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How to Research Information on Canadian Participation in WW2
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Since its inception in 1998, MAPLE LEAF UP has grown into the most comprehensive site on the internet in its subject field. Along with the tremendous support we have enjoyed from collectors and enthusiasts alike has been a steadily increasing volume of mail from around the world seeking information on relatives and loved ones who served with the Canadian Army Overseas in WW2, in whatever capacity.
Sadly, in many cases, these requests come from the children or grandchildren of veterans long since passed away, and the theme is almost universal: " dad died 15 years ago and never spoke about the war. How can I find out where he was and what he did?"
The fact is that many veterans did indeed take their stories to the grave, for a variety of reasons. Some came home from up to six years of continuous overseas service and simply wished to forget the whole thing, to pick up their lives as best they could. Others saw no point in reliving the horrors safely buried away under iron-hard layers of protective silence. Still others learned very quickly upon their return to Canada that the civilian populace had no understanding of, and little interest in, the hardships they endured. For thousands of their children, this meant growing up with little other than a vague notion that 'dad was in the war'.
Since the mid-1990s, though, Canada has enjoyed a public resurgence of interest in veterans' affairs and in the reconstruction of the history of that time. Through the miracle of the internet, a legion of veterans' descendants have taken it upon themselves to research their fathers' pasts, if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding of 'the way things were' and 'what he went through'.
But in some cases today, we even find some of these middle-aged 'kids' coaching their veteran fathers in the mysteries of the internet, as the latter attempt to find whatever has been written about their service in those distant times.
MAPLE LEAF UP can help in all cases. Please follow the guidelines below to begin your search, and Good Luck!
As many of you know, the internet of today has developed into a hodge-podge of hundreds of millions of pages, most of it garbage and little of it properly searchable. For a subject as specialized as this one, you're going to have to 'work smart' to get results - a few keywords typed randomly into a form on your screen will rarely lead you where you want to go.
Your first step is to list, on paper, what you know about your subject. Do you have discharge papers, paybooks, citations, medals, old letters? Put them all together and go through them. Look for dates of service, regiments, postings, qualifications and any other qualitative data you can find. Note down any details you can remember from conversations past, and ask other members of the family what they remember.
If your subject had friends of the same age, approach them with an explanation of what you're trying to do, and ask them if your subject ever confided any information about his service. Likewise, if your subject belonged to the local Legion branch or any Regimental Association, approach them for possible leads, especially other veterans your subject may have been friendly with. Please be tactful and open --  the truth of the matter is that many men who never uttered a word to their families or other 'civilians' may well have shared confidences with other servicemen with the mutual understanding that they were the only ones capable of appreciating their experiences. To this day, there are some who will not speak about the war to any others save 'those who were there'.
If you have little basic information to go by other than a name and perhaps a service number, regiment or location of service (England, Italy, France etc), then you next have to make a stop at the National Archives (do it anyway if you're serious about researching your subject).
This next bit doesn't really fit in anywhere, but it needs to be said nonetheless. If your Loved One died in the service of his country, your family has our respect and commiseration. May He Never Be Forgotten. You may look up his record at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission through this link. And thank you.
The National Archives of Canada is a government-run repository for any and all documents related to any aspect of Canadian history of all eras. Included in their depository are the basic service records of all ex-servicemen. These records are available to the public on a limited basis, according to the statutes of the federal Privacy Act, and requests for information can only be made in writing (not online). Full explanations and instructions may be found on the Archives' Military and Civilian Personnel Records web page. Read them carefully and have patience!
These records will at the very least give you a basic sketch of your subject's military career, from date of enlistment to date of demobilisation. You'll find out in which units he served, where he served and the range of qualifications he earned during that service. This is basic documentation, but not a definitive history -- for that we have to look elsewhere.
At this point, having identified the basics of your subject's service, you have two choices as to how to proceed. First, you can take what you know and go on with your research yourself, or second, you can hire an experienced archivist to help you.
The National Archives of Canada also contains a wealth of information on unit histories, usually in the form of unit War Diaries and all original documentation processed by the unit and its parent organization. All of this is available to you, but retrieving, and interpreting, what you need can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience if you don't know your way around. There are numerous private archivists who for a fee, can unearth and synthesize the information you require. The National Archives website offers you access to a list of accredited private researchers who you can contact yourself. A good hint before you follow this course -- have as much information as possible before you engage the services of one of these individuals... being able to specify what you want can save you a lot of time and money!
If you're going to go it alone, you can get a good start right here on the internet. Again, have patience... it's a large, complex medium!
You must understand right away that the fighting regiments get most of the 'airtime' and attention on the web (most of the online resources are privately produced and hosted by amateur historians and enthusiasts). If your subject served in any capacity with one of the almost 100 armoured, infantry or artillery regiments which fought at some point either in one of the five fighting divisions, at corps level or independently, basic historical information is usually available on the internet, either through specialized sites such as MLU or through the regimental sites of current-serving units.
To assist you in tracing these paths, we at MAPLE LEAF UP are in the process of completing a detailed unit chart which will show the relationships between the larger organizations (Corps, Division, Brigade) and individual Regiments. This will at least allow you to place "your" Regiment or unit in context. Look for it soon!
