Book Cover – The Information Front

Book Cover The Information Front

The Information Front: The Canadian Army and News Management during the Second World War

by Timothy Balzer

Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.
255 pages, $85 (HC), $32.95 (PB).
ISBN 9780774818995 (HC)
ISBN 9780774819008 (PB)

Reviewed by J.L. Granatstein

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“War has always been news,” writes Timothy Balzer in the first line of his book, and management and control of the war news has always been of prime importance to politicians and generals. Balzer’s book, The Information Front: The Canadian Army and News Management during the Second World War, is a well-researched and well-thought out study of how the Army’s public relations apparatus functioned during the greatest war in Canadian history.

The product of both a master’s and a doctoral theses, Balzer’s book  details the development and operations of the  Army PR apparatus, from nothing at the beginning of the war in 1939, to a large, smoothly-functioning organization by the time First Canadian Army was in the field in 1944-1945. There are some interesting characters on his pages, not least Colonel R.S. Malone, who eventually led the Army’s PR efforts, and whose 1946 book, Missing from the Record, omitted much and embellished the rest. What is most interesting in Balzer’s account, however, are his case studies of Dieppe, Sicily, and three Normandy incidents.

The Dieppe study, the only one to be examined here, is explosive. The raid on Dieppe was a disaster, a completely bungled operation that saw Canadian troops thrown away in wholesale. There were British commandos involved, as well as fifty American Rangers, but it was a Canadian operation, launched under the auspices of Combined Operations Headquarters, and led by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was about as well-connected as any serving officer could be, his royal relatives and political friends everywhere. He was also acutely aware of the value (to him) of good public relations, and his headquarters planned and plotted carefully before every operation, not least a big operation such as Dieppe.

Mountbatten’s aim was to ensure that Dieppe was seen as a success, whatever the operational outcome. Success would equal success, but so would failure; it was all a matter of presentation. While there was, in fact, a PR plan prepared for a failure, it was set aside and the plan for success was used instead. There were great and important lessons learned, the media was told, and important objectives were achieved. Yes, casualties were suffered, but the results more than justified them. And for years afterwards, Mountbatten repeated the same line, arguing that the lessons of Dieppe paved the way to the genuine success of D-Day. General Harry Crerar, who had pushed the Canadians into the Dieppe raid, argued the same, and countless historical accounts have repeated this dubious claim. The need to justify slaughter, the requirement that senior commanders be viewed as wise and deserving of their promotions and their glory, all combined to put lipstick on the pig of disaster.

Even from the Canadian Army’s PR point of view, Dieppe was spoiled by the great media coverage the tiny American contribution received. His eye on bigger prizes, Mountbatten understood that U.S. publicity was worth much more than Canadian, and there were more American PR staff attached to his headquarters for the Dieppe operation than Canadian. As it was, once the casualty lists became public—one newspaper was forced to publish the hugely long list over three days—the raid achieved its Canadian notoriety, and Dieppe remains the most contentious Canadian operation of the war.

But happily for him, Mountbatten was spared blame, or, at least, spared enough that his career progression was not interrupted. To ensure that posterity treated him well, he pressed a compliant Winston Churchill to adjust drafts of his memoirs to ensure nothing too critical was said by the great war leader. A full account of this historical re-jigging can be found in David Reynolds’ wonderful book, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (2004), a volume that unfortunately did not make its way into Balzer’s bibliography. In truth, Canada ought not to have expected anything more than it received. In a Grand Alliance, the smaller powers were expected to know their place and keep (relatively) silent.

Balzer’s is a most interesting book, a fine academic study that deserves a wide readership. It is the 21st volume in the Canadian War Museum’s excellent series, Studies in Canadian Military History.

Jack Granatstein, OC, PhD, one of Canada ’s most renowned historians, is the author of Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace (2nd Edition, 2011).