Military History Canada in World War II
Roger Sarty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0249


Canada’s substantial and wide-ranging part in the Allied military and economic effort in the Second World War led Canadian leaders to coin the term “middle power,” that is, ranking behind only the great powers. From a population of about 11 million, the country put 1.1 million in uniform, half of whom served in air, land, and naval forces overseas primarily in the Atlantic and European theaters. They fought largely under British higher command, Canada having come to nationhood as part of the British Empire/Commonwealth with armed forces modeled on the British forces. The economic effort was larger still. Canadian-made military equipment (some three times as much as needed by Canadian forces), food, lumber, and industrial resources supplied Allied nations around the world. The war was transformative for the country. Burgeoning US power and Britain’s parlous position brought a decisive shift in the balance in Canada’s international relations to its neighbor to the south. One result of the change from the familiar corridors of power in London to Washington, where Canada had much less influence, was the dramatic growth of the small Canadian foreign service more effectively to press the country’s interests. Major Canada-US initiatives included a permanent alliance for the defense of North America that is still fundamental to continental security, and the integration of defense production in the two countries. Canada as much as the United States became an “arsenal of democracy,” producing artillery, small arms, explosives, electronics including radar and naval sonar, military vehicles (more than 800,000), aircraft, warships, and merchant ships, with an industrial work force of nearly one million men and women. These undertakings, together with the supply of food and raw materials to allied nations, had an enormous economic and social impact. The grim austerity of the Great Depression gave way to a boom, laying foundations for the country’s modern industrial economy, and providing the government revenues needed to launch the early programs of the modern welfare state, including generous benefits to war veterans. An existential issue for Canadian war policy was historic tensions between the English-speaking majority of the population, which tended to favor support for Britain, and the large Francophone minority centered in the province of Quebec, which did not. Those divisions had been severely aggravated by the imposition of conscription to reinforce the army corps Canada raised for the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. In the Second World War the government exercised extreme caution in the mobilization of manpower, restricting military conscription to home service until the final months of the war when heavy battlefield losses necessitated the dispatch of a limited number of the conscripts overseas. The war effort did stimulate French-Canadian nationalisme, but not large-scale civil unrest.


Stacey 1970 is the foremost work. Pickersgill and Forster 1960–1970 gives the day-to-day perspective of the prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, on virtually every aspect of the war effort. Douglas and Greenhous 1977, Bothwell, et al. 1987, Granatstein 1989, Bercuson 2015, and Keshen and Iarocci 2015 are surveys by prominent scholars written for a general readership, but referenced to trace the progress of research and publication in the field. Johnston-White 2017 places Canada’s effort in the context of all the nations of the British Commonwealth. On Newfoundland and Labrador, which was a British colony that did not join Canada until 1949 in large part because of wartime developments, see Neary 1988. The best three-dimensional representation of the Canadian (and Newfoundland) experience is the Second World War gallery of the new Canadian War Museum building in Ottawa that opened in 2005. The exhibitions were designed and have been updated on the basis of a storyline by the historical research staff. Oliver and Brandon 2000 is a development of an early version of the storyline by two members of the historical team vividly illustrated by reproductions from the war art programs of all three armed services.

  • Bercuson, David J. Our Finest Hour: Canada Fights the Second World War. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2015.

    Vigorous account that expands the original edition with coverage of the home front and Canada’s limited part in Allied strategy, the result of the King government’s caution about being forced into additional commitments that would aggravate domestic political divisions. Author is a leading promoter of military studies in the universities, and writer of general interest works on defense and foreign policy. Originally published as Maple Leaf Against the Axis: Canada’s Second World War, 1995.

  • Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada 1900–1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442621169

    The five Second World War chapters are thematic, covering national politics, the military effort, war economy, home front, and planning for postwar reconstruction. The authors were among the first university academics to undertake major projects in newly opened archives in the era of the world wars.

  • Douglas, W. A. B., and Brereton Greenhous. Out of the Shadows: Canada in the Second World War. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1977.

    The first book to make critical assessments of the operational performance of all three armed services, and to survey the economic effort and home front. The authors were official historians who led the revival of the wartime official histories program in the 1970s–1990s.

  • Granatstein, J. L. How Britain’s Weakness Forced Canada into the Arms of the United States: The 1988 Joanne Goodman Lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

    A foremost national historian places the developments of 1939–1945 in the context of Canadian-British-American relations from the First World War through the early Cold War to attack the “hoary” myth that Liberal governments, bowing for political advantage to anti-British sentiment in French Canada, sold out Canada to American interests.

  • Johnston-White, Iain E. The British Commonwealth and Victory in the Second World War. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-58917-0

    Highlights the reliance of the British war effort on the self-governing dominions and India. Canada was the leading contributor in the cases studied, finance and munitions, naval forces, and air forces. The Royal Canadian Navy, for example, escorted fully one-third of the North Atlantic convoys that sustained Britain. The Royal Canadian Air Force supplied 73,000 air crew, and trained an additional 64,000 British and dominions aircrew, 40 percent of the Commonwealth’s total of 326,000 air crew.

  • Keshen, Jeffrey A., and Andrew Iarocci. A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

    By authors who came to prominence after 2000, with equal weight to the home front and the military efforts overseas, largely built on more recent literature.

  • Neary, Peter. Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929–1949. Montreal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780773561809

    Newfoundland’s politics and international relations from the Depression, when bankruptcy forced the self-governing dominion to again become a British colony, to the decision for confederation with Canada. Gives Newfoundland’s perspective on the influx of Canadian and US forces starting in 1940–1941 when the colony became an Allied bastion in the Atlantic theater.

  • Oliver, Dean, and Laura Brandon. Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience 1914 to 1945. Ottawa, ON: Douglas and McIntyre and the Canadian War Museum, 2000.

    An overview of the Canadian effort in each of the world wars. The book originally supported a major exhibit of Canadian war art selected as part of a historical research project to create the storyline for a proposed reconstruction of the Canadian War Museum that was in fact carried out in 2001–2005.

  • Pickersgill, J. W., and D. F. Forster. The Mackenzie King Record, 1939–1948. 4 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960–1970.

    A comprehensive and readable digest of the prime minister’s detailed daily diary; Volume 1 covers 1939–1944, and Volume 2 covers 1944–1945. King, a micromanager, reported on most aspects of the war effort, and particularly his dealings with Allied leaders. One of the remarkable documents on the Allied war effort.

  • Stacey, C. P. Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada, 1939–1945. Ottawa, ON: Queen’s Printer, 1970.

    An official history for the Department of National Defence by Canada’s most distinguished military historian. First book based on full access to William Lyon Mackenzie King’s daily diary and his papers, the best sources on war policy. Foundational on Canada’s relations within the wartime alliance. Coverage of the war economy as well as the military effort.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.