Underestimated Leadership: Assessment of Harry Crerar’s competency during WWII

by | Apr 19, 2021 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Marianne Grenier

This article is part of the Canadian Military History Colloquium Web Series, created to provide an online space for papers which otherwise would have been presented at the 31st Canadian Military History Colloquium, if not for last year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Marianne Grenier is currently a second-year master’s student in the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Security and Police Studies from the Université de Montréal. She received a SSHRC scholarship to pursue her thesis research on a treaties comparison to prevent nuclear terrorism. Under the guidance of Dr. David J. Bercuson, she primarily focused on the career and ascension of General Crerar within the Canadian forces during the Second World War.

During the Second World War, Canada promoted a strategy based on the defence and advancement of national politics and interests. The symbolism of Canada’s independent declaration of war against Nazi Germany illustrated the nation’s desire to assert itself as a sovereign country in the eyes of the world. This idea also extended to the actions and positions of Canadian leaders deployed overseas during the war.[i] General Henry Duncan Graham Crerar, known as ‘Harry’ Crerar, was a central figure of Canadian leadership during the Second World War, albeit often put aside. Having held several positions in the Canadian army during the two World Wars, he is a contested figure whose command abilities are debated, mainly regarding his leadership in the Second World War.[ii] What is nonetheless unanimous is the fact that Crerar was able to influence Canada’s military decisions and played a significant role in shaping Canadian military forces of that time. While Crerar has often been assessed negatively for his limited operational successes and abrasive personality, his leadership is better than what has been highlighted.[iii] Crerar’s organizational and political abilities were tools that proved useful in the role of leading the Canadian army in the Second World War. The assessment of his skills, personality and features needs to be carried out by looking at criteria of competency and examples relating to his career in order to underline his overall leadership approach.

A “Political Soldier”

At the beginning of the Second World War, Crerar was initially sent overseas as brigadier, General Staff of the Overseas Headquarters. Complaining about the difficulty of working with War Office colleagues as a brigadier, he was promoted to the acting rank of major-general. In fact, throughout his career, Crerar continuously prioritized his personal interests, and his ambitions seemed to increase during this war. Upon Ralston’s arrival as Minister of National Defence, Crerar went back to Ottawa and was promoted to Chief of the General Staff in 1940. In the following year, Crerar reformed the training of junior officers and other ranks. Crerar also influenced the government on a plan of expansion, armament and training of the troops.[iv] All essential points of Crerar’s army program were approved, a lobbying and political success for the man. In this sphere of activity, it is possible to note that Crerar showed innovation and adaptability, qualities that were often left overlooked by his peers during his career. But, when observing Crerar’s career, one can notice that he searched for different ways to develop his ideas and welcomed the advice of others. His intention for the army’s improvement seemed to be a priority over his own ideas, opinions, and ego.

Crerar’s rank in the forces required him to act politically, whether in terms of lobbying or requests. The political aspect weighed heavily on the role of Canadian commanders, and was even more present for Canadian leaders in this war as the nation notably pushed its agenda forward. Crerar’s position was no exception to the rule, but what was peculiar was his interest and implication in political matters. First, he was described as an individual who reflected on different political and military issues at home as well as internationally and was reported as a “political soldier” for this reason.[v] Second, the initiative of reorganizing the senior ranks of the army in 1940 was also a political move for Crerar, who manifested his capacity to influence, along with a desire to lead. This reorganization came after Crerar complained that the best people to advise the Minister of Defence were the overseas commanders at war. The desire to be consulted reflects Crerar’s intention to participate in political decisions concerning military affairs. To avoid consulting soldiers on the ground would then certainly lead to weak decisions. Crerar was a remarkable lobbyist and repeatedly influenced decisions in favour of his military and personal positions. The commander was aware that to achieve his goals and expand his control over military affairs, he had to present himself as a political leader as well as a military leader. Political motivations and pressures, such as the morale of the Canadian population and troops, explained some of Crerar’s decision-making.[vi] However, debates surrounding these decisions still emerged, which need to be explored to understand Crerar’s leadership.

