Near the end of the Second World War, Canadian forces had the responsibility of liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. During the fighting, civilians behind the German lines suffered from malnutrition, starvation, and the lack of proper shelter. Over the course of many months, approximately 18,000 civilians died, and over 6,700 Canadian troops lost their lives for the liberation of the Dutch.
During the Second World War, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) mobilized Canadian experts, initiated the building of airfields, conducted research into the development of equipment, and provided valuable training and resources to Commonwealth aviators.
Signed in 1939, the Agreement and Plan lasted from 1940 to 1945. During this time, about 151 schools were established across Canada with over 104,000 men and women serving the ground operations. By the end of the War, the BCATP had produced 131,553 aircrew; including pilots, wireless operators, air gunners, and navigators for the Air Forces of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Seventy years ago, on August 18, 1944, Major David Vivian Currie led 200 men and a dozen M4 Sherman tanks into the town of St. Lambert-sur-Dives, France in order to block the escape route of the German 7th Army out of the Falaise Pocket. Though hugely outnumbered by a detachment of the German 2nd Panzer Division, the actions that Currie and his men took effectively sealed off the only escape route for the Germans. For his efforts, Currie earned the Victoria Cross, the highest military gallantry decoration in the British Commonwealth.
Major Currie was born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan in 1912 and trained as an auto mechanic and welder. A major in the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (South Alberta Regiment) in 1944, Currie had only ten days of combat experience when he was tasked with capturing, cutting off, and holding the road through St. Lambert.
Currie was leading “C” Squadron, a small force of tanks and anti-tank guns, together with two infantry companies of the Argyll and Southerland Highlanders, with no artillery support and little reconnaissance. When his first attack was repulsed, Currie snuck into the village on foot, surveyed the German defences, and rescued the crews of two disabled Canadian tanks. The following day, he had seized and consolidated a position half-way inside the village. Over the next 36 hours, Currie so skillfully organised his defences in the face of near-constant counterattack that he not only held the unit’s position but inflicted disproportionately heavy casualties on the German forces.
The Germans attempted their final breakthrough of the Canadian positions on the evening of August 20th but were routed by a surprise Canadian assault. Over 2,100 German soldiers were taken prisoner by Currie’s force of less than 200. Currie then completed the capture of the village, thus denying the remnants of the German armies their last escape route from the Falaise Pocket. The battle of St. Lambert was to be the final battle of the Normandy Campaign.
In the months following St. Lambert, Currie participated in the Battle of the Scheldt and the liberation of the Netherlands. He later achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and served as sergeant-at-arms in the Canadian House of Commons from 1960 to 1978. He died in 1986. The armoury in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is named the Lt. Colonel D. V. Currie Armoury in his honour, as is Currie Avenue in Saskatoon.
To learn more about Canada’s military past, visit the Military Heritage pages.
Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith (May 3, 1914 – August 3, 2005) was the last living Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) and the only private in the Canadian Armed Forces to receive this decoration during the Second World War. It is the highest military honour awarded to British and Commonwealth Forces.
Private “Smokey” Smith earned this distinction 70 years ago—on October 21 and 22, 1944—in Savio, Italy, where he was fighting with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. His unit was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River, which had risen significantly due to torrential rain, making it impossible for tanks and anti-tank guns to cross. Having successfully crossed the river, the unit’s right flank was attacked by the German 26th Panzer Division. Smith, an experienced member of the anti-tank platoon, had participated in the amphibious Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy, been wounded twice, and been part of fierce street fighting during the advance in Italy. Sheltering in a ditch as a German Panther tank rolled toward him and machine guns raked his position, Smith waited until the tank was within 30 feet of his PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank, a.k.a. “tank-stopper”) and then stood up, fired, and disabled the tank. Still in full view of the enemy, he drove back the Germans who leapt from the burning tank, along with a second Panther and 30 infantry soldiers, all the while protecting a wounded comrade. According to his VC citation, “Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack.” (The London Gazette, no. 36849, December 20, 1944). Smith’s unit consolidated the bridgehead position and paved the way for the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.
