Second World War: 1939-1945

Sgt. Thomas Edward McGeragle
Sgt. Thomas Edward McGeragle, Profiles of the Fallen WW2 »

 

Twenty years had barely passed from the end of the “war to end all wars” – The Great War, 1914-1918 – and mankind became involved in what would become a war of unparalleled mass destruction, slaughter, and the attempt to eradicate total segments of the human race. The traditional reasons the Allied powers went to war were geopolitical, but they became more “justified/moral” by pointing at Nazi atrocities. “Though hardly qualified as a “good” war, it had to be fought at that point.”[1]

Memorial to the Fallen WW2
And as the author of this quote, R. Salutin knows, it was fought, and by thousands of Commonwealth youth ‘round the world. Canadians can be proud of the contribution of our young men – and St. Michael’s College and College School can indeed hold high the boys and young men who so freely and bravely volunteered – and our young women as well. “Going off to war”; an ‘adventure’ that was to be ‘over by Christmas,’ as WWI was supposed to happen, had become somewhat natural to our youth.

Little did they know in 1939 and 1940 that the “Christmas” they looked toward did not happen until 1945. In those years 1939-1945, many, yes too many, families in and around Toronto received the “knock at the door – the telegram delivered” and one more name was added to the many – at least 127 – of St. Michael’s boys who gave their lives in the horrific war. Quite a number were American students of our “Western Course” – 7th December 1941 saw an exodus of them back to the United States. Pearl Harbor saw their country enter the war, on all fronts – the “mix” of the “Western Course” became mostly female – and even some of them eventually joined the military.
Memorial to the Fallen WW2
The two “faces” of St. Michael’s changed dramatically – the exact number of boys (students/alumni) who joined may not be fully known – but join they did and it cost our countries, as previously noted, at least 127 lives and futures. Nearly 600 for the University of Toronto as a whole out of 5,651[2] who joined. Exactly how many enlisted from both SMC campuses is not known.

We must remember the years preceding WWII – post-depression, after an outburst of opulence, affluence that the world had not enjoyed before – then the bubble burst and “bread lines” took over. The country was filled with many WWI men back from War that were still without jobs, and youth, born in the twenties, ready to face a world that showed little immediate promise.

Then along came ‘war’ – to defend your country; to have a job of sorts; the great adventure. And so they joined, becoming the third largest military force in the Western World.

One can wonder the results, had the West (read Neville Chamberlain and the English government) not appeased Hitler over Czechoslovakia, Austria, et al. The ‘appeasement’ created the “Phoney War” which came to an end in April 1940 with the invasion of Denmark and Norway. By 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill had replaced Chamberlain – some “grit and determination” appeared in the British government – but alas, on the same day, Hitler unleashed his Panzers and the Luftwaffe in a “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war) against the low countries and France. Holland was overrun in a few days followed by ‘neutral’ Belgium. The vaunted Maginot Line, France’s purportedly invincible Eastern Front wall of defense, had been outflanked and by 20 May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force was trapped in what became the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ – over 1/3 of a million English, French, and others were evacuated to England.

By June the ‘Battle of Britain’ followed; North Africa erupted with control of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal at risk. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria joined with Italy in support of the “Axis.” Conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece followed. But in mid-June of 1941, Hitler made his and the war’s greatest mistake – the invasion of Russia – the ‘non-aggression pact’ of 1939 became worthless.

The war, on so many fronts – Europe, Africa, the Far East – ground on, but on 7 December 1941, the climate dramatically changed. The Japanese ‘invaded’ U.S. Territory at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and attacked British and Dutch territories as well. The War in the Pacific became one of epic proportions.  We truly entered into a “World War” of destruction and annihilation never before seen in the history of mankind. The attempt to eliminate certain branches of humanity became what were called ‘Death Camps’ – atrocities of such proportion and cruelty never before seen.

The tide turned in the Allies’ favour with various Continental European invasions – Italy being prominent. In the Pacific, the US slowly regained lost territories and beat back the Japanese Navy and Armies with devastating loss, to naval and land forces – The Bataan Death March, Iwo Jima – the cost was horribly high but the cause “just.” Russia had its Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and many others.

Slowly the deadly game of war turned its tide, Italy and Normandy took place in Europe – the hopefully inevitable thrust to push the Wehrmacht back onto Germany. The Russian Armies pushed back the Germans on the Eastern Front – surrounding whole armies and destroying them; crushing German armies at huge costs, and with devastating results. And in the Pacific came the huge and crushing moves on 6 August 1945 on Hiroshima and 9 August 1945 on Nagasaki, the Atomic bombs – the final blow to Japan’s attempted conquest over China and the U.S.