In 1941, Crerar encouraged Ottawa to send two infantry battalions to Hong Kong to support British troops. This decision proved to be a mistake, as Japan seized Hong Kong in the first three weeks of the Pacific War. This appalling situation for Canadian troops on the ground raised some controversy in Canada. Crerar avoided most of the fallout of this controversy as he was based in England at that time. On the other hand, some of his colleagues and superiors found themselves in more trouble regarding their involvement.[vii]

In August 1942, the operation in Dieppe led to another controversy involving Crerar. The man had previously campaigned for the participation of Canadian troops in operations in occupied Europe. According to him, the troops needed to see action quickly to increase the morale of the troops and the Canadian population. As the General Officer Commanding, Crerar was involved in the planning and execution of the raid, and Canadian participation in Dieppe is mainly attributable to him.[viii] The operation “Jubilee” in Dieppe on August 19, where six thousand Allied troops participated, was disastrous as more than nine hundred men perished, and nearly two thousand were captured. Following this defeat, Crerar immediately took a positive stance, stressing that the operation was, albeit costly, worthwhile because of lessons learned, specifically concerning amphibious assaults.[ix] This political position was beneficial since responsibility and blame were not attributed to him.

Crerar’s role in the involvement of Canadian troops in Hong Kong and Dieppe has been debated. Both events can be perceived as illustrations of the man’s incompetence by choosing to send troops in these operations that should have been better thought out. This view is contested because the military context at the time and the nation’s agenda both influenced this decision.[x] First, the information on the realities of Hong Kong and Dieppe would probably not have been more detailed if Crerar had waited. Second, it is difficult for some to imagine, at the time, Canada’s refusal to requests from the British after lobbying to see action. Regarding specifically Dieppe, it is also important to point out that Crerar was not the only senior commander in Canada to support the raid’s execution. This suggests that the consequences were not so predictable in the eyes of other military leaders. While it is understandable to attribute blame to Crerar in disasters that befell the Canadian contributions to these operations, he was operating out of the need to balance imperial and national political requirements.

Assessing qualities and flaws cannot only be based on victories or defeats in terms of military operations as many are involved in the strategical, operational and tactical aspects. External aspects also make it difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate quality leadership based only on battles won or lost. Thus, success in battles must not be the main aspect to consider when assessing Crerar’s leadership, although it has to be considered. The attention should be instead on the importance of other specific personality traits and how they influence leadership and strategic choices.

Strong Nationalism

Eventually, Crerar’s desire to command a division was realized when he became General Officer Commanding of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. He was, however, quickly promoted to lieutenant-general and put in charge of the First Canadian Corps in 1941. His sudden promotion prevented him from proving his competences at the control of a division. In addition to this disappointment, Crerar was relatively anxious at the idea of taking up this new position. The fact that he had minimal command experience and was placed rapidly at the head of the largest tactical formation in the Anglo-Canadian armies could have explained his apprehension.[xi] Crerar’s anxiety reveals a feeling of insecurity that can also be noticed in various instances throughout his career. His perpetual self-questioning and the fact that he often consulted colleagues and superiors about his decisions may show caution and hesitancy. For example, Crerar introduced several suggestions from the commander of the 21st Army Group, Field Marshall Montgomery, about the training and accepted his proposal to evaluate the senior officers in the Canadian division.[xii]

In the Fall of 1943, following insistent lobbying from Crerar, the First Canadian Corps joined Allied forces in Italy. However, Crerar did not get the operational command experience he wished, partly because Montgomery limited his opportunities. Although Crerar had impressed Montgomery during a strategic exercise the previous year, their relationship was cold and had strained rapidly. The latter had many concerns about Crerar’s personality, decisiveness, leadership, and lack of experience. Following these tensions, Crerar expressed his frustration regarding British colleagues.[xiii] According to him, the British positions “were influenced by two factors: ‘the Englishman’s traditional belief in the superiority of the Englishmen’ and the ‘military inconvenience’ of restrictions on the ready interchangeability of Canadian formations with British ones.”[xiv] This view is understandable in the context of the Second World War, where many British officers demonstrated their frustrations with Canadian decisions and demands.

