Peter Suggests We Never Forget

Lest we forget, they were predominantly children of the depression. They had been exposed to hunger and insecurity and diminished opportunities. They all knew someone who had served in “The Big One”, as World War I was known. They could see the visible scars of the veterans, the empty sleeve pinned to the shirt, the public drunkenness. Sometimes they could even encounter the hidden scars, the “shell shock” as it was dismissively called by people who had never seen combat, but felt entitled to judge those who had.

The young people heard about power hungry men across the seas who used the poverty and insecurity and diminished opportunities to fan the flames of hate in their countries, to use racial and cultural and religious DIFFERENCES to divert the energy and attention of their populations to forge forces of conflict and subjugation.

The young people read of these bullies using these dark forces to pursue their perverse ends by bluster and intimidation. When the leaders of the rest of the world could only respond with impotent speeches and pointed concessions, the aggressor nations were emboldened to overt armed action. 

You see, Loyal Reader, Germany, Italy and Japan had come together to form the “Axis” alliance, in an attempt to reshape the world in their own dictatorial image.

All three countries had engaged in  warfare during the 1930s, gaining combat experience, adapting weapons systems and developing tactics to make their hordes of warriors ever more effective when they were finally unleashed on the rest of the world. As an example, although Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese forces had already been engaged in combat in China since 1931, and they used the knowledge thus “acquired” to run amok in the Pacific and Indian Oceans for the first 6 months of the war, until the tide began to turn at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Likewise, Italy had Germany had both sent air and land based units to participate in the Spanish Civil War.

By contrast, the democracies had devoted the lion’s share of their efforts and energies over the same period to rebuilding society as they struggled to recover from the Great Depression.

All branches of their various armed forces had been drastically pruned, as those governments chose “butter” rather than “guns”, paying little attention to Goering’s famous quote.

To give you a few examples of this parsimony, many American troops briefly used wooden weapons and trucks which had signs declaring them to be “tanks” during training exercises pre-war. The Royal Air Force had been reduced to a shadow of its former self, and in fact biplanes which had little better performance than their ancestors in the skies of World War I saw active service with the R.A.F. into the middle of the war. When you note that the first production Spitfire was not delivered until August, 1938, a mere 13 months before the war began in Europe, then you can see just how narrow the margin of victory was.

The point that I am trying to make is that the democracies did not want to go to war, nor were they ready to go to war. However, after Germany had invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, Britain and France reacted with a declaration of war, and much of the rest of the world rallied to the cause, fighting back against Fascism. This week I will mainly focus on  the efforts of the western Allies, such as Canada and Britain, as an aside.

Germany expanded its territory by conquest and its hold on the people by terror and soon most of continental Europe was under the Swastika. After an abortive attempt to defeat the R.A.F., Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally, Russia.

German tanks nearly reached Moscow at the high water point of the Russian campaign. In the Desert, Rommel and his Afrika Korps threatened Cairo, while Japanese forces controlled large areas of the Pacific Ocean. In the Atlantic Ocean, German submarines were waging an unrestricted war on Allied shipping, a vital source of supply not only for the people of England, but for the armed forces which were essential in order to invade Europe and push the Axis powers back, defeating Fascism and terror.

As someone who has studied World War II history for decades, I can tell you that there were a number of times during that war when defeat was imminent for the Allies. All of the events mentioned in the preceding paragraph occurred during roughly the same protracted period. Yet the Axis powers did not conquer. By dint of concerted effort by a number of Allied nations, the tide of totalitarian conquest was first slowed down, then reversed.

The tangible reasons for the eventual victory of the Allies are not well known to the casual observer. However, the fact is that Hitler’s invasion of was incredibly costly to his forces. Well over 60 percent of all German casualties were inflicted on the Eastern Front, in fighting which was particularly brutal.

As well, after the Allies had invaded Italy, the Germans found themselves fighting a battle of attrition on 3 separate fronts.

The United States truly did become “the Arsenal of Democracy”, shipping tanks and aircraft and ships to collection points and theatres of operation around the world. As an example, the most produced American warplane of World War II was the B-24 “Liberator”. Over 18,000 were built and served in every theatre. Ford, the car maker, built roughly one an hour. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy brought 8 aircraft carriers into service during the Pacific War. The Americans alone commissioned 128 over the same period. 