As Smith later told it, he was placed in a Naples jail by Military Police to keep him out of trouble until he could be sent to London to receive his VC. He was, by his own words, a man who didn’t like to take orders but who believed firmly in the job he had to do. Following the war, Smith re-enlisted in the army but did not see combat. He later served as a recruiting sergeant in Vancouver and remained in the army until his retirement in 1964. Smith received the Canadian Forces Decoration and was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996 in recognition of his service to Canadian veterans’ organizations.
To learn more about Canada’s military past, visit the Military Heritage pages.
Wars are tragic events but they sometimes have an unexpected silver lining. During the First and Second World Wars, Canadian soldiers often found love overseas, got married and brought back their loved ones to Canada.
We are happy to advise you that we have added a new page to our Military Heritage section about the foreign women who married Canadian soldiers, the war brides. They shared a common experience of leaving their country and heading for Canada on long journeys, first by ship and then by train. They faced many challenges as they settled into a new country, a different culture and sometimes even a new language.
On this new page, you will find records from a variety of sources. The majority are found in the records of National Defence, Department of Employment and Immigration, Department of External Affairs, the Directorate of Repatriation, and the Canadian Wives′ Bureau, but many also come from private organizations.
Visit the War Brides page to explore the printed and archival resources available at Library and Archives Canada.
Did you know that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has rare colour photographs from the Second World War? During that time period, colour film was a new and untested medium for most professional photographers. These images were captured on Kodak Kodachrome film by members of the Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) in the days and weeks following D-Day, on June 6, 1944.
The CFPU, formed in 1941, was under the command of Captain William Abell of Winnipeg and was staffed by enlisted Canadian men and women. Their goal was to capture images of Canadian military personnel in action, which would then be released by the Department of National Defence to various media outlets. Today these images provide an invaluable record, in living colour, of Canadian servicemen and servicewomen, as well as changing photographic technologies and techniques.
The images are part of a larger set of 1,200 digitized Second World War colour photographs that can be viewed through LAC’s online database. Included are photos of various subject matter, such as Canadian troops in England, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, and on bases and in training in Canada; portraits of notable military figures; the Canadian Women’s Army Corps; troop entertainment; hospital transport ships; and the Canadian role in liberation/occupation duties as photographed by CFPU member Ken Bell.
Search the collection
LAC’s complete digitized collection of colour images from the CFPU includes over 2,000 additional digitized colour images dating to 1961. To view them, consult the ZK prefix. To search within this collection, go to Advanced Archives Search and search using “ZK prefix” and the search term of your choice. An electronic finding aid for the ZK prefix sub-series is also attached to this record and can aid in locating specific images. To learn more about using finding aids in your research, read Discover Finding Aids – Part Two.
Library and Archives Canada recently launched an updated and expanded version of the Service Files of the Second World War – War Dead, 1939-1947 database. Researchers can now access more than 1000 digitized genealogy packs of service files for Canadian servicemen and servicewomen killed in action during the Second World War.
More search fields
The database, available on the Library and Archives website through the Military Heritage portal, can now be searched using an increased number of access fields. These include: first and last name of the enlisted person, service number, date and place of birth, date and place of enlistment. By using these search features, Canadian students participating in Lest We Forget, a national project that gives them the opportunity to research the life stories of Canadian servicemen and servicewomen, will be able to quickly identify service files related to their community.
What kind of information can I find in these records?
The digitized service files contain documents and correspondence pertaining to enlistment and appointment, training and qualifications, awards and medals, medical history, and wills and insurance. Researchers can expect to find records such as the Canadian Active Service Force attestation paper, a Record of Service with information on training and education before and during service, documents from the Department of National Defence Estates Branch, and grave registration and post-war exhumation reports.
