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A Family Affair

Canada_UK_Military_Links_LgCanadian Naval Attaché, Captain Harry Harsch, OMM, CD, RCN, writes on the Canadian Defence Staff in London and their special relationship with the UK

To understand how closely Canada’s military is linked with the United Kingdom, look no further than the name of a Canadian warship, or the cap badge worn by a Canadian soldier, sailor, airman or airwoman. The prefix HMCS stands for ‘Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship’ and a Royal crown surmounts the various badges. And when the Canadian government decided in August 2011 to restore the historic names for the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Canadian Army, it was a symbolic link to a shared heritage.

‘A country forgets its past at its own peril,’ said Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay,  as he made the announcement. ‘From Vimy Ridge, to the Battle of the Atlantic, and from Korea to the defence of Europe during the Cold War, the proud legacy of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) will once again serve as a timeless link between our veterans and serving soldiers, sailors and air personnel.’

Canada is a fiercely independent nation, yet proudly maintains a long-standing link to Britain through our shared Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, the enduring bonds that exist between Canada and the UK are much more than simply historical – they are modern and multifaceted: political, cultural, commercial and military, and they have grown stronger over the years through shared interests and common values. Canada and the UK are the only two countries that are members of NATO, the G8, the G20 and the Commonwealth.

Today, Canada and the UK work closely in Afghanistan on regional diplomacy and development. Canada only recently completed a costly combat operation, and as of a few months ago shifted to a lead role in training the Afghan National Security Forces. During the conflict in Libya, Canada and the UK played a crucial part in shaping a better future for Libyans. Working together with our NATO allies, and under the command of the RCAF’s Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Canada and the UK helped the Libyan people remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. During that mission, the RCAF flew almost 1000 CF-18 strike sorties. At sea, the RCN has maintained a frigate in the Mediterranean since April 2011, and plans to keep one in the region for at least the rest of this year.

Canadian and UK defence establishments maintain working relations at all levels, both bilaterally and multilaterally through NATO membership, participation in UN operations and other multinational military activities. Defence cooperation is also evident in many other activities: Canadian and British servicemen and women serve on reciprocal exchange and professional development programmes. The British Army Training Unit in Suffield, Alberta, conducts regular mechanised battle exercises to maintain core military readiness. Specialised elements of Canadian military training are conducted in the UK to take advantage of British expertise and to share and solidify best practices. Common operational practices, procedures and experience have led to ongoing information-sharing and cooperation at all levels of the respective services.

Much of the job of maintaining the relationship falls on the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff in London. Military liaison officers have been part of the London diplomatic scene since the beginning of World War I, when the Canadian Expeditionary Force arrived in the UK and needed a link with British commanders. Between the wars, Canadian military representation was more modest. Of course, World War II changed all that as thousands of Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen were stationed in the UK.

During the war, the military and naval liaison sections were necessarily robust, but focused only on their own individual services. However, in January 1945, as the war drew to a close, the three staffs from the army, navy and air force came together as the Canadian Joint Liaison Office, with an aim of providing high-level inter-service liaison with those in charge of the strategic conduct of the war. This more effectively involved the Canadian Government with the key decisions being made during the war’s final days. The Joint Liaison Office provided a very useful link with the UK Chiefs of Staff, opening up channels of information that would otherwise not have been available.

In many respects that group of advisers was the precursor of the present Canadian military staff in London, which in the early 1960s settled on both its title of Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (London), and its current home at Macdonald House, on Grosvenor Square. Presently there are 18 people on the staff – nine in uniform and a civilian defence scientist, along with eight dedicated locally-engaged staff.

The army, air force and naval advisers get to see the UK in a way that few other Canadians, or even the other London-based diplomatic staff do. One of the most moving of those experiences is the annual Canadian commemorative service at the Shorncliffe Military Cemetery on the coast of Kent, just a few miles from Folkestone.

At any given time there were as many as 50,000 Canadian soldiers stationed at Shorncliffe Camp from 1915 to the end of the First World War. The camp included barracks and a machine gun school, as well as a number of military hospitals. The presence of Canadians had a significant impact on the community, and the local population, in turn, made their mark on the soldiers. Back then, Shorncliffe was said to be home to so many Canadians that it was ‘a suburb of Toronto.’ Many of the Canadian soldiers went on to fight in the trenches, and of course, many did not return. Almost 300 are buried in the Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, most of who died of wounds received on the battlefield, or of disease.

Each year on Canada’s national day – 1 July – when Canadians are celebrating our heritage, children from Shorncliffe’s schools pause to remember the fallen. This event has happened every year since the end of World War I, with the exception of 1939 to 1945.

It’s the presence of the children who lay flowers on each Canadian grave that makes the service so poignant. Generations of Shorncliffe children have taken part in this event and have connected with the Canadians buried there. Only a few Canadians have heard about this ceremony – or the countless other, sometimes small, commemorative events held throughout the UK that remember the sacrifices made by their forefathers. Military and naval advisers ensure there is Canadian representation at as many events as possible, because we will never forget the sacrifices of previous generations, and the appreciation of the British communities which honour them.

The term ‘special relationship’ has entered the language, but few nations have ever enjoyed a relationship as special, or as lasting, as Canada and the UK. The two nations stood together at Paardeberg, Vimy, Passchendaele, Ypres, in the Battle of the Atlantic and on the beaches of Normandy, and still stand together today in international operations, continuing the work to bring about more stable and secure societies. A shared history forged on the battlefield laid the groundwork for the enduring defence relationship enjoyed today.

Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron met his Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Ottawa. They signed a Joint Declaration that emphasised the strong relationship between Canadian and British forces. And they pledged to strengthen that cooperation still further – the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (London) will play a major role in making that happen.

World War II recruiting posters from the McGill University’s Library War Poster Collection

Publisher: La Service de l’Information des Services Nationaux de Guerre, Ottawa (Issued under authority of the Minister of National War Services, the Honourable JT Thorson)


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