June 19, 2004


(See previous entry.)

A few things come to mind in any exercise like this: for instance, there's no real place in any "greatest" list for the heroic failures, or the tragic heroes. The obvious example in Canada's case is Brig. Gen. John Lawson, who as a staff officer in Ottawa advocated against sending a brigade to Hong Kong in 1941, was ironically chosen as its commander anyway, did the best he could in a forlorn hope, and finally died with a pistol in his hand when the Japanese overran his headquarters... making him the most senior Canadian army officer to die from direct enemy fire in that war. Death before dishonour aside, that's just sad... and had no positive effects on anyone, at all.

A more complex case is Gen. Andrew McNaughton. The counterbattery genius who silenced the German artillery at Vimy, a founding force in Canadian national scientific research programs, a successful if controversial defence minister... he did so many things so well. But as the first commander of the Canadians abroad in England, he was a spectacular failure, who in the end left Montgomery no choice but to sack him. At first adored by his troops (when he only commanded the one division; you could make the case everything went downhill as soon as McNaughton got a corps), his policy of keeping the Canadians as a unified force-in-being in England, even if it meant restricting the kind of seconded and detached duties that would have led to some building up of useful battle experience, led to an army still comprised of battlefield novices even in 1944. When he wasn't engaged in high-level politics as Canada's senior political representative in Britain, he was down in the weeds, inventing new gunnery techniques personally, but he all but ignored his actual appointed job as commander of the army in the field, that being to prepare his men for battle. His able student Crerar was able to pick up the pieces after he left, but only after far too much time had been wasted.

You just have to compare McNaughton's idea (shared widely at home, it should be added) of an insular, self-contained Canadian army with the RCN or RCAF at the same time -- or even Currie's WW1 Canadian Corps -- which traded officers with the British in both directions with aplomb whenever it helped the greater cause, to realize that his far-too-strict emphasis on national self-sufficiency only hurt Canada's fighting ability on the ground in the long run. In his greatest test as a leader, McNaughton lost track of his own aim and intent, and thousands of his soldiers went into battle less ready than they could have been as a result of that. To my mind, that more than cancels out his WW1 successes, and his accomplishments back in Canada, as well.

Anyway, on to the next four in the Flit list:

12) Gen. Jacques A. Dextraze (1919-1993): "Jadex" or "Mad Jimmy" as he was known, was arguably the most-loved Canadian general of all time, at least from the troops' perspective. A rubber salesman who enlisted as a private in the Fusiliers Mont-Royal in 1939, he was commissioned lieutenant after that regiment was decimated at Dieppe. He won the DSO at May-Sur-Orne in Normandy as a 24 year-old company commander. Made battalion commander, he personally talked an 800-man German unit at Groningen, Holland, into surrender, receiving a bar for the same medal. As CO of 2nd Battalion Van Doos in Korea, he received further accolades, as a courageous, aggressive leader.

Promoted brigadier-general, he was sent to the Congo in 1963 as second-in-command of the UN mission there. With the country collapsing into genocidal anarchy and numerous isolated aid and religious organizations in danger, he organized and led a group of Canadian and Nigerian troops in a series of ludicrously risky rescue missions, travelling in light planes and helicopters, that rescued hundreds of NGO personnel through 1964. In one effort, he landed his personal helicopter to pick up 4 missionaries with rebels in hot pursuit, and was forced to hold hold the enemy off himself with his SMG until they could escape. (Dextraze's force operated concurrently with Mike Hoare and his "Wild Geese" mercenaries, doing the same thing on the other side of the country.) He received the CBE for that one.

It's been 30 years since Dextraze was the Chief of Defence Staff, but Jadex is still the one soldiers fondly recall in that role. He always led from the front and always demanded as much from himself as he did from his men.

11) Lieut. Gen. Charles Foulkes (1903-1969): I tried hard to keep Foulkes off this list, but it's impossible. He's the Organization Man of Canadian military history, the Man in the Khaki Flannel Suit... no one really seems to have liked him, but he never seems to have pissed anyone off, either (until he diplomatically won the bureaucratic battle for postwar control over the army, beating out rival and presumed frontrunner Guy Simonds). Utterly gray in his personality, cold, managerial... Foulkes was very much like his boss and mentor, Harry Crerar (#13 on this list). He apparently got along very well with the American manager-generals (Bradley, Bedell Smith, Eisenhower), too.

After the war, as head of the army through the late 40s, and head of the armed forces through the 50s, Foulkes was a key figure in the creation of the NATO military organization, frequently acting as the "disinterested-party mediator" in those councils in fine Canadian fashion. He led the Canadian military ably through Korea and UNEF. When he left the military in 1960, the armed forces were at the peak of its post-war strength. It has, frankly, been downhill ever since. But whether Foulkes' departure was symptomatic or causative in relation to that decline is an open question.

