Canadian war effort surprised all
by David Pitt (feat. J.L. Granatstein)
The Chronicle Herald
November 6, 2016
J.L. Granatstein’s acclaimed biography of Canada’s senior commanders in the Second World War, The Generals (1993), was based on numerous interviews with Canadian veterans and their families. In his new book — call it a spin-off of The Generals — the author goes back to those interviews, showing us, in a sense, the raw material behind the original book.
When Canada entered the Second World War, Granatstein reminds us, the country had virtually no defence budget and no real idea how it would fight a war on a global scale. We were essentially putting an army together on the fly, training people and learning how to train them all at the same time. It was a massive undertaking and over the course of the war the government poured more than $5.5 billion into the war effort.
Rather than try to tell that big, sprawling story, the author tells us several smaller parts of it: a retired major-general talks about his service in Sicily as Commander of the Royal Artillery; another is still bitter about being scapegoated for the failure of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, which he commanded, during the later stages of the Battle of Normandy (other people interviewed for the book suggest he might have been legitimately relieved of his command).
There are more than 60 interviewees: four major generals, a dozen officers who served under them, nearly 30 staff officers and an assortment of family members. Because the author didn’t use a tape recorder during the interviews, the book is rather light on direct quotes from the interviewees; Granatstein is mostly paraphrasing, which occasionally leads to a bit on confusion. Did, for example, an interviewee describe someone as having as much personality as a dead dog, or is that the author’s interpretation? On the other hand, there’s no confusion at all when Granatstein tells us that a former Adjutant General says the Battle of Dieppe was “stupid,” and was entirely the fault of poor planning by Admiral Mountbatten.
Because the Canadian military community during the Second World War, at least at the command level, was tightly knit, many of the interviewees knew and worked with the same people. Commanders like General Andrew McNaughton (who oversaw units in the UK and France) and Major-General Christopher Vokes (who commanded the Canadian forces at the Battle of Ortona — and about whom opinion is rather interestingly divided) — are important elements of the book, although they were never interviewed for it. Similarly, the interviewees’ recollections are sometimes augmented, sometimes contradicted, by the memories of other interviewees. It makes for an interesting patchwork-quilt effect: many small pieces of a story join together to create a larger picture.
Although the book might have been better if we had heard more from the interviewees themselves — the subtitle is Voices of Canada’s Second World War Generals and Those Who Knew Them, but the voice is mostly Granatstein’s — it most definitely succeeds at what it’s trying to do: show us what the Second World War was like for its commanders, as remembered by the people themselves.