In Ottawa, a simple memorial stands in a park along the Rideau Canal. On it are the names, CDN numbers and British Regiments of the 128 men who died in Europe during the Second World War as CANLOAN soldiers. The memorial is inscribed:
“Erected by the Governments of Canada and the United Kingdom, the British Regiments, the CANLOAN Army Officers’ Association, and CANLOAN next-of-kin. Designated CANLOAN, 673 Canadian Officers volunteered for loan to the British Army and took part in the invasion and liberation of Europe 1944-45. CANLOAN total casualties were 465, of which 128 were fatal. Their fallen are honoured in this quiet place in gratitude and remembrance of the cost of liberty”.
In the fall of 1943, these 673 Canadians, including my grandfather, John R. Surtees, volunteered as junior officers under British command to fill their dwindling forces in the fight to stamp out Nazi forces. After pre-selection, advanced training and a long wait, the Canadians were shipped to England in the spring of 1944. Upon arrival, they spent the next few months getting acquainted with their new British comrades knowing that a great invasion was imminent.
The CANLOANs wore British uniforms adorned with the Canadian Army “CANADA” shoulder patch. With this insignia displayed, John and his fellow Canadians were given the best treatment by British civilians nearly everywhere they travelled and enjoyed many pints, on-the-house. A friendship between the Brits and Canadians had been forged during the long months in England preparing for the Europe campaign.
Operation Overlord, the Allied plan to win the war with a surprise invasion through Normandy began with D-Day. The majority of the CANLOANs landed on Sword and Gold beaches between the afternoon on D-Day and ‘D + 2′ (two days after). Joining with the Canadian Army that plowed past Juno beach and the Americans that survived Omaha, CANLOAN in British ranks pushed their way through Germany’s most deadly SS tank and infantry groups towards the Seine.
The Canadian uniform patch that created such friendly bonding with the Brits, Americans and Canadians quickly became a danger once Operation Bluecoat got underway. The Nazi and SS soldiers had become suspicious of a British uniform with Canadian insignia. The sheer fearless gains of the Canadians at Juno also spooked the Germans. John, assigned to the experienced 7th Armoured “Desert Rats”, was advised to strip his Canadian patch off. Germans were killing Canadians on sight in some sectors. John was soon wounded in an SS ambush and taken prisoner. If he hadn’t taken off his Canadian insignia, he most likely would have been a dead man.
British officers recognized the CANLOANs’ talents as composed, non-reckless leaders and routinely assigned them as platoon commanders on countless patrols, risking their necks with tasks like reconnaissance, contacting other Allies, taking prisoners or destroying an outpost. CANLOANs were simply good at it and were heavily relied upon for it. CANLOANs also had a talent for being best equipped and were known for borrowing German weapons, tools and their superior boots.
In hindsight, the battle was a successful turning point of the war, but on the ground, even with liberating each city, it was a constant grind. Every town, hill and field was decisive. But, with their respective battalions spread across Europe, they had done it. From VE-Day on, many CANLOANs would remain in the towns they liberated with their units processing prisoners and snooping out the last of them. In return, townspeople kept them fed and well entertained.
When the 1945 Canadian federal election was announced, the CANLOANs were notified of an advance poll in Nijmegen, previously German-occupied Netherlands. One of the popular expeditions there involved my grandfather and four others who borrowed a truck to the polls and seized the opportunity to take a scenic route back through their “old haunts” that took them a week to return.
Many CANLOANs reunited in war hospitals, trading stories and support. When the war was over, the CANLOANs suffered a staggering 75% battle casualties, but not without recognition. 41 Military Crosses, one Order of the British Empire, one American Silver Star, one French Distinguished Service Cross 4 Croix de Guerre, one Dutch Order of Bronze Lion and countless “Mentions in Dispatches” were awarded.
There’s much to be said about someone who volunteers himself for another nation, especially when that nation has lost enough men to have to ask for more, and another that these volunteers were revered by so many for their contributions. My grandfather and many other veterans were so shaken by the war that they refused publicizing their involvement with it. But, without CANLOAN, the British they fought with and the many others who ‘brushed shoulders’ with them, I wouldn’t be here to write this. They were Canadians through and through, and they did it for us.
For more, read “Code Word CANLOAN” by Wilfred I. Smith.