Was Panama Canal the reason Canada stalled in declaring war on Germany?
Second World War Canadian veteran Wess McIntosh attends a book signing in a 2009 handout photo.McIntosh, a 99-year old former squadron leader with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, had a ringside seat at an event that could shed new light on why Canada waited until Sept. 10, 1939, to declare war on Nazi Germany. (Tom Douglas / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Tom Douglas, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, September 2, 2014 5:15PM EDT
MILTON, Ont. -- A 99-year old former squadron leader with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War had a ringside seat at an event that could shed new light on why Canada waited until Sept. 10, 1939, to declare war on Nazi Germany.
Wess McIntosh, who lives in Milton, Ont., about 50 kilometres west of Toronto, was actually in the Royal Canadian Navy when Great Britain and France declared war 75 years ago Wednesday following Germany's invasion of Poland.
"Historians point to this seven-day delay on Canada's part as our way of asserting our independence as a nation after proving our mettle in the First World War," McIntosh said in an interview.
"I have another theory about this time lapse, though I've never been able to prove it."
McIntosh was a naval radio operator in Halifax during the days leading up to the war and often communicated with Canada's ships at sea. At the time, the country possessed only six destroyers, two of which were berthed at Esquimalt, B.C.
"Sensing that the war balloon was about to go up, the navy ordered the ships -- HMCS Fraser and HMCS St. Laurent -- to weigh anchor and head for Halifax via the Panama Canal," he said.
"But before they could reach this shortcut from the Pacific to the Atlantic, German troops blitzkrieged across the Polish border and the game was afoot."
Canada desperately needed those two destroyers to reach Halifax as soon as possible so that they could join in the upcoming Battle of the Atlantic, McIntosh said.
"But there was one big hurdle to overcome. The Panama Canal was under the control of the United States -- and isolationist America was determined to stay out of the war. It was common knowledge that they would refuse to allow ships of any country that had declared war on Germany to pass through the canal.
"The tedious alternative under such a ban was to steam all the way down the west coast of North and South America, navigate the stormy seas around Cape Horn and head north to a much-delayed arrival on Canada's east coast."
McIntosh's eyes lit up as he recalled the pandemonium at the naval base as the Fraser and the St. Laurent approached, and then entered, the canal.
"You can imagine the excitement as we followed the news of our two destroyers pouring on the coal as they raced to get through the canal," he said.
"As a telegraphist, I had a legitimate excuse to be in the wireless room, but it was amazing how many other sailors of all ranks found a reason to crowd into that tiny cubicle to hear the latest update."
Senior officers kept poking their heads into his radio shack and asking whether the two ships had made it through, McIntosh recalled.
"When the Fraser and the St. Laurent finally radioed that they had cleared the canal, a tremendous shout went up from the crowd of wall-to-wall people, followed by the blaring of horns of every ship in the harbour.
"Shortly thereafter, Canada declared war on Germany."
Parliament was recalled on Sept. 7 and the formal declaration of war came three days later.
Once he had delivered the good news, McIntosh took off his headset and made for the nearby RCAF recruiting station. Even though he had been associated with the navy since joining the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve in his native Winnipeg in 1933, he had his heart set on joining the air force.
"I brought along my log book showing 410 hours earned as a private pilot, and the RCAF recruiter said they needed people like me desperately -- the navy at that point didn't have an air arm -- but that I was in the navy and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to transfer out."
While his naval commanding officer was a bit upset that he wanted to switch from Canada's "senior service" to the RCAF, he eventually granted the discharge, McIntosh said, stamping his papers with the words, "Permission granted."
That became the title for McIntosh's 2009 autobiography, which recounts his wartime service flying the mail to Canadian troops overseas as part of the RCAF's 168 Heavy Transport Squadron.