On the other hand, Montgomery’s opinion was that Crerar’s strong nationalism was an obstacle to the effective conduct of the war.[xv] This position emphasized central aspects of Crerar’s personality: his patriotism and his Canadian political position in the war. Crerar’s presence at a religious service in Dieppe in September 1944 is an illustration of these aspects. He prioritized this event over a meeting requested by Montgomery. However, the latter’s position was not entirely wrong. Indeed, Canadian generals had a tremendous political charge compared to British officers. Also, they had to collaborate with leaders of other nations who often did not see them as equals. The political implications for Canadians thus fueled tensions with other generals.

Disagreement in the Higher Ranks

The friction between Crerar and Montgomery was not the only tension in Crerar’s military path. His career was filled with conflict, tension and secrecy with other colleagues and superiors. One of the main frictions revolved around McNaughton, to whom Crerar swore loyalty while undercutting him to several people. Crerar raised concerns and complaints about McNaughton, even though he was his friend and colleague since the First World War. Crerar disagreed with McNaughton’s insistence on keeping all Canadian forces together at all costs.[xvi]

Following the dismissal of McNaughton, Crerar replaced him as commander of the First Canadian Army in 1944. Crerar quickly found himself in a delicate position with British commanders. The commander of the British Corps, Lieutenant-General Crocker, had refused to follow Crerar’s excessively detailed orders. Montgomery had to intervene and told Crerar: “an army commander must stand back from the detailed tactical battle; that part is the province of his corps Commanders.”[xvii] The result was proof of adaptability on Crerar’s part, who did not repeat his mistake.

Throughout the Second World War, the commander had the tendency to denounce his superiors or colleagues for various reasons, whether by disagreement with them or for his personal benefit. This trend can be interpreted as an expression of the general’s professional incompetence, or at least his blatant lack of empathy. His dissatisfaction with some of his peers and his great ambition both influenced his career and the Canadian Army. Nevertheless, Crerar is one of the few commanders who were in the army before 1939 and would remain in the organization until the end of the war while climbing the ranks. This situation is peculiar since many of those occupying command roles at the beginning of the war were dismissed. The fact that Crerar retained his status is surprising in the context of the time. Sacked commanders left positions to be filled, which may partly explain the quick promotions for Crerar and others. That Crerar went steadily up the ranks may also illustrate his strong ambitions and the efficiency of his leadership.

Leadership of the General

In November 1944, Crerar was promoted to full general. His most successful operation in Europe was, without a doubt, the Rhineland offensive in 1945. Operation “Veritable” differed from previous ones, mainly because it aimed to conquer German soil instead of liberating occupied territories. Moreover, it was an operation of such a grand scale that it remains, the Canadian army’s most important to date.[xviii] Led by Crerar, the majority of the forces were not those of the First Canadian Army. These circumstances indicate how much influence and importance Crerar had obtained at that time. This operation is described as a success in terms of preparation, resources and planning. With additional Allied forces, more than 470,000 troops formed Crerar’s army. Despite some difficulties and many casualties, the operation was a success. Crerar proved able to work within strict parameters while managing significant logistical and technical aspects.[xix] He succeeded in leading the Canadian Army and advocating for its competency. After the war, Crerar’s career was hardly comparable to his military tenure during the two world wars. The former Crerar, ambitious and working towards his goals, seemed to have faded in peacetime and remained a largely underestimated figure of the Second World War.

A dichotomy could be traced concerning the style of military leadership. The first type of leader would be a risk-taking individual, effective on the battlefield, and the second, a bureaucratic soldier, essentially, an organizational type. According to this, it rapidly comes to mind that Crerar would be more of a bureaucratic soldier. His qualities of Chief of the General Staff were impressive, this post requiring a remarkable organization. On the contrary, comments about his role as commander of the First Canadian Army, are less positive.[xx] Crerar was not a flamboyant or inspiring man, but he was highly organized and efficient. His ability to orchestrate actions involving concrete elements, such as the transport of men or equipment, is considerable. The fact that he sought and listened to advice also shows that he would take calculated decisions and was not risk-oriented.

