From the Stacks: Canadian Defence Scheme Number One

A Plan for a Preemptive Strike on the United States by the British Dominion of Canada, circa 1921


In December 2005, the Washington Post published a quixotic article entitled Raiding the Icebox. The piece introduces readers to U.S. War Plan Red, the little-known 1930 plan to conquer Canada. More sardonic than serious, the article acted mostly as a holiday diversion from the quagmire in Iraq: "Invading Canada won't be like invading Iraq: When we invade Canada, nobody will be able to grumble that we didn't have a plan." When interviewed, both Canadians and Americans took it as a joke, competing for the cleverest quip. Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz defiantly vows to the American enemy: "It will be like Napoleon's invasion of Russia."

Americans routinely joke about conquering Canada. But these plans are no joke. As a loyal, self-governing Dominion in the British Empire, Canada served as a proxy for American tensions with Britain throughout the 19th century. American troops invaded Canada during both the American Revolution (!) and the War of 1812. Significant border disputes existed until the 1850s, covering tens of thousands of square miles. Tensions rose during the American Civil War, when Confederates and Irish nationalists looked to Canada as a shelter, launching pad, and target. Even seemingly unrelated matters such as the Venezuelan boundary dispute of 1895 threatened to flare up into conflict between Britain and the United States.

As the twentieth century dawned, tensions lessened as Anglo-American interests coincided more and more. Yet, until the 1920s, there was a real risk that the Anglo-Japanese alliance would draw Canada into war with the United States. The British were quite serious about their alliance with Japan, inviting Japan into the inner circle of the Allied Powers in the Paris peace talks ending World War I1. The alliance bound Britain to neutrality in the event of war between Japan and one other power, and to military support of Japan in the event of war between Japan and two other powers. As World War I demonstrated, overlapping treaties can have a cascading effect.

Strategic thinking tends to lag behind strategic reality. Despite the end of the Anglo-Japanese treaty in 1921, the US developed War Plan Red in the 1920s to address a possible war with the British Empire. Conversely on the Canadian side, James Sutherland "Buster" Brown prepared for a war with the United States. Thus was hatched Canadian Defence Scheme No. 1.


Knowing that Canada suffered from a ten-to-one manpower disadvantage against the United States, "Buster" Brown's plan relied on strategic surprise and lightning movements. Canada could not hope to win a one-on-one war with the United States, so any Canadian defense plan had to rely on troops from the British Empire for military parity. Yet, in the age before air transport, any aid from Britain or her colonies would take weeks or months to arrive by sea. Canada had precious little strategic depth with which to undertake a defensive war, as the bulk of its population, industry, and rail lines were located near the American border. Indeed, the American War Plan Red relies on the proximity of Canadian resources to project a rapid and successful conquest of Canada.

To counter the seemingly overwhelming American military advantage, "Buster" Brown envisioned a preemptive strike against the United States. Canadian troops would mobilize quickly and attack with little warning, relying on surprise to penetrate American soil as far south as Oregon. Of course, the massively outnumbered Canadian forces could not hope to hold on to the captured territory. So they would begin a strategic withdrawal, destroying bridges, roads, and factories as they went. Thus, it would be American territory, rather than Canadian, that would be used for strategic depth. It would be American industry, farmland, and infrastructure that was destroyed, all of which would hamper American efforts to bring troops to the Canadian border. The gamble, then, was that Imperial forces would arrive to hold the line by the time Canadian forces had retreated back into Canada.

Clearly, Canadian Defence Scheme No. 1 was both daring and risky. It relies to a certain extent on US forces being caught off guard, a naive assumption given the proximity. Ultimately, Defence Scheme No. 1 and its American counterpart faded away as Anglo-American relations continued to improve. War Plan Red was one of two dozen color-coded plans developed by the US military, ranging from major world wars to the invasion of Caribbean nations (Gray). In contrast, Canada's potential enemies were much fewer. Defence Scheme No. 2 addressed a possible war with Japan, in case the Pacific realignment drew Britain into war with its former ally, and No. 3 and No. 4 simply planned the dispatch of Canadian troops to aid British forces in European and colonial wars2.

