Canadian Hockey At War 1939-45


Written by George Fosty – SONAHR President

August 4, 2013 (ISN) – Sons of the Father – On September 3, 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, Britain declared war on Germany. Canada, due to its still close political ties to Britain and the British Empire found itself facing the prospect of being drawn into another European war.

Though English-Canadian newspapers were already announcing that a state of war existed between Canada and Germany, in truth, the decision to wage war on Germany would depend on the vote of the Canadian Parliament and not on the actions of Britain. Unlike World War I, there would be little Canadian celebration of anticipated future battles. The Great War had scarred Canada’s national psyche and Canadians had seen themselves in the Great War more as victims than victors. Unlike Britain, France and the United States, Canada had profited little from the financial demands of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, while the heroic actions of her soldiers had been conveniently overlooked by foreign nations, historians and others self-motivated groups determined to manifest their own nations’ accomplishments and sacrifice, regardless of whether or not a full and accurate story was being told.

On September 7, 1939, the Canadian Parliament convened and two days later, on September 9, Canada’s Parliament officially declared war on Hitler’s Germany. Again, Canadians would be asked to answer the call of war. Again, the defense of the country would fall on the backs of a generation of men and boys trained in the sport of hockey — a sport specifically designed to instill the skills necessary to produce a successful warrior. A game that had, in the twenty years following the end of World War I, produced a newer, more resilient breed of Canadian hockey player, one molded in spirit and stamina by a generation of men who had witnessed the brutality of war firsthand.

With the outbreak of war, many of the Canadian stars of the English National League decided to either stay in Canada or join up with the armed forces. The league would only have just enough players to ice three teams, Harringay, Streatham and one of the Wembley clubs, to play out the 1939-40 season. After the completion of the season, the lights would go very dim on British ice hockey as the sport would be placed on hold for a period of five years as players and fans, not only in Britain but also around the globe, woke up to find that the world had fallen into yet another abyss.

On December 18, 1939 the first contingent of Canadian troops arrived by ship in England. Under a banner of celebration, the Canadian commander General Andrew MacNaughton, confident that his forces would prove themselves as capable as those who had set foot on these shores two decades earlier, proclaimed that “the Canadians were a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin,” a statement and message designed for the benefit of the German press. A subtle reminder that England and France were not alone and that Germany’s most feared World War I adversary was again prepared to engage Germany’s fighting forces on the continent.

In the summer of 1940, as the German Blitzkreig rolled through France, the French Government cabled the British seeking immediate troop reinforcements. On June 11, under the cover of darkness, the first Canadian soldiers began to land at Cherbourg, France. They were scheduled to receive support by a second Canadian force due to arrive on June 20. Armed with 72 field guns, the Canadians began their advance north towards Paris. On June 13, one week earlier than expected, the second Canadian force landed in France. Coming ashore at Brest, they quickly set up positions around Laval and Le Mans. As the force began a rapid move inland, with some units traveling over two hundred miles in an effort to link up with the earlier Canadian units, word came of the French surrender. What was to have been an aggressive move north toward the old World War I battlefronts and an expected all-out engagement with the German enemy, suddenly became a desperate race by the Canadians to the landing ports of southern France for an evacuation to England before imminent enemy capture. As the World watched the British and French situation unfold at Dunkirk, few noticed or were even aware of, the Canadian drama unfolding in the south of France. At the height of the confusion, amazingly, only six Canadian soldiers failed to be evacuated.

Back in England, with most of their equipment still intact, the Canadians were assigned to the southern coasts, the area most vulnerable to the anticipated German invasion. With the fall of France, Canada, with a population of only eleven million, was now the second largest military power opposing Hitler’s Germany. As the seriousness of the situation began to be realized, attempts to mobilize the Canadian war effort increased. As had been the case in the Great War, legions of former and current hockey players were among the throngs of Canadian volunteers flocking to the recruiting stations, prepared and determined to do their part.

Among the more notable individuals to volunteer was the Great War veteran and Canadian actor Raymond Massey who would, by 1943, assume the rank of Major. Others were equally in the forefront. Conn Smythe, a commissioned Major, along with Rhodes scholar and former hockey player, Clarence Campbell, would be added to the swelling ranks of Canadian soldiers, along with a venerable who’s who of Canadian National Hockey League talent. So complete was the Canadian nation’s transformation from at peace to at war that, by 1945, they would boast an army of over one million men. Their Navy would be increased 500-fold, and would play a major role in supplying and protecting the North Atlantic Sea lanes, the lifeline of the Allied European war effort and besieged England. By 1945, the Canadian Navy would be the third largest naval power on the planet, with a fleet of ships numbering 700 — the numerical equivalent of the United States Navy during the height of the Cold War.

