Canada and the Two World Wars, 1914-1945

From the trenches of the First World War, to the campaign in Normandy and beyond during the Second World War, more than half a million Canadians saw action in the span of a single generation. Explore their legacies and Canada’s military history.

1914

The British Empire declared war! 30,000 Canadian volunteers congregated at Valcartier to fight for King and country. These men, known as the First Contingent, sailed for England in October. Borden’s government passed the War Measures Act.
Profile

A. Y. Jackson

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Trench Warfare

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The Officer's Role

This short documentary made in 2008 looks at First World War officers.
Profile

Robert Borden

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1915

On the Western Front, the outnumbered Canadian Division prevented a major German breakthrough during the Second Battle of Ypres, losing a third of its forces in the process. The gravity of the war became jarringly apparent as the long lists of casualties appeared in newspapers across Canada.
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Andrew McNaughton

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Francis Pegahmagabow

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William Chambers

William Chambers served in both world wars, and five of his sons also served in the Second World War.
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The 2nd Battle of Ypres

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Faith and Hope

This short documentary made in 2008 reflects on how religion and faith became a solace to many Canadians serving in the First World War.
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The Battle of Festubert

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Front Lines

A tribute to the combatants in the First World War, this film traces the conflict through the war diary and private letters of five Canadian soldiers and a nurse.
Profile

William Thomas Barnard

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Nurses at the Front

This short documentary made in 2008 looks at the role of nurses and health workers during wartime.
Profile

John McCrae

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1916

The calamitous British Somme offensive decimated the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel. The Canadian Corps is ordered to that front to help salvage the situation and achieved a limited victory at Courcelette. Battle-hardened Canadians steeled themselves for what laid ahead.
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The Trenches

This short documentary made in 2008 looks at life in the trenches in the First World War.
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The Battle of St. Eloi

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Jay Batiste Moyer

Jay Batiste Moyer served with the Western Ontario Regiment during the First World War.
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The Battle of Mount Sorrel

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Beaumont-Hamel

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The Battle of Flers-Courcelette

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The Somme Offensive

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1917

War raged on the Western Front and at home. Borden’s government adopted conscription despite the protests of a deeply divided country while the Canadian Corps distinguished itself in a succession of battles at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.
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The Life of a Soldier

This short documentary made in 2008 looks at the grueling life of a soldier in the First World War.
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The Battle of Vimy Ridge

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The Vimy Foundation

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Footage of the Battle of Arras

This third short film on the Battle of Arras shows artillery fire, troop movements and several explosions on the battlefield. German prisoners can also be seen in the trenches, as well as enemy bombs falling on the town of Arras.
Profile

Laura Gamble

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The Battle of Hill 70

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Passchendaele

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1918

The Canadian Corps spearheaded the final victory campaign. Over 96 days, the Corps took in succession Amiens, Cambrai, Valenciennes and Mons, suffering over 45, 000 casualties! On November 11, the bloodiest war in Canadian history ended.
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Airplane Casualties

This short film from 1918 shows various types of footage involving aircraft.
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The Hundred Days Campaign

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Canadians Advance Near Cambrai

This silent short film from 1918 demonstrates the devastating effects of shelling. Firemen, soldiers and civilians fight several fires in a village, brick buildings are reduced to rubble, and a water tank in a factory is totally destroyed.
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Art, Poetry, and Literature

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1919

The Treaty of Versailles is signed in June. Borden travelled to Paris to take part in the peace negotiations, intending that Canada be properly recognized for its sacrifices. He succeeded: Canada became an independent signatory to the Treaty, an unthinkable act at the outbreak of war.
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Demobilization

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Transitioning Back to Civilian Life

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Profile

Dorothy Cotton

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Commemoration after the First World War

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1920

The League of Nations, of which Canada is a founding member, held its first council. Canada’s war leader, Robert Borden, retired from politics and is replaced by Arthur Meighen as Prime Minister. Canadians looked to a new decade with renewed hope.
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Royal Canadian Air Force

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1921

William Lyon Mackenzie King was first elected as Prime Minister. The Canadian Battlefields Commission held a competition to determine the design of Canada’s Vimy Ridge monument, and Toronto sculptor Walter Seymour Allward’s submission is chosen.
Profile

Sam Hughes

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1922

Prime Minister King refused to support the British during the Chanak Affair, the first time that Canada refused a British call for military aid. France granted 250 acres of land on Vimy Ridge to Canada for the construction of a monument.

