This is the tenth post in a series marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War as part of a partnership between Active History and the Juno Beach Centre.
By R. Daniel Pellerin
In October 1944, while Canadian forces in Northwest Europe were in the midst of bitter fighting to wrest the approaches to the vital port of Antwerp from German hands, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government was embroiled in an intense debate over whether to reinforce combat units with conscripts.
Reports showed that though the Canadian Army had tens of thousands of volunteers who were not serving in an operational theatre, very few of them were trained as infantry. This was a serious problem. The infantry, the arm responsible for closing with the enemy in battle and capturing and holding ground while operating mostly on foot and vulnerable to enemy fire, suffered the highest casualties. By the autumn of 1944, the army risked depleting its ranks of infantry reinforcements by the end of the year.
One of the key factors that contributed to the situation was the Canadian Army’s use of casualty projections that proved to be inaccurate. The army had trained too few men as infantry soldiers, and too many in other military roles.
The “Conscription Crisis” of 1944 was a complicated affair in Canadian military history. It involved not just political dynamics but also civil-military relations, strategic planning, and the wider context of the war. Remembering how the conscription debate during the First World War had badly divided the country, King had long wanted to avoid sending men overseas whose enlistment had been compulsory under the 1940 National Resources Mobilization Act. So far, conscripts (“NRMA men,” or pejoratively, “Zombies”) had been obligated to serve in Canada only. But in the wake of the Normandy campaign, the army’s senior leadership reported that there was a severe shortage of infantry volunteers.
The debate within the government reached its climax at a cabinet meeting on 1 November, when King dismissed his long-serving defence minister, J.L. Ralston, who had been the leading proponent within the government of sending conscripts overseas. In his place, he appointed recently retired General A.G.L. McNaughton, who opposed conscription. McNaughton assured the prime minister that he could find ways to motivate more NRMA men to opt for General Service (GS), which meant volunteering for active duty in any theatre for the duration of the war. But after three weeks, the drive to convert NRMA men to GS generated just a few hundred volunteers. Seeing no other way to solve the reinforcement problem, the government authorized sending 16,000 conscripts overseas beginning in December.
Canada had spent the first half of the war building the largest field force in its history. At its peak, in the spring of 1945, First Canadian Army would comprise two corps totaling five divisions, two independent armoured brigades, and supporting units. Since late 1941, generals had assured the government that a force of this size could be sustained with trained reinforcements without sending conscripts overseas. Canadian military planners in London and Ottawa required an idea of how many casualties to expect once Canadian fighting formations were committed to battle. Devising reliable estimates of “wastage”—the term used at the time—involved analyzing data on actual casualties that field forces suffered, and estimates had to be continuously updated to account for developments in tactics and battle conditions.
Fighting experience was the one thing that the Canadian Army (Overseas) lacked until the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Needing something on which to base reinforcement plans, Canadian headquarters in London and Ottawa looked to the British War Office. British forces were engaged in sustained fighting against Axis forces in North Africa from the late summer of 1940 to the spring of 1943. In the process, the British developed sophisticated tables that showed the expected monthly wastage for each of the army’s component arms (e.g., infantry, artillery, engineers) refined by categories “normal,” “quiet,” and “intense” combat. The tables were intended to be applicable to any theatre of operation and assumed that British forces were fighting against a first-rate enemy of equal strength. Planners even feared such grievous losses in Normandy that they created a special “double intense” rate, which, thankfully, proved to overestimate the actual casualties. Canada’s policy for most of the war was to adopt the British wastage rates and to maintain a reinforcement pool large enough to replace three months’ worth of casualties at the “intense” rates. Accordingly, until late August 1943 the Canadian Army trained about 35 percent of enlistments as infantrymen, a figure that gradually crept up to 40 percent by January 1944.
Canadian casualties in the Mediterranean were mercifully light until the Battle of Ortona began in December 1943. Concern soon mounted among Canadian planners that using British wastage rates based on the earlier North Africa campaign had led to depleted ranks of infantry reinforcements and surpluses of reinforcements in other arms. As of 13 March 1944, the infantry reinforcement pool was short nine officers and 9,000 other ranks. Projections showed that by 1 May, arrivals of new reinforcements would still leave a deficiency of 5,063 men. Yet, as of 29 February, there was a glut of 1,334 armoured reinforcements, 2,878 artillerymen, 2,453 engineers, and 3,732 miscellaneous troops.
Differences between the two theatres help to explain why casualties were spread more evenly across arms in North Africa but so high among the infantry in Italy. Until late 1942, the British most often found themselves fighting in defensive actions in North Africa. The German forces in occupied Europe, however, were not only far larger than the Axis forces in North Africa at their peak, they could also easily be reinforced and resupplied directly from Germany and using Europe’s well-developed road and rail networks. Allied forces in Italy were waging a relentlessly offensive campaign against a firmly established enemy on grounds that decidedly favoured the defenders. However, by the spring of 1944 the War Office had not revised its wastage tables to reflect the casualties suffered in Italy because the British force committed there had been engaged for a shorter period of time and was smaller than the one that had fought in North Africa. The British stance was that the fighting in Italy had not yet yielded sufficient data to warrant revising the wastage tables.
