by Brad St Croix

Chapter 1 — British Through and Through:
Canadian-British Military Relations Prior to the Reinforcement of Hong Kong 1914–1941

(Link to footnotes for this chapter)

One of the most persistent myths about Canada’s participation in the Battle of Hong Kong is that because Canada had little or no connection to the British Empire in the Far East, Canadian willingness to reinforce Hong Kong was unnecessary and wring. For Nathan Greenfield, “the defence of Britain’s Asian Empire did not loom large in the Canadian consciousness as Europe lurched toward the Second World War.”1 While this may be technically true, especially in Canadian government circles, the need to buttress empire defence was an important consideration for Canadian Army leaders who, believing that Canada had a strong connection to Britain, acted accordingly, sometimes to Canada’s advantage. But the imperial bond was so strong that Canadian officers felt no need to independently assess situations for British and Canadian interests were explicitly linked. Carl Vincent demonstrated that connection, seemingly without realizing it:

Of all possible theatres of employment for Canadian troops, the last to cross anyone’s mind before the summer of 1941 would probably have been Hong Kong. Anyone, that is, except for one man, Major General A.E. Grasett, former General Officer Commanding at Hong Kong. The twin circumstances of his Canadian birth and his responsibility for the defence of Hong Kong between November 1938 and July 1941 can be held largely responsible for the chain of events culminating in the despatch of Canadian troops to the colony.2

But Greenfield and Vincent have ignored the connection that many Canadians, including important decision-makers in the Canadian military and government, felt toward the British Empire. Even the authors of the companion book to The Valour and the Horror recognized the vital factors behind the decision by calling the encounter between General Harry Crerar and Grasett, an “old boys meeting.”3 Grasett’s suggestion that Canadians could reinforce Hong Kong would have had little power bit for the strong sentiment many Canadians had for Britain.

I contend that the decision to send Canadian troops to Hong Kong demonstrates that the connections between the Canadian and British armies ran deep as they were the part of a bedrock of pro-British Canadian imperialism. Canadian historian Douglas Delaney argued that the British War Office, after the South African War, wanted the armies of Britain, India, and the dominions to be trained and equipped similarly to permit better battlefield cooperation. This “imperial army project,” Delaney believed, in the long term, “can hardly be viewed as anything but a success.”4Though that conclusion is not disputed here, Delaney did not discuss the negatives that befell the dominions, notably Canada’s overreliance on British intelligence to reach a decision on the Hong Kong reinforcement. The connection to Britain created a form of mental paralysis that limited Canadian military thinking. This chapter will explore how this mindset developed by examining the letters and writings of many key leaders of the Canadian Army, including those involved in the decision to send Canadians to Hong Kong.

Canada’s Connection to Britain

The connection that many Canadian officers felt for Britain was complicated by much nuance in opinion and reality. The notion of a growing Canadian identity, one increasingly separate from Britain, was born on the bloody battlefields of France and Flanders in the First World War. The majority of those who influenced Canada’s interwar army, and were directly involved in the Hong Kong decision, experienced these events firsthand. Despite the power that this legend of growing Canadian nationalism gained in the decades after the war, a strong Canadian emotional and intellectual connection with Britain did not simply disappear once the guns fell silent in Europe. Carl Berger’s Sense of Power provides an excellent framework to examine why some Canadians felt a strong link to Britain even as such ties were supposedly waning. Berger argued that in the Canadian context, from 1867 to 1914, imperialism meant a “movement for the closer union of the British Empire through economic and military cooperation and through political changes which would give the dominions influence over imperial policy.”5 But this effort failed, as Canada and Britain did not become closer during this period, with Berger concluding that “the First World War killed” Canadian imperialism. The intellectual underpinnings of Canadian imperialism did not simply disappear thanks to the war. Berger recognized this fact, claiming that while it was easier to date the end of Canadian political imperialism, no one event or time marked the death of the “imperial ideal in Canada.”6 Canadian writer George Grant argued that one outcome of the Western Front’s carnage “was to destroy Great Britain as an alternative pull in Canadian life.”7 But the ideas of closer ties to Britain lived well past the Great War in the Canadian Army, producing many instances of subservience during the interwar period, even though many politicians worked to increase Canadian political independence from Britain. Discussing the interwar years in his memoirs, General Maurice Pope commented that “Our army was indeed British through and through with only minor differences imposed on us by purely local conditions.”8 This statement became even more true once war broke out in 1939. 

