A Thoroughly Canadian General

A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar

PAUL DOUGLAS DICKSON
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 528
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442683983
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  • Book Info
    A Thoroughly Canadian General
    Book Description:

    From his days as a student at the Royal Military College in Kingston, to his role as primary architect of First Canadian Army, the career of General H.D.G. Crerar is thoroughly examined with a view to considering and reinforcing his place in the history of Canada and its armed forces.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8398-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    General H.D.G. ‘Harry’ Crerar fought in, led, or was responsible for most of the defining moments of the army’s history during the first half of the twentieth century. He was almost killed during the Second Battle of Ypres. He was a gunner, helping to secure victory at Vimy Ridge. He was a senior staff officer, helping to plan the offensives at Amiens and during the Hundred Days. He was the primary architect of First Canadian Army. As Chief of the General Staff, he advised the government to dispatch troops to Hong Kong. He campaigned for Canadian involvement in the Dieppe...

  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. Maps
    (pp. xxv-xliii)
  7. Map Credits
    (pp. xliv-2)
  8. 1 Hamilton Roots
    (pp. 3-24)

    Henry Duncan Graham Crerar was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on 28 April 1888. Canada was a few months shy of twenty-one years old. Sir John A. Macdonald was Prime Minister, and Queen Victoria, on the throne since 1837 and having emerged from her self-imposed internal exile, had already lent her name to the age. The spirit and circumstances of the age of Victoria into which Crerar was born were already well-defined: few doubted the authority of church, history, political institutions, tradition, or the importance of character, civic duty, and self-discipline. And if they did, most kept it to themselves. Victorian...

  9. 2 Baptism of Fire
    (pp. 25-45)

    The Canadian response to Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August was a quick and enthusiastic offer of an expeditionary force, gratefully accepted by His Majesty’s government on 6 August. On the recommendation of the Army Council, Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative Cabinet authorized the raising and equipping of a contingent whose strength was set at 25,000 volunteers by an Order-in-Council on 10 August. Imbued with romantic notions of war, seeking adventure, or simply looking for three square meals a day, thousands of Canadians came forward.¹ Crerar and his brothers, only one generation removed from Britain, were among them.

    The...

  10. 3 The Killing Ground
    (pp. 46-68)

    The Second Battle of Ypres killed Crerar’s romantic idea of war, but not his belief in the causes for which he was fighting. A taciturn and cautious Harry Crerar emerged from that battlefield. Steady promotion in the Canadian Corps artillery marked the next three years. Exposed to one of the most innovative branches of the corps, Crerar absorbed and applied the lessons revealed by the early engagements about the strengths and limitations of the artillery. He became an accomplished technician and staff officer, methodical and dedicated, but with a growing ambition. Yet he never forgot what was at stake, a...

  11. 4 Learning the Game
    (pp. 69-85)

    At war’s end, Crerar’s future was determined by financial and family considerations: his daughter, Margaret, was born in 1916; his youngest brother was dead; his elder brother, John, had been severely wounded; and his mother was dying. There was truth in Cynthia Asquith’s observation that with the war over, people now had to face an awful fact: the dead were not just dead for the duration of the war, but were gone forever. Crerar had not yet decided to make a career in the army. While Crerar was still overseas, Sir Adam Beck made overtures to the Minister of Militia...

  12. 5 Stagnation
    (pp. 86-99)

    The promise of the early 1920s gave way to the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of the 1930s. The darkening international situation contrasted with the government’s cautious approach to preparing the country for the storm that might soon break. A frustrated Crerar, convinced by the mid-1930s that war was on the horizon, tried to prepare the army and the country. Faced with public indifference, political hostility, interdepartmental rivalries, and hampered by his own inexperience, the first half of the decade was a difficult learning experience in the politics of defence preparedness.

    Crerar’s teaching career ended abruptly when Andrew McNaughton was appointed Chief of...

