Some Reminiscences of 1935-45
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 24 Nov 1949, p. 106-115
Crerar, General H.D.G., Speaker
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Item Type
A few personal experiences of the Second Great War. Telling a few tales without breach of faith and confidentiality. The speaker's arrival in the United Kingdom on October 28, 1939, to act as Military Advisor to the then Minister of Mines and Resources, the Honourable T.A. Crerar, who was to represent Canada at the Dominion Ministers Conference then assembling in London; also to set up a Canadian Military Headquarters in England, and to undertake immediate arrangements with the War Office for the reception, quartering, equipment and training of the 1st Canadian Division due to cross the Atlantic some two months later. Details of staff. Personal reminiscences and anecdotes involving getting the Canadian troops to England, events at, before and after Dieppe, Winston Churchill, and Field Marshall Montgomery among others.
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24 Nov 1949
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Mr. H. G. Colebrook
Thursday, November 24th, 1949


Honoured Guests and Gentlemen--in presenting to you Canada's most distinguished soldier I shall not make special reference to his well known war record in World War One and Two but recite briefly the great honours that have since been conferred On him by his Own, and Other, grateful countries in recognition Of his Outstanding military service. In June 1946 he represented Canada at the Victory Parade in London; receiving also at that time an Honorary Degree at Oxford (D.C.L.).

In October 1946 he was invited to visit Czechslovakia as a guest Of the late President Benes.

In August 1947 On the invitation Of General MacArthur he visited Japan; afterwards going to China and Hong Kong.

In September 1948 he was appointed Special Canadian Ambassador to the Enthronement Of Queen Juliana in Holland.

Also in 1948 he was signally honoured by being appointed A.D.C. General to His Majesty the King. We are indeed proud and honoured to have as Our Guest Speaker today a great Canadian who has in no Small measure contributed to Our country's status in the World today.

I have very great pleasure in presenting

GENERAL H. D. G. CRERAR, C.H., C.B., D.S.O., A.D.C. who will relate



It was in April 1946, some three and a half years ago that I previously had the honour, and the responsibility, of addressing the members of The Empire Club. On that occasion, I spoke to you on the urgent need for adequate military preparation on the part of our country and, in that connection, emphasized the requirement of compulsory military training. As some of you may have noted, in the time since then, I have not ceased to express to other audiences the views I then put before you.

But, today, I shall not concentrate on one serious subject--instead I propose to recount a few personal experiences of the Second Great War which are, I think, of more than passing interest. And, while I am strongly of the opinion that professional government servants, on retirement, must be scrupulous in observing the confidences which have previously been entrusted to them by their political superiors, I believe that I can tell you a few tales of the period 1939-1945 without breach of faith. Inevitably, in stories such as these there is a pronounced personal note, but this, I trust, you will understand and excuse.

On 28th October, 1939, 1 arrived in the United Kingdom bearing several distinct and weighty responsibilities. My instructions were that I was to act as Military Advisor to the then Minister of Mines and Resources, the Honourable T. A. Crerar, who was to represent Canada at the "Dominion Ministers Conference" then assembling in London. I was also charged with the setting-up of a Canadian Military Headquarters in England and, in addition, was to undertake immediate arrangements with the War Office, for the reception, quartering, equipment and training of the 1st Canadian Division-due to cross the Atlantic some two months later. My staff, on arrival, consisted of one officer, then Lieut-Colonel, now MajorGeneral E.L.M. Burns and one female stenographer. My accommodation was one small, artificially illuminated office in Canada House, not really large enough to hold the three of us at one time!

I am not going to go in to the difficult details of those earlier weeks in London, nor attempt to describe the many problems which had to be met, and solved. Instead, I will tell you of just one incident o£ interest, in that period, in which I was involved by reason of my particular responsibility as military advisor to my Minister, Mr. Crerar.

