My Nominee for Greatest (Dead) Canadian is Milton F. Gregg, VC OC

My Nominee for Greatest (Dead) Canadian is Milton F. Gregg, VC OC

The History Department of Western University is celebrating its centenary in 2017. One of the events the department is putting on for the occasion is a Greatest (Dead) Canadian Competition. I’ve entered the competition to champion Milton Fowler Gregg for the reasons below.

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Milton F. Gregg, VC

Pro Patria – For Country – is the motto of the Royal Canadian Regiment. My nomination for Greatest (Dead) Canadian, Milton Fowler Gregg, exemplified this creed. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest.

Victoria_Cross_of_canadaGregg owes his original claim to fame to the First World War. He earned the Military Cross & Bar and then the Victoria Cross as a lieutenant and platoon leader in the Royal Canadian Regiment.

In the interwar years, Gregg worked as a veteran’s advocate for the Soldiers Settlement Board and became Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons from 1934 until the eve of another conflict in 1939.

He began the war serving overseas as 2IC of the Royal Canadian Regiment and then as commander of the West Nova Scotia Regiment. But Gregg’s calling was as a trainer of soldiers. In 1942 he was promoted colonel and returned to Canada to command army officer and infantry training schools, preparing young men for the grim task that awaited them overseas. He retired as a brigadier in 1944.

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With the war nearing its end, many servicemen and women used higher education to re-enter civilian life. As President of UNB from 1944 to 1947, Gregg oversaw this effort in his home province of New Brunswick. He was known affectionately by students, staff, and faculty alike as “the Brigadier.”

Next, Gregg found his way back to Ottawa as a Member of Parliament, serving in the cabinets of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, including two years as Minister of Veteran’s Affairs.

He finished the last decade of his career in various diplomatic posts, helping build on the Golden Age of Canada’s Foreign Relations. He was the United Nations envoy to Iraq, UNICEF’s envoy to Indonesia, and the Canadian representative to the United Nations – though not all at once. As a capstone to his career, Gregg was awarded the Order of Canada near the time of his retirement in 1968.

v309_20060122_badg_royaThis great Canadian passed away on March 13, 1978, at 85 years of age. Milton Fowler Gregg is fondly remembered every year at a small Remembrance Day service in Snider Mountain, New Brunswick. The Royal Canadian Regiment sends a small detachment from CFB Gagetown, and the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at UNB usually sends a representative. Last year it was my honour to be there.

In war and peace, Milton Gregg exemplified the value of service to his country and the world. I hope our honoured judges will give him due consideration as the Greatest (Dead) Canadian, and that everyone will take some time to remember the Brigadier as I will this Remembrance Day.

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Gregg’s gravestone at Snider Mountain, New Brunswick

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Bomber Command and the Canadian War Museum

Bomber Command and the Canadian War Museum

I was a little frustrated after Public History seminar today. We ran out of time when it came to discussing the Bomber Command controversy that consumed the Canadian War Museum one decade ago. This is a topic that I’m highly passionate about — in fact, I see the commemoration of the RCAF in Canada as a potential PhD dissertation topic. So I wanted to vent my frustration here on my blog for all to see!

no6_hq_crestHere’s a brief backgrounder on the controversy, for those who aren’t aware. The Canadian War Museum was preparing a new exhibit in their Second World War gallery on Canada’s contribution to the Combined Bomber Offensive. Nearly one-third of airmen who served in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War were Canadian. This included men who served in one of 15 squadrons as part of No. 6 Group, a uniquely Canadian formation, and those who served with British and other commonwealth squadrons. Approximately 10,000 Canadian airmen lost their lives serving in the formation during the years 1940-1945. Museum staff, in the course of putting together this exhibit, consulted with veterans, some of whom took issue with the following text panel entitled “An Enduring Controversy”:

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.

The above was originally situated at the end of the exhibit, and followed another panel called “Bombing to Win.” This panel described the Allied strategy behind the bombing war and provided what could be considered a more balanced assessment, noting both the civilian losses and the military value of these raids.

Unfortunately for the exhibit, the context didn’t matter a whole lot to many Canadian veterans. Some were concerned that the text above painted Bomber Command veterans as war criminals. The resulting backlash led the museum to have four independent historians review the exhibit. All four agreed that the exhibit was commendable, although two of the four did offer significant criticisms (both were mainly concerned that this final panel tended to favour one side of the debate over the other).

