The Campaign in Northwest Europe
Canada’s involvement in the war against Germany and Italy was the main national effort, and followed the United States’ policy of “Germany First”. Canada contributed to the war in many different ways; even before Germany conquered and occupied the bulk of mainland Europe in the spring of 1940, the Merchant Marine was sending vitally needed food and supplies to an isolated Britain through submarine-infested waters, escorted by British and Canadian warships. The Royal Canadian Air Force was extremely active in training aircrew from around the world at bases across Canada via the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and individual pilots, squadrons and even whole groups entered service as part of RAF Fighter Command, Bomber Command, or Coastal Command as combat operations against the Germans grew in intensity. By war’s end the Combined Bomber Offensive was sending 1,000-plane raids against the German homeland on a round-the-clock basis.
The Canadian government had hoped to maintain a limited liability for the Army, and initially mobilized only two divisions in September 1939. The Calgary Highlanders were assigned to the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, and the 1st Division sped off to the UK at Christmas while the units of the 2nd Division remained in their home cities and towns. After the invasion of France in May 1940, the Canadian Army was rapidly expanded to four infantry divisions, and the 2nd Division concentrated in training bases and prepared to go overseas. The Calgary Highlanders arrived in the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1940; by 1943, the Army in Britain consisted of three infantry divisions, two armoured divisions, and two independent tank brigades. By war’s end, one million Canadians of a population of only 12 million would have served in military uniform.
There was debate over what to do with the growing Army; while the British fought the war in Norway, France, and the long campaigns in North Africa, the Canadians remained in Britain, engaged in coastal defence and training duties. In August 1942, the large raid on Dieppe saw the 2nd Division go into action for the first time; a platoon of Calgary Highlanders accompanied them but did not land. One officer of the Regiment, assigned to a brigade headquarters, was killed while ashore.
Some soldiers were given the opportunity to fight with the British Army in North Africa to gain “battle experience”; Sergeant Emil Laloge was one such NCO who did so, serving with the Lancashire Fusiliers and returning to Europe where he eventually joined the Calgary Highlanders.
After the German and Italian forces surrendered in North Africa, the Allies continued to struggle with the question of how best to end the war. Feeling a direct invasion of France in 1943 would be too costly, they opted for an invasion of Sicily, and Canadian commanders decided – not without controversy of their own – to split their forces, sending one of the armoured brigades and one of the infantry divisions to participate in the invasion. After Sicily was taken and southern Italy was invaded in September 1943, one of the armoured divisions also went to Italy. Italy also officially surrendered that month, but German forces moved in to occupy Rome, and the quick route into southern Germany that some had hoped for proved illusory. Canadian forces remained in Italy and fought there until February 1945.
In the meantime, the Calgary Highlanders remained in the UK. When a British division developed a new method of training called “Battle Drill” in 1941, it was the Highlanders who seized on the new system, made copies of the manual, and spread it throughout the Canadian Army in Britain. The new system was revolutionary, and instilled in soldiers automatic reactions under fire that would be crucial to their survival in combat.
The Invasion of Normandy
By the spring of 1944, an Allied invasion of France was expected by everyone – the home fronts of the Allied nations, who were weary of war; the peoples in the conquered nations, desperate for liberation; the Germans, who had been expecting an invasion for years, and the Soviet Union, who had been fighting about 80% of Germany’s military forces ever since June of 1941 and bearing the highest proportion of the burden of the war.
On June 6, 1944 – known now by its generic code name of “D-Day” – the Allies landed six infantry and three airborne divisions in Normandy. Canada had been given responsibility for one of the five beaches, which was assaulted by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and a battalion of Canadian paratroopers had formed part of the British 6th Airborne Division.
Before the 2nd Canadian Division could land in Normandy, the forces there had to expand the beachhead to make room. German forces were a mixed bag of static “coastal” divisions with a high proportion of older soldiers and Eastern “volunteers” from the Soviet Union pressed into service to make up personnel shortages, and more reliable divisions from the Waffen-SS (the armed branch of a political organization originally formed as Hitler’s personal bodyguard), the Air Force and the armoured forces including veteran units such as “Panzer Lehr.”
It took four weeks just to take the city of Caen, which was an objective for British and Canadian forces on the first day of the invasion. Once it fell, however, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was able to land in Normandy. The next objective was Falaise, a few miles to the south.
The Calgary Highlanders went into action at Hill 67 at the start of July 1944. The fighting in Normandy lasted approximately two more months, as the British and Canadians attempted to grind their way southwards towards Falaise. A German counterattack towards Mortain, attempting to divide the U.S. and Commonwealth forces, proved to be a costly mistake as Allied forces then encircled the Germans and destroyed large elements of the 7th Army. At the same time, Allied forces began landing in southern France, including the Canadian-American 1st Special Service Force, made famous by the 1968 movie “The Devil’s Brigade”. It is a little known fact that the first senior Canadian officer had been Calgary Highlander Major John G. McQueen.
The Northwest Europe Campaign
After Normandy, the campaign in North-West Europe went through several phases. The 1st Canadian Army was positioned on the extreme left flank of all the Allied forces, and their mission was to clear the Channel Ports and secure harbours into which supplies could be safely landed to sustain further operations on the continent. The Germans, however, realized the importance of the port facilities, and either destroyed what facilities that could be found, or strongly garrisoned them as fortresses. Important ports like Dunkirk, in fact, remained in German hands until the end of the war despite Allied attempts to liberate them.
