Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King promised that only volunteers would serve overseas. He did not want to repeat the national unity crisis that had erupted in 1917-1918 following the imposition of conscription. The regular army of 4,500 men, augmented
by 51,000 partly-trained reservists, possessed virtually no modern equipment. The air force had fewer than 20 modern combat aircraft while the navy’s combat potential consisted of only six destroyers, the smallest class of ocean-going warships. It was
a modest beginning, but the armed forces grew rapidly. In September 1939 alone, over 58,000 Canadians enlisted, reflecting a widespread desire to assist Britain and France in their struggle against the Nazis. While some of the enlistees were unemployed
and might have been motivated to join up for economic reasons, many Canadians also quit scarce jobs to enlist.
By December, troops of the 1st Canadian Division were on their way to Britain, where advanced training and a gradual build up forces would take place. By February 1940, only 23,000 troops had arrived alongside a few air force units. Although subject to
press and political criticism for its lethargic response, the King Government was pursuing a policy of so-called “limited liability” whereby Canada’s commitment of troops would remain small for the time being in an effort to avoid large-scale casualties
which might lead to divisive calls for conscription. Besides, this was the period of the “Phoney War,” which saw no ground combat in Western Europe between the Germans and the Allies, and there did not seem any great urgency to grow the army. Instead,
and in keeping with the idea of “limited liability,” Canada organized and hosted the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) to train tens of thousands of air crew, most of whom would be Canadian, for Commonwealth air forces. It proved a very
complex undertaking, required tens of thousands of air force personnel to manage, and became a major contribution to the Allied war effort.