American War Plan Red was declassified in the 1970s, but quickly became a footnote in comparison to Black (Germany) and Orange (Japan). Military historians seized on Orange, in particular, as a sign of the times, envisioning super-dreadnought battleships steaming to the Philippines (then an American colony) to engage in a fleet action with the Imperial Japanese Navy, sixteen-inch guns blazing. Canadian Defence Scheme No. 1 fell into even greater obscurity, not least because it was largely an internal army discussion, "not fully disclosed to the Government."3 War Plan Red resides in the National Archives of the United States, while Defence Scheme No. 1 lives at Queens University, in a collection of James Sutherland Brown's papers. An excerpt was published in a 1965 five-volume academic study of Canada's defense history4, which as the sole published copy seems to be the source of most further inquiry (although many sources cite the James Sutherland Brown papers collection directly).

The well-known War Plan Red is available online [Link].  Interestingly, it was located, digitized, and posted to Usenet in 1995 by Floyd Rudmin, who was then at Queens University, where the full Defence Scheme No. 1 is located.  I guess that University is just a hothead of Canadian resistance to American domination!  Until and unless I make my way to Queens University someday to locate the complete copy, I present here the partial plan that is available in published works.  Canadian Crown Copyright lasts fifty years, so the Defence Scheme is now in the public domain.


  1. Macmillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the Worldalt. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0375508264.
    1. On fears of war with the US, “The main Canadian concern, however, was to keep on good terms with the United States ... Part of this was self-interest: a recurrent nightmare in Ottawa was that Canada might find itself fighting on the side of Britain and its ally Japan against the United States.” (p. 47)
    2. On Japanese inclusion in the inner circle of the Allies at Paris, “ The following day, in deference to British wishes, two Japanese representatives joined the group. This became the Council of Ten ... The smaller allies and neutrals were not invited, an indication of what was to come. ” (p. 53)
  2. Harris, Stephen. "Or There Would be Chaos: The Legacy of Sam Hughes and Military Planning in Canada, 1919-1939. Military Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Oct., 1982), pp. 120-126. [Available on JSTOR]
  3. Brown, Atholl Sutherland. Buster: A Canadian Patriot and Imperialist - The Life and Times of Brigadier James Sutherland Brownalt. 1980. Reprinted by Trafford Publishing, 2006. Written by "Buster" Brown's son, who defends his father from those who "rightly or wrong, made him an icon of anti-Americanism."
  4. Eayres, James. In Defence of Canada: From the Great War to the Great Depressionalt University of Toronto Press, 1967. Part of a five-book series.

Extracts from “Defence Scheme No. 1,” 12 April 1921.

(Army Records)


Section 1. Problems to be met by the Empire

The Imperial General Staff is of the opinion that the possible eventualities, which the Empire must be prepared to meet, fall roughly under two main headings:

  1. A struggle for the existence of the Empire such as that from which we have only recently emerged.
  2. Minor crises which may be only local in character but which may synchronize or spread until a situation develops straining the resources of the Empire very greatly without enabling us to take the extreme methods which would be justified by a great national emergency.

These latter cases would probably call for the employment of the full authorised Forces of the Crown in the various parts of the Empire, namely, Regular Army and Permanent Forces; territorial forces and militia forces, to be kept up to strength by voluntary enlistment, but would not call for national service in the case of other parts of the Empire or Levee en Masse in the case of Canada.

The major eventuality is a plain straightforward issue, but it is considered by the Imperial General Staff that it could scarcely arise without the inclusion of one of the great civilized powers in the enemy’s ranks. Although there are indications that we may be faced by a hostile Russo-German combination and signs of danger from other centres are not absent, the British Cabinet has come to the conclusion that a war similar to that which has just been concluded is not likely to recur during the next 5 or 10 years.

