment recounted that when that unit fielded a baseball team representing the Third Division against the Fifth Division's Westminster Regiment, the result would be more than a ball game; "It was Division versus Division, with a thousand civilians looking on to see the fun." (The North Shores won, 8 to 6). Inter-service rivalries could be even more intense. Following a February 1944 hockey game between No.143 Wing (RCAF) and an RCN team, the RCAF wing diarist wrote, "The Navy won the game 4-0. The fight was about even."

The serviceman abroad was still in touch with home. Current Canadian newspapers were impossible to get, but May 1942 Canadian Press and the Canadian Army began distributing a four-page weekly digest of news from home under the title Canadian Press News. It filled a gap but was very bland, lacking editorial and comic strips. The forces actually published more lively papers for their men, starting with the RCAF's Wings Abroad (May 1942) and followed by the Army's The Maple Leaf (launched in Italy in January 1944, with a Northwest Europe edition following in July 1944).

Nothing, however, was so welcome as mail from Canada. Delivery was fraught with difficulties. Much mail was lost during the first half of the war as ships were sunk and aircraft crashed. By mid-1943, however, airmail services had been developed and deliveries improved. Late in 1943 the RCAF formed a special squadron (No.168) to airlift mail to Britain; unit detachments forwarded letters and packages to Italy and later to France. An industrious postal clerk, Private A.A. "Fred" Azar, was later an invaluable asset to the postwar Army Official Historian because he had memorized the names and locations of every army unit and formation overseas.

It was not just letters that moved overseas; families, friends and groups at homes sent food parcels, books, newspapers, soap, razor blades, sports equipment, extra clothing and cigarettes. All this was welcomed for its own sake, but also because it signalled that the "Home Front" was solidly behind the fighting forces. Morale dropped when postal services were interrupted for any long period, as happened when No.162 Squadron (Iceland) went 45 days without mail.

Civilian auxiliary services did more than ship "comforts" to Canadians abroad; many extended their operations overseas. Service clubs, the YMCA, the Knights of Columbus - these and more established libraries and recreational facilities for bored, lonely Canadians. The Canadian Legion War Services, co-operating with the Canadian Association for Adult Education, helped interested servicemen to upgrade their schooling even when on active service. The Salvation Army was noted for its dedication to helping Canadians overseas and was rewarded after the war by generous donations from grateful veterans. These personnel were classed as non-combatants, but some found themselves very close to the fighting. YMCA staff landed in Sicily just behind the first waves of assault troops on July 10th, 1943; before the day was out, the "Y" Supervisor had guarded prisoners and acted as a stretcher bearer.

In listing these groups, one should also recall Britain's NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute) which ran British canteen services. The ubiquitous NAAFI wagons, dispensing tea, sandwiches and mild flirting, were virtually a national symbol. Out of NAAFI came ENSA (Entertainment, National Service Association) which grew to 4,000 professional entertainers including such famous names as Vera Lynn, George Fornby and Vivian Leigh. ENSA shows were regular features at military bases throughout the world. Nevertheless, Canadians were critical of many ENSA shows for being coarse and having too many "in jokes", comprehensible only to the British themselves.

Eventually, Canadian entertainment troupes arrived as well. Some were organized in Britain from talented soldiers. Small shows like "The Tin Hats" and "The Forage Caps" grew into major productions, culminating in "The Army Show" of 1944-1945; alumni of this last group including Roger Doucet (who years afterwards sang "O Canada" in the Montreal Forum) and comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster. Other troupes began in Canada before moving overseas; such was the case with the RCN's "Meet the Navy" and such RCAF groups as "The Blackouts" and "The W-Debs".

When it was over, the Canadian serviceman could claim a variety of medals as proof of his services. For having volunteered he would automatically receive the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal; a silver Maple Leaf clasp was added for service overseas (Newfoundland counted as "Overseas" service). There was also the Defence Medal for service in an area threatened by enemy air or sea attack, and the 1939-1945 Star for service with an operational unit. In addition, depending on where he had served, the veteran would be eligible for the Africa Star, Aircrew Europe Star, Italy Star, France and Germany Star, Atlantic Star, Burma Star or Pacific Star. Most of these would be hedged with conditions respecting minimal times spent to qualify; the surest way to have earned a Campaign Star was to be killed, wounded or taken prisoner in the appropriate theatre !

Curiously, many did not even apply for their medals after the war. They had come forward to serve, had fought the good fight, and now returned to the farms, banks, stores and schools from which they had sprung. The war had changed them - but not entirely. Now they had fresh challenges - lives to pursue, a country to build, a world to renew. After all, 1945 marked not only an end, but also a new beginning.

7th November 2011, 21:27
hugh a very interesting insight into the paticipitation of Canadas armed forces in ww2 .War is appalling in many aspects and all sides participated in slaughter of inocents whether in the cause of ideal or freedom .My researches into the Canadian side of flying in Scotland reveal great bravery and sacrafice- not a few miles from my home a row of stones proclaim their ages 20 21 20 23 21 etc they travelled over dangerous waters knowing the risks and of course faced trying conditions on arrival in blitzed Britain here they took up the fight and many paid the ultimate sacrafice My freedom was paid with this sacrafice and their memory and contributions should never forgotten