Review – Heroes And Anti-Heroes

Historian Jack Granatstein decades ago crisscrossed the country interviewing the last surviving senior Canadian officers to serve in the Second World War. Once newsreel heroes, they were now old men, in their 80s and 90s, forgotten by the public – bitterly so, in some cases. Luckily for readers, Granatstein saved his notes.

“Some of what I recorded was indiscreet, self-serving and gossipy, no doubt, but almost all of it seemed to me to be the truth,” writes Granatstein; “During the war, several of the officers whom I interviewed had refused to be disparaging about the abilities of their leaders, despite probing questioning. They had no such qualms in disparaging politicians, but the passage of decades and the gaining of perspective relaxed such instinctive attitudes in many interviewees’ remarks on their comrades.”

The result is a collection of warm, indelible profiles of fighting men, by turns poignant and pathetic. The Weight Of Command is a compelling account of the deathbed recollections of Canadians who participated in extraordinary events. One suffered a nervous breakdown during the war, and still teared up at the thought of being greeted by old soldiers on the streets of Vancouver. Another officer is recalled as a “bastard” who affected a black beret and liked to visit the troops in a white chauffeured scout car. A third commander was a physical coward who cringed in a trench on D-Day.

“To succeed in battle, recent field experience, a willingness to learn and adapt, and the ability to lead and inspire were essential,” notes Weight Of Command. “No Canadian officers had those qualities at the beginning of the Second World War, and there were few keen military minds among them.”

There was General Harry Crerar of Hamilton, Ont., commander of the First Canadian Army, driven to drink after the war. An impaired driving charge scotched Crerar’s secret ambition to win appointment as Governor General. “He was so upset,” a colleague recalled.

Crerar in wartime was a careful, meticulous man so lacking in spontaneity he filed away jokes written on index cards for retrieval at appropriate times. “Crerar was really a senior civil servant, not a fighting general,” said one officer. “The troops scarcely knew him.”

Major General George Pearkes, a former Alberta policeman, had won a Victoria Cross in the First World War but was recalled as “no great administrator” and a vain and unintelligent man. “Whatever brains he’d once possessed had been blown out in the Great War,” one oldtimer told Granatstein; “He actually traveled with a trumpeter.” Lecturing once at a Junior War Staff Course, Pearkes announced: “Tanks are stupid; can a tank go up a staircase to clear a house?” After the war he was appointed defence minister.

General Andrew McNaughton of Moosomin, Sask., another defence minister, emerges as a lackluster and ineloquent commander fascinated by technology. One officer recalled attending a conference at Corps Headquarters “and finding McNaughton under a truck, looking for the source of transmission problems.”

“Andy wouldn’t say hello to people in the elevator,” one interviewee recounted. “He wasn’t interested in war, but only in the instruments of war. He liked gadgets; for example, he once sent someone to Oxford to study Greek fire.”

“Canadians know very little of their nation’s role in the Second World War,” Granatstein writes. “This is a terrible shame.” Weight Of Command in vivid reportage introduces new generations to Canada’s wartime heroes and anti-heroes.

By Holly Doan

The Weight Of Command: Voices Of Canada’s Second World War Generals and Those Who Knew Them,  by J.L. Granatstein; University of British Columbia Press; 312 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-32991; $34.95

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