Canada Goes to War
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Canada Goes to War
The country decides what role it will play as Hitler's army sweeps through Europe
On September 10, 1939, Canada joined Britain and France in the war against Germany. But questions remained. What role would the Canada play and what price was it willing to pay?
On September 10, 1939, Canada joined Britain and France in the war against Germany. (National Archives of Canada, No. 1983-30-236)
On September 10, 1939, Canada joined Britain and France in the war against Germany. (National Archives of Canada, No. 1983-30-236)

At this point, Prime Minister Mackenzie King's plan was to ensure that Canada played only a limited role in the war. More than half of Canada's citizens had no ties to Britain and Canada was reassessing its colonial obligations.

A limited war seemed possible in the autumn and winter of 1939/1940. It was a period called the "Phony War" because the fighting had come to a temporary halt.

King pursued a program of "limited liability" during this time. Canada provided pilot training programs, war supplies and raw materials to the war effort. The country sent volunteer soldiers overseas but King maintained there would be no conscription.

There was no shortage of Canadian volunteers; thousands of single unemployed young men - English and French - with no prospects welcomed the offer of a coat, new boots, three meals and $1.30 a day. In the first four months of the war, more than 58,000 Canadians volunteered for the armed services.

The phony war came to an abrupt end on April 9, 1940 when Hitler's army marched into Denmark and Norway, meeting with no resistance. King realized his dreams of a limited war had ended.

In May, Hitlers blitzkrieg, his sudden military offensive. moved easily through the Low Countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg and into France. With its army of six million, France was one of the most powerful military forces in the world, and expected to be the bulwark for western democracy. But on June 14, ten days after engaging the French army, the Nazis walked into Paris unopposed.

The Axis Powers - Germany, Italy, and Japan - suddenly seemed unstoppable.
With France under occupation and the Americans maintaining neutrality, Canada became Britain's leading ally in the early years of the Second World War. Pictured here, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Canadian leader Mackenzie King in London, E
With France under occupation and the Americans maintaining neutrality, Canada became Britain's leading ally in the early years of the Second World War. Pictured here, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Canadian leader Mackenzie King in London, England 1941. (National Film Board of Canada and National Archives of Canada, C-047565)

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill faced tremendous pressure to surrender. Germany controlled most of Europe and many believed that if Britain put down her guns, Hitler would spare her. Churchill's position was delivered in a memorable speech on June 4, 1940.

"We shall never surrender and even if this island or large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time the new world with all its power and might steps forth to rescue and liberate the old."

Churchill carried the day. There was no longer any talk of surrender. Nor was there any question of Canadas role. With France under occupation and the Americans maintaining neutrality, Canada was now Britains leading ally.

In spring 1940, King spoke to Canadians,

"Fellow Canadians, the brutal domination of Holland, the tragic invasion of Belgium, the surrender of France, the capture of the Channel Ports has happened in such quick succession that the world has hardly had time to breath. One crisis has not passed before another has arisen in its place. Peril has been heaped upon peril. Who will say on what new horizon destruction may not loom tomorrow?"

Only a few months earlier, King had tried to limit Canadas commitment. But now the country geared up for a full war effort. In June 1940, King ordered a national registration for home defense but maintained his position about no overseas conscription.

But by the end of 1940, two hundred thousand Canadians had volunteered to fight in Europe. The Prime Minister commanded factories to begin twenty-four hour a day, seven-day a week production of war supplies.

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