From One World War to Another (1919-43)

The Army to 1942

Threat in the Pacific

Canadian infantryman, Hong Kong, December 1941

Caption: Canadian infantryman, Hong Kong, December 1941

In September 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan signed a pact. Then on 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. In the hours and days that followed, a series of objectives were targeted in the Pacific, including the British colony of Hong Kong where two Canadian battalions and a brigade headquarters had just arrived with 1,973 men and two nurses under the command of Brigadier J.K. Lawson.

Since the early 1920s, Canada's Defence Plan No. 2 had spelled out what had to be done in the event of an attack by Japan. In 1930 this became the plan for the protection of Canadian territory in case of a war between Japan and the United States. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked, Canada immediately went to war against Japan - 24 hours before the U.S. and the U.K. As we have seen, the Pacific coast was ill-prepared. In 1939 Canada had eight aircraft there, all obsolete and unarmed, some without radio and with a dubious flying range. In 1941 this state of affairs was basically unchanged. The anti-aircraft and coastal artillery units were also inadequate. In the latter case the possible gun elevation limited the range of fire. Some 10,000 army troops were deployed along the coast. No doubt some of them would have found consolation in the fact that at this point the northwest coast of the United States was more poorly defended than the Canadian coast. In 1942 radar began to be installed.

Nonetheless, Canada's Pacific interests, though subordinated to Britain's interests, triggered a promise, in the fall of 1941, of two battalions to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. This force left Vancouver on 27 October 1941 aboard Awatea and Prince Robert and arrived in Hong Kong at the end of November. Largely untrained, these volunteers scarcely had time to take their positions before Japan moved to the attack. The battle was lost in advance. Brigadier Lawson was killed on 19 December defending his headquarters. This veteran of the First World War thus had the sombre distinction of being the first Canadian officer of his rank to die in combat during the Second World War. By 25 December it was all over. A total of 557 men would perish, nearly half of them in the Japanese camps. Sergeant John Osborne of the Winnipeg Grenadiers would receive a posthumous Victoria Cross for saving the lives of his comrades by throwing himself on top of a grenade.

Things did not stop there. The Japanese were approaching the North American continent by way of the Aleutian Islands. On 6 and 7 June 1942 the islands of Attu and Kiska fell to Japan. Later a Japanese submarine fired on the telegraph station and lighthouse at Estevan Point, British Columbia, but without causing serious damage.

Canadian reaction was immediate. The army on the Pacific coast swelled along with its budget. The air force raised the number of its squadrons to 36, with more modern aircraft. Up to a point the politicians gave in to the demands of the people of British Columbia, who feared an invasion; however, the threat was not very plausible considering that Japanese military commitments were spread throughout a vast sphere of influence.

The situation of Japanese Canadians had been precarious since the beginning of the conflict. They were not well integrated or accepted by the local population. The army had decided not to accept recruits of Japanese or Chinese origin. After Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese demonstrations were threatened in British Columbia. To avoid provocation, Japanese-language schools and newspapers voluntarily shut down. After the defeat in Hong Kong public opinion exploded, demanding the internment of these Japanese Canadians who might form a fifth column. Journalists and politicos in British Columbia outdid one another in proclaiming the danger and consequences of lack of action on this matter. After a few weeks the federal government gave in and, on 27 February, announced the evacuation of all west-coast residents of Japanese origin. The 22,000 people concerned were uprooted and their property was sold. This flagrant act of discrimination - unjustified on the basis of military intelligence, which saw no danger - did nothing for Canada's moral reputation as an enemy of injustice.