The First Lord of the Admiralty at that time, as you may remember, was the Honourable Winston Churchill. At a very early session of the Dominion Ministers' Conference, meeting under the Chairmanship of the British Prime Minister, the Honourable Neville Chamberlain, Mr. Churchill made it clear that the Admiralty, in view of the increasing number of German submarines in the North Atlantic, was reluctant to assume the very heavy responsibility of the safe escort to United Kingdom ports of the large convoy required for the 1st Canadian Division. It was, consequently, the view of the Naval Staff that instead of the Canadians coming to England, they should sail direct to French ports in the Bay of Biscay and, taking over French barracks in the Loire area, carry out in France, not in the U.K., their further training, equipment and general preparation for active operations.

My Minister, no less than myself, was very opposed to this proposal by the Admiralty. Certainly from the Canadian point of view there were strong objections to it. The rate of equipment, and also training arrangements, for the Canadian troops were bound to suffer greatly. The administration problem would be much magnified. And there were obvious disadvantages to all ranks of the Canadians in the matter of their welfare services and leave during the months of preparation for action which, inevitably, lay ahead. It was consequently, arranged that my Minister, accompanied by our High Commissioner, the Honourable Vincent Massey and myself, should have a special, and separate, conference with Mr. Churchill, at which we might have an opportunity to persuade him to change the conclusions which he had previously so strongly put forward.

We met late the following afternoon at the Admiralty--Mr. Churchill, his Naval Secretary and the three Canadians grouped around the octagonal table in the First Lord's room--a well known bit of Admiralty furniture.

My Minister opened the discussion and then "passed the ball" to me. For the next fifteen minutes or so I then argued the Canadian case, to the best of my ability, with a man who is a very formidable person, indeed, to argue with. Finally, however, Mr. Churchill, leaning back from the table, said, "Well, I think Brigadier Crerar is right. We'll organize a whopping big escort and the Navy will bring the 1st Canadian Division safely to the United Kingdom."

You can imagine that we three Canadians were pretty pleased at this solution. Indeed, I felt rather particularly pleased with myself. But my self-gratification was somewhat deflated when Mr. Churchill, then turning to my Minister said, "Well, Crerar and Massey, I think the time and occasion calls for a drink and a cigar" and, leaving me with his Naval Secretary at the Conference table, led the other two Canadians to a buffet where the indicated hospitality was produced! I felt then--and I still do--that if anyone needed, or deserved, a drink at that time it was I, and, in the circumstances, that I was somewhat unkindly treated!

It is, of course, a major responsibility of a Senior Commander, in war, to think and plan as far ahead as it is rational and possible to do so. In my experience there was no such officer in the Allied Armies who fulfilled this responsibility more ably than did Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He gave tremendous thought to future contingencies and did so with great thoroughness. His resulting appreciations of what the enemy would do, and what he would do to the enemy were, therefore, models of clarity and brevity.

But no Senior Commander does his thinking unassisted. He obtains the very best information that he can, from others best qualified to help him, before he weighs the "pros and cons" of the issue and decides to adopt a certain technique and plan. I am now going to describe, briefly, a couple of occasions when the thinking carried out at Headquarters, 1st Canadian Corps and, later, at Headquarters First Canadian Army were of important assistance to operations subsequently planned and ordered at the higher levels of Allied and Army Group Headquarters.

My first reference is to the "savage clash" at Dieppe in August, 1942--though it is my intention to speak on the subsequent, and vastly important, results of that day of bitter fighting and not on the desperate, gallant episodes with which it was filled.

The fundamental requirement for success in that planned raid on Dieppe was tactical surprise. Indeed, as the means of obtaining heavy supporting fire when closing the beaches were not then available, nor even invented, tactical surprise was the only possible basis on which mainly to depend. In the result, surprise was in no way obtained and the rest of that day's story all the world knows.

The outstanding lesson of Dieppe, therefore, was the absolute need of the development of new and special means to secure overwhelming fire support as the landing craft closed on the enemy coast line. Not otherwise would it be reasonable to assume the feasibility of getting assaulting forces on to the beach and through strong enemy beach defences.