Understanding how Canadian Army officers felt about the British Empire and the British Army over their careers is required to understand the context behind the Canadian reinforcement of Hong Kong. Generals Arthur Currie, Andrew McNaughton, and Harry Crerar played an influential role in maintaining the pro-British Empire environment in the interwar Canadian Army. Currie, seeking some Canadian military independence during the First World War while still working within an imperial framework, set the stage for the officers that followed him. McNaughton has often been portrayed as a Canadian nationalist; Brigadier J. Sutherland “Buster” Brown labelled him a “little Canadian” given his reputed anti-imperialism. 9 Despite this pejorative misnomer, McNaughton remained pro-imperial through the interwar period. Historian J.L. Granatstein called Crerar “unquestionably the most important Canadian soldier of the [Second World] war, whose support for the British Empire is often argued as being stronger than his support for Canada.” 10 Despite this persistent myth, Crerar’s pro-imperial views often were motivated by the benefits that relationship offered to Canada. While not all of these leaders were involved in the decision to send Canadians to Hong Kong, they all had an influence upon the culture of the Canadian Army that still wanted to defend the British Empire, to a fault, in 1941.

Canadian-British Army Relations Prior to the First World War

For most of Canada’s history, British and Canadian military needs were seen as one, even when such support did nothing for Canada’s interests or even ran counter to them. The outpouring of support for the First World War was a prime example of this trend. Despite the strong connection to Britain, Canada sometimes sought to steer its own course in foreign policy and military affairs—often inconsistently and mainly in peacetime—since gaining its dominion status in 1867. But Canada’s independent streak only went so far for a true break from the British Empire was never a real possibility. Even as constitutional shifts occurred in the 1920s, opinions were slower to develop as demonstrated by the 1930s debate concerning whether Canada could be neutral if Britain was at war. Historian David A. Lenarcic has contended that imposing neutrality legislation on Britain in a possible war where Canada remained on the sideline “would have been exceedingly distasteful to the majority of Canadians who loyally revered their tie with the mother country, and for whom imperial solidarity in times of crisis was a given.”11

 The Canadian connection to the British Army began well before 1914. European regular troops, whether they were French or British, and Canadian militia had been responsible for Canada’s defence from the earliest days of European colonization until after Canadian Confederation. 12 Prior to the 1770s, defence in British North America was a local responsibility. After the American Revolution, the British Army’s influence on the Canadian militia intensified as Britain assumed responsibility for Canada’s defence.13 With Responsible Government’s advent in the Province of Canada in 1849, questions arose about whether Britain or Canada was accountable to defend Canada, an unclear situation that extended past Confederation. Cooperation existed, such as the 1863 opening of schools of instruction for the militia that were taught by British regulars. After 1867, Canadians wanted to control their military forces while still relying on British protection. As historian Richard Preston has contended, “They [Canadians] wanted to eat their cake and keep it: to be free of British influence, but to have the backing of British strength.”14 Concerns abounded that when the British regulars began to leave Canada in the 1870s, the bonds of Empire would be weakened. These fears were unfounded. As the Canadian Militia lacked experienced officers to run the defence organization efficiently, it relied on British officers.15 In 1875, a British regular officer, Major-General Edward Selby Smyth, was named the General Officer Commanding of the Canadian Militia, the first in a long line of British officers tasked with running the Militia. 16 Canadians eagerly welcomed some of the British influence—such as regimental customs and dress, with highland uniforms being particularly popular—which remains to this day. 17

 Despite Canadian desire to be independent of Britain while relying on British protection, Confederation’s advent saw some Canadians wanting to take more responsibility for the country’s defence. George-Étienne Cartier, Canada’s first Minister of Militia and Defence, believed “that a state, if it wished to claim mastery in the conduct of its own affairs, must possess armed strength and control it.” Preston argued that Canada had different concerns than the rest of the Empire given its land border with the United States, concerns that created conflict within the Empire. 18 The oceanic nature of the British Empire naturally created a difference of focus between Canada and Britain, while Australia and New Zealand often strongly backed Britain’s position. The Canadian government had a more independent streak with its military, beginning in the early twentieth-century with the establishment of its own Militia Council in 1904.19 Still, Canada towed the imperial line once the First World War began in 1914.