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A Handley Page Halifax of Bomber Command over its daylight target

The museum felt that this was enough to conclude that no further changes were necessary. They were concerned that giving into the veterans would censor history. Yet the public backed the veterans over the scholars: a Senate of Canada sub-committee eventually forced the museum to make changes to the exhibit. The offending panel, retitled “The Bombing Campaign,” now reads:

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany, an important part of the Allied effort that achieved victory, remains a source of controversy today. Strategic bombing enjoyed wide public and political support and a symbol of Allied resolve and a response to German aggression. In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives and suffered heavy losses. Advances in technology and tactics, combined with Allied successes on other fronts, led to improved results. By war’s end, Allied bombers had razed portions of every major city in Germany and damaged many other targets, including oil facilities and transportation networks. The attacks blunted Germany’s economic and military potential, and drew scarce resources into air defence, damage repair, and the protection of critical industries. Allied aircrew conducted this gruelling offensive with great courage against heavy odds. It required vast material and industrial efforts and claimed over 80,000 Allied lives, including more than 10,000 Canadians. While the campaign contributed greatly to enemy war weariness, German society did not collapse despite 600,000 dead and more than five million left homeless. Industrial output fell substantially, but not until late in the war. The effectiveness and the morality of bombing heavy-populated areas in war continue to be debated.

The text of this new panel is, in my opinion, better than the text of the original panel, if one treats the original panel as if it were in isolation. Everything in that first paragraph of text is historically accurate — although that 600,000 number (which is also in the newer text) is an estimate that typically includes non-Germans, such as the over 100,000 French and Italian civilians killed by bombs dropped by both sides, and even the British who suffered some 60,000 dead for the war. The real line that I would take issue with is the final one, “the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.” (A variation of this line also makes it into the second version, although it is well-qualified by what comes in the lines above.) It’s not that it isn’t factually accurate — because it is. It’s just that there’s more to the story.

To assess the effectiveness of the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO), the Americans established the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). Two members of the USSBS were John K. Galbraith and Burton Klein, the director and deputy respectively of the Overall Economic Effects Division of the survey. Galbraith found that based on quantitative production indexes for primary types of armaments, German production actually increased until late 1944. For him, the CBO did not have a significant effect on Germany’s defeat.

Klein took a different approach. He took the same raw data as his director but asked a very different question. What were the secondary effects of Allied bombing on German industry? As it turns out, the CBO had forced the Germans to pool their resources behind the manufacture of air defences — day fighters, night fighters, flak guns and their ammunition, radar networks and other high-tech devices — instead of tanks and other armaments that could help Germany on the battlefield. Perhaps the CBO had helped speed Germany’s defeat. Even an authoritarian regime run by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis couldn’t stand by while its citizens were being killed in the country’s great cities.

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Dangerous Moonlight by Nicolas Trudgian

There’s another important point here. Galbraith may have been right that German production didn’t decrease until late 1944, but how much did the CBO help in limiting what increases were made? Without the bombing, how much higher would the German production figures have been and how much longer would it have taken the Allied armies to defeat these forces on the battlefield?

In my estimation, the “An Enduring Controversy” panel, when placed in the context of the rest of the exhibit (including the “Bombing to Win” panel) succeeds at including both sides of this debate. However, on its own, this panel doesn’t provide enough context for the reader to make up his or her own mind.

Ultimately, however, my opinion that the second panel is better matters little. What matters is that certain veterans managed to galvanize popular support in such a way that forced an academically sound (and arguably balanced) display (when viewed as a whole) to change because it might force people to deal with uncomfortable truths.

This is one of the best things about studying history. Canadians should be aware of Canada’s role in Bomber Command so that, as citizens, we can each decide whether we support sending the RCAF abroad to conduct bombing missions. Bombing may help end a war sooner, but are we okay with the consequences that go with that? Hopefully, there will never again be a scenario where the deliberate targeting of civilians becomes an acceptable military strategy. History’s value to society isn’t creating a common narrative that we can rally around. History’s value is to give us knowledge so that we can improve as a people.

Thinking about One Day in August

Thinking about One Day in August

You’d think that a span of nine days including two weekends, Thanksgiving Monday, and Western University’s inaugural fall reading week would be relaxing. That’s ample time to rest and recharge for the sprint to the Christmas break, right?

Alas, the work of a graduate student is never done. I’m buried under readings (fancy that — it’s reading week) and 56 midterms that need to be marked by next Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to post something in here, even if it’s just a brief reflection on something that stood out to me in the last few weeks. So here goes.

One theme that’s emerged recently with Charlotte Gray‘s visit to Western for the Goodman Lecture Series is the tension between history written inside and outside the academy. I prefer the terms popular and academic history — some use public history for the former, but I feel that public history is a separate field within academic history that encompasses the popular in many applications.

Anyways, this year’s Public History MA cohort got to sit down for lunch with Mrs. Gray, who argued in her lectures that academic and popular history have — or at least ought to have — a symbiotic relationship. You know, what then-Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi told the Gungan leadership in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:

You and the Naboo form a symbiotic circle, what happens to one of you will affect the other, you must understand this…

The tension between public and academic history — or even just established history and recent discoveries — is real. Here’s an example, one I ran by Charlotte Gray at lunch.

In 2012, Historian David O’Keefe and his team produced Dieppe Uncovered, an hour-long documentary on Operation Jubilee, the infamous raid on the north coast of France that became Canada’s single worst day of casualties in the Second World War. The docudrama’s “cutting-edge research has uncovered new information that may change history books and the perception of the Dieppe Raid.” Check out the trailer below.

