The Second World War


On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and demonstrated to Western leaders that their policy of appeasement would not deter large-scale conflict. Drawing on their diplomatic guarantees of Polish independence, the United Kingdom and France declared war against Nazi Germany on September 3. Canada, which was a self-governing colony under the Statute of Westminster, made its own declaration of war a week later.

A serious war effort came too late to save most of continental Europe from fascist control. By the end of September, Poland was conquered. By the end of June 1940, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and France followed Poland in defeat. The prospect of liberating Europe became increasingly grim as Nazi Germany strengthened its position through the formation of the Axis coalition. Shortly before the fall of France, Italy entered the war as Germany’s ally. The Japanese Empire, which similarly embraced military conquest to further its imperial aspirations, signed a mutual assistance pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940. Although Hitler urged Japan to assist them in the war against the Soviet Union, the Japanese instead launched a surprise attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The following day, the Japanese also attacked the British Crown colony of Hong Kong, which was defended by a garrison of local militia – British, Indian and Canadian troops.

For the second time in the 20th century, the Canadian military entered a world war ill-equipped for large-scale conflict. Canada immediately deployed what forces it could spare: one infantry brigade was sent to Iceland to relieve the British garrison, one fighter squadron was sent to Britain, and four destroyers sailed to the British Isles. It was not a substantial force relative to the size of the British and German militaries, but in further similarity to the First World War, the gradual mobilization of Canada’s peoples, industries, resources and ingenuity made its contributions to the Allied war effort indispensable. Canada would participate in pivotal operations – including the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain and the invasions of Sicily, Italy and Normandy. By the war’s end, Canada had the world’s third-largest navy and the fourth-largest air force. The 1st Canadian Army was also formidable and included three infantry divisions and two armoured divisions. As another notable achievement, the Canadian military undertook operations that combined all three military services for the first time in its history.

As this resource explores, Ontario provided crucial support in the growth and development of the Canadian military. More than 400,000 men and women from Ontario served in the military, constituting approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s military personnel. The first section of this resource examines these contributions in accordance with the three military branches: the Royal Canadian Air Force, the militia/army, and the Royal Canadian Navy. It also examines the military’s changing policies regarding the recruitment of women and visible minorities. The second section provides an overview of the mobilization of Ontario’s industries for war production and its educational institutions for military research. The last section considers Ontario’s contradicting history of being a place of refuge and oppression.