World War II was fought on many strange battlefields, but none was more unusual than North Africa. Fighting began there because Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, surprised by the rapid collapse of the French army, decided he needed a “few thousand corpses” or Italy would not have a place at an early peace conference. The Italian army first attacked France and then began operations against the British in East Africa and Egypt.The story of the Italian advance and the Commonwealth counter-offensive is well known. British Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor employed the 7th Armoured and the 4th Indian divisions in a campaign that resulted in the destruction of 14 enemy divisions and the capture of 130,000 prisoners. This was done at a cost of 2,000 casualties, 500 of them fatal.

Lt.-Gen. O’Connor’s troops might well have conquered Libya and ended the war in North Africa in 1941, but Winston Churchill and his advisers decided the defence of Greece must have priority. In the spring of 1941, the Germans overran Greece, captured Crete and under Gen.-Erwin Rommel swept back into Egypt. The British had gambled and lost. Instead of reinforcing success they had contrived to make the Commonwealth forces weak everywhere.

Defeat in the Balkans and the western desert were serious blows to morale, but by the end of 1941 the invasion of the Soviet Union, and America’s entry into the war, greatly reduced the strategic importance of the Mediterranean. The war would be decided on the plains of eastern Europe, on the waters of the North Atlantic, in the skies over Germany and on the battlefields of France. The optimum policy for the Allies required the defence of Egypt and the Mideast oil fields, but little else.

Such a strategy proved impossible to follow, Churchill and the British chiefs of staff were determined to restore British prestige and defeat Gen. Rommel’s Africa Corps. Resources were found to mount a major desert offensive in the spring of 1942, but initial success soon turned to costly defeat as the 8th Army was forced to retreat to El Alamein.

Churchill’s commitment to the Mediterranean theatre was now an obsession. He persuaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ignore the advice of his own military advisers and agree to an Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. This operation, code-named Operation Torch, was to form one arm of a great Allied pincer movement designed to clear the shores of North Africa. Commonwealth forces, under Gen. Bernard Montgomery, would attack Gen. Rommel’s forces from the east, while Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s armies overcame French resistance and advanced into Tunisia.

This extraordinary decision meant that in the winter of 1942-43–as millions of men struggled to decide the fate of Europe in the snows of Russia–Britain and the U.S. were employing enormous resources to capture a remote area of little strategic importance.

Fortunately, Hitler had his own obsessions. Convinced that Mussolini’s armies would collapse without German support, and fearful of an early Italian surrender, Hitler reinforced Tunisia with air force and army units drawn from the eastern front. If such resources had been saved for the defence of Sicily, the Allies would never have attempted to attack the island.

Canadians had escaped involvement in the desert campaigns of 1941 and ’42, but operation Torch led to Canada’s entry into the Mediterranean. The first elements to arrive were five Royal Canadian Navy corvettes, namely Louisburg, Prescott, Woodstock, Weyburn and Lunenburg. These were employed to escort the invasion armada. The decision to use 17 RCN corvettes–one of which belonged to the Royal Navy–in support of Operation Torch and the follow-up convoys says a great deal about Allied priorities. In the winter of 1942—43, the Battle of the Atlantic was “still undecided, but rapidly escalating to a climax,” notes naval historian Marc Milner in his book North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys. “The Torch landings drew off much needed escort forces, and indeed the impact of Torch on the merchant shipping situation was very nearly catastrophic.” Quite apart from additional losses in the North Atlantic, Operation Torch forced cancellation of the arctic convoys to Russia and the diversion of 100 merchant ships a month to North Africa.

The balance sheet was not all negative, the Germans detached an increasing number of U-boats to the Mediterranean. One of them, U-224, was operating off Algiers when it was sunk by Ville de Québec in January. Italian submarines were destroyed by Port Arthur and Regina. Unfortunately, there were Canadian losses to report as well; Louisburg was sunk by an aerial torpedo in February 1943 while escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Bone, Algeria. Weyburn was lost during the same month after she struck a mine laid off Gibraltar.

A second group of Canadians arrived in North Africa in time to take part in the battle for Tunisia. Gen. Andrew McNaughton wanted to keep the five divisions and two tank brigades of lst Cdn. Army together, but he was well aware of the value of combat experience. In 1943, 201 Canadian officers and 147 non-commissioned officers were sent to join units of the 1st British Army. They served in both combat and staff positions and suffered 25 casualties, including eight fatalities.

