by Megan Hamilton
The historiography of Canadians in the Second World War was largely shaped by the work of official historian Charles P. Stacey. However, Stacey’s ability to produce the early histories of the war was inhibited by a lack of access to important archival material guarded by the British Cabinet Office. Due to their shared history and close relations, there was a high degree of cooperation between the fighting forces from Canada and the United Kingdom during the Second World War. However, by 1946, the British began to realize that there was sensitive information that should not be freely published. The restrictive attitude held by the British between late 1947 and 1950 influenced the research and progress of the Canadian Army Historical Section. Despite this prolonged hinderance, Stacey and his team were able to produce official histories of the finest quality, which remain highly respected today.
Originally from Vernon, BC, Megan Hamilton is a SSHRC-funded graduate student in the Master of Arts program at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on Canadian war and society, particularly the Canadian experience of the Second World War. In 2021, she completed her Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in history at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she was also a research assistant at LCMSDS. The research for the following essay was completed under the supervision of Dr. Roger Sarty for HI461: Research Seminar on War and Society. The author sends many thanks to Dr. Sarty for his guidance.
The historiography of Canadians in the Second World War was largely shaped by the work of official historian Charles P. Stacey. However, Stacey’s ability to produce the early histories of the war was inhibited by a lack of access to important archival material guarded by the British Cabinet Office. Due to their shared history and close relations, there was a high degree of cooperation between the fighting forces from Canada and the United Kingdom during the Second World War. This relationship extended to the historical sections of both countries. Stacey worked to build a strong connection with the British historians in late 1941 and 1942, which served him well later on. Britain served as Canada’s overseas home base during the war, and working within the central hub of the western Allied effort was key to piecing together the history of the Canadian Forces. Stacey headed the Historical Section at the Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ) in London during and after the war, and followed the British model of writing short ‘narratives’ in order to organize the details of events for the eventual writing of the Canadian official history books.[i]
As it became clear that the war was reaching its conclusion in 1945, Stacey began planning for the official histories. He was not named the official Canadian historian until October of that year, but it was vital to get the plan moving along before it became a repeat of the failed First World War official history program. Again following the British model, Stacey recommended a five-year plan for the Canadian official histories, which the Army approved. Stacey’s team found an advantage in the fact that they were able to remain located in London for more than two years after the war concluded in Europe. The British Cabinet Office established an archive for the records of the British Army, which became the “second home” for the Canadian historians as they hurried to complete their one volume summary work.[ii] This is where Stacey’s strong relationships with the British Historical Branch paid off, as the Canadians were welcome in the British archives.
However, by 1946, the British began to realize that there was sensitive information that should not be freely published. On 19 July 1946, they laid out a blanket procedure for access to British documents that applied to all Dominion historians. Within this memorandum, any work containing reference to British records had to be submitted to the UK authorities before publication. Additionally, the most significant point on the memorandum was a paragraph that declared all records above “military level” to be restricted access. In order to access the information of these high-level files, Dominion historians had to submit a questionnaire through their High Commissioner, which the British would then respond to after doing some research into their records.[iii] This was not good news for Stacey and his team, as they were attempting to complete their narratives and summary volume as quickly as possible. They nonetheless agreed to the terms by December 1946 and offered reciprocal procedures for British historians wanting access to Canadian files.[iv] Despite the previously mentioned agreement and a productive working relationship between the British and Canadian historical teams, Stacey began to notice a negative shift in early 1947.
In reference to the memorandum of 19 July 1946, the Canadians had requested that the British define “military level”, as they urgently needed to know which files they could or could not scour freely. This was refused by the British, but they did mention that if they were to define it, “military level” would only be up to and including the war diaries at the army headquarter level. This would be until they could sort out the Cabinet-level files.
Unfavourable for this developing situation, the CMHQ was dissolved as of 30 September 1947. The Canadian Army’s Historical Section was relocated back to Ottawa, while a single historical liaison officer remained in London. Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Nicholson held the position for a short time, and was later replaced by Captain Murray Hunter, who remained until the spring of 1951.
