The War Begins

Troops marching

Troops marching

The Second World War began at dawn on September 1, 1939, as the German Armies swept into Poland. With the full fury of the blitzkrieg— lightning war—the German armoured (Panzer) divisions destroyed Polish defences in the west. The Soviet troops, as previously agreed with Germany, crossed the eastern frontier. Trapped between two advancing armies Polish resistance ended. Poland surrendered.

Britain and France, honouring their pledge to Poland, declared war on Germany on September 3. Although not automatically committed by Britain's declaration of war, as in 1914, there was little doubt that Canada would quickly follow. On September 7 Parliament met in special session; on September 9 it approved support to Britain and France; on September 10 King George VI announced that Canada had declared war.

Canadian coastal defences were quickly manned, militia regiments, mobilized even before the outbreak of war, intensified preparations, and volunteers flocked to the colours. In September alone, 58,337 men and women enlisted. In December units of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division sailed for Britain, the first of thousands that were to serve overseas during the war.

Following the collapse of Poland a strange lull set in on the western front. This period of apparent inactivity from October 1939 to April 1940 became known as the "Phony War" or the "sitzkrieg." Both sides utilized the lull. Britain built up her defences, prepared her air forces, and dispatched an expeditionary force to the Continent. French troops took up positions on the Maginot Line—the fortified defence line on their eastern border. The Germans, too, manned their great Rhineland fortifications, known as the West Wall or the Siegfried Line—and they engaged in intense preparation for attack.

In Canada recruiting was stepped up to bolster the armed forces. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began arriving in England in the summer of 1940, and together with the 1st Division, the 1st Canadian Corps, under Lieut.-General A.G.L. McNaughton, was formed.

The Phony War came to a sudden end when, in April 1940, German troops without warning seized Denmark and launched an invasion of Norway. Allied troops were dispatched in a vain attempt to aid the small Norwegian forces. In the far north near the port of Narvik the British navy won two engagements, but these isolated victories were not enough; the Allied troops, which included some Canadian Army engineers, were forced to withdraw. In less than two months the Germans had conquered Denmark and Norway and isolated Sweden. From the deep Norwegian fjords German submarines and warships could destroy British shipping along the route to Murmansk.

On May 10, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain, Germany launched her blitzkrieg against Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. The German Army worked with clock-like precision. Within four days most of Holland was overrun and in just ten days the German forces had struck through the Ardennes forest, skirted the northern end of the Maginot Line, and reached the Channel ports. On May 27 Belgium surrendered.

With German troops pressing from all sides the Allied troops were forced to the Channel with the sea as the only hope of escape. Then came the "miracle of Dunkirk." Between May 27 and June 4 almost 350,000 men, mainly of the British Expeditionary Force, were evacuated across the Channel to England in every kind of vessel that would float from freighters to fishing boats. One final attempt by Canadian and British troops to maintain a "toe-hold" in France by forming a fortress area in the peninsula of Britanny also had to be abandoned. While the forced withdrawal at Dunkirk and the loss of weapons and equipment was undoubtedly a disaster, the heroic rescue of so many raised the morale of the now threatened British people.

Meanwhile, German Armies were marching toward Paris. France, stunned by the speed of the German advance, was on the verge of collapse when Italy, under Mussolini, attacked on the Mediterranean front. The situation was considered hopeless. France surrendered on June 22, 1940.

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