There was a mood a resignation, not like the patriotic excitement of the First World War. Within a month of recruiting the Canadian Army had risen to a strength of 70,000 men. The government and people remember the excellent fighting record from the First World War. The nations main effort would be a land combat force, with the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force in supporting roles.
The First Division landed in England in December of 1939 under the command of Maj. Gen. A.G.L McNaughton. Shortly after arriving, the men of the first division began intensive training to be ready to serve with the British Expiditiary Force.
In April 1940 the war began when the Germans invaded Poland, followed by a massive offensive against the lower countries of Europe and in May.
Using their mobile warfare called Blitzkrieg, the German forces soon over-ran Holland and Belgium, then sliced through the allied armies to reach the English Channel. For much of the beginning of the war the Canadian's were idle, but were kept in shape by rigorous training exercises to keep them ready for the liberation of Europe.
By the winter of 1940-41 the invasion threat had receded from Britain as Hitler turned his attention towards Russia. The Canadian army began the task that would keep them busy-preparing for the liberation of Europe. This meant a series of training exercises, marches, technical courses and many different types of training to master the art of modern warfare. The training was periodically interrupted by raids into occupied Europe.
In 1941 Canadian troops were sent to the Island of Spitzburgen north of the Arctic Circle, to destroy coal mines and radio stations occupied by the Germans. After these raids were made on the French coastal Village of Hardelot, which is near Boulogne. The largest raid of this type was the abortive attack on Dieppe, on Aug. 19, 1942. The second Canadian division lost 2,211 out of the 4,963 that embarked upon the mission.
In June 1943 the 1st Infantry Division and the 5th Armoured Division were detached from the 1st Canadian Army and were sent to Sicily and Italy, were they stayed until 1945.
Operating between the American Forces of Gen. George S. Patton to the west and north, and Montgomery's 8th division to the east, the First Canadian division fought in a series of small battles against enemy rear guards. Montgomery was very impressed with the performance of Canadians under his command. The cost of that reputation was high, 564 Canadians were lost, and 1,664 were wounded in Sicily before the last German unit retreated to the Italian mainland. This happened on August tenth, one month after the allies landed in Sicily.
In July 1943 the world saw the fall of Mussolinišs government and it seemed that operations on the Italian peninsula may not be necessary. When German troops poured into the country, allied leaders decided to invade. In early September the American army stormed the shores of Salerno and met fierce resistance. The British 8th army and the Canadian 1st division landed unopposed at the toe of the Italian boot. By the end of September the first Canadian division had advanced as far north as Melfi without meeting serious opposition. German resistance increased as the Canadians reached the Sangro River in early October. The Sangro was an outpost of the Gustav line, which was the first of many German defensive lines standing in the way of the Canadians. It took nearly a month and a half for the 8th army and 1st division to clear the Sangro area of its defences. It was now time for the battle of Ortona, which was one of bloodiest Canadian actions of the war.
In early December the division began to prepare for the attack over the Morrow River. This was the first major German position in front of Ortona. During the night on December 6th, Canadian troops attacked across the Morrow, and established bridgeheads near the mouth of the river. A second attack on December 8th saw one force move westward from the Adriatic bridgehead towards San Leaonardo, while a frontal assault was made on the village of San Leonardo. The force attacking from the coast was pinned down by heavy German shelling and counter attacks. The direct attack was successful. Having lost the key to their Morrow defences, the Germans withdrew north towards Ortona and bunkered down in "the Gully" which was a large ravine that ran inland from the Adriatic coast for about 1.5 km. The first division suffered heavy casualties while making several attempts to get across the Gully and capture the Cider crossroads. On Dec. 13 two small patrols found a break in the Gully's defences, and made it to a group of farm buildings. This was followed by more troops. After four days of heavy battling with high casualties the road to Ortona was open.
The small coastal town of Ortona was made up of strong, high, stone houses, huddled around a massive stone castle. The streets were narrow and twisting, with no place for tanks to manoeuvre. Ortona would have to be taken by infantrymen fighting house to house.
The first German parachute division, one of the toughest, most professional units in the German military turned Ortona into a fortress. Some buildings were booby trapped with mines while others were reinforced to become strongpoints. Anti-tank and machine guns were positioned to make movement in the streets impossible. It became impossible to stay alive in the streets and the Canadians began to move from house to house using a technique known as "mouse-holing". Using bombs or anti tank missiles, assault groups would blast a hole from the attic of one house through the adjoining wall to another house. Spraying machine gun fire and tossing grenades the Canadians would go through the whole and clear the house of German soldiers. Entire blocks were cleared like this. The Germans tried to lure the Canadians into houses set up for demolition. 20 soldiers were lost in one of these houses. The Canadian troops continued to fight hard until December 27, when the Germans quietly withdrew. This battle had cost the Canadians a total of 176 officers, and 2,163 men. Of these 1,372 had been killed. The rest were wounded or missing.
The third division and armoured Brigade were chosen as assault troops for the operation in Normandy. Their objective was Juno beach between the two British beaches gold, and sword, and east of the American beaches Utah and Omaha. The plan for the invasion called for the third division to make an amphibious landing and advance as far inland as Carpiquet Airport near the city of Caen. The fleet sailed on the evening of June the fifth, and they came to Juno beach late on June the sixth. The Canadians encountered the toughest German resistance of any of the Commonwealth forces, but by evening they were well off the beach and moving inland. The Canadians were the only allied unit to secure their D-Day objectives. This cost the Canadians 358 men killed and 715 men wounded. The third division had to fight the 12th SS Division, composed of ferocious young soldiers from the Hitler youth movement. "They looked like babies and they died like mad bastards." By late July the Americans were gaining the upper hand in their sector.
Starting as military apprentices in Sicily, the Canadians had become hardened and experienced professionals. The number of those killed, wounded or missing added up to 26,254. Allied commanders recognized the Canadian's worth and employed them as shock troops in numerous battles. The German's also had a high opinion of them, pitting their best troops against the first Canadian Corps. The Italian Campaign was the crucial test of the Canadian Army in the Second World War. Canada had developed into a fierce fighting force.