It was nearly a year, following Dieppe, before these specialized weapons and equipments commenced to become available and, in consequence, it was not until July, 1943, that the 1st Canadian Corps was given the responsibility of evolving, and demonstrating, with the necessary Naval and Air components, the tactics and techniques which, in the light of the tragic lessons of Dieppe, would give convincing promise of success in any future, large-scale, combined operation against a strongly defended enemy coast-line.

The 3rd Canadian Division was the formation selected by me to demonstrate the principles and procedures which I believed essential to pursue in order to solve this most difficult military problem. These principles were hammered out to something approaching finality in a 1st Canadian Corps Study, held from 26th to 31st July, 1943. In brief, the object of the study, as I laid it down, was to produce the simplest and most assured plan of fire and movement in closing the beaches, accepting as a primary principle that what the fire, or movement, lacked in exactitude required to be compensated for in volume and in speed. In the following weeks the 3rd Canadian Division with its allotted Naval and Air Forces, evolved a mutually satisfactory operation of procedure and technique which was effectively demonstrated to a very important gathering in a combined Exercise known as "Pirate" which took place in Studland Bay, off the Isle of Wight, in October, 1943.

A few days later I left for Italy with the leading elements of the 1st Canadian Corps. I took with me copies of the 1st Canadian Corps papers dealing with this evolution of the tactics and techniques of the assault landing, as demonstrated at Studland Bay. On 13th November, 1943, I gave them to General Montgomery, then Commanding the Eighth Army in Italy, for his study. They came back to me, by hand of his Chief of Staff, Major General de Guingand, some six weeks later, with the comment that the ideas and procedures developed by 3rd Canadian Division, and demonstrated at Exercise "Pirate", agreed with views held at Eighth Army Headquarters. Six months later, in the landing of the Allied Forces on the Normandy Beaches, the basic plan, the methods and techniques, bought and paid for by the 2nd Canadian Division at Dieppe, and demonstrated, over a year later, by the 3rd Canadian Division at Studland Bay, were put into successful execution. In my opinion, therefore, the preliminary contribution made by Canada to that immense and vital operation of war, which took place on 6th June, 1944, cannot be over-estimated, and I consider that, as Canadians, we are entitled to bear that thought quietly in mind.

A further matter I propose to tell you about has reference to a remark by Major General de Guingand, Field Marshall Montgomery's former Chief of Staff, which is recorded in de Guingand's recently published book entitled "Operation Victory". In it he writes, when describing certain of the important incidents prior to "D" day

"We gave the Canadian Army the particular task of studying the operation for crossing the Seine. They produced some excellent material which proved of immense value when the time came."

I will not go into the Appreciation and Outline Plan which, with the very great assistance of my Staff I had prepared-the stated object being the crossing of the river Seine and the capture of Rouen and Le Havre--except to confirm that the future situation confronting the Allied Armies, as pre-conceived in that Appreciation and the proposed Plan of Operations to deal with it, did in fact, prove to be very closely in accordance with what actually later took place. So, as de Guingand wrote, the Canadian Army material did prove "of immense value".

However, I have strong reasons, to believe that certain additional observations by Headquarters, First Canadian Army, which went to Field Marshall Mont gomery's Headquarters at the same time as the Appreciation just referred to--12th April, 1944--emphasizing the probability of heavy German attacks developing against the Caen sector shortly after the Allied landing, were also of value. At all events, in the subsequent development of 21 Army Group plans, the dispositions following the landing made effective preparations for the severe German pressure which, in fact, developed against the "Caen hinge" in the earlier weeks of the invasion and, indeed, Field Marshall Montgomery exploited this situation in a manner which, in August, two months after the landing, brought the enemy a decisive defeat. I suggest, therefore, that also in this very important matter the Canadian Command and Staff made a further noteworthy "pre-invasion" contribution 'to Allied success under Field Marshall Montgomery's direction.

My concluding reminiscences today are in a lighter ein and I shall but touch on two of them.

On the 29th August, 1944, after several days of very heavy fighting with strong and stubborn German forces, the 3rd Canadian Division succeeded in forcing the crossing of the River Seine and entering the great and historic French city of Rouen. In spite of the very heavy bombing the Allied Air Forces had done to that portion of the city lying in the vicinity of the all-important river bridges, the townspeople gave the Canadian troops a tremendous and moving welcome on their arrival.

