Book Review: What-A-Pity

Canada’s Second World War began with a good sleep. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, staff in Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s office first heard the news from a reporter who called for comment. Aides hesitated to wake King. The bulletin waited till breakfast.

Mobilize! is the title of this account of unpreparedness. Journalist Larry Rose might have renamed it The Long Nap. It is a lively narrative chronicling the nation’s sleepwalk through the age of dictators.

At the outbreak of war the cash-starved navy kept its headquarters above a delicatessen on Queen Street in Ottawa. The artillery had fewer men than the Montréal Police Department. Camp Borden’s Armoured Fighting Vehicles School had no tanks but a single truck nicknamed Old Faithful. The air force still flew a standard light bomber, the 1918 Wapiti biplane, with an air speed of 210 km/hr. It “glided like a brick”, one pilot recalled. Air crews called it What-A-Pity.

What accounted for the shocking state of military preparedness? Québec, argues Rose. French Canada was 29 percent of the population: “Our own domestic situation must be considered first, and what will serve to keep Canada united,” King explained.

The conscription crisis of WWI nearly destroyed King’s Liberal Party in 1917 and still evoked bitter comment in Québec. King himself skipped the First War draft by working as a corporate consultant in the U.S., and was so uninterested in the military he was known to confuse ranks.

“So what?” writes Rose. “So what if Canada’s army was unprepared? So what if William Lyon Mackenzie King’s military program amounted to armament lite? Did it really matter that it was ill-trained, poorly led and equipped in 1939?”

It did, Rose concludes. The price was paid in casualties at Hong Kong in 1941 and Dieppe in 1942, and soldiers’ suspicions that King was a political schemer who did not care for their fate. When the Prime Minister lost his own seat in the 1945 election, it was the soldier vote that tipped the balance.

Mobilize! is vivid and wonderfully researched. Author Larry Rose has a TV producer’s eye for the indelible detail. We learn one of the first Canadian casualties of the Second World War was a 10-year old schoolgirl, Margaret Hayworth, drowned in the U-boat sinking of the liner Athenia on the first day of war.  And that Hitler’s nephew observed the outbreak of war with a Canadian lecture tour in which he described his infamous uncle as “crackers”. And that 26,614 landlocked Prairie boys joined the Royal Canadian Navy. The Pacific horizon still looks a lot like sunset on the plains.

By Holly Doan

Mobilize! Why Canada Was Unprepared For The Second World War by Larry Rose; Dundurn Press; 336 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-10641; $28.99

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