Canadians Behind Enemy Lines, 1939-1945

by Roy MacLaren
ISBN: 0774811005

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A Review of: Canadians Behind Enemy Lines: 1939-1945
by Nathan Greenfield

The decision of UBC Press to republish Roy McLaren's 1981 book, Canadians Behind Enemy Lines, 1939-1945, was a good one. The 25 Canadians who served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Europe represented less than two per cent of both organizations' total, but their contributions were important. The war's most unlikely paratrooper, Major William Jones, a one-eyed WWI veteran who finagled his way first into the RAF and then in 1942 into the operation to make contact with Tito's partisans, was the "most popular Allied officer in Yugoslavia." French-born Gustav Bieler, who had come to Canada to study at McGill University, parachuted into France in November 1942; before being arrested in January 1944, he organized a resistance circuit that blew up the Paris-Calais line 13 times; he stood up to the SS's brutal torture so well that the SS itself sent an honour guard to accompany him to his execution.
Pierre Edouard Chass of Montreal was in France before D-Day working to convince the Germans that the invasion was not planned for Normandy; on August 25, 1944, 7,000 German soldiers surrendered to him rather than to the Free French forces advancing up the Rhne.
As riveting as these and other stories are, what I found most fascinating in MacLaren's book is what he says about their breadth of learning. When Bieler was interviewed for the SOE, the "discussion centred on [Marcel] Proust." Frank Picksergill who was captured within hours of parachuting into France and was horribly tortured before being sent to die at Buchanwald, had been in Germany during the Nuremberg rallies. His letter to his brother Jack, Mackenzie King's Principal Secretary, is among the most insightful I've read about Nazism: "That was National Socialism en fete. If it had been merely barbaric it wouldn't have been so bad. Honestly that nation is, I think, possessed by the devil - I see now what Dostoevsky meant in his novel. The inspiration behind their culture' isn't merely subhuman or uncivilized. It's worse than that. . . . [It's] a sinister fog."
Of course, no French Canadian marched off to war to protect Proust's literary reputation, just as no Canadian marched off to ensure the greater circulation of Dostoevsky's oeuvre. But, what these three books show is that millions of Canadian men, women and children knew which side they were on.

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