The First World War

J.L. Granatstein has written that “the central shaping event of the Canadian army in the Second World War was the Great War of 1914–18.”20 An understanding of the Canadian and British relationship in the First World War is an important foundation for an examination of Canadian actions during the interwar period and into the Second World War. One consequence of the Great War was that the Canadian Army began to distance itself, ever so slightly, from the British Army. While the Canadian Corps eventually played a vital role in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), it simply was one corps amongst many others in the various British field armies. Canada’s famed war victories could not have been possible without the extensive support provided by both the British logistical and combat arms. Given agreements between the dominions and Britain about uniformity in Empire equipment and training achieved in 1907 and 1909, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was equipped and organized on the same lines as the British forces.21 At the war’s start, as the Canadian military lacked experienced staff officers, British officers filled these important roles. As the war progressed, Canadians trained for staff positions, thus enhancing direct Canadian control over CEF’s operations. Such changes resulted in a rise in confidence of Canada’s ability to manage its own fighting forces. Canadian independence, asserted often during the war, culminated in the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which gave British dominions the option to independently control their foreign policy. Despite this monumental change, the bonds between the Canadian and British armies remained strong.

The CEF was very British in the early years of the First World War. Sixty–five percent of the other ranks in the first contingent were born in the British Isles or other parts of the British Empire.22 But many soldiers born and raised in Canada also considered themselves British. Maurice Pope, born of a French-Canadian mother and Ottawa-raised, believed that “having been brought up by one who has instilled into my boyish, and later my youthful mind that the county of Carleton in Ontario was as much a part of the King’s dominions as was the county of Surrey, I realized that a great hour had struck, and I resolved to do whatever lay in me to help the Mother Country in her hour of need.”23 Pope was one of thousands who believed the First World War was Canada’s fight just as much as it was Britain’s.

The 1st Canadian Division’s first commander was British regular soldier Major-General E.A.H. Alderson. 24 He led the division through the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Once the 2nd Division, led by Canadian Major-General Richard Turner, arrived in France in September 1915, the Canadian Corps was established under Alderson, while Arthur Currie took command of the 1st Division. The 2nd Division got its first taste of battle at the St. Eloi Craters in March 1916. After this Canadian attack failed, accusations of incompetence were levelled in the Canadian Corps. Alderson requested that Field Marshal Douglas Haig, BEF commander, remove Turner from divisional command. But fearing political repercussions in Canada and a string of resignations in the 2nd Division if he fired Turner, Haig instead replaced Alderson in December 1916 with British General Julian Byng.25 This tableau demonstrated that while Canadian political considerations influenced the process, the British still had the ability to change the commander of the Canadians, with government acquiescence.

The attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a seminal moment for increasing Canadian control over CEF operations, is much mythologized as the beginning of a distinct Canadian identity. Yet Vimy demonstrated the Canadian reliance on British arms and expertise for British officers held most of the key positions in the Canadian Corps, notably staff officers, thirty–one Britons to eighteen Canadians.26 Seizing Vimy Ridge could not have been achieved without major British support. Major Alan Brooke, later Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), was loaned to the Canadian Corps.27 He planned and is credited for the famed creeping barrage for the attack on Vimy Ridge, with the bombardment being “very largely [his] show.”28 Numerous British artillery batteries were attached to the Canadian Corps, while the 51st Highland Division advanced on the right flank of the Corps. Thus, Canada’s most famous victories was not possible without substantial British assistance.

Many Canadians advanced through the ranks of the Canadian Corps by 1917, bringing them into closer contact with British officers. McNaughton was appointed the Counter Battery Staff Officer of the Canadian Corps in January 1917.29 The counter-battery office was often visited by future CIGSs, such as John Dill, General Staff Officer (GSO) 2nd Grade for the Canadian Corps from October 1916 to January 1917, and Edmund Ironside, GSO 1st Grade of the 4th Division from 1916 to 1918.30 Bonds between Canadian and British leaders were formed in the crucible of war. After Vimy Ridge, Canadian Corps commander General Julian Byng was promoted, and Canadian-born and trained Currie succeeded Byng. Indeed, Haig named Currie commander without the Canadian government’s prior knowledge or permission, again demonstrating the control Britain retained over Canadian forces.31

Although Currie strongly backed close imperial connections during the war, this did not stop him from asserting Canadian independence on the battlefield. Initially ordered to attack the town of Lens, Currie, countering that a direct assault would be disastrous if Canadian troops did not hold the surrounding heights, suggested instead an assault on nearby Hill 70 followed by an attack on Lens. General Henry Horne, Currie’s commander as the head of the First Army of the BEF, supported these changes. Haig agreed and Currie’s plan was carried out in August 1917. While the Canadians captured Hill 70, the Canadian Corps failed to take all of Lens.32 Currie tried to assert control again for the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917. Hesitant to join the attack in Flanders given the battlefield’s impassable morass, Currie could not convince Haig to change plans. Thus, the Corps was ordered to take Passchendaele and the heights beyond, a difficult task accomplished in early November 1917 but with heavy losses.