The Imperial General Staff held at the same time that such an eventuality cannot be lost sight of entirely, and though neither the locality nor the chief actors can at present be foretold, it will be wise to take such general measures as will enhance the value of the Land Forces of the Empire as a whole, without prohibitive expenditure, such as (a) the co-ordination of military thought throughout the Empire, including measures for ensuring the close co-operation of Staffs, which was so marked a feature of the recent struggle, (b) the standardization of establishments and equipment, (c) the drawing up of schemes in each part of the Empire for the distribution of man power as between the three Services and the industries necessary to maintain armies in the field with a view to obtaining the maximum value for the available manpower. From this it will be possible to assess for different parts of the Empire the relative proportion of effort to be devoted to each of the three Services, which will best suit the requirements of the Empire as a whole, (d) the extension in Peace time and the expansion in War of industries intimately connected with the supply of warlike material in order that Indian and Dominion Forces may be, so far as possible, self-supporting, (e) the distribution of responsibility for the collection of intelligence and arrangements for co-ordinating the results.

The above are matters which will be discussed at the approaching Imperial Conference.

The Defence of Canada, therefore, falls under two categories: —

  1. Direct Defence, i.e., the immediate defence of our country against invasion by hostile forces;
  2. Indirect Defence, by which we send an Expeditionary Force to bring the hostile country or countries to action in their own country or countries, or in any case, in territory beyond the confines of the Dominion of Canada.

Section 2. Three Defence Schemes Necessary

For a struggle for the existence of the Empire, it would appear that four cases may occur:—

  1. A European Combination
  2. The United States
  3. Japan
  4. A combination of the above.

Only (2) and (4) of the above and possibly in a lesser extent (3) would put Canada in immediate danger of invasion and call for the Levee en Masse. It is necessary, therefore, to draw up three different Defence Schemes: —

  1. For the Defence of Canada against the United States.
  2. For the Defence of Canada against Japan.
  3. For the Organization and the Despatch of an Expeditionary Force to help the Empire in case of a European Combination or a Minor Crisis . . .

Section 3. General Strategical Situation of Canada

. . . The first thing apparent then in the defence of Canada is that we lack depth.

Depth can only be gained by Offensive Action. To carry out an Offensive Action against the United States, with our population in a ratio of 1 to 12 and the United States’ Regular Army of 175,000 Enlisted Men, and with between two and four millions of men who were lately embodied for service, is a difficult and on the surface an almost hopeless task, but on further study, it would be found out that it is not as hopeless as it appears on the surface and that Canada has a good many advantages in her favour.

To carry out an Offensive Action against the United States means, first of all, Quicker Mobilization; secondly, the immediate despatch of Flying Columns on the declaration of War; thirdly, the despatch of our Formations at Peace Strength to be followed rapidly by drafts filling them to War Establishment; fourth, a speedy mobilization of our Reserve Units by General Recruitment and by putting in force the Levee en Masse, as soon as Proclamation is made; fifth, the completion of the organization of our Formations by the inclusion of Reserve Units; sixth, the despatch of Reserve Units to certain garrisons or certain strategical points; seventh, the early formation of Depots.

Time is of the essence of everything of our mobilization and of our early operations. To keep up this offensive and to continue the successful defence of Canada, will require the timely arrival of reinforcements from the Empire and particularly from the United Kingdom and the full use of the man power and resources of the Empire in other theatres of operation, namely, the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States; the Southern Seaboard, i.e., the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and Mexico; the Pacific Coast.

In order to carry out this Offensive, well chosen lines of Offence should be decided upon, these to produce the greatest results, firstly, to increase our Depth; secondly, to increase our resources by the occupation of hostile territory; thirdly, to increase the moral [sic] of our population with a corresponding decrease of moral of the enemy; fourthly, to cover the organization and mobilization of our man power and to prevent the destruction of our resources and lateral communications; fifthly, to gain time until the arrival of help from the various parts of the Empire, as soon as the man power and the resources of the Empire are mobilized and transported to their various spheres of action.


