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World War II and Saskatchewan

George Baker displays The Leader-Post headline declaring “Victory,” May 7, 1945.
Everett Baker (Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society)

When Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, the country was militarily unprepared; so too was Saskatchewan, although an attitude of grim determination left over from the Depression made up for lack of planning. Military spending had been trimmed to the bone during the hard years. When Nazi Germany over-ran Czechoslovakia in 1938, military appropriations doubled to $60 million, but Canada’s standing army only consisted of 4,500 men at the onset of war. In Saskatchewan, militia units trained dutifully, although they lacked sufficient armaments and transport. Within a few weeks of the declaration of war two regiments, the Saskatoon Light Infantry and the South Saskatchewan Regiment, were mobilized. And in June 1940, another regiment, the Regina Rifles, mustered men from North Battleford, Prince Albert and Regina. The Saskatoon Light Infantry embarked for Europe in December 1939 with Canada’s First Division. General A.G.L. McNaughton, a native of Moosomin, led the Division, which also included the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, a brigade laced with Saskatchewan recruits; indeed, volunteers from Saskatchewan could be found in many different units. The South Saskatchewan Regiment embarked in December 1940; the Regina Rifles followed on August 24, 1941.

However, most of the 70,000 military personnel from Saskatchewan joined other services. Uncounted thousands joined the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Merchant Marine. Prairie boys, said to be adverse to the infantry because of grisly stories of gas and trenches told by World War I veterans, made excellent sailors: although not held by military discipline, the men of the Merchant Marine maintained Britain’s lifeline throughout the prolonged Battle of the Atlantic. Targets of Germany’s submarines, the merchant sailors suffered higher casualties than their Navy escorts. Saskatchewan also contributed many airmen to the war effort, and took part in training Allied air crews. Canada did not have its own air service until 1936; yet on December 17, 1939, the Canadian government signed the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. At first the Training Plan relied on private flying clubs and their facilities; but training centres grew overnight, taking advantage of the wide open spaces around Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Weyburn, Davidson, Yorkton, Caron, Wilcox, Mossbank, and Dafoe. In 1940 the British organized a training scheme of their own and built aerodromes in Assiniboia, Estevan, Swift Current, North Battleford, and Moose Jaw over the following two years. Both training campaigns provided air crews for a prolonged air war in Europe. Allied forces ultimately dominated the skies thanks to their superiority in numbers of experienced personnel. Approximately 130,000 air crew trained on the prairies, more than 55% of them Canadians.

Air bases revitalized communities still mired in the Great Depression. Prices had dropped until wheat hit 70¢ per bushel in 1939. Farmers responded by raising more pork and beef, but they also began to demand programs for long-term security. Two trains chartered by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool carried 400 farmers on a successful “March on Ottawa” in February 1942. In March the Liberal government in Ottawa raised the price of wheat to 90¢, and in December 1943 drew up a program of floor prices aimed at meeting farmers’ demands. Soon thereafter, the provincial Liberal government introduced similar social security measures in health care and education; but the new thirst for public programs was not easily quenched. Concerned with another sort of security, in June 1940 the provincial government instituted the Saskatchewan Veterans Civil Security Corps by Order-in-Council. The Corps grew to 7,500 men, mostly Legion members. They drilled against the eventuality of a German invasion, encouraged younger men to enlist, and guarded against subversion. Corps “intelligence officers” tried sacking ethnic German workers from jobs to make way for veterans; during the Conscription Plebiscite of April 1942, the Corps, under RCMP direction, also harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses, Duokhobors, Mennonites, and other ethnic minorities.

Farmers experiencing labour shortages turned to mechanization, even though wartime measures made materials scarce. Northern Saskatchewan contributed metals needed for war—including the uranium used in the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Meanwhile, the Canadian infantry suffered a long period of idleness, broken only by intensive training. A “lucky” few from Saskatchewan joined the 2,000 Canadians dispatched to save Hong Kong in November 1941; after three weeks of bitter combat, the survivors spent an arduous three years in Japanese POW camps. In Europe, Canadian infantry contributed to the defense of Britain, but their first fight came with the raid on Dieppe in August 1942. Unlike most of the 6,000 Allied infantry (including 5,000 Canadians) who were trapped on the beaches, the South Saskatchewan Regiment almost reached its objectives. Their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Cecil Merritt, became the first World War II Victoria Cross recipient for valour during the evacuation from Dieppe’s beaches. Captured with 1,900 other Canadians, he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.

The Princess Patricia and the Saskatoon Light Infantry joined the Allied landing in Sicily in July 1943, and the invasion of Italy three months later. The 5,900 graves that stretch northward along the Italian peninsula tell the story of tenacious fighting against crack German units. These troops still held the top of the Italian “boot” when most Canadian units were transferred to the northern European front in February 1945. The South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Regina Rifles landed on Normandy’s Juno beach on D-day, June 6, 1944. After putting up fierce resistance for two months in Normandy, German forces fell back to defensive positions on their own frontier and in the Low Countries. The Canadians were assigned the job of clearing ports on the English Channel. In doing so, they encountered tenacious German counter-attacks, particularly around the Belgian port of Antwerp. Liberating Antwerp shortened the Allies supply lines; they were almost immediately able to throw themselves against the imposing Sigfried Line and to reach the German industrial heartland along the Rhine. Once the Rhine was reached, the Canadians turned to liberate Holland. At war’s end, the toll of the Saskatchewan dead read 3,880.

Scott Broad

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Further Reading

Archer, J. 1980. Saskatchewan: A History. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books.

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University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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