As this was the first of the large cities of France to be freed from. the enemy by the Canadian Army it was decided that something special should be done about it. On the 12th September, therefore, I flew back to Rouen from my Tactical Headquarters--by then establishing near St. Omer, and a hundred miles further on-to present to the Mayor and Municipality, with due formality, and amidst scenes of civic enthusiasm and emotion, a commemorative plaque which had been skillfully and tastefully prepared by a craftsman of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps.

Now, it was my custom each evening, to dictate to my Confidential Clerk a record of important correspondence and activities of that day for inclusion in my personal War Diary. That evening was no exception and the ceremonial at Rouen was duly, and briefly, noted.

It was not until the end of the war, however, that one of the Official Historians of the Army, in a personal letter to me drew to my attention a spelling error in that day's War Diary. In the result, it is recorded that on that date I had returned to Rouen and, on behalf of the Canadian Army, presented the city with a "plague"!

As a preliminary to the second story I shall tell I must explain that in the 1st Canadian Corps, and later in the Canadian Army as a whole, particular attention was paid to convincing all ranks of the military truth that to look, and act, "tough" was just the reverse of an indication that the individual would prove a "tough" fighter in battle. Many centuries of military experience have, indeed, proved the reverse and that, as a general rule, it is the man who shows himself a smart, self-respecting soldier on or off duty who proves himself, in action, a first class fighting man.

As an indication that a good selling job in this matter had been done to the Canadian troops during their long and difficult period of training, and re-training, in the United Kingdom, I was able to pass on to all ranks, 1st Canadian Corps, in February, 1943, a remark made to me by the Commander in Chief Home Forces when I had been with him on a visit to the Eighth Army in Africa. General Paget had then said to me that he could always recognize Canadian troops, when off duty and at a distance by their excellent bearing and turn-out. He had added that their individual saluting, when met, seemed so spontaneous and friendly it was always a great pleasure to return the compliment.

Well, a few weeks later I was in London one Sunday afternoon. The street I was walking down was deserted--as usual in that city on that day and at that time--when, suddenly, around the next corner hove into view six soldiers, three Canadians and three Americans, arm-in-arm, in pairs and obviously "celebrating". It was a somewhat embarrassing prospect I had to face--but there was no alternative but to go forward and meet it.

As I approached the cheerful and somewhat unsteady, sextet my presence just couldn't help being noticed. There was some remark made by the leading Canadian and, in an instant, the Canadian soldiers disentangled themselves from their American friends, much to the latters' physical confusion, and marched by me giving me really a "super" salute which I tried to return as if nothing unusual was apparent. A second or so later I passed the three American soldiers who had been so abruptly deprived of the mutual support of their Canadian friends and consequently had been left in what might be termed "a bit of huddle." It was really very hard not to laugh at their confusion and the surprised look on their faces. I maintained outward composure but, inwardly, I chuckled delightedly, at the way our fellows had "shown their stuff" in spite of their personal distractions of that moment. And, as I walked away, I thought that General Paget had certainly had the soundest of grounds for his previous congratulatory remarks.

Well, gentlemen, if I reminisce any longer I shall certainly exceed my time, so I shall thank you for listening to me--and sit down.

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Some Reminiscences of 1935-45

A few personal experiences of the Second Great War. Telling a few tales without breach of faith and confidentiality. The speaker's arrival in the United Kingdom on October 28, 1939, to act as Military Advisor to the then Minister of Mines and Resources, the Honourable T.A. Crerar, who was to represent Canada at the Dominion Ministers Conference then assembling in London; also to set up a Canadian Military Headquarters in England, and to undertake immediate arrangements with the War Office for the reception, quartering, equipment and training of the 1st Canadian Division due to cross the Atlantic some two months later. Details of staff. Personal reminiscences and anecdotes involving getting the Canadian troops to England, events at, before and after Dieppe, Winston Churchill, and Field Marshall Montgomery among others.