I thought to exclude him because Foulkes never really had an independent command in a shooting war. Starting your battlefield experience as head of a division in Normandy will do that. In Northwest Europe, he was always second-fiddle to Simonds, his corps commander and the Canadians' real tactical planner. Getting command of First Corps in Italy, he successfully managed its transfer en masse to Holland in early 1944, which only put him under Simonds' thumb again. There were no defeats that could be fairly blamed on him, but no significant personal successes, either. If he left a mark in wartime, it can't be found. But his profound influence on the Canadian postwar military (including, like Grant below, his weaning of the armed service from British influence in favour of American) can't be denied. To wish for the glory days of Canadian peacetime soldiering is to wish for the days Foulkes was in charge.

10) Vice. Adm. Harold Grant (1899-1965): There was a brief moment in 1945 when Canada had the third-largest navy in the world... yet hardly anyone in Canada remembers its leaders. Nelles, the Chief of Naval Staff, and Murray, the theatre commander (arguably the only time a Canadian has ever been a strategic-level commander) in the North Atlantic, were competent men both, although Murray would take responsibility for and fall from grace over the Halifax rioting at war's end.

But to this author a more impressive man than either was the fellow who took up the reins from them post-war... Harold Grant. A decorated naval officer as captain of the light cruiser HMS Enterprise (a DSO for a 1943 surface action, and a mentioned-in-dispatches for D-Day), he was knocked out of the war in Europe with a wound while supporting American troops at Cherbourg (he would receive the Bronze Star for that). When VJ-Day came, the former "captain of the Enterprise" was steaming west towards Japan as captain of the newly Canadianized light cruiser HMCS Ontario.

But it was his contributions as head of the postwar navy where Grant had the greatest influence... perpetuating the RCN's wartime expertise as a predominantly anti-submarine and convoy escort force when that was exactly what NATO wanted of us. His influence was key in detaching the RCN from Royal Navy tradition, in favour of a close interoperability with the US Navy. His insistence that the key RCN vessels henceforth be a flotilla of Canadian-built destroyers resulted in the navy makeup that persists today. Always convinced that the strength of a navy lay in its personnel, as head of the navy he successfully managed both our Korean War naval commitments, and the major naval rebuilding effort that resulted in part from his strenuous efforts in Ottawa. He has been called "Father of the Postwar Navy;" the degree to which the RCN remains the most balanced and budget-cut immune of Canada's armed services, is, more than anyone else's, a tribute to Grant's sensible and farthinking planning.

9) Lieut. Col. Charles-Michel d'Irumberry De Salaberry (1778-1829): We couldn't go much above #10 on this list without mentioning the victor of Chateauguay, the biggest victory ever won by Canadian-raised troops on Canadian soil.

De Salaberry was lucky in his start to life: the Duke of Kent was a family patron, and helped buy his way into British military service and society. As a young officer in the 60th Foot he distinguished himself during the British conquest of much of the French Caribbean in 1794-95. In 1806 he began his productive relationship as the understudy of emigre military theorist Francis de Rottenburg, intellectual font of the British light infantry reforms then being executed by Moore, and at that time CO of the 5/60th, the first British infantry battalion to be allowed to forsake their redcoats for low-visibility green uniforms. Following the unsuccessful 1809 Walcheren expedition, he ended up returning to Canada as Rottenburg's aide. There he set up the Provincial Corps of Light Infantry (the "Voltigeurs"), a gray-clad battalion of French-Canadians trained to British light infantry standards. It became the core of a tripwire advance force on the Quebec border de Salaberry would command during the War of 1812.

The problem was, the British commander in North America, George Prevost, HATED de Salaberry (they'd known each other since the West Indies), apparently systematically removing his name from all favourable military despatches. So his successful skirmish at Lacolle in 1812 was credited to another, as was his successful defence on the Chateauguay River in late 1813 that, among French Canadians at least, he will always be remembered for. Yes, the American commander was timid and apparently looking for an excuse to turn back, and yes, the ground was entirely in de Salaberry's favour, but in the end, it was still a legit victory... 4,000 Americans honestly tried for four hours to blow past de Salaberry's 500 Canadians, and failed, with only 5 Canadian fatalities ... however much Prevost would soon try to claim it for others not even present.

Next time: Nos. 5 through 8, and why Canadians celebrate D-Day without mentioning the Canadian commander.

Posted by BruceR at 01:44 AM