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Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Nov 10, 2020 | Editorials, Featured

Ukrainian Canadians punched way above their weight in World War II

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

‘God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!’

“Lest we forget” is a phrase commonly used in war remembrance services and commemorative occasions in English-speaking countries. Before the term was used in reference to soldiers and war, it was first used in an 1897 Christian poem written by Rudyard Kipling called “Recessional”. As November 11 is marked as Remembrance Day in British Commonwealth countries, it is a most fitting introduction to this editorial.

The tradition of Remembrance Day evolved out of Armistice Day which marked the end of hostilities for the First World War on that date in 1918. Hostilities formally ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”, in accordance with the armistice signed by representatives of Germany and the Entente. In 1931, the federal parliament adopted an act to amend the Armistice Day Act, providing that the day should be observed on November 11 and that the day should be known as Remembrance Day. The federal department of Veterans Affairs Canada states that the date is of “remembrance for the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace”; particularly the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and all conflicts since then in which members of the Canadian Armed Forces have participated.

Five days prior to this year’s Remembrance Day, the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre (UCRDC) premiered online the documentary “A Canadian War Story”, which is a remarkable chronicle of the extraordinary contributions of Ukrainian Canadians to Canada’s Second World War effort.

And extraordinary it was. Over 40,000 Canadians of Ukrainian descent served in the Canadian military to fight for Canada against Nazi, Fascist and Imperial Japanese tyrannies. The Ukrainian enlistment percentage was the highest of any ethnic group outside of the British. The film is based on first person testimonials of Ukrainian Canadian soldiers and chronicles their experiences in service to Canada in Second World War. Spanning continents and generations, the film recounts the remarkable Ukrainian Canadian coming of age journey from Europe to Canada and to the battlefields of Europe and Asia.

It was a coming of age because Ukrainian Canadians were determined to prove their loyalty to Canada in a significant way. The scars of the First World War internment were still fresh. About 5,000 Ukrainian men and some women and children of Austro-Hungarian citizenship were kept in 24 internment camps and related work sites – also known, at the time, as concentration camps. Another 80,000 were left at large but were registered as “enemy aliens” and obliged to regularly report to the police.

When Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, thousands enlisted – even though the Ukrainian community was deeply divided when it came to the war. A sizeable number of Ukrainian Canadians belonged to the pro-Soviet Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA) which opposed the war under orders from Moscow. It was only when the USSR itself was invaded in 1941 that they joined the war effort. In the meantime, the non-Communist Ukrainian Canadian organizations united within the framework of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee (now Congress), created in 1940 to support the war effort.

Ukrainian Canadians certainly paid their dues. Many died in some of the most brutal battles of the war. To mention just a few:

Hong Kong: The Battle of Hong Kong (December 8 – 25, 1941) was one of the first battles of the Pacific War in Second World War. On the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor, forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the British Crown colony of Hong Kong. The attack was in violation of international law as Japan had not declared war against the British Empire. The Hong Kong garrison consisted of British, Indian and Canadian units, also the Auxiliary Defence Units and Hong Kong Voluntary Defence Corps. The Canadian troops consisted of a battalion of the Royal Rifles of Canada (from Quebec) and one of the Winnipeg Grenadiers – many of whom were of Ukrainian origin. They defended Hong Kong valiantly but, in the end had to surrender to vastly superior forces. Of the Canadians captured during the battle, 267 subsequently perished in Japanese prisoner of war camps, mainly due to neglect and abuse. In December 2011, Toshiyuki Kato, Japan’s parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs, apologised for the mistreatment to a group of Canadian veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong.

Dieppe: The Dieppe Raid (August 19, 1942) was an Allied amphibious attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe, northern France in the Second World War. Over 6,050 infantry, predominantly Canadian, supported by a regiment of tanks, were put ashore from a naval force operating under protection of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters. The operation was a fiasco in which the only success was in gathering intelligence including electronic intelligence. Of the 6,086 men who landed, within ten hours, 3,623 had been killed, wounded or became prisoners of war.

The dead were buried at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, located in the village of Hautot-sur-Mer, 5 km south of Dieppe. In his introduction to the film, Lieutenant-General Paul Francis Wynnyk, the former Commander of the Canadian Army, recalled how he was struck by the number of Ukrainian surnames among the monuments to the dead. And that doesn’t even reflect the true number of Ukrainian Canadians who died at Dieppe. Aside from those whose mothers married non-Ukrainians, many Ukrainians anglicized their surnames to avoid discrimination.

D-Day: This was the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare and Canadians were punching way above their weight. Despite being dwarfed in terms of population by the United States and the United Kingdom, Canadians took full responsibility for the attack on one of the five beaches allied forces landed on. This was Juno Beach and Ukrainian Canadians made a giant contribution to this effort.

While stationed in England prior to D-Day, the Ukrainian Canadians created the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen’s Association (UCSA) to cater to their social and cultural needs and eventually rented a building in London to serve as their headquarters. But it was after the war that they made their most significant impact. UCSA members began to provide assistance to Ukrainian Displaced Persons (DPs) and refugees in continental Europe. Due to their efforts about 35,000 Ukrainian DPs settled in Canada. The president of UCSA throughout its existence was Bohdan Panchuk. Other prominent members included Anne Cherniawsky, Ann Crapleve, Stanley Frolick, Steve Kalin, William Kereliuk, Helen Kozicky, Michael Lucyk, Olga Pawluk, Peter Smylski, Walter Weslowski, Anthony Yaremovich and John Yuzyk.

“A Canadian War Story” recounts these and many other stories within its one-hour duration. It was directed by John Paskievich. He was assisted in his historical research by Yurij (George) Serhijkchuk, Andre Sochaniwsky and, from the Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre, and the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Jars Balan, Serge Cipko, and the late Andrij Makuch. Balan, Serhijczuk and Makuch also served on the film production committee with Captain (Ret’d) Andre Sochaniwsky CD, Jurij Darewych, and Oksana Zakydalsky.

It will soon be released on DVD. We will let our readers know when that come out. It is a documentary worth watching and worth owning because it tells a remarkable story that is little known. And it definitely needs to be known much more.

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

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