By early 1918, as attrition had reduced the number of troops available to the British Empire, it was necessary to cut the numbers of battalions in an infantry division. Currie faced intense pressure from the War Office to follow suit, even being enticed with an offer to command a Canadian field army. But Currie objected as this plan would weaken the Corps’ divisions by reducing frontline troops while also dispersing the hard-won knowledge of the officers and non-commissioned officers too thinly. Delaney has argued that Currie’s primary reason for the rejection of a field army command was that such a formation would diminish the efficiency of the staff work as more officers—despite a shortage—would be needed.33 Official Canadian military historian Stephen Harris has contended that “Currie was also convinced that painstaking preparation and careful, realistic planning was necessary to save lives, and he would allow no one to tamper with his command if there was any risk of weakening his staff or destroying the fighting ability of the Canadian Corps.”34 As the CEF did not face the manpower crisis afflicting the British Army, Currie instead wished to break up the 5th Division to add 100 men to each battalion, a suggestion that Haig approved.35

 The German spring offensives of 1918 raised questions about the ultimate control over the CEF. While the Canadian government wanted the Canadian Corps’ divisions to remain together as a cohesive whole, “the general principles governing the relations between the Canadian and British forces were not fully laid down until 1918 when the memorandum there cited was sent to the War Office pointing out inter alia that the G.O.C. of the Canadian Corps was entirely responsible for its personnel and policy.”36 However, as Currie could not prevent the Corps’ breakup, Canadian divisions were placed in other BEF Corps. The Canadian divisions were placed in a reserve role and did not see any combat. Once the crisis passed, the divisions returned to Currie’s command.37

 The push across the Canal du Nord to Cambrai was another example of the assertion of Canadian independence. Currie devised a plan for the Canadian divisions to advance on a very narrow front before fanning out once across the canal. While Horne tried to block this plan, a confident Currie persisted and even Haig failed to change Currie’s mind. Currie later revealed that Byng came to see him a few days before the attack to read over the plans. While Byng considered the proposal to be possible under the best circumstances, he remarked to Currie, “Old man, do you think you can do it?” Currie insisted that the plan would work.38 The Canal du Nord plan demonstrated the Corps’ increasing ability to undertake staff work, but the Corps were still reliant on British support in other areas. The Canadian Corps’ engineers were joined by the sappers and pioneers of the 11th British Division for the needed rapid construction of bridges over the canal. Currie’s plan worked as the 4th Division took Bourlon Wood, while the 1st Division cleared areas north of the town of Bourlon.39 Crossing the Canal du Nord was one of the finest planned and executed offensives conducted by the Canadian Corps, but it would not have been possible without British help.

British-Canadian Relations in the Aftermath of the First World War

In the First World War’s immediate aftermath, a growing Canadian national identity did not translate into a desire within the Canadian Army to distance itself from Britain. Currie did not believe that one must be either Canadian or British for such identities could co-exist. Despite holding such an opinion, Currie tried to create a separate identity for the Canadian Corps after the war. In a 26 November 1918 letter to Prime Minister Robert Borden, Currie declared that “we are British, certainly, and proud to be called such, but a certain section of the English press are evidently determined on a policy to ignore the word ‘Canadian.’” Certain the Canadian Corps was not receiving the proper amount of acclaim for its role in the Hundred Days Offensive due to this misidentification, Currie emphasized that the Canadians were the core of the attack at Amiens. As for the Hindenburg Line, Currie, having the British 4th Division under his command, stressed to Borden that the Canadians broke the line.40 British historian Ian F.W. Beckett concluded that the limits of imperial authority over the dominions during the war only went so far.41 Though Beckett’s argument has validity, the Canadian Army did not try to change the basis of its relationship with its British counterpart. Despite the trials of war, the Canadian Army did not stray far from its British origins.

Currie was appointed Inspector General and Military Counsellor of the Canadian Army after the war.42 Seeking to retain hard-won battlefield lessons, Currie argued in December 1918 that “there are many men here who have given ample evidence of possessing outstanding military qualifications, and if the services of these are to be preserved for the militia in the future, they ought to be retained now. . .” 43 To support this core leadership group, the report suggested that Canadian officers be exchanged with counterparts from other parts of the Empire.44 The sharing of knowledge was an important focus for Currie, but this goal required retaining experienced officers.45 As Currie explained in January 1920, “with MacBrien, I intend to have Andrew McNaughton, our last G.O.C., H.A. I am doing this because I consider McNaughton invaluable in the matter of reorganization.” Crerar and Pope also joined the Canadian Army on a permanent basis. Despite his best efforts, Currie could not retain as many officers as he would have preferred.46 Having grown tired of the politics of Ottawa, he resigned in 1920.

