Book Review: “The Weight of Command” By 5105 Jack Granatstein – Published by UBC Press – 295 pp. $34.94
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy (Photo top right)
To most people in the United States, and likely to a great many in this country as well, names like Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, or George Patton would be instantly recognizable. The mere mention of these names immediately brings to mind the fact that they were among the leading figures of the great American militate commanders who helped to win the Second World War.
But how many Canadians have ever heard of Harry Crerar ? Or Guy Simonds ? How about Bert Hoffmeister ? Or Chris Vokes ? It is a sad fact of life that these and just about every senior officer who led Canadian troops in what remains the greatest war in history have now been all but forgotten. In The Weight of Command, Canada’s preeminent military historian provides an intimate portrayal of the men who, in a few short years, orchestrated and led the most significant war fighting effort our country has ever put forth. The book draws heavily on interviews the author conducted with veterans and their families during the early 1990’s, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the rivalries, politics, and jockeying for position took place during the Canadian Army over the course of the war years.
By the time the storm broke in the autumn of 1939, the Canadian Permanent Force had been reduced to a pale shadow of the magnificent Canadian Corps whose members had returned home in triumph twenty years earlier. With just 4,300 regular soldiers all ranks, the PF could barely muster a properly-manned brigade. Starved for both manpower and equipment, it was an insular, stagnating organization composed heavily of aging relics who drank to excess and spent their time training to fight yesteryear’s war. As Granatstein notes, one telling indicator of the decay that had taken place since the end of the Great War was the fact that among them the three regular infantry regiments could collectively muster a sum total of just 27 junior officers under the age of 40.
The transformation that took place over the next few years was nothing short of miraculous. As a result of the rapid mobilization that followed the declaration of war in September 1939, by the end of that year, the Army’s strength had grown to 65,000. The following June, Canada had nearly 120,000 men in khaki, and by the summer of 1944, total strength had swelled to nearly 500,000. Over the course of the war, it is estimated that a remarkable 700,000 Canadians enlisted for Army service, and it is worth noting that this number included nearly 22,000 women who served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
Directing and taking care of this massive organization, and especially leading it into battle, required a huge amount of effort and coordination. Initially, this was a job that fell mainly on the shoulders of the approximately 450 PF officers, the most senior of who were Great War veterans, and many of who were RMC graduates. But as the rapid and enormous buildup continued to accelerate, many more officers who had come up through the militia’s ranks began to come to the fore. For the PF officers, the outbreak of the war was a bit like manna from heaven – a long-awaited opportunity to exercise the skills of their trade and put them to the test. For their brethren from the militia, it was a chance to prove that they too could pull their weight and soldier just as well as their counterparts in the PF.
Two of the pivotal actors in this drama were 749 Harry Crerar and 1596 Guy Simonds, both Ex-Cadets and PF officers who had built their careers as gunners. Much of the book is devoting to profiling the two men, both of who made essential contributions. Perhaps somewhat ironically, Granatstein notes that while at first glance Crerar and Simonds appeared to have much in common, there was clearly no love lost between the two and, at times, they could be bitter rivals. It also becomes clear that while Crerar and Simonds were two very different personalities, both in their own way used their distinctive abilities to great effect, and as a result had a major impact on the war effort.
Harry Crerar had grown up in a wealthy family in Hamilton, and after attending Upper Canada College he proceeded to RMC, from which he graduated in 1909. He saw extensive action in the Great War, rising to the rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel and returning home with a DSO. Crerar joined the PF in 1920 as a Major, and soldiered on during the inter-war years. When war came again in 1939, he was Temporary Brigadier and Commandant of RMC. By the spring of 1944, Crerar had reached the rank of General and was Commander of the First Canadian Army.
In Granatstein’s book, Crerar is remembered as being a dedicated and competent officer. Though not a physically impressive man he did not lack for courage and frequently visited units at the front. He was, however, a very cautious individual, perhaps because he was apparently determined to see that the Canadian troops would not suffer through the same carnage he had witnessed first-hand during the Great War. While he was respected, Crerar lacked the personal magnetism needed to engage and inspire the ordinary soldiers. His personality lent itself more towards the role of a bureaucrat rather than a fighting soldier, and his principal ability seemed to be his highly-attuned political sense, and his skill at stickhandling the Army’s delicate relationship with Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
Guy Simonds was an interesting study in contrast. Like Crerar, he was a gunner, and as a newly-minted subaltern he had served under Crerar in Petawawa in the mid-1920’s. He began the war as a Major, and over the next few years made a meteoric ascent, reaching the rank of Lieutenant General by the beginning of 1944, and serving as General Officer Commanding of the 2nd Canadian Corps.
Simonds was ferociously ambitious, intellectually brilliant, and well known for his aggressive use of innovative tactics. The most noteworthy example of this probably came during the battle for Walcheren Island in late 1944, during which Simonds had proposed that the RAF bomb the dikes in order to flood part of the island and thereby restrict the German occupiers’ ability to move. The RAF initially balked at the idea, but Simonds insisted, and eventually they acquiesced. Much to everyone’s (apart from no doubt Simonds’) surprise, the mission was a success, and soon thereafter the island was in Canadian hands. This opened the Scheldt estuary to Allied shipping, and was widely considered to be the Canadians’ most important victory of the war.
As a field commander Simonds was exceptionally effective and he was probably the only Canadian General of the war who succeeded in earning the full confidence of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. But notwithstanding his obvious ability, he was also viewed by many as being cold, imperious, and at times, ruthless. Like Crerar, he lacked the ability to make a personal connection with the troops. Solders respected him because they believed he could win battles, but he was also feared and disliked as being a harsh and unforgiving taskmaster.
