June 23, 2004


(See previous entry.)

The open question in military historiography has always been the limits of what any one man can accomplish. In discussing Canadian military contributions that number in the millions in personnel numbers in the two world wars, focussing on the general or the battlefield hero can be deceptive. General staffs are integrated, collective decision-making organizations; so are regiments, in their own way. The influence of an individual is always tightly circumscribed.

Sometimes, of course, one person's misfortune can become his army's. That happened at Mount Sorrel in June, 1916, when a lucky shell blew away Maj. Gen. M.S. Mercer, commander of the Canadian Third Division, just before a German attack. The leaderless Canadians fought on, but the command vacuum was a huge factor. Mercer would be the highest-ranking Canadian soldier ever to die in combat.

In other cases, an individual's shortcomings can apparently have no effect at all. Canadians recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, where the Third Division again, landing at Juno Beach, drove farther inland and with fewer casualties the first day than any of the other four British and American divisions in the first wave. A notable victory, right? So why do we not pause to commemorate the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Rod Keller?

Sadly, the truth was Keller was an alcoholic who spent most of the run-up to D-Day with his married British mistress. Accused of several invasion-security violations in England, he apparently had little to do with his own staff's D-Day planning. Obsessed with his own safety while in command in those crucial early days in Normandy, he fell apart more or less immediately upon arrival. The verdict of his troops: "Keller is yeller." His corps commander, Simonds, inexplicably kept him on until August, even after Keller asked to be relieved (!), at which point an accidental bombing of Canadian lines by American B-17s wounded him, ending the suspense. In the end, however, Keller's lack of competence seemed to have been no obstacle at all on D-Day proper. Such is the irony inherent in any such list as this one... the Canadian soldier did as well as could be expected on the whole, whether he was well-led or no.

Anyway, on to #5-8:

8) Maj. Gen Bert Hoffmeister (1907-1999): If you don't count Roberts' few hours of watching his division be destroyed from offshore at Dieppe, and those generals who would be elevated to yet higher command, Canada had eight combat divisional commanders in the Second World War. Two were very poor (Keller and Kitching); three were unremarkably competent (Foster, Spry and Keefler). Three others were, in retrospect, rather good. Bruce Mathews, the Toronto executive-turned-soldier, was praised for courage and competence; Chris Vokes was the soldiers' favourite, a drinker, a womanizer, and as rough-hewn as they come (the soldiers' joke was that if you removed the words "f*ck" and "frontal" from the English language, Vokes would be unable to either give orders or communicate).

But the best of them was probably Bert Hoffmeister. A lumber company executive from Vancouver and reserve infantry major, he had gone to England with the first wave in 1939. Noticed and given a regiment by Vokes in 1942, he distinguished himself in action in Sicily the next year, and was given a brigade in Vokes' division. Vokes relied on him heavily in the bitter street-to-street fighting in Ortona that December; in March 1944 he was appointed commander of the 5th Armoured Division in Italy.

The 5th Armoured was probably Canada's best division at war's end, and certainly the one with the strongest sense of divisional identity: the "Mighty Maroon Machine," named after their shoulder patches. Hoffmeister had a lot to do with this... the British ranked him with the best of their own divisional commanders. His decision to attack early, before all the preparations had been made, in the battle for the Gothic Line in August 1944 was probably the boldest command decision by a Canadian general in the entire war, and paid off in a remarkable victory. If he had a flaw, it was that he followed the Simonds approach of leading battles from the front, rather than HQ, sometimes putting himself at unnecessary risk and cutting himself off from useful information.

"Hoffy" was selected to command the Canadian division in the planned invasion of Japan that turned out not to be necessary. After the war, he returned to private life, and the lumber business. Awarded the DSO and two bars for battlefield brilliance and courage, he died in 1999.

7) Air Commodore Len Birchall (1914- ): It's too easy to focus on generals. Canadian soldiers from Alexander Dunn (who won the Victoria Cross at Balaclava in 1856) to Tommy Prince have engaged in great battlefield feats. It's hard to point at one single act, however, that changed history more than then S/Ldr Len Birchall's sighting of a Japanese invasion fleet off Sri Lanka in 1942.

Birchall's location of Admiral Nagumo's fleet while flying a Catalina patrol aircraft in April 1942, and he and his crew's dedication to sending their radio message with accurate course, location and strength information while the Zeroes closed in on them, led to the defenders of Colombo being prepared when the air attacks came. Shot down, two of the crew were killed in the water. The rest were picked up, and Birchall was tortured in an attempt to reveal whether a radio message had been sent. He steadfastly denied it, leading the Japanese to launch their assault against a prepared defense.

As senior soldier in the Yokohama prison camp he was sent to, Birchall repeatedly intervened at risk to his own life to prevent acts of savagery against other Allied captives. Called the "Saviour of Ceylon" by Churchill when it was believed he was killed in action, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for that; but it was for his steadfast leadership in the camps that he would receive the Order of the British Empire for postwar.