  13. 6 The Politics of Preparedness
    (pp. 100-117)

    The imminence of war shaped the second half of the 1930s. Crerar produced some astute assessments of the deterioration of the international situation and its probable consequences. Still, these translated into only modest gains in preparedness, particularly for the army, and fed an atmosphere of distrust and anxiety at the headquarters. External Affairs remained a major obstacle to further defence preparations, even as Mackenzie King slowly recognized the volatility of the situation in Europe and the Far East. Crerar emerged from these struggles a much shrewder political operative, but still frustrated with the slow progress in defence preparations and his...

  14. 7 Limited Liability War
    (pp. 118-136)

    ‘It will be a long war, or series of wars, and Canadians (and Americans too) will need to put every ounce into it,’ observed Crerar in 1939. To him, a large army effort was a foregone conclusion. He was also convinced that Canadians would quickly rally to Britain’s side. These assumptions, and the memory of the problems during the First World War, shaped his goals when he was sent overseas to establish the Canadian Military Headquarters in London. Freed, or so he thought, from the constraints imposed both by Mackenzie King’s fear that speaking of war would make it so,...

  15. 8 Chief of the General Staff
    (pp. 137-156)

    On 26 January 1942, Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced to the House of Commons the government’s intention to establish in the coming year the overseas First Canadian Army, comprising two corps. The announcement was greeted with only a smattering of applause, suggesting the House’s disapproval of yet another addition to Canada’s ground forces. The army program speech was partly the victim of domestic politics. Presented to Parliament, and the country, in defence of the government’s wartime record and timed to diffuse criticism of the plebiscite to free the government from its no-conscription pledge, the announcement also followed hard on the...

  16. 9 Hong Kong and the Politics of Army Expansion
    (pp. 157-173)

    The Army Programme for 1942 was the culmination of Crerar’s goals for the army. He steered it past the resistance of the Prime Minister and some of the Cabinet. Yet the most controversial aspect of his last year as CGS was his role in the dispatch of Canadian troops to Hong Kong. Although usually examined as distinct issues, the decision to send troops to Hong Kong and the selection of the units is better understood in the context of the second army program and Crerar’s broader agenda as CGS. Combined with his strategic view of the benefits of sending Canadian...

  17. 10 Father of First Canadian Army
    (pp. 174-183)

    Decisions highlighted by the tragedy at Hong Kong were secondary to Crerar’s agenda in the fall of 1941. Working feverishly to prepare his army program for 1942, he built his proposals on an appreciation of the strategic situation as well as the crucial manpower estimates. With these assessments in hand, Crerar hoped to gain Cabinet War Committee acceptance of the program ‘in principle,’ and then seek confirmation of his appreciation from the War Office and McNaughton.¹ His goal was an army formation.

    Crerar’s fixation on public and political opinion during the summer of 1941 was shaped partially by the fact...

  18. 11 Preparing 1st Canadian Corps
    (pp. 184-197)

    ‘On [my] arrival [in the] UK ... I had had no field command in this war,’ Crerar wrote in 1946. ‘It followed, therefore, that whatever conclusions I might personally reach as to changes in policy, organization and command in 1st Canadian Corps, it was necessary for me to delay action, whenever possible, until Lieutenant-General McNaughton returned and I obtained his approval or otherwise. I was very much in the position of a “locum tenens.”’ Crerar’s candid avowal of his inexperience, and tacit admission of his insecurity as he began his tenure in command, was understandable in light of his rapid...

  19. 12 Dieppe
    (pp. 198-210)

    Crerar pursued another tack to make the corps more efficient. He wanted Canadian troops to be included in the increasingly ambitious raids on the coast of occupied Europe. Although not the only advocate of this policy, he was main Canadian proponent. The result was Canadian participation on the Dieppe raid in August 1942, the Canadians’ first experience of combat in Europe during the Second World War. Crerar’s role is clear enough. It centred on three issues: his persistent advocacy of the use of Canadian troops on raids; his involvement as GOC, 1st Canadian Corps, in the planning and execution of...