In addition, by 1945, Canadians would once again command the air, with Charlie G. “Chubby” Powers, a former hockey player of the powerhouse team Quebec City Bulldogs from 1903-1909, serving as Canadian Air Minister, overseeing the creation of the world’s third largest air force — third only to the United States and Great Britain. For three months following the British defeat at Dunkirk, all that stood against a German invasion of England was the British Royal Air Force guarding the skies and the Canadian Army guarding the British coastlines.

Following the Battle of Britain and the diminished threat of a German invasion, the first signs of tension between the local British population and the now-seemingly restless Canadian troops began to show. At the time, the average Canadian soldier in England was only 19 years of age. Fewer than two percent of them had obtained higher than a sixth-grade education, with many from towns and isolated farm communities with populations of fewer than 4,000 inhabitants.

Aside from cultural differences between the two groups, part of the problem between the British and the Canadians was the Canadians’ unfamiliarity with functioning in a tradition-bound, class-structured society. This problem was magnified tenfold by the fact that part of the high profile contingent of Canadian troops upon which the British relied for protection was not only so-called “former colonials,” but also a large contingent of French-Canadians. The English High Command held little tolerance for the French-Canadians and their proud nationalistic tendencies. What bothered the British generals even more was that much of the defense of England was in the hands of these perceived social inferiors.

In the weeks that would follow, discontent among the lower Canadian ranks would continue to grow, especially among the French-Canadians, and by July 1941, foibles in discipline were reportedly widespread. Reports of increased assaults on officers by enlisted men, smoking while on parade, refusals to get out of bed at reveille, and insolence and absent-without-leave incidents became common.

Discontent and frustration were reaching a boiling point. In the twenty months from December 1940 to August 1942, a total of 3,308 Canadian soldiers were court-martialed. At the same time, civilian authorities in England reported 23,039 offenses committed by the servicemen of the Canadian First Division. In the case of the later-arriving Second Division, an additional 21,492 incidents were recorded. On average, by 1942, a Canadian soldier was being arrested in England at a rate of one every 18 minutes. Following a rash of Canadian soldier suicides, the Sussex Coroner remarked:

These soldiers very unselfishly come to this country for the purpose of giving us aid. We are apt to forget because they speak our language, that they are to all intents and purposes, in a foreign country, just as much as we should be in Libya.

German propaganda sources even took notice of the problems. In a radio broadcast, an announcer remarked of their old foe:

If you really want to take Berlin, give each Canadian soldier a motor cycle and a bottle of whisky; then declare Berlin out-of-bounds and the Canadians will be there in 48 hours.

In September 1941, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon-Mackenzie King pleaded with Churchill to commit Canadian troops to battle, adding, “I don’t know how long I can go on leading my country while our troops remain inactive.” Churchill, not wanting Canadian troops to be seen in the forefront of the English war effort, refused, stating that he did not want to give the impression that the British were relying on Commonwealth troops to fight their battles, as had been the case in the last Great War. Later, Prime Minister King was forced to tour Canadian military bases in England under armed bodyguard; for fear that the troops he was to inspect would attack him.

Canadians sports and amateur hockey leagues were rapidly shutting down amidst the vast recruitment of young men. By December 1941, the buildup of Canadian troops in England reached 200,000, an incredible figure given the fact that in 1939 Canada’s entire army numbered only 4,500. Prior to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Canadian Government, responding to request made by Winston Churchill, had dispatched two battalions of soldiers for the protection of Hong Kong. What has often been overlooked and forgotten are the other Japanese attacks which occurred within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the attacks on the Philippines, Malaya, and Hong Kong. For more than two and a half weeks, two thousand Canadian soldiers, outnumbered more than ten to one, fought a gallant and desperate battle in Hong Kong in the vain hope of gaining time for Allied reinforcement. That help never arrived and 1200 Canadians were marched off to Japanese prison camps, many never to return.

As Western newspapers reported on the possibility of a Japanese landing in Canada and amid the calls in Canada to remove the troops from England and send them to the Pacific Theatre, tensions in the Canadian camps were reaching the boiling point. Brawls continued to break out as soldiers refused to follow orders. After three years of inaction, the Canadian Army had ceased to be an effective fighting force. By 1942, the Canadian Overseas Army in England, the so-called “Army of the Ice Men,” was on the verge of disintegration.

