What did the men and women of the Canadian army, navy and air force do in the Second World War? According to historian Tim Cook, in the years following 1945, this question was difficult to answer. While Canada had made a significant contribution of its wealth and manpower to the war, it seemed that both veterans and the government just wanted to forget about what they had been through and only look to the future. Even the senior Canadian commanders declined to publish their memoirs, while military leaders in the major Allied combatant countries quickly set out to do so, to establish their reputations in future history books. As a result, Canada’s successes in the war got little recognition. As the post-war years passed on, some junior officers and other ranks began to write of their experiences but not to the extent that veterans in Britain, the United States and even Germany did. To make matters worse, the story of Canada’s contribution to the war was not sufficiently taught in schools, and public turnout and at Remembrance Day ceremonies dwindled. It seemed that the war and the sacrifices made by so many Canadians would be lost as the veterans began dying off and young people took up other interests. Because of these above reasons, Tim Cook writes, Canadians’ understanding of their military history faded for fifty years after the war; but then this decline turned around with the anniversaries of both D-Day and the liberation of the Netherlands in the 1990s.
Still, throughout this post-1945 period, unresolved issues did not disappear. Cook highlights the long procession of these concerns that kept appearing, as interested citizens would not let them be forgotten. Immediately after the end of the war, the first to arise was the possibility that an official history of Canada’s participation would not even be written as the government proposed to close down its military research unit. Cook writes that historian Col. C.P. Stacey stubbornly fought back against the bureaucracy to keep this from happening. Even after these histories were published, Cook shows that most Canadians still knew little about the war, as media producers largely ignored the Canadian experience while televisions and theatres were fed a stream of American productions. Canadians were more likely to know only about the disaster of Dieppe but nothing about the Canadian successes in Italy or on the Scheldt..
Over the years, some of the groups that felt they needed to fight to correct historical issues included the surviving veterans of the battle for Hong Kong whose suffering from captivity by the Japanese was not sufficiently recognized by the government. Then there were the air force veterans who were outraged when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation presented the film The Valour and the Horror which tarnished the sacrifices they had made in the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Even civilians in Canada needed to right the injustice done to them during the war – Japanese Canadians sought compensation for being forcibly removed from their west coast homes and relocated to inland internment camps. Veterans from Canadian First Nations, who had volunteered to fight overseas, also had grievances when, upon returning home, they failed to receive benefits to which they were entitled. One particular issue that caused widespread anger was the trial of SS general Kurt Meyer for his responsibility in the execution of Canadian prisoners of war in Normandy. When Meyer was placed before a military tribunal, veterans felt that some justice would finally be obtained for their murdered comrades; but they were ultimately outraged by the results of the convoluted legal process. Tim Cook deals thoroughly and clearly with these complex issues, as well as the others that arose in what he calls Canada’s 75-year “fight for history”.
Cook concludes his book by describing the struggle by veterans to establish a museum that would ensure Canada’s military history would be preserved and appropriately displayed. This was finally achieved in 2005 when a new museum with a unique architectural design was opened in Ottawa. This story of creating a museum could be a dull read, but even here Cook makes it interesting by his flowing style of writing which brings out the elements of drama that accompanied the museum’s drawn-out genesis and conclusion.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history