Even Canada, which had a minuscule aircraft industry in 1939, produced nearly 2000 frontline combat aircraft during the War, basically starting from scratch. In less than 2 years, over 400 Lancasters were built at Malton, Ontario, and delivered to England for service with Bomber Command. 

Impressive as these figures are, they obscure the even more impressive human achievements which they represent.

I mentioned earlier how the democracies did not want to go to war. Once they saw that War was inevitable, however, they rose to the challenge. There was no shortage of volunteers for each of the armed services. They endured rigorous testing and training and willingly accepted the discipline of the armed forces, as they knew that there was a job to be done, a foe to be defeated.

Taking the Air Force enlistees as an example, after completing their paperwork, they would be transported to a “Manning Depot”, where they would be taught about military life and all its glories. Once they had learned how to march and who to salute, they would be sent to receive more specific training. Of course they all wanted to fly Spitfires. So of course they all couldn’t fly Spitfires. They learned that every cheerful young pilot standing by his trusty Spitfire was only able to do so because scores of others did their own, less glamorous jobs efficiently. Less glamorous, maybe, but certainly as important. 

Now at that stage of training, many men volunteered for aircrew duty, and were given a white flash to wear on their cap to recognize this status and differentiate them from those who would serve with feet firmly on the ground. And so it came to pass that the rumour was spread in the neighbouring dance halls that this flash actually identified the wearer as one who had been diagnosed with V.D..

These soldiers and seamen and airmen were all trained in a short time to face the challenge of their young lives. This training could be dangerous, but it was very good. I still think of my Dad getting down on the living room floor and showing my brother and I how to cock a PIAT gun, a spring loaded anti tank weapon.

The majority of the enlistees and all of the combat troops were male. They served wherever they were sent and coped with whatever arose as best they could. From the wintry weather of the Russian convoys to the damp heat of the Indian sub continent to the dry heat and driving sandstorms of the Western Desert to the marshes of Holland to the cold, cramped cockpit of a Photo Reconnaissance mission high over Germany, from these places and so many more Canadian troops served as part of the Allied forces.

Women did serve in the armed forces, ostensibly behind the combat area, although those who were assigned to work at an airfield which later came under attack from enemy aircraft might disagree. They fulfilled a number of roles, including aircraft maintenance, radar plotting, ferry operations and work in intelligence agencies. They laid the groundwork for those who came after them and allowed women to take their rightful place in the defense of the nation.

On the “homefront”, women gladly accepted their role in keeping the nation going forward, as they took responsibility for operating the machinery of the economy. 

Those 400 plus Lancasters built during the War in Canada were built by a workforce which, in the main, was trained from scratch and was also largely female. This is only one example of the hard work and dedication and competence which women displayed, once they were given the opportunity to show their potential.

And you know, Loyal Reader, that is what I remember this Remembrance Day. It was a communal effort, people on the homefront learning new skills and applying them to manufacture the equipment required to win the war, to stop Evil from spreading, to enable the common cause.

As for those who served, they went wherever they were sent, did what they had to do to accomplish their mission. After the war, they rarely talked about what they had done. They had done their duty, and that was all.

So this Remembrance Day, I think of the airmen and the Merchant Marine crews and the antiaircraft crews and the flight instructors who never saw combat, but still faced danger. I am grateful that they saw their duty and did it.

Finishing off this week with a photo of my Mum’s cousin Norms Halifax bomber. This particular aircraft carried him safely through over 20 operations, before being passed to 426 Squadron. Shortly after the war, it was scrapped. Norm stayed in contact with his crew for years.

See you soon 

=PJM=

A confirmed Cat person, Peter dabbled with being a water boy, a paper boy and an altar boy before finally settling on a career with the Canadian federal government.  Once, in his youth, he ate a Dutch  oven full of mashed potatoes to win a 5 cent bet with his beloved sister Mary’s boyfriend. (Of course he was much younger and a nickel went a lot farther!))

He has retired to palatial “Chez Montreuil”, which he shares with his little buddy CoCo the Fashionable. He is blessed to have the beautiful Betty in his life. He is not only a plastic aircraft modeller, but a proud “rivet counter”. Military aviation and live music are among other interests of his, and he tries to get out to as many shows as he can. He will be here for your enlightenment whenever the stars align. Profile photo courtesy of Pat Blythe, caricature courtesy of Peter Mossman.

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