Against A Noble Lie: “Canadians Under Fire” by Robert Engen
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Against A Noble Lie: “Canadians Under Fire” by Robert Engen

a woman in overalls and a bandana holds a newly completed light machine gun on a table in front of a poster
Gunsmith Veronica Foster of the John Inglis Co. Ltd, Toronto ON 1941. The Canadians say that the National Film Board’s publicity for her as “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” inspired the Americans to create “Rosie the Riveter” the following year. Public domain image c/o,_ww2_gunsmith,_displays_a_finished_Bren_gun_-c.jpg

Robert Engen, Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 [Bookfinder] [Biblio]

In this plague time, zombie ideas walk the earth, for all our attempts to call down academic fire on them. One of those is S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that only 15-25% of American infantry in WW II fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy. Although Marshall’s trustworthiness had been undermined by the 1980s, and he left no records of the interviews where he claimed to have learned this embarrassing truth, the idea gained a new life after it was popularized by writers like columnist Gwynne Dyer and the smooth smiling David Grossman. Engen’s book focuses on another body of evidence which exists today: surveys mailed to Canadian infantry captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels returning to Britain after fighting on the continent. Anyone can go and read the original documents in Ottawa, and they were filled out within a few weeks of leaving combat for an internal military audience. While Engen dutifully reminds readers that combat is confusing, memories are maleable, and people don’t always say exactly what they remember, these surveys are better sources than anecdotes or the opinions of one amateur historian with a gift for self-publicity.

After reading 161 forms completed by infantry officers, Engen has one major conclusion:

Remarkably, not one officer recorded the slightest complaint about volumes of fire being too low, or about large-scale non-participation in battle. … In notable contrast to Marshall’s ratio-of-fire theory, Canadian officers considered their troops’ making too much use of their firearms to be a more pervasive and dangerous problem than their not shooting enough or at all. (pp. 146, 147)

Knowing that enemies could be waiting to kill them behind any rock or tree, green troops tended to fire at every shadow or loud noise, revealing their position so enemies could take cover, call in artillery or ground-attack aircraft, or prepare to ambush them. Sometimes they mistakenly shot friendlies or civilians because they had not made sure who was downrange. In the last two years of the war in the theatres where Canadians were fighting, dreams of mechanized warfare and armoured spearheads had turned into a rolling front: warfare just as terrible as in the First World War, but which moved back and forth grinding up civilians and homes while air raids flashed over the lines to hit cities and trains. Tanks which tried to break through on their own died to mines, anti-tank guns, and Panzerfauste / Panzerschrecke; fighters and bombers could devastate columns of vehicles in the rear, but often had trouble identifying targets at the front. So the infantry had to go forward to take out machine-gun nests and anti-tank guns one by one, with company and platoon leaders suffering 30% casualties a month in Normandy (p. 68). Because of this terrible casualty rate and the lengthy training of the soldiers who landed in Sicily or Normandy, Engen is not so sure that Canadian veterans were more effective than Canadians who had just a few days of combat experience.

Engen’s infantry officers passed on the kind of wisdom which soldiers in wars since 1917 often pass on. Their most useful weapons were the Bren light machine gun, the PIAT (a spring-powered launcher for shaped-charge bombs), the 3″ (75 mm) mortar, and the No. 36 “Mills bomb” or “pineapple” fragmentation grenade. Received wisdom has it that the Sten submachinegun was unreliable, and the officers’ comments support this; admirers of German technology will be crushed to read that the soldiers were extremely satisfied with the Bren light machine gun. Some armchair commentators pronounce that the German MG 34 and MG 42 were superior weapons because they were fed with long belts rather than 30-round magazines and could put more rounds downrange in a few seconds (the cyclic rate). Canadian infantry who wanted more firepower collected as many Bren guns as they could rather than demanding a different weapon.

Engen seems driven by a desire to defend the honour of the Canadian infantryman. The army is probably the senior service in Canada, and infantry have a tough job: in WW II they made up 15% of the army but suffered 70% of the casualties. Asserting that Canadian infantry in WW II were brave and skilled fighters seems like beating a dead horse, because I thought that the criticism of Anglo ground forces in WW II was less a criticism of individual soldiers than of the army’s collective, institutional ability to bring infantry armour artillery and air support together to destroy the enemy. He does make the point that the German preference for a war of movement (Bewegungskrieg) reflected German generals’ experience on the fluid Eastern Front in the last war, while senior British and Commonwealth officers tended to be veterans of the more static Western Front (p. 76). In the new war, each side used the methods which had won in their section of the old war. Like Citino’s German officers, Engen’s Canadian officers felt that their methods had worked in the past and could be adapted to new circumstances.

Even though this is a short book (149 pages of main text), it is sometimes repetitive, citing the same sources to make the same points that an earlier chapter did. Was this designed for book-breaking (‘reading’ a book by skimming the introduction, the conclusion, the notes, and some reviews or the starts and ends of chapters), a practice promoted by some doctoral programs in North America? (Full disclosure: I have a PhD in History from somewhere else, and I think this is madness- skimming a book is not the same as reading it). Or perhaps it was intended for an audience which includes WW II buffs and soldiers who might not read as carefully as academics? I would definitely recommend this book to ancient historians who want a guide to modern combat psychology that does not raise as many red flags as Marshall’s or Grossman’s books. It explains things which many books on WW II assume the reader knows from military service.

However much fire we call down, when we try to move forwards these intellectual zombies pop up from their holes and start roaring at us. I hope that Robert Engen’s book reaches the many different audiences it is aimed at, rather than just being read at universities. Like other pop psychology and cargo-cult sleep science, versions of Marshall’s ideas have become very widespread amongst people seeking practical wisdom even though the evidence for them is not very good. Someone will always be wrong in the library, but a friend was sent into combat based on these very doubtful theories. That is not just an academic matter.

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(scheduled 18 January 2021)

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2 thoughts on “Against A Noble Lie: “Canadians Under Fire” by Robert Engen

  1. russell1200 says:

    I remember reading the book. The big surprise I remember from it was the popularity of the PIAT. As to the PIAT, I would add that after its spring was first cocked. It was “recocked” automatically by a blank charge. So it was a little like a single-double action pistol. Apparently it was also used in a pinch as a mortar.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I seem to recall that the PIAT was great for blowing holes in the walls of brick and stone buildings so the infantry did not have to go out into the streets and through the ground floor. Because it was powered by springs not a rocket, it did not shoot deadly flames out the back end which could roast the gunner or an unlucky passerby if it was shot in an enclosed area. The PIAT never got a Walt Disney film like the Boys Antitank Rifle though.

      I hope that someone with a gift for self-promotion finds this book. At least in the American martial arts world, Grossman’s versions of Marshall’s theory are widely known and believed.

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