Following the fight to clear the Channel Ports, the British Army scored a great coup in capturing Antwerp – one of the largest harbours in Europe – intact. Without this facility, enormous quantities of gasoline were being consumed in moving supplies to the front line by truck. Thousands of man hours were also consumed in maintaining and driving the supplies. But the port was useless until the Scheldt Estuary leading into it could be cleared of Germans. Fighting took place both south and north of the Scheldt in September and October of 1944. The final obstacle to opening Antwerp was Walcheren Island, which was bristling with fortified German coastal batteries. The Calgary Highlanders were part of the assault on the island from landward on Hallowe’en night; the island eventually fell to amphibious assaults from seaward.
After the Battle of the Scheldt, the Canadian Army began to prepare for the next phase of the campaign, the assault over the Rhine River. A first attempt to cross the Rhine – the great natural barrier shielding Germany’s western frontier – had already taken place in September at Arnhem, but the high-risk operation had failed when ground forces failed to link up with the 1st British Airborne Division. A second attempt was scheduled for January 1945. In the meantime, the Canadians settled in for the winter in the Nijmegen Salient, formed after the fighting at Arnhem.
In December 1944, German forces launched another major offensive – their last of the war on the western front – and though it did not directly effect Canadian forces, it did upset the timetable for the upcoming Rhineland offensive. The “Ardennes Offensive” created mild panic initially, but after a couple of weeks of fighting, the so-called “Battle of the Bulge” was all but over and planning in January resumed for the invasion of Germany.
Operation VERITABLE stepped off in February. The objective of the operation was to cross the Dutch-German border and clear all the territory on the west bank of the Rhine River. Conditions were terrible; mud and flooded terrain hindered the advance, and the Germans had both natural obstacles such as the Reichswald Forest, and the man-made fortifications of the Siegfried Line, to assist them in their defence. Nonetheless, by mid-March the 1st Canadian Army – with British and American divisions under command – met its objectives and was ready to cross the great river.
The Calgary Highlanders sat out the Rhine Crossing with the rest of the 2nd Canadian Division. The crossing itself was a massive set-piece with both an amphibious phase and an airborne phase, and once again, Canadian paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division participated. Canadians were not in the initial wave of the river crossing, but the 2nd and 3rd Divisions crossed later and moved north with the 4th (Armoured) Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade. The forces from Italy had rejoined the Canadian Army in Northwest Europe, and were tasked with clearing western Holland of Germans.
The Battle at Groningen was the largest divisional level urban battle for the Canadian Army and proved to be one of the last major actions for the Calgary Highlanders. The battalion’s final shot of the war was fired by “Betsy”, a 6-pounder anti-tank gun and the only survivor of a six-gun platoon that originally came ashore in Normandy the previous July. “Betsy” had been captured by the enemy, recaptured, and fired 1500 rounds at the enemy during her career. At normal strength, the battalion numbered 800 officers and men; over 400 Calgary Highlanders had lost their lives in the course of the war, and 1,600 of the men that rotated through the battalion had been wounded, many more than once.
The importance of the Canadian Army’s contribution to the North-west Europe campaign is not often emphasized in standard histories of the war. The manpower shortages that all the Allied nations faced in late 1944 indicate that every soldier in the line counted. In the Battle of the Bulge, the Americans had to squander their elite airborne troops as reinforcements to plug holes in their line. But the Canadian contribution went far beyond just lending numbers. The Canadian Army acquired a reputation for achieving difficult objectives. The importance of opening Antwerp in the autumn of 1944 cannot be over-stated; American tanks and troops were stalled in the south due to lack of supplies and an inability to keep basic materiel flowing fast enough. The Canadians acquired a “can-do” reputation beginning on D-Day when they penetrated far inland despite heavy fighting on the beach. Field Marshal Montgomery, commanding all British and Canadian forces in North-west Europe, complimented the Army’s performance in the Scheldt by saying
The operations were conducted under the most appalling conditions of ground – and water – and the advantage in these respects favoured the enemy. But in spite of great difficulties you slowly and relentlessly wore down the enemy resistance, drove him back, and captured great numbers of prisoners. It has been a fine performance, and one that could have been carried out only by first class troops.
The Canadian Army is composed of troops from many different nations and countries. But the way in which you have all pulled together, and operated as one fighting machine, has been an inspiration to us all.
The Calgary Highlanders also acquired an enviable reputation. Assigned to the same brigade as Montreal’s Black Watch and the Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, the Highlanders were often in the forefront of brigade tasks. French-language replacements were often in short supply throughout the Canadian Army, and the Black Watch led the Canadian Army in terms of battle casualties, often leaving it short-handed. It’s most notorious battle was at Verrières Ridge on 25 July 1944 when 325 Black Watch men crossed the Start Line for a battalion attack, and only 15 men were available for duty at the next roll call. General H.D.G. Crerar, commander of 1st Canadian Army, later wrote that:
I can think of no battalion that came through (the years of training) with a better record than that of the Calgary Highlanders…It is difficult to single out any one battle in which the unit took part for special mention. The Regiment fulfilled a distinguished role in so many. However, to my mind, the demonstration of determination and gallantry shown by all ranks in the bitter fighting for the (Walcheren) Causeway…must ever be regarded with particular regimental pride. Only the very best and bravest could have succeeded in that bloody forty hour battle.