1923

The Department of National Defence came into being after the merging of the Department of Militia and Defence, the Department of Naval Services and the Air Board. Canada negotiated and signed its first treaty independently of Britain on Prime Minster King’s insistence.
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Peacetime Military

At the end of the Great War Canada boasted a functional, professional army that enjoyed an excellent reputation among the Allied countries. Within years that same army had devolved to a fraction of its size.

1924

The Royal Canadian Air Force, which existed in some form since the First World War, is officially granted a royal title. King’s Cabinet mandated that the Canadian Red Ensign, the precursor to Canada’s national flag, be officially used on government buildings.
Profile

Percy Reginald Hampton

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1925

The Beaumont-Hamel Memorial was officially unveiled by British Field Marshal Earl Haig. Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives won the federal election, but King’s Liberals were able to remain in power with the support of the Progressive Party of Canada.
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The Great War Veteran's Association

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Profile

The (Royal) Canadian Legion

The Royal Canadian Legion originated in several small associations of ex-soldiers that banded together throughout Canada during WWI.

1926

A year of constitutional upheaval in Canada! Prime Minister King won his third election by advocating for the reduced powers of the Governor-General and Canadian war hero Lord Byng of Vimy. The Balfour Report is released, confirming the status of Canada as a fully independent country.
Profile

Julian Byng

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1927

King opened Canada’s first foreign legation in the United States and appointed Vincent Massey as his Minister. Canada obtained a non-permanent seat on the League of Nation’s executive body, the League Council.
Profile

Edwin Alderson

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1928

Delegates to the national convention of the Royal Canadian Legion passed a resolution calling upon the government to organize a pilgrimage to the Western Front battlefields. The landmark Kellog-Briand Pact is signed by Canada.
Profile

Douglas Haig

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Historical Article

History of Veterans Affairs

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1929

Black Tuesday. On October 29, the Stock Market Crash signalled the beginning of the worldwide Great Depression. Eleven days earlier, the Privy Council of England ruled that Canadian women were considered “persons” in response to a petition by the Famous Five.
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The Great Depression

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1930

Richard Bedford Bennett’s Conservatives defeat Mackenzie King, campaigning on a platform that promised a solution to the Great Depression. Once in power, Bennett is confronted with the worst of the economic crisis and is unable to prevent a worsening situation.
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Women in the Interwar Period

Throughout the 1920s and 30s more and more women were entering the work force. During the war they had worked traditionally female jobs, such as secretaries and teachers, sometimes branching out into heavy industry to replace men who had gone to war. 

1931

British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, legally granting Canada full freedom in domestic and international affairs. Banks begin to fail in the United States and Europe. Canada abandoned the gold standard along with most Commonwealth nations.
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Growing Canadian Autonomy

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1932

Bennett sanctioned the creation of nationwide camps under the purview of the Department of National Defence to provide housing, food and work to itinerant Canadian males. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, precursor to the New Democratic Party, is formed in Calgary.
Profile

Charles Bethune Lindsey

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1933

Adolf Hitler is elected Chancellor of Germany. In Canada, the Great Depression reached its worst point; 30% of the labour force was unemployed and 20% of the population relied on government relief to survive.
Profile

Arthur Currie

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1934

Hitler assumed dictatorial powers after President Hindenburg’s death and a mysterious fire in the Reichstag. Bennett’s government founded the Bank of Canada, as the Prime Minister prepared to offer Canadians his “New Deal” the following year.

1935

Hitler began rearming Germany in blatant contradiction to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Mackenzie King became Prime Minister for a third time after defeating Bennett in the federal election. Discontented workers congregated at Vancouver, beginning the “On-to-Ottawa” Trek.
Profile

Ralph B. Gibson

1936

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial was officially unveiled in front of a crowd of Canadian veterans who had made the pilgrimage to France. Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, once again contradicting the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
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Medical Research and New Methods of Treatment

The massive trauma inflicted on the human body by modern artillery and other weapons of war made treatment of shock and the prevention of fatal blood loss obvious priorities for medical researchers.

1937

King attended an important Imperial Conference on defence and foreign policy in London. Afterward, he travelled to Berlin where he met with Hitler to discuss contemporary events in Europe. Assured of Hitler’s good intentions, King believed another war could be avoided.

