This Week in History


Calling Out the Reserves

For the Week of Monday September 22, 2014

In early September 1939, one week after Great Britain and France, Canada declared war on Germany. By entering the war on its own terms on September 10, the Canadian government demonstrated that Canada would be Great Britain’s partner in war, rather than its subordinate.

Poster showing Canada as Great Britain’s partner
© Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-243
The scramble to mobilize, however, actually began on August 25, 1939, when 10,000 reservists were ordered to protect coastal military installations. Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, the Canadian army, navy and air force began full mobilization. Aerial and naval patrols began that day, and the army, including selected reserve units, prepared for home defence and overseas service.

Despite the declaration of war, Prime Minister Mackenzie King wanted to limit Canadian involvement, fearful that opposition to conscription (mandatory military service for young, single men) would divide the country. Only one army division would be sent overseas. Soon thereafter, Canadian and British authorities began discussing the possibility of conducting flight training for the British Commonwealth in Canada. In December, these discussions resulted in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), which the British government acknowledged to be Canada’s principal contribution to the war, lessening the pressure on King to send more troops to Europe.

Unidentified members of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in a train leaving Union Station in Ottawa, on Nov. 19, 1940
© Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-204286

However, the situation changed when France fell to the Germans in May 1940, and Great Britain was surrounded. This prompted Prime Minister King to amend the policy of limited involvement with one providing greater support. Afterwards, the number of men and the amount of money being sent to Europe drastically increased.

This year marks the first year of the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. There are many national historic designations related to the war, including Service of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Role of the Canadian Merchant Navy, Entry of Women in the Military, and The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which are all National Historic Events, as well as William Lyon Mackenzie King who is a National Historic Person.

To learn more about the Second World War, please see Disaster at Dieppe, Operation Husky: The Canadian Landing in Sicily, The Battle of the Atlantic – War on the Homefront, The Battle of Scheldt – Victory on the Dykes, Canada’s War Effort Takes Flight in the This Week in History archives. For more on the First and Second World Wars, visit the Government of Canada’s World War Commemorations page.

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