Fight to the Finish: Canadians in the Second World War, 1944-1945
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An unforgettable chronicle of Canadians fighting the Second World War.
Historian Tim Cook displays his trademark storytelling ability in the second volume of his masterful account of Canadians in World War II. Cook combines an extraordinary grasp of military strategy with a deep empathy for the soldiers on the ground, at sea and in the air. Whether it's a minute-by-minute account of a gruelling artillery battle, vicious infighting among generals, the scene inside a medical unit, or the small details of a soldier's daily life, Cook creates an utterly compelling narrative. He recounts in mesmerizing detail how the Canadian forces figured in the Allied bombing of Germany, the D-Day landing at Juno beach, the taking of Caen, and the drive south.
Featuring dozens of black-and-white photographs and moving excerpts from letters and diaries of servicemen, Fight to the Finish, along with its companion volume, The Necessary War, broadens our understanding of the Second World War with a gripping account of Canadians who fought abroad, and the home front that was changed forever.
Jack Leddy, a medical officer in a casualty clearing station, was an eyewitness to the behaviour of psychologically traumatized men: “Some of them had seen their buddies blown to smithereens. They would be picked up wandering around on a road or huddled by some tree. They were brought into the station, where we had set up a special ward for them. They would be crying hysterically or just sitting and staring into space. There were those who trembled and shook uncontrollably. They were in shock but with no visible wounds.
Canada was an ally, not a colony—even though Montgomery refused to acknowledge such constitutional evolutions. The First Canadian Army remained a Canadian army only in name, with about half the divisions made up of Polish and British formations. McNaughton’s earlier warning that the splitting of the Canadian Army would weaken it for the invasion of France had come true, with I Canadian Corps stuck in Italy despite requests from Ottawa to bring it back to England. The British, having other worries, roundly ignored the pleas until early in 1945.
The Winnipeggers, who had lost close to 130 men on D-Day, had dug slit trenches in front of Putot as opposed to within the target-rich village, but they were nonetheless dazed by the ferocity of the bombardment. Firing up to twenty shells per minute, the 88 was anti-tank and anti-aircraft; indeed, as one Canadian officer moaned, it was “anti-everything. ”26 Striking from all directions, the Germans enveloped and cut off three of the Winnipeggers’ forward companies by early afternoon. Attesting to the ferocity of the battle, at one point the Germans used Canadian prisoners as human shields, driving them forward into positions held by the remaining Winnipeg Rifles.
When Queen’s Own Rifles infantryman Stan Biggs was shot through the leg at the end of August 1944 and recovering in hospital, one of his decorated mates told him that he should not hurry back: “You’ve got a wife and two kids to think about. You’ve done your bit for the infantry. If you did get back to the unit you wouldn’t recognize anyone. Most of the comrades we knew are either dead or wounded or promoted higher. ”41 Biggs’s injuries were serious enough that he never returned to the firing line, but thousands of other Canadians did, to support their mates, to follow orders, or to finish the war.
The final Canadian objective on D-Day was the Carpiquet airfield on the outskirts of the major city of Caen, about 14 kilometres from the beaches. Canadian Rifleman J. L. Wagar spoke for many when he pondered the momentous battle, “Invasion Day was going to be a test of things: a test of me; the test of a Division; the test of an Army; and the test of an invasion of Nazi Europe; and I was silenced by the whole tremendous thing, and scared. ”34 CHAPTER 5 D-DAY “I thought about the things that meant a lot to me—my home,” recalled Major Fred Baldwin of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, in the final hours before the assault.