With the invasion of Northwest Europe looming, it appeared that there might not be enough infantry reinforcements for both Canadian corps to operate effectively. On 28 March, Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ) in London duly ordered that 1,000 artillery, 500 engineer, and 500 armoured troops be sent to the infantry reinforcement units for training as infantrymen. Meanwhile in Canada, in an attempt to generate more infantry reinforcements, the government launched a vigorous campaign to persuade more NRMA men to convert to GS. Direct appeals by commanding officers, regimental chaplains, and even Victoria Cross recipients were unsuccessful in stimulating much interest in “going GS.” At the end of January 1944, the army began training over 50 percent of all new voluntary enlistments as infantrymen, though these men would not be available to serve in an operational theatre for at least nine months.
A month into the Normandy campaign, the Canadian reinforcement system encountered the same problem that had occurred in Italy: there was a bountiful surplus of reinforcements in certain arms, but a dwindling pool of infantry reinforcements. Planners had predicted a loss of 132 infantry officers and 2,150 other ranks by 10 July, or 63 percent of total casualties. Actual losses in Normandy during that period, however, were 220 infantry officers and 3,885 other ranks—78.6 percent of total casualties. Meanwhile, casualties from other arms were significantly lighter than anticipated: in the artillery, other ranks suffered casualties at only 34 percent of their predicted levels; in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (RCASC), the army’s transport and supply arm, losses of other ranks were at only 20 percent of predicted levels. To address the problem, on 5 August CMHQ ordered the Canadian reinforcement establishment in the United Kingdom to begin retraining thousands of artillery and RCASC troops to infantry. Hopefully, after six weeks of conversion training there would be 2,000 to 3,000 new infantry reinforcements available for Canadian forces in Normandy and Italy.
This measure did little to relieve the pressure on the reinforcement system as the Canadians in both theatres endured almost nonstop fighting throughout the summer and into the autumn. The fighting in Northwest Europe saw the Canadians in combat conditions befitting the “intense” wastage rates nearly continuously, whereas planners had assumed that these intense periods would be interrupted by “normal” periods that would allow units time to rebuild.
The reinforcement problem reached a critical point in October. Lieutenant-General Ken Stuart, the chief of staff at CMHQ, informed Ralston that, using new wastage rates based on Canadian battle experience, and even allowing for scheduled reinforcement drafts arriving from Canada and wounded men returning to the field after convalescence, by the end of the year there would be a surplus of 13,435 reinforcements overall, but a deficit of 2,038 infantry reinforcements. Stuart estimated that the Canadian Army (Overseas) needed to find about 15,000 trained infantrymen before the end of the year to be able to send 4,300 infantrymen each month starting in January.
Canada actually had tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers at its disposal: as of the end of September, there were over 88,000 GS men in the United Kingdom and 135,000 in Canada. However, the problem was that only a fraction of these were trained infantrymen. Volunteers generally could choose the arm in which they would serve, and many NRMA men had already volunteered for GS specifically to avoid having to serve in the infantry. The only sources that could supply the 15,000 trained infantrymen that Stuart required were the coastal defence divisions made up largely of NRMA men.
It is important to underscore that the worry in the autumn of 1944 was not that Canadian infantry battalions in action in Europe were dangerously below strength, but that the reinforcement system was running low on trained infantrymen. If the supply of trained infantrymen were completely exhausted, Canadian divisions could not be replenished during operations in the new year. But at no point before or after the crisis were Canadian divisions in either theatre ever so depleted that they had to be completely withdrawn from operations. An investigation in the winter of 1945 revealed that the worst of the reinforcement crisis had already passed. Gross casualty figures only exceeded the most severe estimates from August through October in Northwest Europe and never in Italy. Reinforcement pools in both theatres held enough men to meet the demands of operations in 1945.
However, despite the trouble that the issue had caused for King’s government, the decision to send 16,000 NRMA men overseas was not the reason that Canadian divisions were kept nearly up to strength during the final four months of the war in Europe. Of the 16,000 NRMA men authorized to be sent overseas, 12,908 actually were sent, and of these only 2,463 actually made it to front-line units. Rather, the reinforcement system was able to recover after the Battle of the Scheldt ended because First Canadian Army was assigned a less intense role in the Nijmegen region for three months, during which it conducted no large-scale operations. Similarly, in February, I Canadian Corps was transferred from Italy to Northwest Europe, a process that kept it out of combat operations for about six weeks.
As it had no way of knowing what the new year had in store, the government arguably acted correctly in sending conscripts overseas. Had the Canadians been engaged in more intense activity during the winter, the reinforcement system might have exhausted its supply of trained infantrymen in early 1945. Canada’s front-line infantry battalions would have then been under-strength while enduring the final months of the war. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The men in uniform were incensed that their prime minister had not sent NRMA men overseas sooner. For his part, Mackenzie King was equally incensed that the army’s senior leadership, after having aspired to raise such a large expeditionary force, had seriously underestimated how many infantrymen to train to maintain it. The course that the government took during Conscription Crisis of 1944 saved First Canadian Army from potential disaster, but nearly brought down the most successful political figure in Canadian history.
Daniel Pellerin completed his PhD in history in 2016 at the University of Ottawa, where his research focused on Canadian infantry training during the Second World War. He currently works as an analyst at the Department of National Defence. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the Government of Canada.