Anniversary of Canada Joining World War II

WWII_letsgocanadaposter75 years ago today, Canada joined its Commonwealth allies and declared war on Nazi Germany, signalling its entrance into the Second World War. And today, Canadians come together to celebrate and pay their respects to this national effort that saw a small nation rise to the greatest challenge in history, and commit sacrifices that would earn the respect of people the world over and stand the test of time.

The declaration came roughly a week after the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1st, 1939 and the subsequent declaration of war by both Britain and France. Unlike the First World War, where Canada was obliged to become involved as part of the Commonwealth, Canada enjoyed a measure of self-determination in foreign affairs at this time and declared war autonomously. Though it was generally understood that Canada would become involved to support its allies, this decision was a significant event in the evolution of our nation.

British_Columbia_Regiment_1940Over the course of the next six years, Canada would enjoy a changing role in the war effort. Beginning the war as a largely unprepared participant, Canada would go on to become Britain’s most important ally for the next two years. Thereafter, Canadian forces would be a crucial arm of the British war effort, taking part in some of the toughest offensives on the Western Front and in both the air war and the war at sea.

Our first taste of combat came in the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from Sept. 1939 to war’s end in May of 1945. This would prove to be the longest battle of the war, and certainly one of the most crucial. Between the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Merchant Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), thousands of Canadians fought and died to ensure the safe passage of troops and goods across the Atlantic to Britain.

operation-overlordThis not only ensured that Britain did not collapse during the darkest days of the war in 1940 and 41. From 1942 onward, it was part of the largest buildup in military history, which in turn led to the D-Day landings, the liberation of France, and victory in Europe. During the Battle of Normandy (June 6th – Aug. 25th, 1944), Canadian forces distinguished themselves in the Battle of Caen and the Falaise Pocket, two key operations that led to the defeat of the Nazis in France.

Between 1939 and 1945, Canada also made major contribution to the air war through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Given that Britain was vulnerable to air strikes from Germany early in the war, Canada became the site of the Commonwealth’s pilot training, and provided countless men and women with the skills they needed to fly fighters, bombers, supply planes and sub hunters.

battle_of_britainThe RCAF would also participate heavily in the Battle of Britain and combat operations in Europe, the north Atlantic, north Africa, southern Asia, and at home. By war’s end, it would be the fourth largest air force in the world. Similarly, the Royal Canadian Navy, which provided escort to British and Allied shipping across the Atlantic, was intrinsic in hunting U-boats, and would become the world’s fifth largest surface fleet by wars end.

In addition, Canada participated in some of the most costly and ugly defeats in the war. This included the Battle of Hong Kong, one of the first battles of the Pacific Campaign which occurred on the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here, a total of 14,000 British, Canadian, Indian and Chinese troops faced off against 52,000 Japanese Imperial soldiers and were defeated. Those that survived were taken as slaves, while those countless others were mercilessly slaughtered.

dieppe-dsAnd on August 19th, 1942, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division took part in one of the most poorly-planned operations of the war – the Dieppe Raid. Here, Canadian, British, Free French and Polish troops stormed a well-defended occupied port in Northern France and were forced to retreat. Of the nearly 5,000-strong Canadian contingent that went ashore, 3,367 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner – an exceptional casualty rate of 68%.

All told, a total of 1,187,334 Canadian men and women were mobilized to fight in the war from a population that numbered 11 million before the war. Afterward, Canada would go on to become a major voice for peacekeeping and human rights on the international stage. This was exemplified by John Peters Humphrey (a Canadian) being the principle drafter of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Canadian troops participating in peacekeeping missions all around the world.

My father placing soil from Bramford by Wilmot's headstone
My father placing soil from Brantford by Wilmot’s headstone

At the same time, some 45,400 Canadians would make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Fascism, militarism, and genocide – close to half a percent of Canada’s total population. And I am honored to say that this past April, I was able to pay my respects at several Commonwealth cemeteries where many of them were laid to rest. This included Beny-sur-Mer, Ranville, and the Bayeux Commonwealth Cemetery.

My first cousin, twice removed, Wilmot Pettit was one of those individuals who did not make it home. As a member of the Royal Air Force, he was tasked with towing gliders into Normandy on D-Day as part of the Eastern Task Force. While flying over Grangues, his plane was shot down and he and his crew were killed. Today, his body rests at Ranville Cemetery, surrounded by many fellow Canadians and British soldiers who perished on that “Day of Days”.

Canada_ww2This past year has been an ongoing procession of anniversaries. From the seventieth anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, to the Centennial of the outbreak of World War I, to the seventy-fifth anniversary of World War II, and now the seventy-fifth of Canada entering the war… It certainly makes one feel thankful. At the same time, it reminds us of just how fragile peace and civility are – not to mention how important.