Just to get my bias out of the way, O’Keefe is a colleague of mine who I admire quite a bit. But I was very skeptical as I watched the film air on History Television for the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.

one-day-in-augustO’Keefe followed this up with a 2013 book called One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe. It was a national bestseller and was nominated for many Canadian literary awards that year. It was well-received by the book-buying Canadian public. The book was also a pleasure to read. It is organized more like a mystery novel using real historical evidence than a typical monograph with the thesis and supporting arguments stated up front.

Yet responses in the established historical community in Canada were largely negative. Popular Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, writer of the Canadian Battle Series of books (including Tragedy at Dieppe) had a lively debate with David O’Keefe on a CBC Radio One program back in 2013. They debated whether or not the intelligence-gathering mission was the driving purpose behind the operation. Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, took issue with O’Keefe’s conclusions in The Necessary War, volume one of his recently published Second World War series:

But while the operation was expected to provide valuable information to assist in breaking the U-boat codes and gaining an upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, the failure of the Royal Navy to devote any of its large ships to the Dieppe operation would suggest that this stealth raid did not matter as much to the navy as some historians have sensationally claimed — going so far as to argue that the entire Dieppe raid was but a cover for the commando pinch. It was not.

That’s a fairly blunt appraisal.

Here’s my question. Should Professor O’Keefe (he teaches at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec) have written an academic article, say in Canadian Military History, before taking his findings to the public? Arguably his chosen course — a docudrama and then a mystery-style non-fiction book — doesn’t make the evidence he presents as accessible to scholars for their review. However, in doing so, O’Keefe may have been scooped, and his work may not have reached the broad audience that it did. For me, this is a Catch-22 — you’re damned if you go about it either way.

This leads me to a second question. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the Canadian public — or at least those interested enough to watch the film or read the book — to make up their minds about the raid? Perhaps not, if we consider that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have much in the way of historical training. Or perhaps so, if we consider that the Canadian public is as highly educated as it’s ever been in history.

What do you think? Leave me a comment below. As for Charlotte Gray, I can’t remember her response… as I said, it’s been an exhausting week.

milton-greggIn other news. This year is the Western History Department’s centenary, and they’re hosting some great events on October 27th to celebrate the occasion. One of these is the Greatest (Dead) Canadian competition. My nominee is Brigadier Milton Fowler Gregg, VC PC OC CBE MC ED CD.

Gregg died on 13 March 1978, aged 85. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest. He was an incredible leader and manager who applied his administrative skills to make Canada a better place.

My First Podcast – Fortress Malta with Mackenzie Brash

My First Podcast – Fortress Malta with Mackenzie Brash

I did it! I finally produced a podcast of my own. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since Angus Wallace of WW2 Podcast interviewed me about my master’s thesis in 2015.

The episode I produced is called “Achilles’s Sword and Shield: Fortress Malta in the Second World War.” It’s part of a series of podcasts called PubHistoryPod, which my classmates in the Western University Public History MA Program in History and I are completing as part of our Digital Public History course.

Tune in as I examine the most bombed place on earth with the help of my guest, Mackenzie Brash. Mackenzie is a fellow Public History graduate student who took a year abroad as part of her undergraduate program at Western University. I’ve read about the Siege of Malta extensively, but I’ve never visited the island, so I’m excited to get Mackenzie’s insights on the experiences of those who endured the war there.

Give it a listen:

The resources Mackenzie and I mentioned:

Dennis Barnham, Malta Spitfire Pilot: Ten Weeks of Terror, April-June 1942 (2013)
James Holland, Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943 (2004)
James Holland’s The Battle for Malta (2013)
National War Museum (Malta)

Reflecting on my work to produce the podcast, I realize that I’ve learned some lessons. First, try not to record yourself when you have a cold – when you do it sometimes sounds like you’re underwater. Second, try to record using the same equipment whenever possible. I interviewed Mackenzie using the really nice mics in our Digital History Lab at the university, while I recorded myself on a computer headset. While the computer headset is adequate, it has a different sound than the lab mics, making editing a bit more time-consuming. I hope to find ways to use this developing skill to promote my own work, Eagles over Husky, in the future.

Finally, I’d like to thank my classmate, Mackenzie Brash, for agreeing to the interview in the first place. I haven’t known her long, but Mackenzie’s passion for the Maltese experience in the Second World War easily rivals my own for the Battle of Sicily in 1943. The survival of Malta made the invasion of Sicily possible and ultimately accelerated the defeat of the Axis powers. Thank you for helping me tell that story, Mackenzie. I wish you all the best in Malta this summer as you follow your dream!

PS: I apologize if I am difficult to hear during parts of the interview. I amplified these sections, and they sounded good with headphones, but I should have upped the volume even more. Cheers.