 But Currie maintained relationships with many British and Canadian officers, hoping to preserve strong imperial links. In a 27 April 1925 letter to Haig, Currie remarked, “It will serve to give emphasis to the fact that British soldiers, no matter what part of the Empire is their home, are one in their service and in their loyalty to the Empire.”47 As he wrote to Ironside in 1930, “you may not agree with me, but I have a conviction that some day the dominating force in the British Empire is going to be Canada.”48 But while working towards a larger role for Canada within the Empire, Currie felt in 1919 that “the attitude of certain sections of the British press in their recent references to Canadians has done a great deal to destroy any spirit of comradeship that might have been generated on the battle-fields.” Also, he complained “no one has been more persistent than myself in preaching a doctrine of Imperial Unity, but I confess that recently I have some doubts as to whether I have the right sow by the ear.”49 But wartime issues also hindered Currie’s plans for imperial unity. Writing to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1928 about wartime military executions, Currie blamed British commanders for the Canadian deaths as they controlled disciplinary action in the CEF. By contrast, the Australians had retained control of their capital punishment system. Currie blamed the British for bringing up this matter and causing problems in the “Imperial friendship.” 50 In 1926, as Currie vented to Crerar: “Perhaps I am wrong, but I sometimes get the impression that there are a goodly number of people in the Old Country who are anxious to maintain the status which existed before the war; that is, they wish the Mother Country to be sitting at the top, and on the tier below the Dominions.” Clearly, Currie was frustrated by the situation while still preferring a strong connection between Canada and the Empire. While Currie died in 1933, his influence on the proBritish culture of the Canadian Army was undeniable.

The Canadian Army in the 1920s and 1930s

Canadian historian C.P. Champion has asserted correctly that “much of the historiography has obscured the continuing Britishness of Canadians in the inter-war years by depicting the Great War as a uniquely nationalizing experience, a transition to Canadianism or “coming of age” from colony to “nation forged in fire.”51 As budget cuts in the interwar period posed a threat to the Canadian military’s existence, this ongoing connection to Britain was a lifeline. Stephen Harris has detailed the problem that faced Canadian Army leaders:

[General James] MacBrien [CGS from 1920–1927] understood that no matter how much goodwill might exist between the militia minister and his generals, or how sympathetic the minister was to the army, the overall support the armed forces could count on from the government depended ultimately on cabinet’s interest in defence questions and its general attitude toward the military.52

A tighter connection would allow Canadians to use British resources that could not be found in Canada. Discussing the absence of formal Anglo-Canadian defence planning in the interwar years, historian Norman Hillmer has commented that “the military relationship between the two countries was intimate and of long standing.”53 This connection overcame the many difficulties that threatened to end it.54

 Canadians in the British Military Education System

One important lifeline in maintaining the bond with Britain was Canada’s continued use of the British military education system. As Canada’s military provided education only to undergraduates at the Royal Military College (RMC), Canada’s Army relied on the British military education system for advanced training of its high-level officers. Many Canadian officers attended the staff colleges at Camberley in the United Kingdom and at Quetta in British India to train for staff positions.55 Teaching methods included lectures, syndicate tutorials, subject-specific conferences, and discussions.56 Those who passed were qualified as psc (passed staff college). The staff colleges allowed the Empire’s armies to be on the same page. As Delaney has noted, “the dividend, as Canadian general A.G.L. McNaughton stated, was that ‘we have gained the priceless advantage of knowing each other so well, of organizing our forces in the same way, of writing our orders in identical manner.”57

Many Second World War Canadian Army leaders attended staff college in the interwar period. McNaughton was among the first to do so. After serving as the Director of Military Training at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, McNaughton was selected to attend Camberley in 1921.58 John Swettenham, McNaughton’s official biographer, has written that McNaughton’s friendship with John Dill began at Camberley. According to McNaughton’s assessment report, he was classified as fit for all types of staff positions.59 Maurice Pope, who went to staff college in 1924, recalled that dominion officers, getting better reports at Camberley as they were less harshly judged than their British peers, had pleasant experiences. 60 Attending Camberley in 1923, Crerar created more personal ties with the Empire’s military leaders. After he completed staff college, Crerar was transferred to the War Office as GSO 2nd Grade in the section for home defence, the first Canadian appointed to this position after completing staff college.61 This time gave him valuable insight into the British imperial defence planning.62 Seeing great value in staff college work, Currie encouraged Captain Guy Simonds to attend, which Simonds did in 1938.63 Other Canadian officers who were important to “C” Force and the Canadian Army generally in the Second World War attended staff college and worked in the War Office. Future “C” Force commander J.K. Lawson was the first Canadian to attend staff college at Quetta in 1923. 64

