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Book Reviews

Gaudeamus Igitur ‘therefore Rejoice’; The Campaigns Of The Canadian Army In The Second World War

by A. Donald McKay

Calgary: Bunker to Bunker Books, 2005
328 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Jack Granatstein

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Book Cover Donald McKay intends this history of the Canadian Army’s campaigns in World War Two to be “a scholarly treatise.” His primary purpose, he writes, is to accentuate the positives and to let readers form a balanced judgment. Secondarily, his aim is to counterbalance the “previous denigration” of what he describes as “narrowly focused” scholarship by professional historians. A worthy goal, to be sure.

Unfortunately, while this volume has its merits, it is not a scholarly treatise. The author’s sources are much too limited for that. He has used no archival records, and, as he disarmingly admits: “The primary sources have been the official British and Canadian histories.” Nor has he covered much of the published literature, and, regrettably, he leaves out the most recent published works – and much of the older material too. In other words, this is not scholarship. What it is, however, is an informed, opinionated, tart assessment of the Canadian Army’s battlefield performance by a junior officer who served in its ranks.

Take the Dieppe raid of August 1942, for example. McKay fixes most of the blame on Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten of Combined Operations Headquarters. The raid, he states, “was largely a failure due to overoptimistic, half-baked planning assumptions, incredibly poor intelligence and faulty appreciations on the part of HQ [Combined Operations] and an over ready willingness by HQ [2 Canadian Infantry Division] to believe that HQCO knew what it was doing and had produced an outline plan that should be accepted at face value.” Exactly right, as is McKay’s judgment that, because it was a raid, “the troops knew that they would only be ashore for a few hours [and this] psychologically militated against [their] energetically persisting in trying to push deep inland...” “After all,” he writes, “who wants to be marooned inland when the evacuation fleet sails away?” If anyone else has made this point that ought to have been obvious to all, I am not aware of it. McKay also questions the hoary legend that the raid greatly influenced subsequent Allied landings. “Whether or not these improvements would have been made in any case,” he states correctly, “is matter of conjecture.”

As these comments suggest, McKay is unafraid to state his positions with a full frontal candour. He even gives Field Marshal Montgomery his due. Unlike the Great War’s Haig, Monty “emerged from final victory with esteem and honour and it is hard to argue with results.” Harry Crerar, First Canadian Army’s commander, “Monty’s post-war denigrations to the contrary,” made no real mistakes. “A solid passing grade.” Charles Foulkes did badly in Normandy but performed “well” in Italy and the Netherlands. Guy Simonds was “a Monty acolyte and an enigma.” His experience in Sicily led to “the artillery heavy piecemeal frontal attacks that were to stultify the tactics of the Canadian Army thereafter.” E.L.M. Burns, surprisingly, gets the warmest of accolades: “His Gothic Line battles were the 8th Army’s greatest achievements to that time and possibly Canada’s greatest victories of the war.” But Burns was sacked at the moment of victory. “Since here he is rated for achievement and not personality,” McKay boldly states, “he receives an ‘A’.” I am not wholly convinced of Burns’s superior generalship, but it is hard to argue with McKay’s later judgment that Bert Hoffmeister, GOC of 5th Canadian Armoured Division, was “Canada’s best general of the war.” That would also be Doug Delaney’s judgment in his 2005 biography of Hoffmeister, and it is a pity that McKay could not make use of this book which, unlike other titles omitted from his research, certainly appeared too late to be taken into account.

McKay, of course, looks at the ordinary soldiers’ performance, and he does not find it wanting. General Eisenhower described the three greatest battles in Northwest Europe as D-Day, the Falaise Pocket, and the struggle for the west bank of the Rhine. In all three, McKay says, “despite their small numbers, the Canadians played a major role.” He praises the ordinary soldier for “raw courage and incredible endurance,” and he urges today’s Canadians to “rejoice in the truly incredible things that your grandfathers dared to do. Gaudeamus Igitur!” So we should.

McKay’s volume is unlikely to change many minds here or abroad – all being dug into their concrete bunkers and fortified with fixed lines of fire – but it is worth reading for its refreshing willingness to call a spade a bloody shovel.

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Historian J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and author of many volumes on the Second World War.