This experiment foreshadowed the Canloan plan of 1944 that sent hundreds of Canadian officers to serve with British units. The difference was that the North African experience was designed to improve the training of the Canadian Army. Generals Henry Crerar and Guy Simonds also travelled to North Africa to visit Montgomery’s 8th Army to learn battle lessons first hand.

These minor contacts with the Mediterranean theatre might well have been the sum of Canada’s participation were it not for political pressures in Ottawa. As the third year of the war drew to a close, many Canadians were questioning the direction of a war effort that left Canada’s army in England “as a sort of adjunct” to the British Home Guard.

American divisions were fighting in North Africa less than one year after Pearl Harbor, while Canadians had been limited to the tragic battles of Hong Kong and Dieppe. Pressure for Canadian participation intensified when the Canadian government learned of the decision taken at the Casablanca conference to launch “further amphibious operations on a large scale” in the Mediterranean. In March 1943, Prime Minister Mackenzie King agreed to send a telegram to Churchill asking him to reconsider the decision not to employ Canadian troops in the Mediterranean. A further lobbying effort was undertaken when the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden visited Ottawa later in the month and this seems to have won the day. Gen. Eisenhower, as supreme Allied commander, was informed that for both “political and military” reasons 1st Cdn. Division and 1st Cdn. Tank Brigade would replace 3rd British Div. for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.

Once the decision to employ Canadian troops was made the selection of the Red Patch Div. was inevitable. The division had been in the United Kingdom since December 1939 and it included Canada’s three permanent force infantry battalions, the Royal Cdn. Regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Cdn. Light infantry and the Royal 22nd Regt. Gen. Montgomery had judged the division harshly in 1942, insisting that Major-General George Pearkes be replaced. This critical evaluation meant that 2nd Div. was chosen for Dieppe and a new commander, Maj.-Gen. H.N. Salmon, was appointed to lead 1st Div.

The division, along with the rest of the army, worked hard at training in the fall of 1942. However, as 1943 began the prospect of another year of inactivity led to a natural decline in enthusiasm. The sudden announcement that the division and 1st Tank Bde. were to take part in an amphibious invasion posed an immediate challenge to everyone.

Planning had barely begun when Gen. Salmon was killed in a plane crash while en route to North Africa to be briefed on Operation Husky. The 39-year-old commander of 2nd Div., Guy Simonds, was appointed in his place and flew safely to Algiers. Meanwhile, the infantry and armoured battalions were put through an intensive advanced training course to fit them for action in “an opposed landing and subsequent operations in mountainous country.”

Each infantry brigade was sent to Inveraray on the west coast of Scotland for an intense eight-day course in the techniques of assault landing. The armoured brigade was equipped with Sherman tanks and had to master the arts of waterproofing so that the tanks could wade ashore in up to six feet of water.

At Inveraray it was soon evident that the Canadians were not fully ready for action. 2nd Bde., the PPCLI, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regt. did fairly well, and 1st Bde., the Royal Cdn. Regt., the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. and the 48th Highlanders of Canada were acceptable, but 3rd Bde. was judged to be quite unfit for action. The commandant of the school recommended that it be replaced “in view of the forthcoming operation.”

Brig. George Pangman, who was serving as the brigade major in 1943, recalled that the report described problems of “insubordination, lack of physical fitness and insufficient training…. The West Novas were the worst, Royal 22nd next and the Carleton and Yorks were pretty bad.” It was quite impossible to substitute another brigade, but some changes would be made. The West Nova Scotia Regt. got a new commanding officer, the highly regarded Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Bogert, and a number of other officers and non-commissioned officers were replaced.

The problems in 1st Div. were indicative of the difficulties the Cdn. Army experienced during its long sojourn in England. An army with a small cadre of professional soldiers had attempted to teach itself the art of modern war while training with obsolete equipment and outdated doctrine. The sudden transformation from “adjunct to the British Home Guard” to assault division challenged everyone to get their act together. Fortunately, much was accomplished before the division sailed, and once ashore in Sicily there was time to make further changes before heavy fighting began. 1st Div., including 3rd Bde., proved itself able to learn and adapt. It quickly became one of the most effective divisions in the Allied order of battle.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on January 1st 1997.