  20. 13 Replacing McNaughton
    (pp. 211-225)

    Following the Dieppe raid, Crerar redoubled his efforts to train both himself and 1st Canadian Corps. His desire to see Canadians in action increased, mirroring that of Canadian politicians such as Ralston. This advocacy ruined Crerar’s relationship with McNaughton, and he became involved in the British campaign to remove McNaughton from army command. Crerar was also chafing under McNaughton’s tutelage. He disliked McNaughton’s attempts to shield or distance him from the politics of high command, an aspect of their relationship since the 1920s. By 1943 Crerar believed McNaughton had to go, but his actions to achieve this removal were mainly...

  21. 14 Corps Command in Italy
    (pp. 226-236)

    At age fifty-five, Crerar arrived in Italy to take the corps into operations, his first experience of operations since the First World War and, by the end of 1943, the primary purpose of his appointment. The course of operations in the Mediterranean, and Montgomery, conspired to prevent Crerar from obtaining operational command experience in Italy. He did grow, and helped groom the corps headquarters for operations. But Crerar’s experience was limited to exercises and observations. These did nothing to dispel the concerns that swirled in some quarters, and indeed his clashes with Guy Simonds only furthered the impression that he...

  22. 15 Taking Command of the Army
    (pp. 237-259)

    Crerar was well suited to the dual role he would play as army commander. He had a keen insight into the balance to be struck between his political and military responsibilities. His political acumen strengthened his nomination for army command, but the British, with one significant exception, also had faith in his ability and potential. Crerar took control of First Canadian Army before his return from Italy. He reviewed headquarters organization, sought (and gained) an operational planning role for his army, and attempted to divorce himself from the constitutional and political policy concerns that had, in his view, undermined McNaughton’s...

  23. 16 First Canadian Army and Overlord
    (pp. 260-282)

    When C.P. Stacey drafted the official history of the Canadian army during the Normandy campaign, he described Crerar, prior to the employment of First Canadian Army headquarters in July 1944, as ‘merely a spectator.’ Crerar reacted to this view with unusual fervour. Detailing his activities, he concluded, ‘I feel that I was something more than “merely a spectator,” to be quite frank.’¹ He was right. But his operational role was limited, although still important. And again he faced major issues surrounding the seemingly interminable questions of the capability of Canadian senior command and their British doubters.

    Montgomery orchestrated the final...

  24. 17 The Normandy Campaign
    (pp. 283-303)

    First Canadian Army became operational at the beginning of some of the most intense fighting of the war in northwest Europe. The German armies in Normandy were disintegrating but continued to inflict heavy casualties on the Allies. With the German collapse in late August, the largely static conditions of the Normandy front rapidly devolved into a pursuit of the remnants of their armies. Crerar never grasped full control of the battles of August, in part because his experience was outpaced by the rapidity of events, and in part because, for better or worse, Montgomery (and Simonds) never loosened their grip....

  25. 18 The Learning Curve: Totalize and Tractable
    (pp. 304-320)

    Crerar faced a steep learning curve as the Allied armies prepared to break out of the Normandy bridgehead. He proved receptive to new ideas for breaking through the German lines – he was one of the few to evaluate the German reports on Allied deficiencies – and tried to address some of the problems. Yet he was still hesitant to force his conceptions on his subordinates, except in very broad terms.

    On 2 August 1944, ULTRA intelligence revealed that Hitler had ordered Commander-in-Chief West General Gunther von Kluge to redeploy at least four of the nine panzer divisions on the...

  26. 19 Coalition Battles
    (pp. 321-336)

    Major-General George Kitching was dismissed following what Simonds considered 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s poor performance in Totalize and Tractable. The morning of 22 August found Kitching standing in front of Harry Crerar’s desk in his caravan. ‘He was kindness itself,’ recalled Kitching. ‘He treated me as an uncle might treat his favourite nephew except that he rarely used Christian names.’ Following the appropriate pleasantries, relaxed by a cigarette, Crerar told him that he was having trouble with Montgomery. ‘If it’s any comfort to you,’ Crerar concluded, ‘it may not be long before Montgomery tries to remove me.’¹

    And it was...