Other Ex-Cadets figure prominently in these pages. One noteworthy example would be 1633 Chris Vokes, who had been born in Ireland in 1904, and had immigrated to Canada with his family in 1910. A member of the Class of 1925, Vokes had been commissioned into the RCE, and was a PF Major at the time the war was declared. He first saw action in Italy as commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade during Operation Husky in the summer of 1943. By November of that year, he was a Major General commanding the 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
Vokes was an earthy, charismatic man who was one of the few Canadian Generals who was well-loved by his men. He was also relentlessly aggressive in bringing the fight to the Germans. But notwithstanding his popularity with the ordinary troopers, Vokes was viewed with mixed feelings by many of his brother officers. While his accomplishments were impressive, some dismissed him as being a lightweight whose intellectual abilities came nowhere near to matching his pugnacious temperament. Others saw him as being an obnoxious, self-serving glory hound who was eager to embellish his own reputation, often at the risk of his soldiers’ lives.
Among the militia types whose names appear within these pages, the most successful and best respected was undoubtedly Bert Hoffmeister. Hailing from Vancouver, Hoffmeister ‘s military career began at the age of 12 as a cadet with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Commissioned into the same regiment in 1927, Hoffmeister slowly climbed the ranks while working at his day job as a manager with Macmillan Bloedel, the company to which he would return after the war. Life Guy Simonds and Chris Vokes, he was a Major by 1939, and when war was declared his regiment was mobilized and by December Hoffmeister found himself en route to England.
Hoffmeister’s career wasn’t without its setbacks. After arriving in England he agonized over the perceived lack of preparedness of his regiment as well as his insecurities regarding his own ability to command, and at one point the anxiety caused him to have a nervous breakdown. But with the help of an Army psychiatrist he rebounded in short order, and by 1943 was a Lieutenant Colonel and CO of his regiment. Hoffmeister’s first chance to shine came during the invasion of Sicily, an operation from which he emerged with the DSO (he would later add two bars to it). By the spring of 1944 he had risen to Major General commanding the 5th Canadian Armoured Division – “Hoffy’s Mighty Maroon Machine” – a unit that became well known and widely respected for its aggressiveness and sense of esprit de corps.
Alone among the Canadian Generals, Hoffmeister seemed to strike the perfect balance. While he had neither the fiery bravado of a Chris Vokes (who he liked) nor the intellectual acuity of a Guy Simonds (who he did not), Hoffmeister was nonetheless a remarkably able, determined, and certainly successful leader of men. He was also a handsome man with an engaging personality, as well as a militia officer serving in an Army that was composed overwhelmingly of citizen soldiers. It was perhaps as a result of these factors that Hoffmeister apparently got along extremely well with the men in the ranks and was both well-liked and highly respected as a commander.
In addition to those who commanded troops in action, The Weight of Command also profiles a number of senior officers who served with distinction in staff positions. One particularly noteworthy example in this regard is 2265 W.A.B. Anderson, who graduated as BSM of the Class of 1936, and who later returned to RMC as Commandant from 1960 t0 1962. A gunner by trade, as a Cadet Anderson had apprenticed to Captain Guy Simonds in Petawawa the summer before his final year at the College.
When the guns of war erupted in 1939, Anderson was a young subaltern just three years out of RMC; five years later, he was a General Staff Officer of the First Canadian Amy. In this capacity, he was responsible for planning the operations of some 200,000 soldiers, an enormous responsibility for anyone, let alone a young man who had yet to reach his 30th birthday. Anderson was such a capable staff officer that he was continually promoted from one position to the next and never had the chance to actually command gunners in combat, much to his everlasting regret. By 1946, he had been promoted to Colonel; he ended his career in 1969 as a Lieutenant General and the first Commander of Mobile Command.
In addition to those who are mentioned in this review, many other RMC Ex-Cadets appear within these pages. While admittedly some of their brother officers resented them or questioned their competence, on the whole, it appears that Ex-Cadets were well respected for their abilities and their sense of duty, and worked well with men under their command. Many, such as Harry Crerar, were intensely proud of their association with the College, and felt that the training it provided during their formative years proved invaluable in preparing them to deal with the demands of the war. Perhaps Harry Pope, a member of the Last War Class who later served in Italy (including seven weeks spent with guerrillas after escaping captivity) said it best when he noted that “after surviving the recruiting at the College, you could cope with anything.”
After the war, some of the Generals profiled in The Weight of Command carried on with their careers, but most quickly retreated into lives of quiet obscurity. Some, like Bert Hoffmeister, had successful postwar civilian careers, and lived to a ripe old age. Others weren’t as fortunate. Chris Vokes suffered ill heath throughout much of his later years, and died of cancer in 1985 at the age of 80. Guy Simonds, who had performed brilliantly during the war, met his eventual fate at an even younger age. He was done in not by the Germans’ steel but rather by his own fondness for tobacco, passing away of lung cancer in 1974 less than a month after his 71st birthday.
If anything, the events recounted in Granatstein’s book are vivid illustration of the old service maxim that “Lieutenants have comrades, Colonels have competitors, but Generals have only enemies.” To be sure, the senior officers profiled in the book all had their failings but they were nonetheless a remarkably talented and dedicated group who rose to the occasion when their country needed them most. The results they produced are an unforgettable testimonial to the contributions of the men and women who wore Canada’s uniform during the war years. Jack is to be highly commended for yet another important contribution to the literature on Canadian military history and one that deserves to be read by all Canadian officers, both present and future.