Maurice Pope praised staff college during the Second World War for “the fact that in prewar days many of our army officers had attended the Staff College in Camberley, had done an interchange trick at the War Office, or had spent a year at the Imperial Defence College [IDC], or better still, had done all three.”65 Historian Mark Frost has concluded that “the staff colleges broadened the outlook of officers beyond the narrow confines of the regiment and helped them to develop their abilities in critical analysis, writing, clarity of expression, and thought—all vital competencies of a good staff officer. Crucially, the staff colleges gave select officers of the British, Indian, and dominion armies a common language of staff and command methods.” Ten percent of the 446 Canadian Army officers in 1939 had qualified as psc. 66 Author David Fraser has concluded that “in a small, peacetime army the fact that a generation of selected officers had the suffix ‘psc’. . .knew each other, and had been through the same mill, had produced something of a General Staff Corps in fact if not in name.”67 While Fraser was referring to the British Army, the same can be said about all armies within the British Empire.

The complex situations engendered by the Great War incited the creation of the IDC to address the need to study the strategic problems created by modern warfare. The IDC’s first class, beginning on 15 January 1927, drew students from across the Empire. Working in groups of six to nine, students created solutions to a progressive series of problems about hypothetical wars and principles of war, culminating in a final general exercise on imperial defence. McNaughton, part of the IDC’s first class, worked with Lieutenant-Colonel Alan F. Brooke of the British Army, Captain Ralph Leatham of the Royal Navy, and Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Auchinleck of the Indian Army on strategic questions. 68 McNaughton’s remarks in this exercise demonstrated his nationalist opinions. He believed Canadian representatives may not be sent to a reformed Joint Planning Committee (JPC) until a course of action had been decided in Ottawa.69In a paper entitled “The Principles of Imperial Defence,” McNaughton took exception with the use of “Imperial” as Canadians identified that term with Britain and its “Imperial interests.” McNaughton was not against parts of the Empire, or the Commonwealth as he preferred to call it, working together. But he wanted dominion interests acknowledge. 70 Although McNaughton put Canadian issues first while at the IDC, he was willing to operate within a broad imperial framework.

McNaughton kept in touch with Canadian CGS Major-General H.C. Thacker while at the IDC. Wanting to strengthen liaison with the British Army, McNaughton pushed for a full-time Canadian military representative in London who would sit on the Committee of Imperial Defence in order to learn about new developments in technology and organization.71McNaughton communicated his positive experiences at the IDC to Thacker, stating that “the College of Imperial Defence closed on December 9th, 1927 and I think we, one and all, agreed that it has been a most useful and valuable experience.”72 McNaughton valued the connections he made at the IDC and the War Office. In a letter to Major-General H.H.S. Knox, the War Office’s Director of Military Training, McNaughton wrote “you can rest assured that I will take full advantage of your kind offer of help and I look forward to having a hand in developing an ever increasing measure of co-operation with yourself and other old friends at the War Office.”73To Captain G.C. Dickens of the Royal Navy in March 1929, McNaughton remarked that he planned to continue corresponding with his IDC classmates “as it has important bearing on our keeping various component forces of the Empire in co-ordination.”74

Long desirous of the chance to attend the IDC, Crerar, in a 1933 letter to LieutenantColonel Arthur Edward Grasett, Crerar’s classmate at RMC, admitted “I had hoped, perhaps unjustifiably, to attend the I.D.C. this year. Whatever chances I might have had, however, were interfered with by prospects of the Geneva Conference again requiring my expert presence. I have reason to believe that my name will come up for consideration for the next course, but I refuse to count upon this happening until I am actually on my way.”75 Crerar did not have long to wait for he was accepted to the IDC in 1934. While there, Crerar worked on Hong Kong’s defence problem, giving him intimate knowledge of the colony’s defence plans and challenges.76 Crerar received a favourable report from Ironside who noted that Crerar was a good student of inter-imperial relations.77 Delaney has highlighted the importance of these personal connections as Brooke was on the IDC’s staff during Crerar’s time there. 78

