hawkeye (hawkeye7) wrote,

Book Review: Failure in Command: The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign

While reading Raising Churchill's Army, I came across references to this interesting book by John A. English, which examines the Canadian Army's disappointing performance in the Normandy Campaign.

Although at first glance it might seem a book about the campaign in Normandy, this actually occupies only the last third. The first third is about the development of doctrine in the British and Canadian Armies before the war. The second is about the Canadian Army's preparation for battle.

I thought I might contrast the Australian and Canadian experiences. The two armies had similar experiences in the Great War, with both fielding corps on the Western Front that earned formidable reputations, most notably when they fought side by side at the battle of Amiens in August 1918. Reviewing the efforts of his corps, Lieutenant General John Monash noted that while it comprised only 9½% of the British Expeditionary Force (including the Canadian Corps) on the Western Front in March - October 1918, it 23% of the prisoners, 23½% of the guns and 21½% of the territory captured. He calculated that an Australian division was, on this basis, between 2.24 and 2.47 times as effective as the BEF average.1

Since Canada and Australia had only limited capacity to develop their own weapons, both were dependent of the British for weapons and therefore for doctrine, the two being inextricably linked. Of course, even if that were not so, there were sound logistical reasons for sharing common equipment with the British and sound operational ones for sharing common procedures with the army that they were most likely to be fighting alongside.

It was unfortunate, therefore, that British doctrine between the wars went off on a somewhat eccentric course. In the matter of equipment, the British Army lagged behind. The infantry were equipped with the old Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle, rather than a semi-automatic like their American counterparts and the Bren automatic rifle, rather than the the GPMGs of their German opponents. Their 2 inch and 3 inch mortars were outmatched by the German 81mmm mortars. Tank design and doctrine were both faulty and the British did not develop a truly first class tank until the Centurion appeared after he war. However, the British Army had fine artillery pieces in the 25 pounder and 5.5 inch howitzer. It therefore came to rely on them for its firepower.

Lieutenant General Andrew G. L. McNaughton, March 1942
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-132648

After the Great War, the Canadian Army, starved of funds, shrivelled. Its Chief of Staff from 1929 to 1935 was Major General A. G. L. MacNaughton, an artillery officer with a distinguished record in the Great War. MacNaughton apparently favoured officers of the artillery, engineers and signal corps over those of the infantry or cavalry. However, it is not entirely clear that this was a problem. There is no evidence that these officers would have made better division commanders. In Australia, there were no regular infantry or cavalry officers at all! MacNaughton is accused of playing the political general between the wars but that is the major part of the job of the chief of staff, particularly in peacetime. His recall from retirement to lead the Canadian 1st Division in 1939 does not seem to have surprised anyone.

The Australian Army shrank in size dramatically after conscription was abolished in 1929 and was starved of funds by conservative governments wedded to the "Singapore Strategy". However, a recruiting drive by Major General Sir T. A. Blamey in 1938 drove the Army's strength up to the 70,000 mark. Blamey was subsequently chosen to command the new 6th Division but, like MacNaughton, was elevated to corps command before it went into battle.

For the Australians, the "start line" of the war was at Bardia in January 1941. While the Canadians trained in the UK, the 6th Division was largely trained in the Middle East. Its equipment was British although some of it was of Great War vintage. Its doctrine was the same, except for the notable Australian emphasis on individual initiative, aggressive small unit tactics and "dominating No Man's Land". It was fortunate that Bardia was a set-piece battle and therefore its commander, Major General I. G. Mackay, could rely on familiar Great War tactics. Yet at Tobruk in April 1941, the inexperienced 9th Division, superbly led by the Major General L. J. Morshead, beat Rommel's Afrika Korps with aggressive small unit tactics and use of firepower.

MacNaughton presided over an expansion of his force in the UK from one division to five. It is not clear what criteria he used in selecting his subordinate commanders. On the one hand, he elevated Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds, an officer too young to have served in the Great War. Simonds is generally regarded as the most capable of Canada's Second World War generals. On the other, it seems that he allow some officers to remain in command when they should not have. Moreover, the Canadian army's training in the UK seems to have been neither well-organized nor thorough enough. In any case, MacNaughton was relieved due to ill-health and replaced by the Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar in March 1944.

In Australia, Simonds would probably have been commanding a brigade. The initial appointments to division command were senior officers but by early 1942, they were all elevated to senior posts and brigadiers promoted to replace them. In turn, the brigades were led by men who had proven themselves as battalion commanders. The 9th Division played a pivotal role in the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 while most of the Australian Army returned to Australia. After shocks in Malaya and the campaign in Papua in 1942, during which a number of officers were relieved, some fairly, some not, the Australian Army overcame problems with training and equipment and adapted to the new situation. In September 1943 it launched a devastating offensive against the Japanese in New Guinea.

The disasters at Hong Kong and Dieppe aside, Canadian Army's first campaign was in Sicily in July 1943. From then it had several months before Normandy and some commanders, such as Simonds, gained from this. The result in Normandy, it seems, was mixed. Some units performed poorly and some well. Some commanders performed well; some started poorly and got better as they learned on the job; some had to be relieved.

All in all, the Canadian Army did not live up to its Great War reputation in the Second World War and when the two armies next met in Korea, the Australians were distinctly unimpressed.

This is a very thought provoking book. But it still begs a lot of very important questions. If the Canadian Army did not perform as well as the Australian Army in the Second World War, what factors were responsible? Equipment was the same; doctrine was similar. The finger, ultimately, has come to be pointed at leadership. Yet the factors that produced this situation are not so clear. It seems to me that the fundamental problem was one of organisational culture.


1. Monash, J., The Australian Victories in France, (IWM, London: 1920), p. 286

Tags: books

  • Riding to work

    Bike path is busier than Burke Street these days.

  • Freezing

    Coldest winter in 14 years. Subzero temperatures every morning.

  • Cycling to work

    Normally winter means less cyclists on the paths, but for some reason there are more than ever this year. Passed two dozen on the way in to work (not…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.