By the spring of 1942, even with the entry of the United States into the war, the Western Allies were on the threshold of military collapse. In January, General Erwin Rommel had gained the offensive in North Africa. By February, Allied shipping losses in the North Atlantic had reached the breaking point. On June 14, Tobruk, in Libya, fell to the Axis with thirty thousand British and Australian troops surrendering with little more than a few shots being fired. It was one of the most humiliating British military defeats in history, and one that sent shockwaves through British military circles that were fearful the British Army was no match for the enemy. Following the defeat of the British at the Battle of Knightsbridge, the English 8th Army was forced into retreat. The British were now pushed back into Egypt, ensuring their total defeat at the Suez Canal.

The Americans believed that the solution to the problem facing the Allies could be found through a staged military operation in Northern France, in a plan of action codenamed SLEDGEHAMMER – an operation designed to buy the Allies much needed time as they awaited American military reinforcements. Operation SLEDGEHAMMER called for the invasion of Northern France in either August or September 1942. Its purpose was to gain a foothold on the European continent, which would lead eventually to a full-scale Allied assault on Germany in 1943, called Operation ROUND-UP. In addition to securing a continental foothold for the Allies, SLEDGEHAMMER would also help relieve the embattled Russians and force the Germans to fight on as many as three fronts. At the very least, SLEDGEHAMMER would ensure Russian continuation in the war, since it would demonstrate the West’s resolve to fight and aid the Russians.

The Americans made no effort to hide the fact that the landing, called for in SLEDGEHAMMER, would require ten divisions and be purely”sacrificial” in nature. The force would come ashore and remain through the winter, holding a beachhead against continuous enemy attack. Unlike Dunkirk, there would be no evacuation. If the plan were to go ahead, the bulk of the forces would be Canadian troops stationed in England. In the end, it would mean the deliberate sacrifice of the entire Canadian Overseas Army, a force almost equal to a quarter million men. A sacrifice considered by a number of political and military officials in Washington and London to be “neither here nor there,” and a small price to pay in order to keep Russia in the war. As it turned out, the plan did not go forward for the simple reason that there were not enough Naval and transport craft in England to carry the Canadians across the Channel. There were only enough landing craft to transport 6,000 troops.

On May 31, following meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, Roosevelt cabled Churchill seeking the Prime Minister’s support for a second front to be scheduled for August 1942. The President feared that the Russians would be knocked out of the war and be forced, as in 1918, to sign a separate peace treaty with Germany. All parties realized that something drastic had to be done. Operation RUTTER was a plan calling for an amphibious raid on the port of Dieppe. The operation, originally intended for British commandos, was instead assigned to elements of the Canadian Second Division in hopes that the operation would alleviate some of the pressures associated with having the Canadians standing idle in Britain. On May 20, Canadian troops were moved from their bases in Sussex to the Isle of Wight for amphibious training. Earlier, reports from the training grounds had indicated that the operation had all the markings of failure. Troops had routinely landed off target, security was a problem and the operation lacked the necessary naval and air power to provide adequate support. Most amazing of all, the plan ignored basic and tried amphibious military rules and lessons.

The Canadian writer Ralph Allen in his 1965 book Ordeal By Fire, wrote that the RUTTER plan made sense “only if it were considered as an exercise with live ammunition aimed to kill (where) surprise was neither hoped for nor intended.” In other words, it was a plan intentionally designed for failure.

From the start, the Canadian military questioned the raid’s logic and as this criticism grew amongst their ranks, orders from the British command came down to the Canadian leadership advising that all dissent was to be suppressed. Furthermore, Canadian commanders were advised that they would not be allowed to sit in at the Command Center during the operations, effectively separating the Canadian commanders from their own troops. Later, under protest, the British relented somewhat, granting the Canadians “observer status” during the operations.

On July 3, a force of six thousand men, five thousand of whom were Canadian, were loaded onto ships destined for Dieppe. However, the weather deteriorated and the operation was postponed. Five days later, with the troops still on board the ships, the operation was cancelled. Within days of the cancellation, efforts were secretly underway to reinstate the operation. The raid was renamed Operation JUBILEE and a new staging date, August 19, was chosen. Still, security had been jeopardized and all military logic was either ignored or deliberately vetoed. There were even reports that the Germans were anticipating an Allied attack.

On the evening of August 18, under a veil of darkness, an Allied armada of 237 ships left ports in Southern England heading in the direction of Dieppe. Among the men on board were five thousand-one hundred soldiers of the Canadian Second Division. Unknown to the men, the events about to unfold would mark a turning point in Canadian military history. In only seven hours of battle, the Canadians would lose more men at Dieppe than the United States had lost during the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, or the Spanish-American War. Before the day would end, the Canadians would record a 70 percent casualty rate. Of the Canadians who landed at Dieppe, fewer than 1450 returned to England, many of whom were wounded. The first attempt to land a large force on the European continent since the evacuation of Dunkirk had turned into a horrendous slaughter.