McNaughton and Crerar’s Views on Britain in the Interwar Period

The interwar careers of McNaughton and Crerar offer key insights into how Britain was viewed within the Canadian Army. McNaughton’s views on Canadian nationalism and the British Empire were complex for they made him vulnerable to accusations that he was antiBritish.79 As historian John Nelson Rickard has noted about McNaughton, he “grew up in the midst of this Canadian enchantment with the Empire and could scarcely have ignored the influence of its wide-ranging accomplishments.”80 While Crerar was serving in the War Office, he and McNaughton kept in touch. McNaughton often asked Crerar to promote better CanadianBritish cooperation, as “I think what we now want more than anything else is an expanse of interchange throughout the Empire, but in this of course we are limited by finances.”81McNaughton asked Crerar to inquire within the War Office about having British officers who were passing through Canada for postings elsewhere to visit Ottawa. McNaughton “only wish[ed] that more officers, either going out or returning would give us a chance to see them. . .It helps to maintain a good liaison and besides we obtain much information of value.”82 McNaughton understood that co-operation between the British and Canadian armies would be mutually beneficial if the lessons of the past were not to be forgotten. In a 13 November 1934 letter to A.F. Lascelles, Secretary to Governor-General Earl of Bessborough, McNaughton explained:

All my experience points to the necessity of informing the officers both of our own and of the British Service on the important principles which have governed out actions in defence in the past. I feel strongly that if we neglect these principles which have developed from historical experience we court disaster and I feel also that if they are observed there should be no especial difficulty in arranging cooperation in defence matters within the Commonwealth as may be required.83

McNaughton’s work to strengthen ties with Britain, which included providing benefits to Britain, demonstrated that he was not anti-British.

During the First World War, Crerar had sported an ambivalent attitude toward individual British soldiers but not the British Army in the abstract.84 Crerar’s work in the War Office during the interwar years influenced his views on the British Army. Despite the growing connections Crerar made in Britain, he kept Canadian defence as his focus. Writing to Canada’s Minister of Defence about comments the British Secretary of State had made about imperial military organization, Crerar remarked “it is true that this secondary requirement [an expeditionary force] in a technical sense, entails a maximum similarity between the Canadian forces and other Empire forces, in matter of organization, training and equipment. But the degree of its attainment must obviously be conditioned by the necessities of the primary responsibility of ‘home defence.’” 85Crerar believed the War Office should prioritize dominion requests for interchange as the dominions possessed smaller permanent forces.86 When Crerar favoured Britain, it stemmed from external factors, not because he held a Britain-first belief. Crerar told McNaughton in 1925 that when there was a conflict between his ad hoc role of Canadian military representative and a staffer at the War Office, he leaned to the latter for he was in Britain to occupy that position, not acting as a representative of Canada.87

In August 1926, Crerar gave a lecture to the Royal United Service Institution about making closer connections between the military forces of the British Empire. Focusing on the human aspect of imperial relations, he claimed that the human side had lost ground to material concerns after 1918, a problem in need of correction. Political considerations informed Crerar’s opinions for imperial defence and politics could not be separated. While all imperial leaders supposedly supported Empire unity, they differed as to what it should look like. Crerar suggested that developing closer military ties would solve this problem for “it is not enough that the Imperial Forces should be allies. We must make them far more than that; they must be parts of one and the same imperial army.” Further, “speaking as an officer of the 1st Canadian Division and later of the Canadian Corps Headquarters, I can say that we counted the British officers who served with us as part of our organization, and the Canadian formations as an integral part of the Imperial Forces as a whole, and this was quite as it should have been.” The First World War’s lessons would bolster the human element of better Empire cooperation. Regimental alliances could help solve the problem for officers could be exchanged or sent to train with their affiliated regiments in Canada or Britain. Crerar claimed that inter-regimental liaison was “an expression of Imperial esprit de corps which brushes aside the barriers of distance. It is a real basis for the development of a common spiritual link connecting the Imperial Forces as a whole.”88

Crerar did not foresee future conflict endangering imperial unity: “When war again threatens, however, I feel certain that Imperial politics, as in the past, will operate on one straight forward line: there will be no divergence.”89 Even as the dominions acquired more autonomy within the Empire, Crerar lectured about the need for closer intra-imperial military relations just months before King was re-elected Prime Minister in September 1926. As Crerar’s position directly opposed King’s more suspicious view of imperial relations, Delaney recounted that “he was suitably upbraided for his public pronouncement, as pretty much any dominion soldier would have been for overstepping bounds and advocating what amounted to an ‘imperial’ policy for defence.”90 In 1937, writing to Lieutenant-Colonel E.L.M. Burns about officers being forbidden to speak publicly about political or strategic issues, Crerar wanted that order lifted so officers could learn more about Canadian defence requirements.91