It was decided that there would be a conference between English-speaking historians in February 1948 to discuss a number of matters that were becoming increasingly important as countries worked to complete their official histories. Relevant issues included historians’ rights to access material, and the system of classifying documents. This was good timing, as Stacey was becoming increasingly frustrated with the British restrictions. In a summary memorandum to Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, Stacey wrote:
The fact of the matter is that the British have been extremely difficult about granting us access to high-level documents, and whenever the matter has been brought up in conversation they always remark that such access by us would require American concurrence. The Americans, on the other hand, whether through policy or inadvertence, have always given me to understand that they consider Canada a partner in “combined holdings” of documents, and I have been informally assured that we can have access to the [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force] papers. We have in fact lately received from the US Department of the Army a clearance for a visit by [the Deputy Director of the Historical Section] to work in those papers.[v]
This upcoming conference gave Stacey an opportunity to dive into this issue face-to-face with the British representatives. Before he and Nicholson left, Stacey gained the backing of the Department of External Affairs, while Foulkes notified the British High Commissioner to Canada.[vi] Nonetheless, the forthcoming conference would be a critical point in Anglo-Canadian historical relations.
There was much weight riding on the 1948 ‘Conference of Commonwealth and US Military Historians’ in Washington. Stacey and his team had some of their most detailed work currently in progress, and needed a liberal access policy from the British. Before leaving on 2 February, Stacey typed up a list of his “proposed points of discussion.”[vii]His points of focus were accessing Allied and enemy documents, the exchange of drafts, and the terms of publication. Illuminating Stacey’s priority is his very first point: “Historians accredited by any military services of each Government have access to all the combined records which were produced in the operation of the Headquarters in which two or more of the Allies participated.”[viii]
The first round of discussions began the dive into the key issues of the conference. Firstly, the British classification of the 21st Army Group HQ as Cabinet-level combined records went up for debate. The files from the 21st Army Group’s headquarters were considered to be property of both the US and the UK, as it was a fighting force under the command of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Due to their dual ownership and inclusion of Cabinet-level files, like personal letters between Prime Minister Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, these records had been restricted by the British to the ‘questionnaire method’ for Canadian historians.[ix] This surprised the Americans, as they did not believe that these files should be restricted to any historians from those countries that fought under that formation. This American reaction was in Stacey’s favour, as the British agreed rather quickly to downgrade the files. However, this was one of the conference’s few moments of agreement between the Canadians and British. The second topic of the afternoon was the issue of restricted access to combined records. Straight away the British declared that they could not be opened to any historians, other than the official historical teams of the UK and US. In response, Stacey made it clear that the Canadians could not agree to lock themselves out of files that related to their own fighting forces.[x] Interestingly, the representatives from the other Dominions were generally passive participants in these discussions. The debate was then put on pause until the next day.
The following morning, the delegates drafted a paper to present to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the issue of historical access. It was largely based on the list of recommendations that Stacey had brought to Washington. Unfortunately, the British sensitivity to the subject prevented the paper from recommending that all Dominion historians be welcome into the combined records. Stacey negotiated with his British counterpart, Brigadier Latham, for some time, but to no avail. Latham finally proposed that Stacey apply formally to the British government, and that he might find success that way. This debate concluded with a decision to not include it in detail on the paper currently being crafted, but only to say that it was being dealt with through other channels.[xi]
After the meeting concluded, Stacey had to return to his commitments at Queen’s University, leaving Nicholson as the sole Canadian representative. However, before departing, Lieutenant Clark from the US delegation spoke to Stacey privately. He expressed surprise at the issue regarding combined records, as the Americans had always considered Canada to be entitled to these files. In his reflection of the conference, Stacey wrote that the Americans were generally more supportive of the Canadian position. The opposing force was always the British delegates, who consistently “[dwelled] on the ‘dangers’ involved in a more liberal policy.”[xii]
On 9 February the delegates from the Dominions, including Nicholson, were taken on a recreational tour of Gettysburg by the US Government. While they were out, the British and American representatives deliberately held a private meeting to rework the paper from 7 February. The result was the “Coordination of Official War Histories” document that would be the bane of Stacey’s existence for the next few years. Nicholson did not see the revised document until 12 February when an American officer shared it with him. Immediately expressing concern, Nicholson knew that Canada could not agree to the terms it set out.[xiii]