It can be argued that Crerar learned from all his military experience. His knowledge would have allowed him to adapt his decision-making methods and his leadership skills over time. A rather widespread definition of military incompetence is linked to an authoritarian and rigid personality.[xxi] On this basis, Crerar would not necessarily be incompetent. His initiatives and reforms related to training and troop selection demonstrated an interest in change and improvement.


To say that Crerar was an incompetent leader is to neglect his evolution as a commander and the circumstances of the times. Furthermore, concluding that he was a passable leader would also be a problematic assessment. Indeed, Crerar demonstrated the type of leadership that was sought-after to represent a new and small country like Canada during the Second World War. His military entourage seemed to have had difficulty distinguishing the professional qualities of Crerar. The fact that he was particularly distant from his peers could explain this situation. On the other hand, to base oneself on these opinions to evaluate the entirety of Crerar’s competences would be reductive. If the assessment of military leadership skills is evaluated based only on unsuccessful operations, then it would be evident that Crerar would not represent good leadership. From another angle, if one looks more deeply at the general’s actions in relation to his long-term visions concerning the army and its troops, it is possible to take on an entirely different assessment. Over the years, he demonstrated a capacity for learning, an obvious interest in the development of his organization and great involvement in seeing the success of national goals. His understanding of politics allowed Crerar to avoid several reprimands, illustrating the general’s great political leadership. Crerar knew how to continually defend and maintain the Canadian position in a delicate context of war.[xxii] The need to inspire the troops was relegated to the background, and the priorities were the sense of duty and the promotion of the Canadian nation. In this sense, Crerar concurred with this vision.

[i] Jeff Keshen, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers : Canada’s Second World War. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004): 13. and Charles P. Stacey, Arms, Men, and Governments: The War Policies of Canada, 1939-1945. (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970): 216.

[ii] Dean Oliver, “In the Shadow of the Corps: Historiography, Generalship, and Harry Crerar” in Warrior Chiefs: Perspectives on Senior Canadian Military Leaders. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001): 91-106.

[iii] J.L. Granatstein, and Canadian Electronic Library. The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005): 115.

[iv] E.L.M. Burns, Manpower in the Canadian Army, 1939-1945. (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1956): 31.

[v] J.L. Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 89.

[vi] Geoffrey Hayes, Crerar’s Lieutenants: Inventing the Canadian Junior Army Officer, 1939-45. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017): 47-48 and Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 98.

[vii] Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 103.

[viii] Stacey, Arms, Men, and Governments: The War Policies of Canada, 1939-1945, 218. and Granatstein, Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2002): 205-206.

[ix] Paul Douglas Dickson, A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007): 210.

[x] Dickson, A Thoroughly Canadian General, 157.

[xi] Dickson, A Thoroughly Canadian General, 185.

[xii] Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 101.

[xiii] Mark Zuehlke, Juno Beach: Canada’s D Day Victory, June 6. 1944, (Vancouver: Douglas & Mcintyre, 2005): 26. Dickson, A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar, 227. and Hart, Montgomery and Colossal Cracks: The 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe, 1944- 45, 164.

[xiv] Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 110.

[xv] Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 109.

[xvi] Dean Oliver, “In the Shadow of the Corps: Historiography, Generalship, and Harry Crerar” in Horn Harris, Stephen John Harris, and Bernd Horn. Warrior Chiefs : Perspectives on Senior Canadian Military Leaders. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001): 91.

[xvii] Granatstein, The Generals: The Canadian Army’s Senior Commanders in the Second World War, 109 and 117.

[xviii] Bill McAndrew, Bill Rawling, and Michael J. Whitby, Liberation : The Canadians in Europe. (Montreal: Art Global, 1995): 126.

[xix] Denis Whitaker, and Shelagh Whitaker, Rhineland: The Battle to End the War. (Toronto: Stoddart, 2000): 29. and Dickson, A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar, 375.

[xx] Dickson, A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar, 101.

[xxi] Norman F. Dixon, and Geoffrey Wawro, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, (New York: Basic Books Edition, 2016): 339.

[xxii] Hart, Montgomery and Colossal Cracks: The 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe, 1944- 45, 162.