For two days following the August 19, 1942 amphibious raid, bodies of Canadian soldiers, the once youthful pride of the Canadian Army, continued to wash up on French beaches. Not since the 1916 Battle of the Somme had so many Canadian soldiers been killed. At Dieppe, men had been killed, wounded or captured at a rate of one every five seconds. In four hundred minutes, the heart of Canada’s Second Division had been wiped out. In one single action, a force of men that had taken three years to equip and train had ceased to exist. It would take thirty years before an Allied account of the incident would be “officially” released.

Some of Canada’s finest and most visible regiments had fatality rates of 96 percent. The Toronto-based Royal Regiment, for example, had numbered over five hundred men only days prior to Dieppe. After the battle, only two men were accounted for back in England. The Mont Royals of Montreal, the French-Canadian Regiment that was the pride of Quebec, had landed squarely in the middle of the Dieppe beach front during the height of the battle – easy pickings for the murderous German machine guns. For all intents and purposes, the regiment no longer existed. For the people of Quebec, the slaughter of the Mont Royals was unconscionable, and just another example of British contempt for French-Canadians.

At Dieppe, even the Germans had been shocked by what they had seen. On the morning of August 19, in the midst of preparing a documentary on the German’s line of defenses known as The Atlantic Wall, a German film crew happened to be shooting footage of the cliff tops overlooking Dieppe. They would have a bird’s eye view of the Canadian landings, allowing them to film one of the most tragic military events of the twentieth century. Their footage seems surreal as it captured the final moments of a group of men thrown to the wind by questionable military logic and opportunist political leadership.

The German General Conrad Haase, Commander of the German 302nd Division that defended Dieppe, wrote of the battle:

The fact that the Canadians did not gain any ground on the main beaches was not due to any lack of courage, but because of the concentrated defensive fire.

Later, while some British officials attempted to cover up the slaughter by blaming the casualty rates on the poor fighting abilities of the Canadian troops, the official report of the German Fifteenth Army was even more direct in their assessments of the situation as it stated:

The large number of English prisoners might leave the impression that the fighting value of the English and Canadian units employed should not be highly estimated. This is not the case. The enemy, almost entirely Canadian soldiers, fought – so far as he was able to fight at all – well and bravely.

Following the raid, with its many unanswered questions, as well as a series of questionable military actions using Canadian troops in Italy, the strains of distrust between the Canadian and British militaries grew even more apparent. Canadian military officials now accused British officials of using Canadian soldiers as sacrificial pawns for the sake of British politics.

By 1943, as discontent among the Canadians and their English allies continued to grow, the Canadian Government worked feverishly to improve the lives of the Canadian servicemen standing idle in England. Among the innovations was the establishment of military hockey leagues comprised of some of the biggest names in Canadian hockey. Rather than shut down the NHL, both the United States and Canadian Governments allowed the league to continue, citing the need to sustain public morale. At the time, however, almost 40 percent of the players from the league were in military uniform. By 1943, so plentiful were former professional hockey players in the Canadian Army that complete military teams comprised of former NHL players were assembled to represent all branches of the Canadian military including the Air Force and Navy.

It was hoped that the teams would create the necessary distractions and entertainment required to ensure that Canadian troops would not continue their rampaging escapades throughout England. In the end, though the teams were successful, they were not without their criticisms or controversies. For in the haste to create a distraction, professional athletes had been given preferential military treatment, a fact that created even more tension within the ranks. Concerned by the developments, J. P. Fitzgerald, sports editor of the Toronto Telegram, wrote on November 10, 1943:

The Army is training soldiers and the very best material should be young athletes. When they stay athletes and are not turned into efficient fighting soldiers in the least possible time, there is something wrong.

Embarrassed by claims that Canadian Military Hockey teams were little more than professional outfits making money for rink and arena owners, the adjutant general sent out the following telegram on January 8, 1944:


The position was clarified on January 29th when a document under the signature of Colonel E. A. Deacon, the Director of Auxiliary Services, was circulated.

The idea behind the playing of hockey and all other games by Army teams was to maintain morale and create an esprit de corps in the units. As long as the interest created by such contests was primarily significant to the service, games and competitions, which involved civilians, were not discouraged. As matters proceeded, however, such competitions, and the service teams playing in them, were found to be in danger of coming under the domination of civilian organizations that were using the military teams for their own commercial purposes. Instead of the teams being organized in the interest of the armed services, the teams were becoming revenue-earning units for commercial corporations. When this trend was realized, several meetings were held by officers of the Navy, Army and Air Force responsible for the organization of sports in the services. The situation was explored in all details and, as a result of these conferences, it was decided that it was in their best interests to withdraw all service hockey teams from organized league competition. In the end, hockey would still be played in garrison and camp leagues with the three branches of the Armed Services organizing exhibition games with very satisfactory results.