More information on the Killed in Action database
Along with details of service, this database offers a window into the lives of those who served and the families they left behind. Throughout the Second World War (1939-1945), Canadian men and women served in great numbers with the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Royal Canadian Navy. From a population of just over 11,000,000 in 1939, Canada saw more than 1,159,000 of its citizens enlist. The price of victory was high: approximately 45,000 Canadians and close to 1000 Newfoundlanders lost their lives during and immediately following the war. In addition to these, more than 55,000 servicemen were wounded and countless civilians experienced the suffering and loss brought about by war. While providing a valuable resource for research, the KIA database helps to tell the story of those who served, fought, and died in a war that stretched across the globe.
December 1943. While the Allied offensive in Italy stagnated on the Western Front outside Cassino, the British Eighth Army, which included the 1st Canadian Division, was advancing on the Eastern Front. The Canadians received orders to push forward and liberate the port town of Ortona.
From December 6 to December 8, Canadian regiments crossed the Moro River. Only three kilometres from the road to Ortona, they encountered a huge obstacle: a gully running parallel to the road. Canadian units would suffer extensive casualties in repeated attempts to cross the gully. On December 13, “C” Company of the Royal 22e Régiment, supported by the Ontario Regiment’s Sherman tanks, made it across the gully and advanced toward the road between Rome and Ortona. Under German fire, the survivors withdrew to Casa Berardi and fiercely defended their position. Captain Paul Triquet, commander of “C” Company, would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his courageous and determined leadership throughout this engagement.
Despite the breach, Canadian forces met strong German resistance from the many entrenched positions along the length of the gully. However, the capture of a strategic crossroads by the Royal Canadian Regiment on December 19 paved the way for the final push to Ortona.
On December 21, troops from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, supported by tanks from the Régiment de Trois-Rivières, launched an assault on the town of Ortona. Canadian Command had expected the German paratroopers to retreat as soon as the Allies struck; instead, they put up a stubborn defence of the town.
The Canadians finally took Ortona on December 27. The ruined town was dubbed “Little Stalingrad.” With the Italian winter setting in, it was here their advance was halted. Canadian troops left the Adriatic front at the end of April and moved south of Cassino in preparation for the Liri Valley offensive.
Library and Archives Canada’s collection contains numerous textual, photographic, audiovisual and published materials relating to the Battle of Ortona. You can also consult Mark Zuehlke’s book, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle, to learn more about the topic.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the battles fought by Canadian troops on Italian soil during the Second World War. Why Italy? In 1942, the Soviets were calling for the opening up of a second front in Western Europe to provide relief from German attacks on their territory. Convinced that there were insufficient resources to invade France, the Americans backed Britain’s proposal to organize a landing on the coast of French North Africa instead, which took place on November 8, 1942 (Operation Torch) The campaign to drive the Germans out of Africa was successfully concluded in Tunisia on May 13, 1943. The offensive continued in Italy, considered to be the weakest link in the German defences in Europe.
Under the command of the British Eighth Army, the 1st Canadian Division came ashore on the beaches of Sicily on July 10, 1943. With the capture of Messina by the Americans on August 18, the conquest of Sicily was complete. On September 3, Canadian troops landed in mainland Italy. Meeting no opposition, the brigades were able to deploy rapidly. Italy capitulated on September 8, and the next day, Anglo-American landings were launched in the Gulf of Salerno.
Three critical battles will forever stand out in Canadian military history: the battle of Ortona, the breach of the Hitler Line (Liri Valley), and the breach of the Gothic Line. The Italian Campaign continued until the spring of 1945, but the Canadians would not participate in the final victory; after having engaged in vicious fighting for 18 months, Canadian troops were withdrawn from the front at the end of January 1945 and redeployed to the Netherlands.
As a result of the attention focused on the Normandy landings and the North-West Europe Campaign, there is a tendency to overlook the importance of the Italian Front and the Allied soldiers who fought there. A total of 92,757 Canadians served in Italy. Of these, 5,764 were killed, 19,486 were wounded and 1,004 were captured. Library and Archives Canada’s collection contains numerous textual, photographic and audiovisual records and published materials relating to the Italian Campaign.
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