In today’s world, there are still many people who – either out of selfishness, stupidity, grief or ignorance – seek to cause harm or profit from violence. Sadly, these people often finds themselves at the head of an army of willing supplicants. One can only hope that something other than a global effort and a major expenditure of life will not be needed to stop them before it’s too late!

A Tribute to Alan Turing

Wouldn’t you know it? Today marks what would have been Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. This man was not only immensely influential in the development of computer science and cryptanalysis, he is also considered the father of Artificial Intelligence. In fact, words like “algorithm” and “computation” are traced to him, as was the development of the “Turing machine” concept which has helped computer scientists to understand the limits of mechanical computation.

However, his reputation goes far beyond the field of computer science. During World War II, he worked at the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. For a time, he was acting head up Hut 8, the section responsible for breaking the Enigma Code, Germany’s wartime cypher which they used to encrypt all their communications. Were it not for this achievement, the Allies may very well have lost the war.

Especially in the Atlantic, where German U-boats were causing extensive losses in Allied shipping, Turing’s work proved to be the different between victory and defeat. By knowing the disposition and orders of the German fleet, crucial shipments of food, raw material, weapons and troops were able to make it across the Atlantic and keep Britain in the war. Eventually, the broken codes would also help the Allied navy to hunt down and eviscerate Germany’s fleet of subs.

After the war, he worked at the National Physical Laboratory in London, where he created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). He named this in honor of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a mathematical machine built a century before. This machine was the culmination of theoretical work which began in the mid 30’s and his experiences at Bletchley Park.

In 1948, he joined the Computing Laboratory at Manchester University, where he assisted fellow mathematician and codebreaker Max Newman in the development of the Manchester computers. Their work would eventually yield the world’s first stored-program computer, the world’s first computer to use transistors, and what was the world’s fastest computer at the time of its inauguration (in 1962).

He then switched for a time to emergent and theoretical field of mathematical biology, a science which was concerned with the mathematical representation, treatment and modeling of biological processes, using a variety of applied mathematical techniques and tools. This field has numerous applications in medicine, biology, and the proposed field of biotechnology. As always, the man was on the cutting edge!

In terms of Artificial Intelligence, Turing proposed that it might be possible one day to create a machine that was capable of replicating the same processes as the human mind. The “Turing Test” was a proposed way of testing this hypothesis, whereby a human test subject and computer would both be subjected to the same questions in a blind test. If the person administering the test could not differentiate between the answers that came from a person or a machine, then the machine could be accurately deemed as an “artificial intelligence”.

Tragically, his life ended in 1954, just weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. This was all due to the fact that Turing was gay and did not try to conceal this about himself. In 1952, after years of service with the British government, he was tried as a criminal for “indecency”, homesexuality being considered a crime at the time. In exchange for no jail time, he agreed to submit to female hormone treatment, which is tantamount to “chemical castration”. After a year of enduring this treatment, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. Between his wartime contributions and ongoing influence in the field of computer science, mathematics, and the emerging fields of biotechnology, and artificial intelligence, Turing has left a lasting legacy. For example, at King’s College in Cambridge, the computer room is named after him in honor of his achievements and that fact that he was a student there in 1931 and a Fellow in 1935.

In Manchester, where Turing spent much of his life, many tributes have been in his honor. In 1994, a stretch of the Manchester city intermediate ring road was named “Alan Turing Way” while a bridge carrying this road was widened and renamed the Alan Turing Bridge. In 2001, a statue of Turing was unveiled in Sackville Park, which commemorates his work towards the end of his life. The statue shows Turing sitting on a bench, strategically located between the University of Manchester and the Canal Street gay village.

The commemorative plaque reads ‘Founder of Computer Science’ as it would appear if encoded by an Enigma machine: ‘IEKYF ROMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ’. Another statue of Turing was unveiled in Bletchley Park in 2007, made out of approximately half a million pieces slate and showing the young Turing studying an Enigma machine. A commemorative English Heritage blue plaque was also mounted outside the house where Turing grew up in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

In literature, Turing’s name and persona have made several appearances. The 1986 play, Breaking the Code, was about Turing’s life, went from London’s West End to Broadway and won three Tony Awards. The 1996, the BBC television network produced a series on his life, starring Derek Jacobi in the leading role. In 2010, actor/playwright Jade Esteban Estrada portrayed Turing in the solo musical, ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 4. And, my personal favorite, he was featured heavily in Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon.

Rest in peace Alan Turning. Like many geniuses, you were ahead of your time and destroyed by the very people you helped to educate and protect. I hope Galileo, Socrates, Oppenheimer and Tupac are there to keep you company! You have a lot to discuss, I’m sure 😉