Battlefield North America: Defence Scheme No. 1 versus War Plan Red

Mountie and Trooper (1941)

Canadians and Americans weren’t always the best of friends. From the fractious split of the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812 to the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the need to expand into the West to British support for the South during the Civil War to the Alaska border dispute, Canada-US relations have been fraught with conflict.

We often assume that since both of our countries fought on the Allied side during WWI and WWII that relations improved during the 20th century. Relations did improve, but the suspicion remained. Enter Defence Scheme No. 1 and War Plan Red.

Defence Scheme No. 1 (1921-1928)

The US military has always outweighed Canadian capabilities. Any sound military plan was always going to be defensive. But the Defence Scheme No 1. was essentially a “defensive” blitz.

The Canadian Director of Military Operations and Intelligence Lieutenant Colonel James “Buster” Sutherland Brown created this defence plan to delay an American invasion until the Commonwealth could come to our aid. The plan was overly optimistic (quixotic according to Pierre Berton) but daring.

The blitz would hit much of the northern United States. British Columbia would take the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Spokane, Portland), the Prairies would take Montana (Great Falls), North Dakota (Fargo) and Minnesota (St. Paul), Quebec would take Albany and the Maritimes would take Maine.

Source: Tao Yue

The invasion obviously would not last long. Once the mighty American military realised the plan, Canadian troops would have to prepare to retreat. In doing so, they would engage in a scorched earth policy to slow down the counter-attack.

The problems with this plan were huge. It relied on the British who had little stake in maintaining Canada’s independence and had already favoured their neutrality with the US over Canadian interests in the Alaska border dispute. It also left Canada’s cities open to attack and imperilled the best Canadian troops to easy captured in a counter-offensive. Would the element of surprise have balanced out these shortcomings? All we can do is hypothesize.

Fun Fact: a second Defence Scheme was developed to remain neutral between Japan and America. This plan was also unlikely to succeed due to the pro-Western views of the Canadian people and existing geopolitical ties of the country.

War Plan Red (1930-1939)

The American military developed a similar plan to fight off a British invasion with potential Japanese intervention on the side of the British Empire. The British Empire was on the relative decline, accelerated by the cost of the First World War. The US had been on the path to replace the British Empire in geopolitical strength for the past half century through massive industrial growth.

The plan considered both offensive and defensive scenarios. Canada would be the base of operations for a British strike against the US. Since British strength lay with the Royal Navy, the Maritimes would be the key background in War Plan Red. The plan was colour coded: Red for Britain and Newfoundland (still a separate Dominion), ruby for India, scarlet for Australia, garnet for New Zealand and the worst of all, crimson, for Canada.

Source: DailyMail

The strategy was to prevent the British from using Canada for a counterattack. This involved similar points of attack as Defence Scheme No. 1 but in reverse. A difference was the strategic use of captured Canadian assets like ports and natural resources (northern Ontario mines, hydro-power plants). The main target was the Halifax port since the Royal Navy would use this port in the Atlantic theatre.

Halifax would fall from a chemical gas attack on the city and an amphibious assault through St. Margarets Bay. If Nova Scotia successfully resisted, the American army would take Moncton and cut Nova Scotia off from the rest of Canada. The US Army would also take Quebec City and possibly Montreal to cut off Canada’s industrial and agricultural centre from the eastern seaboard.

The Great Lakes region housed Canadian industry and mineral production. Seizing southern Ontario would also protect American logistical routes and mid-western industry. Winnipeg and Vancouver would be the only remaining transportation objectives, both of lesser importance than securing the eastern seaboard from British intervention.

Source: Vox

War Plan Read was a spitirtual extension of Manifest Destiny. If the Canadian campaign went well, the US Navy could attack British colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific regions and trade routes through the Western hemisphere. Canada would be annexed into the United States. The State of Ontario? We came close and thankfully dodged a bullet. The plan was even operationalised through Navy war games and the building of covert multimillion dollar airfields on the border (that were inadvertently exposed to the public). The United States was prepared and able to launch an all-out assault on the True North.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

Further Reading:
Berton, Pierre. Marching as to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years 1899-1953, 2002.

Harris, Steven. Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army, 1860-1939, 1988.

Preston, Richard. The Defence of the Undefended Border: Planning for War in North America 1867-1939, 1977.

Rudmin, Floyd. Bordering on Aggression: Evidence of U.S. Military Preparations Against Canada, 1993.

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