Project ‘44 brings Canadian soldiers’ Second World War diaries and maps to life online

Article / June 8, 2020 / Project number: 20-0051

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By Moira Farr, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario —  As Canadians mark the 76th anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944), they have a groundbreaking new interactive tool they can use to gain insights into the lives of Canadian soldiers as they embarked on harrowing journeys across Europe and helped bring the Second World War to an end. 

Project ‘44, co-created by Nathan Kehler and Drew Hannen of the Ottawa-based Canadian Research and Mapping Association (CRMA), with sponsorship from Veterans Canada, has digitized the daily logs, also known as war diaries, kept by each Canadian unit during the war, and previously only available to researchers in their original form at the Library and Archives of Canada. The project also digitized detailed maps that plot these soldiers’ movements across Europe toward victory. 

Now, historians in Canada and around the world, students at every level and family detectives wishing to learn more about their relatives’ wartime experiences have access to a trove of primary-source information, without leaving home. “It’s really nice to see this animated in a certain way -- it’s just the bare bones as it was recorded, the maps that were used, so you can start your research with a statement of the facts,” says Hannen.

A resource for all Canadians

A first of its kind anywhere in the world, the website brings to public view thousands of war-diary pages, painstakingly transcribed, edited and scanned by more than 40 volunteers over the course of nearly three years. It also includes detailed digital maps, intelligence reports and aerial imagery of the Allied forces’ advance.

The website currently documents the Normandy Campaign and the movement of Canadian units across northwest Europe; this summer, it will complete its trilogy with the Italian campaign, going back to 1943.

The task of bringing all of this material together online required diligence and an array of digital tools that both Kehler and Hannen, as cartographers who specialize in historical geospatial data and web mapping, were keen to employ and experiment within a military-history context. 

“You take 125 war diaries from D Day to the end of the war, and it tells you what each unit was doing, every single day,” says Kehler. “They also give a geographical location. These have a military grid reference. That allows you, with a paper map, to figure out exactly where they were, within 100 metres. With that intersection now, we can make a web map and show all of that.”

Says Hannen: “The maps were the key. If the units were somewhere for a number of days, they show up on the map in that particular place. But, there was a lot of variability. Some of these units were moving 30 to 40 kilometres a day.” 

Along with the maps, the war diaries have been converted into Word documents “for people who like to read and enjoy the linear story of the campaign,” Hannen adds. 

June 6, 1944 Place: ENGLISH CHANNEL 

At H hour LST 1740 was moving south out of sight of any land. Ignorance of what was going on was complete -- by orders of the ship's captain, all wireless sets were switched off. Sunlight was brilliant, the sea was studded with companion craft, and occasional flights of Spitfires and Lightnings passed overhead. All ears were intent for the sound of gunfire ahead, but the only evidence of enemy action was given by occasional mines bobbing by just outside the marked swept channel. “inline quote content here” 

Excerpt from the war diary of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade 

The site also features “story maps” that recount the experiences of notable individual soldiers in depth -- an initiative launched in conjunction with Defining Moments Canada and the Juno Beach Centre, as they developed teaching materials for Canadian schools. These soldiers include Phillip Pochailo, Charles Henry Byce, and George Pollard, one of 20 Canadian soldiers killed in the Ardenne Abbey massacre shortly after D-Day. Another eminent Canadian profiled is Mona Parsons, who aided Dutch resistance fighters,[4]  spent years as a prisoner of war and made a daring escape, eventually returning to Canada. 

Craig Brumwell, a Governor-General’s Award-winning high school teacher in Kitsilano, B.C., who worked on the VE75 teaching materials, praises Project ‘44 as “a perfect tool for enquiry-type learning.” And, he adds, “it’s done with stories that need to be told.” Brumwell says students with relatives who fought in the war gain a much more real sense of what that meant from exploring the maps. Visual elements on the website also include icons of soldiers, tanks and planes that move along the maps in the locations of 76 years ago.

“All of a sudden they see the connection between where their family member was and the bigger picture,” says Brumwell. “It becomes almost video-gamish. They’re being rewarded by investigating more information. It’s rich media.” 

The website even has a toolbar at the bottom of the screen that allows students to draw their own lines and upload their own relevant photographs. “You get them zooming in and out, looking at oblique views and satellite views and following the path of these units. They just devour it.” 

Dedicated volunteers

With appeals on social media for help preparing paper documents for digitization, Kehler and Hannen attracted a wide array of volunteers, including three retired Lieutenant Colonels. “We have volunteers across Canada, in the UK and Italy. They are young and old, right across the spectrum.” These volunteers included Greg Pollard, the nephew of George Pollard, who had spent years researching the fate of his uncle for a book he wrote. Through Project ‘44, he was able to see the first-hand account of the doomed patrol for the first time, as well as an aerial photo of the area where his uncle was captured. “When Nathan and I were in Normandy [in 2019], we actually walked that patrol route, through those fields. Story maps can really take you down to that level,” says Kehler. 

Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Frank Egan was keen to participate in the project, as someone with a soldier’s experience, and with many family members --  “including two war brides” -- who experienced the Second World War first hand. “I had been researching my own grandfather’s pathway through the war, and having been to the archives and library, doing a lot of work with the old microfiche, the fact that they were making this accessible to anybody, I just thought that is the greatest thing that could possibly happen to this history.” 

Editing the diaries was painstaking, but well worth the effort, he says. “This is an opportunity to read the history in such a compelling and contemporary manner, right at the moment it was being made. It’s easier to relate to things when you can see the units on the go.” 

LCol (Ret) Egan also notes that spending so much time reading the diaries of particular units, editors like him gained a sense of the personality, even sense of humour of the unit diarists.

June 4th, 1944 PLACE: COWES ROAD 

Cooperation with the ship's crew continued to be excellent, to the degree of producing from ship's stores a generous rum ration for all other ranks aboard.  In keeping with naval custom, an army officer stood by the queue to witness the actual quaffing of the rum. 

Mapping the past, present and future

Kehler, who served with the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD) from 2007 to 2013, with B Squadron RCD in Afghanistan and with 2 Combat Engineer Regiment in Latvia in 2018, retired from the military in order to devote his time to Project ‘44. Along with its educational value for Canadian students at different levels, he believes it will be of interest at army staff colleges as well. “If you look at the armoured brigade units, for example, they talk about tactics, how many tanks they had on a daily basis, how much ammunition, fuel…these maps really help you visualize it,” says Kehler. 

The potential for expanding the site and working with other countries wanting to do something similar is exciting to its creators. They have already created a map for the 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima, at the request of personnel from the U.S Marine Corps historical section. 

“What’s fantastic is that what you see at the front end is the web map. What you don’t see is this massive database we’ve built. That’s going to allow us to map out all those other countries, to have volunteers come and crowdsource and map out their units. So if there’s someone who’s an expert on the Guards Armoured Division in the UK, and they have the war diaries, they can map out with the same fidelity we have,” says Kehler. 

Now and in the future, Canadians can be proud that this innovative tool for mapping, understanding and commemorating the past is truly homegrown.

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