It was a single paragraph that concerned access to combined records, giving free rein to British and American historians while Dominion historians had to be approved by both countries each time they requested information. The most underhanded part of the revised document was that it had been completed without approval of the Dominion historians yet stated their agreement in the document’s introductory remarks. Nicholson sent urgent word to Stacey and confirmed with the Americans that the Canadians would take the issue up directly with the British.[xiv]
This “family squabble”, as American Major General Ward called it, continued heavily through 1948, 1949, and 1950.[xv] Stacey was forced to jump through all kinds of diplomatic hoops as the British purposely stalled. They made a number of excuses, but the truth was that they feared “political bombshells that might be lurking in the millions of pages of unprocessed material.”[xvi] The Canadian Department of External Affairs was involved frequently, as well as the British and Canadian High Commissioners. A message between the two Prime Ministers was suggested on several occasions, but was left as a last resort. All of this was occurring while Stacey was attempting to complete the three detailed volumes of Canada’s official histories. What angered the Canadians further that was the fact that private individuals, such as Robert Sherwood, had already been given access to the restricted files[xvii]
Finally, due to pressure from the Canadian government and Stacey’s continued efforts, which culminated in a liaison trip to London in August-September 1950, the British finally compromised. They agreed to Stacey’s most urgent demand, which was access to the proceedings of major Allied conferences during the war. Other combined records remained under the special application protocol.[xviii] Upon returning from Europe, Stacey wrote to Foulkes that “it is now safe to assume that the long controversy over combined records has now terminated in a satisfactory manner.”[xix] Unfortunately, Stacey felt that the British still did not recognize Canada’s entitled right to the combined records but decided that it was not worth pursuing further. Nonetheless, the progress that was achieved was an important stand for freedom of information and historical accuracy.
The Canadian official histories of the Second World War are foundational to the historiography of the subject. Thus, it is important that Stacey’s struggle for access against the British Cabinet Office is brought to light. The restrictive attitude held by the British between late 1947 and 1950 influenced the research and progress of the Canadian Army Historical Section. Despite this prolonged hinderance, Stacey and his team were able to produce official histories of the finest quality, which remain highly respected today.
[i] Roger Sarty, “Writing the Official History of the Canadian Army in Normandy,” (unpublished): 3, 7.
[ii] Sarty, “Writing the Official History of the Canadian Army in Normandy,” 8.
[iii] “Provision of Information from UK Records to Accredited Dominion Histories: Note by the Cabinet Office,” 19 July 1946, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893; It must be noted that this memorandum said nothing of American or Combined Chief of Staff records.
[iv] Riddell to Robertson, 19 December 1946, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[v] “Access to Historical Information – UK and US,” 16 January 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[vi] “Notes of a Meeting Held in the East Block, 1600hrs, Thursday, 29 January 1948, Between Representatives of the Department of External Affairs and Historical Section, A.H.Q,” 29 January 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893; “Memorandum: Access to Documents for Historical Purposes,” 30 January 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[vii] “Proposed Points of Discussion with British Historians,” February 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[viii] “Proposed Points of Discussion with British Historians,” February 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[ix] Robertson to St. Laurent, 8 May 1947, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[x] “Notes on Matters Discussed During Meeting of US and Commonwealth Military Historians, Washington, DC, 4-7 Feb 48,” 13 February 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xi] “Memorandum of Discussion on Combined Records, Held in Mr. Sedwick’s Room at Commonwealth Relations Office, London, at 1530 HRS, 22 Aug 50,” 22 August 1950, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xii] “Notes on Matters Discussed During Meeting of US and Commonwealth Military Historians, Washington, DC, 4-7 Feb 48,” 13 February 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xiii] Claxton to Heeney, 20 March 1950, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xiv] “Coordination of Official War Histories,” February 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893. and
Nicholson to Stacey, 14 February 1948, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xv] Ward to Stacey, 13 September 1950, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xvi] Sarty, “Writing the Official History of the Canadian Army in Normandy,” 11.
[xvii] Tim Cook, Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), 181.
[xviii] Brook to Stacey, 18 October 1950, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.
[xix] Ernest Swinton, Eyewitness: Being Personal Reminiscences of Certain Phases of the Great War, Including the Genesis of the Tank, (London, 1932).
[xx] “Combined Records,” 23 September 1950, HQC 1450-34/336, pt. 1, LAC, RG 24, box 31893.