During the 1938-39 tour of Europe, the Trail Smoke Eaters had never been issued Canadian national team uniforms, thus, they ended up representing Canada in their black and orange club jerseys. As a result, the Trail Smoke Eaters jersey became a recognizable symbol of Canadian hockey in Europe. In Murray Grieg’s book, Trail on Ice, he writes how Steve Saprunoff, brother of former player Sammy Saprunoff (who was killed in the European Theatre) was shot down in a bombing mission over Berlin in 1944 and wound up as a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp.

Steve Saprunoff had been a mascot and stick boy for Trail, and was given a uniform by Smoke Eaters player Mickey Brennan. He had worn his Smoke Eaters sweater uniform underneath his flight jacket that day, which turned out to be an unexpected blessing. In an interview with Grieg, Saprunoff stated:

for the first couple of days in that cell I wasn’t given anything to eat . . . Then on the third and fourth day this old guard comes to the cell and tells me to take off my jacket. When he saw that Smoke Eaters sweater he got all excited and started going on and on in German about how he’d seen Trail play in Berlin in 1938 and how he was a big hockey fan and loved the Canadian players, that sort of thing. He even mentioned Jimmy Morris, who was one of his favorite players. You can imagine how shocked I was to hear this old guy going on and on about the Trail Smoke Eaters!

Later that same day he came back to my cell with a package of bread and sausage. He actually smuggled it in for me. It was the first food I’d had in days, so I was grateful for that. The same thing happened the next day and the day after that. He’d come to my cell all smiles and talking about the Smoke Eaters, and then he’d give me a little bundle of food. I couldn’t believe it . . . it was all because of Mickey Brennen’s hockey sweater! After four or five days the Germans moved the whole gang of us by train to a camp outside Berlin, but before we left my old guard came in one last time and gave me some apples and sausage and bread to tuck under my hockey sweater. On the train I saw some of the guys from my own unit and they were really starving. When I took ’em aside and pulled out the food, they just about fainted.

On June 5, 1944 the greatest military armada in human history slipped out of the ports of southern England and headed east toward the French coastline. Over 7,000 ships and 11,000 planes would be part of an Allied invasion force determined to breach Hitler’s Fortress Europaand liberate Western Europe. Among the armies that would land in France was the Canadian Army, led by Major Conn Smythe and the Commander of the 4th Canadian Armed Division, Clarence Campbell.

Following the war in 1945, Clarence Campbell would join the Canadian War Crimes Unit and play a role in the Nuremberg trials. A year later, he would become the president of the National Hockey League, a position he would hold for thirty-one years. He is credited with successfully expanding the NHL from a six-team league to a twelve-team league in 1967-68. He retired from hockey in 1977 and died on June 24, 1984 at the age of 79.

Fate would deal Conn Smythe a different set of cards. Following the D-Day Landings, Smythe would be severely wounded when a German plane, dropping flares over a Canadian encampment, dropped a flare onto an ammunition truck. The subsequent explosion killed two men. Fragments of shrapnel pierced Smythe’s spine, leaving him almost paralyzed. Even as he lay wounded, he is said to have continued giving his men orders, preparing them defensively for the anticipated German counterattack. Smythe would recover from the injuries and miraculously walk again. He would return home to Canada to rebuild the Toronto Maple Leafs. Years later, when asked by a reporter what was the secret to his hockey success, Smythe would claim that it was simply the same formula that had been the secret of the Canadian Army during World War II:

Youth is the answer to this game. Put the kids in with a few old pappy guys who still like to win, and the combination is unbeatable.

Yet, all this was still in the future. In the early dawn of June 6, 1944, the vanguard of the Canadian Army began to land on the beaches of Normandy. Determined to avenge Dieppe, and to prove to all that they were one of the finest military forces ever assembled, the Canadians drove into the enemy with fierce resolve and brave determination. That day, the Canadians would record the greatest territorial gains of all the invading armies, all the while sustaining the lowest casualty figures. A feat made even more remarkable given the fact that they had run straight into two German Panzer Divisions.

In the months that would follow, in a string of continuous military victories that would send the German Army reeling, this Army of former and current hockey players would assist in the liberation of three countries and the conquest of a fourth. The Army of the Ice Men had returned to Europe. The world would never be the same again.