Sea Power is another of the most important factors in the Defence of Canada. To keep open for periods, at least, the seas for the transport of Britannic and Imperial troops to the various Theatres and for the protection of our Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, to prevent our flanks from being turned, to prevent our Ports of Disembarkation for help from the Empire being occupied or destroyed.

Control of the Great Lakes
Another important strategical feature in the Defence of Canada is the control of the Great Lakes. On all, except Lake Ontario, the Americans have a preponderance of shipping and they have in the States bordering the Great Lakes a Naval Militia of considerable size, which could be made use of to arm and man United States’ Mercantile Great Lakes boats.

Timely arrival of British ships of suitable size in Lake Ontario and the proper protection of the Welland Canal, might ultimately give us control of Lake Erie.

Many Canadians, including many navigating officers, are serving in the United States’ Great Lakes Mercantile Marine. Further information concerning this question will have to be gathered and action taken to put their service into use at the appointed hour.


A winter campaign, for obvious reasons, by a large force, is not feasible, but the subject should not be lost sight of, as we might be forced into a winter campaign and in any case mobilization might have to take place during the winter and tactical raiding would be feasible.


  1. Statesmen decide on the Time, Circumstances and the Locality of War and leave it to the Soldier to make the best of them. It is hoped that our Statesmen will act in such a manner to give us as many advantages as possible in case war becomes inevitable between the British Empire and the United States of America. Members of Parliament and Members of the Senate are drawn from various sources of life, most of them with no War Service and very many of them with no militia connection and no knowledge of the vast machinery required for War and of the terrible disadvantage of loss of the initiative at the commencement of a campaign. It is your duty then to do what you can within your sphere of action to see that such political personages are enlightened on questions of Defence.
  2. French Canadians (all Roman Catholics) form nearly one third of the population of Canada. They took little interest in the Great World War. There may have been “Vatican” influence, but it would appear that the main reason for lack of interest was lack of proper political control and leadership from Ottawa. The Roman Catholic Church in Canada is suspicious of the Militia. It has no reason to be so. It has everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the Militia. If the United States ever conquered Canada, the dual language would be done away with at once and the Roman Catholic Church would have much less power and influence by one hundred fold.
  3. Americans in Canada. Many in British Columbia. Well over 50% in Alberta. Over 50% in Saskatchewan. Many others holding important positions, especially in manufactures and transportation, in other parts of the country.
  4. Census, 1921. Commanders should obtain information from the Census, 1921, as soon as the Census Report is compiled, as it will give the latest information of foreign population and of man power of the various Commands and Districts.
  5. Provincial Jealousies. Friendly rivalries between the East and the West and between the various Provinces may help to stimulate matters, but every care should be taken to prevent Provincial or Parochial matters interfering with broad questions. There is a tendency for Provincial politicians to interfere with proper organization and there will probably be the same tendency to prevent the proper distribution of troops in time of war. This tendency may only be eliminated by education.

. . .

Section 9: Allies or Possible Allies of Great Britain

Japan. Japan is still an Ally of Great Britain. The question of the renewal of the Japanese Treaty comes up this year. Whatever Japan’s attitude may be at any other time, there is not much doubt, in case of war between the British Empire and the United States, that Japan would take immediate military action against the American Republics, in which case it would make matters much more favourable to us, especially at the beginning of the campaign, if we would find that Japan would carry out her traditional policy of delivering their Declaration of War and a Military Operation at the same time . . .

France. France has always taken a friendly interest in the United States. She came to her help during the Revolutionary War and for years the American Army organization and tactics were based on the French system. France has seen more in the last two years of the modern “Yank”. She is dissatisfied with American action, with the low rate of exchange of the franc in the United States, with the attitude of the United States towards the League of Nations. It would appear then that the United States would get no support either actively or sympathetically from France.

Mexico. It has a turbulent and unruly population estimated from 12 to 15 millions. For over 100 years it has been a pin-prick on the American Southern Flank. The Mexicans have not shown themselves, generally speaking, opposed to British interests. In case of war with the United States it is not unlikely that Mexico would cause trouble on the Southern Frontier, causing a goodly force of United States’ troops to be concentrated towards Mexico. If Mexico became an active participant in a War against the United States, it would be an area of operation for Britannic or British Empire troops against the Southern States, having for its object the capture of Galveston and New Orleans, and blocking the Mississippi River.

