The Best Little Army in the World

The Best Little Army in the World – By J.L. Granatstein – Published by Harper Collins Canada – 336 pp. $32.95

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy


Good old Jack has done it again. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1966, over the past half-century 5105 Jack Granatstein has established himself has being one of this country’s most prolific and respected military historians. In The Best Little Army in the World, Granatstein traces the footsteps of the First Canadian Army across Northwest Europe, starting with the D-Day landings in 1944 and culminating with the Allies final victory over the Nazis in the spring of 1945. Along the way, he profiles many of the key actors in this drama, including a number of the most prominent Ex-Cadets ever to go forth from the College.

By the time the Allies stormed ashore on D-Day, the war’s outcome was almost a foregone conclusion. Thousands of miles to the east of the beaches of France, the cream of Germany’s fighting men were being badly mauled by the tidal wave of the Red Army. The U-boat menace in the North Atlantic had been largely crushed, and the Allies had achieved almost unquestioned air superiority over the skies of Europe. Given the way the war was going, perhaps only the Fuhrer himself remained sufficiently delusional to actually believe that the Axis still might emerge victorious.

Even so, as Granatstein’s book recounts in vivid detail, the many setbacks suffered by the Germans did not lessen their will to repel the invasion of Europe by any and all means possible. The British, American, and Canadian soldiers who landed in Normandy had to fight ferociously break through heavily fortified positions, and they paid heavily in blood and sweat for every inch of ground they took. The Germans were facing huge shortfalls in terms of both manpower and materiel, but they nonetheless fought with great skill and resourcefulness, making the invaders’ mission an arduous and difficult task.

The Canadians who fought throughout Norwest Europe were one of the Empire’s more interesting groups. Most were under the age of twenty-five, and like the British Tommies who were their brothers-in-arms, they marched into battle carrying the redoubtable Lee Enfield bolt action rifle. The Canadians’ equipment was similar in many respects to that of their British comrades, but their food was better, and undoubtedly far more important to the soldiers, their cigarettes were plentiful, and of infinitely superior quality.

Additionally, unlike the sons of Albion, almost all of the Canadians knew how to drive motor vehicles, a hugely valuable skill in a mechanized army. Perhaps the most important point of differentiation was that the class distinctions that sharply divided the British Army were noticeably absent among the much more egalitarian Canadians.

It may be a truism that wars are inevitably destined to take on the personalities of the commanders who fight them, and if that is the case, the First Canadian Army contained some very interesting characters indeed. Two of the more interesting studies in contrast that Granatstein profiles are 749 H.D.G. Crerar and 1596 Guy Simonds, both Ex-Cadets and Permanent Force gunners, and both of whom would play pivotal roles throughout the Northwest Europe campaign.

A 1925 RMC graduate who won the Sword of Honour in his class, Guy Simonds was perhaps the only Canadian senior commander of the war to earn the confidence of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Simonds was an aggressive, tactically brilliant field commander who was the driving force behind a number of the Canadians’ most impressive victories. At the same time, however, Granatstein notes that he was also a mercurial personality who at times was capable of being thoroughly insufferable, and who did not hesitate to deal ruthlessly with subordinates he did not like or respect.

In marked contrast to Simonds was General Henry Crerar, a 1911 graduate who had served in the Great War, and whose last peacetime appointment was as Commandant of the College. Notwithstanding the high rank that Crerar would eventually attain, Granatstein paints a portrait of an individual who, although he was a dedicated and meticulous staff officer, was at best only a rather lacklustre leader of men. Cautious almost to the point of being pedantic, Crerar was totally lacking in personal magnetism, and often appeared better suited to being a civil servant as opposed to a soldier.

Crerar’s principal talent was his highly attuned political sense, something that on more than one occasion enabled him to deftly dodge the bullet when things when wrong. Judging by the description in Granatstein’s book, it seems hardly surprising that Crerar never managed to come even remotely close to attaining the kind of personal connection with Canadian troops that American generals like Eisenhower, Bradley, or Patton enjoyed with their soldiers. Nevertheless, though a combination of quiet if uninspiring competence and skilful political manoeuvring, he managed to rise steadily in rank and eventually secure the top job in the First Canadian Army.

As Granatstein’s account will reveal, the merits of both men’s leadership are highly debatable. What is clear is that both of them had to make decisions and give orders that would eventually send many a gallant Canadian boy to his death. But notwithstanding the heavy price that would be paid in dead, wounded, and missing, one of the war’s more positive consequences was that it revealed that the First Canadian Army had some extraordinary talent within its ranks.

One example in this regard was Dan Spry, a native of Winnipeg who began his military career in the militia while studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and who later secured a Permanent Force commission in the RCR. In 1939, Spry was a 26 year-old Lieutenant with six years’ service under his belt. Over the next five years he made a meteoric rise through the ranks, ending up as a Major-General commanding of the 3rd Canadian Division. Notwithstanding his obvious ability, in March 1945 Spry was summarily relieved of his command, yet another victim of Guy Simonds’ imperious leadership. Relegated to commanding the Canadian reinforcements in England, Spry returned home after the war, and retired in 1946 following a short-lived tenure as Vice Chief of the General Staff.

Another member of the “Best Little Army” who was destined to rise to great heights was Jacques Dextraze, who enlisted as a Private in the Fusiliers Mont-Royal in 1940, and four years later was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the regiment. Returning home with two DSO’s to his credit, Dextraze was called back into service to command the R22eR in Korea. He remained in uniform after that war, and would eventually rise to become CDS in 1972. My own personal memory of “Jadex” dates back to 2 October 1976, when he was the reviewing officer for the parade at which my recruit class was officially promoted to become full-fledged cadets.

Still another larger-than-life personality who graces these pages is 2759 Charly Forbes, a member of the Last War Class that entered RMC in 1940. After leaving the College in 1941 due to difficulties with the academic curriculum, Forbes secured a commission with the Regiment de Maisonneuve, and arrived in Normandy with his unit in the summer of 1944. Forbes would go on to distinguish himself in the bloody battle for the Scheldt, where he would become one of nine Canadian soldiers (and the only Ex-Cadet) to be awarded the coveted RMWO, the Dutch equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

After a short return to civilian life, Forbes re-joined the Canadian Army as a member of the R22eR, and would later serve alongside Jacques Dextraze during the Battle of Hill 355 in Korea. He retired as a Major in 1965, and eventually became an artist of note. Further details about the story of his life can be found in my previously published work in e-Veritas.

As an overall assessment, The Best Little Army in the World is a comprehensive, highly readable account of one of the most important periods in the history of the Canadian Army. Admittedly, due to their small numbers the Canadians were comparatively minor players in the campaign for northwest Europe, and their impact on the war’s eventual outcome was much less than that of their British, American, and Soviet brothers-in-arms. Even so, that did not stop the Canadians from performing remarkably well with the tasks they were assigned, and proving beyond doubt that they were worthy successors indeed to their forebears who had distinguished themselves in the trenches of the Great War 25 years previously. And as had been the case in the Great War, Ex-Cadets played a prominent role in providing the leadership that transformed their fellow Canadians into an effective and highly respected fighting force.

The Best Little Army in the World is a book that will be enjoyed and appreciated by Ex-Cadets of all generations. Jack Granatstein deserves to be commended for yet another fine contribution to the literature on Canadian military history.