Christmas 1941: time of great uncertainty

Japan’s dramatic entry means that the Pacific is now a war zone.

Japan’s dramatic entry means that the Pacific is now a war zone.

Christmas 1941. For the first time since the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, we who live on Canada’s west coast, we who live in Cowichan, are endangered.

For two years the war has been “over there” — in Europe, in the USSR, in the Middle East, in North Africa — almost everywhere but here.

But all that has changed, suddenly and catastrophically, with Japan’s Dec. 7 attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour.

Now, not only is the United States at war with the Japanese but at war with the other Axis powers, Germany and Italy, with whom the Allies already are in bitter contest. Worse, on almost all fronts, we’re just holding on or in retreat, with France already fallen.

Christmas 1941 is in fact the darkest Christmas of the war as Hitler’s Nazi Germany continues to triumphantly expand on all fronts. That this is the darkness before the dawn; that the Axis powers are within just six months of their apogee, no one can possibly foresee.

All of which makes the accompanying menu for Christmas dinner at Nanaimo’s Malaspina Hotel that much more jarring; but we’ll come back to that…

To further put 1941 in historical context, here’s a quick review of the most outstanding wartime events, January-December 1941: The besieged British Mediterranean fortress of Malta has suffered more than 1,000 air raids. German forces have besieged Leningrad and at one point entered the suburbs within 11 miles of Moscow proper before being forced back by winter weather and determined Russian defenders. All the while, the extermination of Jews and related atrocities in occupied countries across Europe is well underway.

Overnight, Japan’s and America’s entry in the war in the South Pacific brings new fears — and new hopes — the latter being that the United States’ industrial as well as military might will ultimately tip the scales (as indeed proves to be the case). But, we must remember, no one knows this at the time — all they do know for sure is that Great Britain, for all the military and economic help of its Commonwealth nations and colonies, is struggling desperately just to survive.

Canada’s role in all of this has included recruiting and training hundreds of thousands of military personnel, establishing air bases for Commonwealth flight training schools, turning out unprecedented quantities of factory goods, munitions and vital foodstuffs, and providing naval escorts of the equally vital convoys to Britain in the North Atlantic.

But Japan’s dramatic entry means that the South Pacific is now a war zone with the British Crown colony of Hong Kong among the first military targets. In response the Canadian government offers a battalion each of the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec and the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Manitoba, and a brigade headquarters, a total of 1,975 personnel, to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. Two weeks later after bitter and heroic but hopeless fighting they surrender — to massacres and years of brutal imprisonment.

Here at home, the fishing fleet owned by Japanese Canadians is impounded; it’s the first step in their internment for the duration of the war which has more than three and a-half years of misery to go.

So there you have it: December 1941. Now look again at that menu for Christmas dinner at the Malaspina.


The Malaspina Hotel's rather jarring Christmas menu for 1941.