Crerar continued to offer his opinions on Canadian defence into the 1930s, including writing an article in 1938 under the pseudonym of “Canuck” for Canadian Defence Quarterly. 92 Crerar was aware of Canada’s dependence on British protection in the times of war and peace as defence on Canada’s east coast relied on the distance from Europe that Atlantic Ocean provided and the Royal Navy. His predictions for future conflict took positive sentiment toward the British Empire into account:

In the event of such a war the Canadian people would unquestionably demand that their vital interests be defended, hence the primary role of Canada’s defence forces is the defence of such interests (direct defence). But, the Canadian people might demand intervention overseas as they did in 1899 and 1914. In present conditions it is impossible to say how the Canadian people may react to some future event. Any sane individual will and must recognize, however that a demand for intervention on the basis of sentiment, interest or principle, is a possibility of the future. If so, it would seem that some means to implement such a demand on the part of the public should be maintained.93

While its strong connections with Britain might draw Canada into a war, Crerar believed those connections also helped the Canadian Army financially given the lack of funding from the Canadian government. In a 24 June 1935 letter to British politician Malcolm MacDonald, Crerar averred that “one does not need to live within the Empire, however, to realize that in the strength and continuing growth of that curious organization lies the best hope of a peaceful solution to many of the world’s difficulties.”94 Writing to Colonel H.G. Eady of the War Office, Crerar noted:

And while I do not for a moment anticipate that any Canadian Government of the day will commit itself to participation in overseas military operations before those operations are upon us, I do foresee a gradual understanding on the part of French Canadians, as well as the Anglo-Saxon variety, that the security of Canada is inseparably connected with the maintenance of the Empire in general, and Great Britain in particular, and that close liaison in questions of defence is an obvious necessity.95

 Crerar was aware that Canadian support for the Empire was reliant on several factors. In a letter to Major-General R.H. Haining of the IDC, Crerar opined that “the strength of the Empire is largely based on sentiment—sentiment does not operate in peace. It comes to full force in war, however. Therefore definition of a Canadian on Imperial questions of this vital nature should not be sought in advance of the crisis should Imperial unity at the commencement of that period be the aim.”96 But Crerar knew that Canada’s Army required much more than sentiment to survive.

Crerar attempted to influence imperial relations by supporting the pro-Empire side of the intellectual debate in Canada in the 1930s. Crerar encouraged the future official Canadian Army historian C.P. Stacey to emphasize close relations with Britain, notably The Military Problems of Canada, which Stacey wrote from 1937 to 1940. 97 This was not the first work that Stacey had written about the Canadian-British relationship. In a 1930 article for the Canadian Defence Quarterly, Stacey had discussed the growing disconnect between Canadian political independence and dominion reliance on British military protection.98 Also desiring a stronger rearmament program and maintaining close ties to Britain, Stacey led the Historical Section of the Canadian Army by 1940 in part due to his relationship with Crerar.99 As historian Roger Sarty has argued, by writing The Military Problems of Canada, Stacey was “engaged in nothing less than a campaign to preserve Canada’s ties to Great Britain,” a view that aligned with Crerar’s objectives.100 That relationship led official Canadian military historian Brereton Greenhous to charge that Crerar “had been a Crerar protégé since 1940, and he owed his appointment as official historian to Crerar, who was still alive at the time.” Greenhous blamed Crerar for the decision to send the troops to Hong Kong and accused Stacey of being afraid to question Crerar.101 Some of this criticism is warranted. But as will be explored later, since the decision did not solely rest with Crerar, nor should all the criticism fall upon him.


Many who have written on Hong Kong believe that Canadian political and military leaders did not think much about the defence of the British Empire. But the process that led to the Canadian troops being sent to Hong Kong in 1941 shows this was not the case. In this chapter, I have demonstrated the strong connections between British and Canadian Army officers, something that few writers have noted in their accounts about the Battle for Hong Kong. But while Greenhous and Vincent have painted Crerar as a pro-British sycophant, he was far was more. Rather, Crerar was much influenced by Canada’s link to Britain, and this line of thinking had a direct effect on his decision to support Hong Kong’s reinforcement. Crerar gave his recommendation after years of working in the British Army establishment, engaging in debate and discussion on imperial defence and working to further Canada’s military link to the British Empire. Other important individuals such as Currie and McNaughton worked to strengthen Canada’s ties to Britain after the Great War. Though their enthusiasm varied, one commonality was support for the Empire. Through their experiences in the First World War and their time at the staff colleges and the IDC, these Canadians officers favoured maintaining a strong relationship with Britain, something that often directly contradicted the wishes of Canadian politicians. The Canadian Army had gained some autonomy in the First World War. Said autonomy, however, did not mean that the Canadian Army was unwilling to fight for British imperial goals in another major war.