6) Lieut. Gen Guy G. Simonds (1903-1974): Simonds is certainly the most controversial character in Canadian military history. Was he a genius, or a failure? The CBC TV series "The Valour and the Horror," in their revisionist mien, declared him a ruthless butcher. Bradley and others considered him the best general Canada had. Compared to Canada's other two corps commanders in the Second World War (Foulkes and E.L.M. Burns) he was definitely the best, but that's rather faint praise.

Here's what most historians will agree on: Simonds worked hard to minimize casualties, but never shirked from them. He was creative in saving lives when he could be: inventing for himself a fleet of armoured personnel carriers, among other innovations, to break through German lines. He openly emulated his mentor Montgomery, who would treat him as his protege throughout the war. His faults, unsurprisingly, mirrored Monty's own -- cold, difficult for other officers to get along with, arrogant, overly reliant on artillery -- but without that other general's human touch. He issued original and thorough plans, then watched the battle from the front lines, taking considerable risk. He led Canada's first division to see sustained combat successfully through the Sicily campaign, and the Canadian tactical victories after August 1944 in Holland and Germany, once Simonds had mastered corps command, rightly belong to him more than anyone else. After the war, as commander of the army during Korea, he ably remobilized the army for new challenges.

But the problem, though, will always be his first three months of corps command in Normandy. Simonds had three divisions of raw troops, and three unimpressive divisional commanders to call on (Keller, Kitching and Foulkes), and had never really commanded a corps in combat himself. He made three breakout attempts in four weeks; the first two were slaughters (as were similar attempts by British corps, it should be noted), and the third (Operation Tractable) failed to do the one thing it absolutely had to do: close the Falaise Gap. If the Canadians had closed that gap sooner, trapping the entire German army in France, the war in Europe would have been significantly shortened. But they could not. You can say this wasn't Simonds' fault, and you wouldn't be wrong... Simonds gave orders to plug the German retreat path, but they were inexplicably disobeyed by his personal friend George Kitching, commander of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the only formation in a position to alter events from the British side of the gap through forceful action. (Kitching's failure here is a leading candidate for the most damaging act by a Canadian soldier in wartime... it's even more baffling when one notes that Kitching knew the Polish Armoured Division was cut off and fighting for its life in the gap, and he STILL refused to advance.*) Kitching was demoted and sent to Italy, of course, but it was too late.

The real tragedy, however, is that Simonds and Simonds alone had recently relieved Kitching's predecessor, the hard-driving Worthington, because he felt the old tanker general was too elderly for combat. There is no doubt in this author's mind that, had Worthington (or Hoffmeister, or Vokes, for that matter; see above) been in charge at Falaise, the Germans would have been trapped, Simonds would have been lauded as a battlefield genius, and the war would have been months shorter in duration, with thousands fewer dead. Simonds may have understood the mathematics of combat, but he simply never mastered people.

5) Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw (1893-1975): Canada's World War One fighter aces often rank high on any standard list of Canadian war heroes. The number one and three on the Canadian list (Bishop and Barker) are well-known (both made the CBC list that started all this). But Bishop's victories and Victoria Cross have been called into question by historians, and Barker's 50-odd aerial victories were mostly on the lower-intensity Italian front and included many observation balloons... his famous 60-to-1 duel at war's end (still one of the greatest single fighter-pilot accomplishments ever), for which he won his own VC, notwithstanding.

But Ray Collishaw was probably a better aerial killer than either of them. Unfortunately, flying for the Royal Naval Air Service in a Sopwith Triplane (wazzat?), not as many people noticed. The RNAS, unlike the Royal Flying Corps, insisted on positive confirmation before crediting any kills... in all likelihood Collishaw's actual kill number exceeded any British or Canadian ace (He believed his real number was 81). They included Richthofen's second-in-command, 30-victory ace Karl Allmenroeder (Collishaw's all-Canadian "Black Flight" and the Richthofen Jasta clashed several times in triplane-on-triplane duels.) He, too, did a crazy dawn solo air raid like Bishop's; the difference is, his was actually witnessed.

War's end didn't stop Collishaw. He fought in White Russia against the Bolsheviks, then in the Iraq and Kurdish revolts. Promoted Air Commodore and made commander of the British air forces in Egypt in 1939, he led that organization through the early victories over the Italians until 1941, at a time when the British were heavily outnumbered in the air and on the defensive. Thanks largely to his efforts, the Italians consistently overestimated the numbers of aircraft facing them. A born killer as a young man, he was recognized as a master of military deception in his middle age. There are few more rounded air warriors in any military or any era.

Next time: numbers 1 through 4 (bet you can't guess all four yet), the military figure I most identify with, and the one I'm most proud to have met (neither of which, unfortunately, are on the list).

*Kitching's defense then and afterwards for failing at Falaise was twofold: he'd just lost one of his brigadiers in action (a setback, true), and he didn't want to lose touch with his logistics. But this was the kind of moment tankers claim to live for. Simonds had correctly ordered a full-out pursuit against what for a brief moment was a beaten and retreating enemy, an order the Poles had seized upon with such alacrity they'd plunged in headlong and gotten themselves surrounded; he should have been able to count on Canada's senior tank commander in Normandy to grasp the "Tally Ho" moment, too, or at least go to the other division's aid.

Posted by BruceR at 02:01 AM