1938

In March, Hitler annexed Austria despite the protests of world leaders. The Munich Agreement is signed six months later, allowing Germany to annex a portion of Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace in an attempt to appease Hitler. A massive Jewish pogrom is held throughout Germany.
Profile

Lord Beaverbrook

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1939

Hitler invaded Poland on the first day of September, sparking the Second World War. Canada declared war on Germany nine days after the invasion. King invoked the War Measures Act for the second time in Canadian history while Canadian volunteers prepared to head overseas.
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Destroyers

At the end of the Thirties, the smallest, autonomous warships are destroyers, a fast ship that can reach 30 knots, especially designed for anti-torpedo and anti-submarine warfare.
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Cenotaphs

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Corvettes

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Convoys

There are two main reasons for grouping ships in a convoy: first of all, over such a wide area as the Atlantic Ocean, a single group of some forty, tightly packed ships is harder to locate than several, scattered crafts.
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Home Defence

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British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

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1940

The first Canadian soldiers arrived in England. As events on continental Europe worsened, the Royal Canadian Navy helped evacuate fleeing soldiers at Dunkirk while one Royal Canadian Air Force squadron participated in the Battle of Britain. Conscription is passed for homeland defence.
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The Ships

When the war breaks out, Allied navies are facing a formidable foe. Since 1934, Adolph Hitler has been directing considerable energy and countless resources towards rebuilding the German war navy.
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Aircraft, Bombs, and Radars

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The BCATP Training Programme

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The Aircraft Detection Corps

In 1939 it would have been easy for enemy aircraft to reach Canada’s Atlantic or Pacific shores and to enter its air space without being detected. Canada had no radar alert system.
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Fighter Formations

Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons normally had 12 aircraft each; when the squadron attacked, the planes split up into groups of three or four.
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Letter from Aldershot

Part of the Canada Carries On series, this short film portrays the First Division of the Canadian Active Service Force in Aldershot, England.
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Battle Exhaustion

It was recognized early in the war that psychiatric casualties would require treatment as well as soldiers who had been physically wounded. No. 1 Neurological Hospital was established in September 1940 near Basingstoke in Hampshire with 200 beds.
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Fairmile Motor Launch

The Fairmile is one of the smallest warships used by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Her wooden hull measures 34 metres; propelled by two 630hp-gas engines she can reach a speed of 22 knots.
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RCAF Fighter Squadrons Overseas

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Ferrying Aircrafts Overseas

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1941

British Hong Kong is attacked by Japanese forces and two Canadian battalions are forced to surrender on Christmas Day. The Atlantic Charter is issued aboard the USS Augusta off the coast of Newfoundland.
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Call for Volunteers

This short archival film from WWII depicts how the women of Winnipeg opened a volunteer bureau and enlisted 7000 women into the war effort.
Historical Article

The Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division

During the war, women played a significant role with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

1942

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division participated in a botched raid on the French port of Dieppe, suffering nearly 2,000 casualties. Japanese-Canadians are interned and moved inland by the King government.
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RCAF Anti-Submarine Squadrons Overseas

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The Merchant Navy of Canada

Historians have often highlighted the essential and dangerous role played by the officers and sailors of Canada’s Merchant Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic.
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Strategic Bombing

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1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

With tension in the Pacific rapidly growing throughout 1941, and with German U-boats venturing in the St. Lawrence the following year, National Defence Headquarters reviewed its response strategy in case of an enemy attack on Canadian soil.
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Men and Women of the Royal Canadian Navy

In 1939 the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) does not have the strength that the upcoming war demands. Having recalled the Reserve, the RCN then launches a cautious recruiting campaign, to avoid attracting too many inexperienced men.
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RCAF Bomber Squadrons Overseas

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Attack on U-754 by Hudson 625 of 113 (BR) Squadron, July 31st, 1942

Squadron Leader N.E. Small and his crew sunk U-754 at 43°02’ N., 64°52’ W., north of Boston, Eastern Air Command’s first kill.
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Québec, tremplin stratégique

French only. Québec, tremplin stratégique est un court métrage de propagande de 1942, réalisé dans le but d'inciter les Canadiens français à soutenir le service militaire obligatoire en agitant le spectre d’une invasion nazie en Belle Province.
Profile

Squadron Sergeant Major (WO. II) Alexander Howden Tough

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Naval Medicine

Medical practitioners in the Royal Canadian Navy were scattered far and wide during the war, unlike their counterparts in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps who usually worked together in field hospitals or other units in the evacuation chain.