On 7 May 1945, the nearly six years of horrors of the war in Europe came to a halt – unconditional surrender on all fronts by Germany to the Allied Forces. This was followed by Japan asking for peace on 15 August 1945. The unconditional surrender took place officially onboard the USS Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.

The war was over, but the costs were horrifically high. It is estimated over 72 million people, worldwide, died in this conflict. Over 1.9 billion men and women served in the military. Canada was no longer a colony, but a productive, strong, and respected “Young Nation” with growth unparalleled in our previous history. Though we grew and became a nation to reckon with, we lost, through death, so many young lives – our tomorrows, who never came to be. The Department of National Defense (DND) and Veterans Affairs provide the following:

Canada at War
Military Personnel Male Female
Navy 106,522 7,126
Army 730,159 21,624
Air Force 249, 662 17, 467
Nurses 4,439
Total 1,086,343 50,656

 

Support Personnel Essential War Industries: 1,049,867
*Library and Archives Canada shows (updated) 44,093 Killed in Action
Casualties Killed Wounded in Action POW
Navy 1,533 319 88
Merchant Navy 1,557 N/A 198
Army 22,917 52,679 6,433
Air Force 17,101 1,416 2,475
Nurses 1
Total 43,109* 54,414 9,194

 

Quoting the Toronto Star Commemorative Section of 8 May 1995, the 50th Anniversary of the “Official” end of World War II:
“In the first five years of World War II, Canadians participated in some of the major battles against the Axis. Close to 1,000 Canadians gave their lives in the Dieppe disaster. Canadian sailors and airmen excelled in the Battle of the Atlantic and in Bomber Command, where almost 10,000 lost their lives. More than 20,000 casualties were suffered in the bloody liberation of Sicily and Italy. Meanwhile, thousands of Canadians were still fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. But some of the toughest fighting took place in Northern Europe in the last four months of ’45 – fighting that accounted for 8,000 of Canada’s 43,000 combat deaths.”[3]

St. Michael’s College and School played its part in this war and, as so many schools throughout the Western world, saw many of its young men give their lives in the commitment of duty to their country and fellow Canadians.

The following biographies provide an all too brief picture of the boys who served Canada well. There must still be those of you who will read this site, and who may know pieces of their lives – the Editor does, for he knew a number of them or their families – if so, please call or write us with any additional information which may enhance and bring to life the portraits of these gallant young men.

Again, note must be made of the initial efforts of Wm. H. O’Brien, CSB, Cap’t (Retired) RCA (AKA “Gunner”) and Fred Black, CSB, without whom these biographies, and those of the WWIs who made the ‘supreme sacrifice,’ may never have been seen.[4]

Above all, sincere thanks must be offered to JL Granatsein and Desmond Morton and the corroborating information found in their book – A Nation Forged in Fire: Canadians and the Second World War 1939-1945, in particular for Appendix C and the listing of RCAF Overseas Squadrons. Their book helped make the “Ghosts” from WWII the living boys and men I have tried to picture in the brief biographies.

The editor would be totally remiss if he did not acknowledge the significant contributions of two young ladies:

  • Stephanie Nicholls:Advancement Officer, Alumni Events, St. Michael’s College School
  • Jessica Barr: University Archivist, St. Michael’s College

Their efforts in searching for and finding so many details about our 127 “Ghosts” helped immensely. Thank you from the bottom of my heart – you truly helped make this site a reality.

And we cannot forget our friends and associates in the Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC) and Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), who provided so much information on our lost boys/men. Thank you – all you “record keepers,” “statisticians,” “memorialists” – your data was so important.

Sincere thanks must also be offered to Søren Flensted, of Denmark, for providing information on and photographs of the grave of FO. A.V. Plante. His website, titled “Airwar over Denmark” provided much useful information to the Editor (http://www.flensted.eu.com/). Mr. Flensted, along with a number of Danes, belongs to a group called The Denmark Team who volunteer with Commonwealth War Graves Commission to assist in the maintenance and upkeep of cemeteries and graves of Commonwealth Military who are buried in Denmark.

The U.S. “County” Military Museums; Regimental and Division Records of both Canada and the U.S. also played parts in providing information.

No doubt some sources of information have been omitted/forgotten – to all of you, our sincere “Thank you” for all the supportive and corroborating information.

JBH – Editor, SMC 1952

References:

[1] R. Salutin at Globe & Mail.com
[2] Desmond Morton, preface in University of Toronto Memory Book 1939-1945.
[3] Morton, Desmond, and J.L. Granatstein. “Canada’s Final Campaign: The bloody march toward conquest.” The Toronto Star, May 8, 1995: D8.
[4] See website: stmikes.utoronto.ca/memorial-to-the-fallen/
This site was designed and produced by the same Editor as the site above – WWII 1939-1945.