The South American Republics. Many of whom are not hostile to British interests and might decide to support the British Empire. Many of these Republics possess Navies of a useful size which would be a tremendous factor in operations against the Panama Canal.

Section 10: The Strategic Importance of Newfoundland, Alaska and West Indies.

Alaska. The Alaskan Coast presents harbours to be used as submarine bases of operation against the British Columbian Coast. A sufficient force of regular troops might be kept on the Southern Alaskan Coast to capture Prince Rupert by a coup de main, immediately after the declaration of war.

Newfoundland. . . . enters largely into the Defence of Canada. American occupation of the Island would have far reaching results. It would be on the flank of the sea routes between Great Britain and Canada and it would be a menace to all our shipping and a base for naval operations against Nova Scotia, the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, and the St. Lawrence River generally. Newfoundland would appear to be a rendezvous and a probable base of operations for the British Grand Fleet.

West Indies. The West Indies are admirably situated as bases for naval operations against the Southern States and particularly against the Panama Canal. They are situated on the flank of the Panama Canal route and if, by any chance, the United States’ fleet or any great portion of it was in the Pacific at the outbreak of war the use of the Panama Canal for concentration on the Atlantic Coast might be denied absolutely to them. . . .


Main Objectives.
The main objective of the United States force would undoubtedly be Montreal and on to Ottawa. The next important objective of the United States would be the occupation of the Ontario Peninsula, including the cities of Hamilton and Toronto. The other objectives at which the American Land Forces would be moved against would be Quebec, Winnipeg, the Island of Vancouver and South Western British Columbia, i.e., the area including Vancouver and New Westminster.

The grain growing Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta which now have a large percentage of Americans, are especially attractive to the United States, and there is just a possibility that they might make the conquest of these Provinces the ultimate objective of their campaign . . . .

First attempt Invasion of Canada — Mode of:
It is considered that the first attempt of the invasion of Canada would take place as mentioned above by the use of Flying Columns, to carry out a great strategical stroke to catch us unawares before the Canadian Militia was mobilized. If this was not successful, it is considered that there would be a period elapsing of possibly a couple of weeks before a determined effort would be made to advance on Canada by Divisions of all Arms.

Organization of Our Flying Columns for Immediate Action
This emphasizes the fact that our Flying Columns must be organized for immediate action: that our Divisions must get underway with units at Peace Strength with the least possible delay, that is, within three or four days of the declaration of war. This is the object to work up to in the Scheme for Mobilization.

If, after careful study, and taking into consideration the improvement that is sure to come in the position of Militia recruiting, you consider that your units will not be able to move towards their war station on the third or fourth day of mobilization, please advise the General Staff at Ottawa of that fact and of what time you estimate that your Division will be on the move to its War Station.

Section 2: General Instructions for Offensive Action

All training and organization in Peace and all arrangements during the Precautionary Period will lead up to a general Limited Offensive against the United States.

Pacific Command. The field troops of the Pacific Command to advance into and occupy the strategic points including Spokane, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, bounded by the Columbia River . . . .

Prairie Command . . . should converge towards Fargo in North Dakota . . . and then continue a general advance in the direction of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The occupation of Minneapolis and St. Paul would cut most of the lines leading to Duluth . . . and would have a tendency to protect our railway communications through the Kenora and Rainy River Districts . . . .

Great Lakes Command . . . will, generally speaking, remain on the defensive, but rapid and well organized raids should be made across the Niagara Frontier, the St. Clair Frontier, the Detroit Frontier and the St. Mary’s Frontier, with sufficient troops to establish bridgeheads . . . .

Quebec Command. . . will take the offensive on both sides of the Adirondack Mountains with a view of converging . . . in the vicinity of Albany, N.Y. . . .

Maritime Command . . . will make an offensive into the State of Maine . . . .