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Hard truths of D-Day: Canada along for the fight

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At 4:30 A.M. on June 6, 1944, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was awakened by a loud knock at the door of his bedroom. The RCMP officer on duty had an important message for him from Norman Robertson, the undersecretary of external affairs, who was on the telephone: "Mr. King, the invasion has begun."

 

That was how Canada's wartime leader found out about D-Day, 70 years ago.

Remarkably, King was not especially upset he had not been amply briefed ahead of time about the actual date and time of the attack. Gen. Harry Crerar, head of the First Canadian Army, whose brave soldiers participated in the assault on Normandy in northern France, certainly worked closely with American and British commanders.

Mackenzie King, on the other hand, mostly preferred to be kept out of the loop. Weeks earlier, Winston Churchill had told him because of poor weather, D-Day was almost certainly to be postponed until the end of June. The British prime minister had promised King he would "get special word" to him a day or two in advance of the invasion. King was not angry when Churchill had not done that, only that he had not adequately prepared his public comments. His assistants immediately got to work on a short speech.

Arrangements were made for King to make a brief radio broadcast that the invasion "marked the climax of the war," as he put it in his diary entry for June 6. He did that at the CBC studio at the Chateau Laurier Hotel just before 8 a.m., asking Canadians to be patient and cautioning the country the fighting will be "heavy, bitter and costly."

Seven decades later, it is hard to fathom how a Canadian prime minister could have been so untroubled that he had to learn after the fact about this critical battle of the Second World War, one in which Canadian troops were key participants.

But that's the way Mackenzie King wanted it. During the 1920s, King had fought for Canadian autonomy within the British Empire and opposed any uniform and British-directed imperialist policy. Nonetheless, in 1939, there was never any doubt Canada was at war with Germany almost as soon as Britain was -- just as it had been in 1914, when the First World War started.

Throughout the conflict, King's main preoccupation was preserving Canadian unity, as well as coming to Britain's aid and defeating Nazi Germany. Yet, he had seen how conscription, which French-Canadians had generally opposed, had torn the country apart during the First World War and was absolutely determined to avoid such a bitter division.

He therefore vetoed Churchill's idea of an Imperial war cabinet and put off travelling to London, insisting that his "place, until the end of the war is over, is on this continent." Such an attitude made no sense to Canadian diplomats or generals. From their perspective, they wondered why their diffident leader would send young Canadians into battle and then purposely choose to opt out of a decision-making role over British war policy.

Later, Gen. Maurice Pope, the chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff Mission to Washington during the latter part of the war, bemoaned the fact that as a consequence of King's approach, Canada was an ally that "remained in the second rank."

King was content with that role and position -- and was happy to host the first Quebec Conference in August 1943, leaving the intricate planning of D-Day to Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt -- since he believed the more responsibility he had for overseeing the war, the even greater Canada's manpower burden would be, making conscription necessary.

"Let it be said that no one would have handed King the reins of strategic control," military historian Tim Cook observes, "but Canada had earned a right to be consulted and to be part of the discussion. King abdicated without a fight."

None of these political considerations, of course, made a difference to the 14,000 Canadians who fought in D-Day, and the many who died or were wounded that day and in the months ahead.

King was known to be preachy, but in his final words in his radio broadcast of June 6, he did strike the right chord.

"Let the hearts of all in Canada today be filled with silent prayer for the success of our own and Allied forces," he said, "and for the early liberation of the people of Europe."

 

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2014 A13

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