If on the other hand, your subject belonged to one of the many support units upon which the fighting units depended, researching its history can be a little more complex. There were many hundreds of such units, sometimes as small as company size, and many of these were disbanded forever, quietly and without fanfare, almost as soon as the war in Europe was over. Sometimes few details survive, as many of these units have no direct descendant in the modern army. Most of these smaller units are also not shown on the basic organizational charts which may be found online. While we are endeavouring over time to chart these sub-units, as above, going to a private archivist may be your only hope if all else fails.
Before you start wading through the internet morass, at least ensure you have your terminology correct! It will save you a lot of time and frustration. Try to place your subject in one of the following basic arms of service (this is a VERY abbreviated list!):
footsoldier; rifleman; the most numerically numerous of the services
Armoured Corps
tank; armoured car; reconnaissance ('recce') regiment
'Field', 'Medium' and 'Heavy' regiments; antiaircraft and antitank guns
RCEME; built, repaired or maintained anything mechanical
Service Corps
RCASC; kept all other services supplied
(try to identify the job he did)
Next, have his unit identification as correct as possible. The basic unit is the Regiment, and if possible, that's what you should know. Sub-units for the various Arms of Service are different, and can be virtually impossible to trace unless you stumble on to a definitive Regimental History. The following chart gives some examples of how they break down, in order from top to bottom (as above, this is a very abbreviated list):
CORPS (eg, 1st Canadian Corps, 2nd Canadian Corps)
DIVISION (eg, 1st Canadian Infantry Division, 4th Canadian Armoured Division, etc)
BRIGADE (eg, 9th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Armoured Brigade, etc)
(eg, The Essex Scottish Regiment)
(eg, The South Alberta Regiment)
(eg, 4th Field Regiment)
'A Company'
'C Squadron'
'2nd Battery'
'No. 9 Platoon'
'1 Troop'
'3 Troop'
(approx 10 men)
(individual vehicle)
(includes crew)
(individual gun)
(includes crew)
If you know where in the pecking order your unit falls and how it is properly designated, you will have an easier time unearthing information about that unit and its campaigns! You are far more likely to get hits on your search if you specify 2nd Medium Regiment rather than 25th Medium Battery, for example.
In terms of recorded military history, there are four distinct classes of websites you can investigate in your search. The first, and largest group are private sites produced and hosted by enthusiasts who by the virtue of their own interest in a given subject have chosen to share the information they have collected. Some of these sites are admittedly better than others, with more or less relevant information depending on the primary interest area of the individual and his attention to detail. Sometimes even the 'bad' sites can be useful, though, for almost everyone displays links to other sites, which may in turn be just what you were looking for.
The second class of website you will find are the 'official' Regimental sites of current Canadian Army units (mostly militia). Almost all these units have a history dating back to well before WW2, and while their primary interest is in promoting the current iteration of the Regiment, many include a detailed synopsis of their WW2 history. Others have also put their Regimental Associations online. Regardless, if you find the website for your Regiment, you can contact them directly even if there's little or no historical information on the site; they will generally be happy to put you in touch with the curator of their museum or someone else who can answer your questions.
Yet another class of site is that of government and museums. Canada's Department of National Defence has an enormous amount of information online, although it takes a great deal of time and patience to wade through. Likewise, the website for Veterans Affairs is chock full of facsinating tidbits. 
The museum sites can vary in usefulness, but more importantly, can offer you information on how to research their records for your information. You can see links to a lot of these sites on our own Links page.
The fourth avenue you can follow is that of public internet forums and discussion boards [usually] provided by some of the same people who produce and host the private sites as discussed above. Our own MLU Forum is a good example; it is frequented by dozens of amateur historians and enthusiasts from right around the world, and generally speaking, if they don't know the answer to your question, they know whom to ask or where to direct you. Most of these individuals are only too happy to help if they can, for their prime interest (which brings them there in the first place!), is in perpetuating our history. If you don't get an answer to your question within a couple of days, feel free to ask it again.
As an adjunct to MAPLE LEAF UP and this essay, we are also pleased to offer you a free online service we call the INFOSEARCH REGISTER.  This tool allows you to input your questions into a web form, which when submitted, will be posted online for others to look at, and perhaps reply to. Feel free to use this Register to ask any relevant questions regarding the Canadian Army Overseas in WW2, or even to ask after the whereabouts of individuals (for instance, if you're a WW2 or Korean veteran looking for an old army buddy, we might be able to help! More and more of you are online these days).
With our WW2 veterans aging and passing on as rapidly as they are, it's becoming crucial to preserve our military heritage and the memories of these amazing men before they're just ... memories. If you have chosen to try and record a serviceman's history for posterity, we support you 100 percent! These men endured what you and I can only imagine, at a time when the fate of the civilised world itself was in jeopardy.
In so many cases now, we cannot thank them, but we can preserve the record of what they accomplished. It is a duty of love and of honour.
Good luck, and keep us posted!
The team at MAPLE LEAF UP
P.S. : Regards the preservation of information, if you have anecdotes, photos etc that you feel might assist us in telling the story of the Canadian Soldier in WW2, and which you might like to share, we would be happy to consider putting them online at MLU, in your name. Please contact us to discuss.
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