1943

The Canadian Army entered sustained combat for the first time in the war. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division invaded Sicily and mainland Italy. Canadians are forced into tough battles while advancing northward, culminating the year by fighting the Battle of Ortona.
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Anti-Submarine Detection

Between 1939 and 1943, German U-boats have a clear advantage over Allied escort ships. They can close in on convoys without being detected, fire torpedoes and escape without too much difficulty.
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Proudly She Marches

This film from the Second World War is a report on how Canadian women were trained to handle many kinds of work in the Canadian Women's Army Corps, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service.
Profile

Attack on U-604 by Canso of 5 (BR) Squadron, February 24th, 1943

Flight Lieutenant Colborne and his crew were dispatched to reinforce air protection for convoy ON-166, then under heavy attack by a pack of eighteen U-boats.
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Raid to Essen, March 12th, 1943

Excerpts from Bomber Command, Secret Narrative, March 1943, pp. 8-10. Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage, 79/444.
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The Kiska Air Battle

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Profile

Elizabeth Laurie Smellie

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The Army Medical Organization

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German Anti-Aircraft Defences

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Wings on Her Shoulder

This short archival film documents the Woman's Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force of 1943, 9,000 strong, an able corps trained for service at home and overseas.
Profile

Attack on U-420 by Liberator “A” of 10 (BR) Squadron, October 26th, 1943

Flight Lieutenant R.M. Aldwinckle and his crew were joining the escort for convoy ON-207 when they sighted U-420.
Historical Article

Frigates

The corvette’s flaws became obvious with the first trials at sea. To correct those problems, naval engineer William Reed designed a larger ship, the River class frigate.

1944

D-Day, June 6. A massive Allied armada assembled on the English Channel. Canadian forces invaded Juno Beach and participated in the Normandy campaign. King passed conscription despite the same divisions that materialized during the First World War.
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Treating Air Force Burn Victims

The nature of air force casualties was quite different from those in the army or navy. Many pilots and bomber crew casualties suffered debilitating injuries and disfigurement when their planes were shot down or otherwise crashed.
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Attack on U-672 by Sunderland “A”, 423 Squadron

Sunderland “A” of 423 Squadron attacked U-672 while on patrol in the North Atlantic.
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Minesweepers

Since WWI, Germany’s warships and submarines had enough autonomy to lay mines along both the American and European Atlantic shores.
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Landing Crafts

The different landing operations, in Dieppe, in Sicily and in Normandy, required that new types of ships be built, especially designed for carrying troops and material in preparation for an amphibious assault.
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D-Day

Monday, June 5th, 1944: near Southampton, England, the men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade had already boarded the ships.
Profile

Major John Archibald MacNaughton

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The Normandy Campaign

The day following the Normandy landing, the 9th Infantry Brigade led the march towards Carpiquet where an airfield had been designated as the objective.
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Canadian Flag in Normandy

The maple leaf was used as a badge to identify Canadian units and their equipment, weapons and vehicles, as well as their aircraft and ships, which were the same as those used by the British
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F/L F.H.C. Reinke’s Diary, July 19th, 1944

The first covered the 1000-plane raid on Caen, opening the way for the new offensive, and the second involved a synthetic oil plant at Wesselring, Germany, at the southern end of the Ruhr Valley – known sardonically among bomber crews as “Happy Valley”.
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QOR Boys Hitch-Hike to Juno Beach

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Motor Torpedo Boat

The MTB is a small, fast attack ship, designed to operate in shallow waters. The G Type is 21.6 m-long and can reach 41 knots. The D Type has a length of 33.5 m and a maximum speed of 30 knots.
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The Battle of Scheldt

The Liberation of Coastal Ports, August 22nd – October 1st, 1944. In order to progress eastwards through Europe, the Allies had to ensure a safe supply route.
Profile

Chief Joe Dreaver

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F/L F.H.C. Reinke’s Diary

Just for a change, here we are over in north-west Ireland, on Lough Ewe, about 20 miles from the west coast.
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Welcome Soldier

This archival film outlines the various government plans created to help World War II Canadian veterans return to civilian life.

1945

The First Canadian Army liberated the Netherlands while American and Russian forces drove toward Berlin. On May 8, Germany capitulated; Japan followed suit on September 2. Victory came at a cost: over 47,000 Canadians were killed in Europe and Asia.
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Current Remembrances

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Commemoration after the Second World War

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Back to Jobs

This short documentary depicts the return of Canadian WWII veterans to civilian life, including those who, because of war injuries or lack of training, require special treatment or courses before taking on jobs.
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The Road to Civvy Street

A look at the various programs and services available through the Canadian government to help World War II veterans re-establish themselves in civilian life.

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