OTTAWA — Annie McNamara was in a hostel in Piccadilly Circus when the news came that Nazi Germany had been defeated. She vividly remembers that excitement that swept through the streets of London on May 8, 1945 as war-weary Brits cheered peace at last.
“We saw the whole celebration going on,” she recalls. “We didn’t go down to join the crowds because if we ever got lost, we wouldn’t know where we were staying. But oh my goodness, what a sight. It was tremendous to see.”
She was 24 at the time and a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s women’s division. For two years, the native of Verdun, Que., had travelled to military bases in Canada, the U.S. and Europe to entertain the troops during the Second World War.
Annie was one of the more than a million Canadians to serve during the war. Her husband, Howard McNamara, was another, flying Hurricanes and Spitfire fighter planes against the Nazis in North Africa and Italy for much of the war.
And yet Annie and Howard both remember a curious thing happening when they and all the rest of the Canadians who had served overseas returned home: few people talked about the war.
“I don’t know why,” says Annie, who turned 99 on Nov. 4. “But everybody did that. It’s like we had zippers on our mouths or something.”
Howard, who will turn 101 in a few weeks, has his own hypothesis: “We weren’t the bragging type. So when the war was over, it was over.”
The Royal Canadian Legion will place a special emphasis on marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on Wednesday, when the country marks Remembrance Day. The theme follows the cancellation of numerous large-scale commemorations of the end of the war earlier this year, casualties of COVID-19.
Such a focus would have been foreign to Canadians in the years and even decades after it ended, says Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook. That’s because, as the McNamaras can attest, the country didn’t tell its story when it came to the Second World War and its impact on Canada.
Exactly why is the subject of a new book by Cook entitled “The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering and Remaking Canada’s Second World War.” In it, he notes the contrast between how Canadians held up Vimy Ridge and the First World War as a monumental event for the country, and the silence that followed the second.
“Canada’s contribution during this war was just epic,” Cook says in an interview before listing the various ways in which Canadians contributed to the victory. That includes about one in 10 Canadians serving in uniform, with more than 45,000 making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom in such places as Normandy, Hong Kong, Italy, the Netherlands and the Scheldt.
Cook gives many reasons for the silence that followed, including the onset of the Cold War as well as fighting in Korea and then Vietnam, simmering tensions between French and English Canadians and the government’s reluctance to build Second World War memorials. The birth of peacekeeping and fears of a nuclear apocalypse also changed how Canadians saw war.
“And the failure to tell our story is a major theme until by the early 1990s, we really bizarrely have reframed this war as a war of defeated disgrace,” Cook says. “Defeat in terms of the one thing that we did focus on is Dieppe. … A clear-cut defeat. But not the six years of the Battle of the Atlantic. Not the 100,000 Canadians in Italy. Not the clearing of the Scheldt, which is crucial to the allied victory.”
Cook traces the spark that ignited calls for a fresh remembering of Canada’s Second World War experience to a CBC miniseries in 1992 called “The Valour and the Horror.” The three-part series, which focused on the Canadian defeat in Hong Kong, the bombing campaign over Germany and the Canadian experience at Normandy, was blasted by veterans as inaccurate and biased.
That was followed by the 50th anniversary of D-Day, as thousands of veterans returned to the French beach where Canadian troops had stormed ashore alongside British and American soldiers to begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. The next year saw huge crowds of Dutch people come out to welcome the Canadian veterans who had played a pivotal role in freeing their country 50 years earlier.
“And Canadians, from that point, really woke up,” Cook says. “And that’s the last 25 years: We have remade this history. A different generation has embraced it. And we’ve done a better job of telling our story.”
That was supposed to continue this year with the 75th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of the Netherlands and end of the war in Europe. Such anniversaries are chances to focus attention, as happened when Canada marked the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge in 2017 and the 75th anniversary of D-Day last year.
Instead, COVID-19 scuttled those plans. And while the commemorations have been put off rather than cancelled outright, with plans to mark next year as 75+1, the lack of a vaccine and new outbreaks in Canada and Europe are threatening even those contingencies. Meanwhile, the number of living Canadian veterans from the war dwindles.
Alex Fitzgerald-Black, outreach director for the Juno Beach Centre Association, which owns and operates the museum built on the beach where Canadians went ashore on D-Day, agrees that 2020 is a “lost opportunity” for commemorating Canada’s Second World War role.
While the Juno Beach Centre has launched online efforts to discuss the war, it had been hoping for 90,000 visitors this anniversary year. Fitzgerald-Black says it will be lucky to get a third that number as COVID-19 has cancelled most international travel and forced the museum to close its doors for months.
“We may have lost that last opportunity to get a great number of veterans over there for that anniversary,” he adds. “It’s a real shame.”