  27. 20 First Canadian Army and the Scheldt
    (pp. 337-359)

    Crerar and First Canadian Army were harshly criticized for their handling of operations following the breakout from Normandy. British historians have tended, with the exception of Hart’s study of 21st Army Group, to parrot Montgomery’s criticisms that the operations were ‘badly handled and slow.’ Canadians historians have been more cognizant of the resource, manpower, and topographical challenges facing First Canadian Army. But Crerar and First Canadian Army’s achievements were significant. Crerar’s efforts to keep his resource-starved multinational army fighting, in the face of manpower shortages and increasingly tough resistance from the Germans, were notable. Particularly significant was the concentration of...

  28. 21 The Rhineland Offensive
    (pp. 360-380)

    The Rhineland Offensive was the high point of the commonwealth campaign in northwest Europe. The 21st Army Group had the critical task of crushing the German army on the west bank of the Rhine. However, the British and Canadian forces, and the American as well, were reaching the end of their manpower resources. Crerar, steering the planning for the upcoming offensive, dealt simultaneously – and controversially – with both the policies and politics of the reinforcement crisis, as well as the ongoing tensions with Montgomery, who was only reluctantly accepting the fact that Crerar would command FCA in the next...

  29. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  30. 22 Veritable: Crerar’s Battle
    (pp. 381-400)

    ‘Probably no assault of the war has been conducted under more appalling conditions of terrain than was that one,’ wrote Eisenhower in his congratulatory note to Crerar following the liberation of the Rhineland. ‘It speaks volumes for your skill and determination and the valor of your soldiers, that you carried it through to a successful completion.’¹ For Operation Veritable, the plan to destroy the northern German armies east of the Rhine and an assault characterized as the British Empire contribution to the winter campaign, Crerar had under his command thirteen divisions, including nine British and an amalgam of Polish, Dutch,...

  31. 23 The Final Campaign
    (pp. 401-421)

    The final months of the war were bittersweet for Harry Crerar. The Canadian army fought an increasingly desperate enemy to liberate Holland and feed its starving people. The war was clearly over, but casualties mounted. The 1st Canadian Corps was reunited with the other Canadian formations under command of First Canadian Army. From March 1945, Crerar was enmeshed in the questions surrounding the army’s future. Repatriation and the senior command appointments were two sides of the same issue: how best to preserve the legacy of the record compiled by the army during the war. It was a difficult problem. He...

  32. 24 Casting the Postwar Army
    (pp. 422-441)

    Crerar’s last battle as army commander was with the Canadian government and, in a sense, with his memory of the Canada he left. He tried to use the formations committed to the occupation and the Pacific to retain the best and brightest of First Canadian Army for postwar service. And he wanted to ensure that the demobilization of the army was viewed not as the final chapter of wartime service, but as a transition, a stepping stone to a life of peacetime civic service. Although handicapped by the absence of government policy on the shape of the postwar forces and...

  33. 25 Fading Away
    (pp. 442-466)

    Harry Crerar died on 1 April 1965. A photograph of Crerar in the den of his Rockcliffe home accompanied one of the obituaries; it is a snapshot of the melancholy that characterized his final years. Still dapper in a thin black tie, white shirt, and suit coat, moustache neatly clipped, he sits in front of one of the two walnut display cabinets that showcased medals and souvenirs, a lifetime of memories and accomplishments. Autographed pictures of Ike, Monty, and other generals hang next to honorary degrees. A magnifying glass in one hand and an unidentified book in the other, with...

  34. Notes
    (pp. 467-542)
  35. Bibliography
    (pp. 543-558)
  36. Index
    (pp. 559-571)