A Sea Of Politics: Navy, Part 2

March 1, 2004 by Marc Milner
His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Niobe visits Cornwallis, N.S., in 1912. She had become part of Canada’s navy in 1910. Inset: Sir Charles Kingsmill in 1908.

The Naval Service of Canada came into being on May 4, 1910, when royal assent was granted to Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Naval Service Act. By the end of that year Canada had two training cruisers in service and the prime minister had plans to build five more, plus six torpedo-boat destroyers, a naval college, a naval school to train lower deck personnel, and a system of naval reserves.

But by 1914 virtually none of this had come to pass. The big training cruiser Niobe lay rotting alongside a decrepit Halifax dockyard, while men deserted the service faster than they could be recruited. Enough money was found to send the tiny cruiser Rainbow on seal patrols along the west coast and to run the Royal Naval College of Canada, but the rest of the navy was on life support. On the eve of World War I, Laurier’s ambitious naval plan lay in ruin, and Canada’s coasts lay undefended (It Began With Fish And Ships, January/ February). Canadians, it seems, agreed on the need for a navy, but the battle over its nature was just starting in 1910.

The debate between proponents of Canadian versus imperial, big versus small dogged the new service from the outset. The arrival of the aging heavy cruiser Niobe off Halifax on Oct. 21, 1910—105 years to the day after Lord Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar—served as catalyst for both supporters and opponents alike. She was met by the little Fisheries Protection Cruiser Canada, carrying the navy’s first officer cadets and Rear Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, director of the Naval Service. At 12:45 pm, the vessels anchored off the naval dockyard, where salutes were fired as dignitaries streamed aboard. Speeches proclaimed Canada’s burgeoning nationhood, and the Liberal press trumpeted, “Laurier’s policy made flesh.”

Not everyone celebrated. The night before Niobe’s arrival Henri Bourassa led a nationalist rally in Montreal against the naval policy. His own Le Devoir newspaper commented impishly, “the cruiser Niobe, the nucleus of the Canadian fleet (Canadian in time of peace, imperial in time of war), arrived in Halifax.”

Tory imperialists in Ontario were no less scornful. “The first defence work assigned to the Niobe,” the Toronto Mail and Empire newspaper speculated, “will partake of the nature of a holiday trip to the West Indies, with the Governor General on board.”

The arrival of the little cruiser Rainbow at Esquimalt, B.C., on Nov. 8, after steaming 15,000 miles around the tip of South America, drew less flak. Most Canadians agreed the Pacific coast—lonely and isolated—needed some naval presence, and the tiny Rainbow (at 3,600 tons roughly a third the size of Niobe, and requiring only 300 personnel as compared to Niobe’s 750) was an ideal choice.

However, from the outset, Laurier’s navy collided with one hurdle after another. Among the most embarrassing was a battle with the British over the legal status of the new navies. Canada and Australia were self-governing dominions, but there was no provision for the extension of Canadian law beyond our three-mile territorial limit. The high seas were the domain of the imperial fleet and only Britain was empowered to act on behalf of the empire in the oceans of the world. The issue was not resolved until the Imperial Conference in 1911, when “stations” were created for local squadrons.

The Canadian Atlantic Station covered the area north of 30° N and west of 40° W, save for areas around Newfoundland, while the Pacific Station covered a vast area westward to the international dateline (180th meridian) north of 30° N. In those waters Canadian warships were free to move without the need to notify imperial naval authorities. Until they were formally adopted, however, Canada’s new warships were confined to the three-mile territorial limit: a major embarrassment to the government and a near fatal constraint to the nascent fleet.

The British made two other concessions to local identity. The first was the insertion of the word Canadian into the traditional title His Majesty’s Ship, first granted to HMCS Rainbow when she was commissioned on Aug. 4, 1910 in Devonport, England. The designation HMCS, considered a unit prefix comparable to the army’s use of the word Royal in regimental titles, has endured to this day. The second was the granting of the prefix Royal to the Naval Service on Aug. 29, 1911, allowing a name change to the Royal Canadian Navy that lasted until the unification of the armed forces—and the dissolution of a separate naval service—on Feb. 1, 1968.

Other attempts to broaden the scope of support for the new service and make it distinctly Canadian were unsuccessful. The Admiralty flatly refused to allow the RCN to use its own ensign. Laurier’s government had asked for the RN’s White Ensign with a green maple leaf centred on the Cross of St George, a design apparently created by the Governor General Lord Grey. “One fleet, one flag” was the response, and so the RCN flew the RN’s ensign until Feb. 15, 1965 when it adopted the maple leaf flag.

Plans to secure a place in the new navy for unilingual francophones were scuppered by the RCN’s own naval staff. The imperial fleet functioned in English, and the combination of two languages in daily routine of a local squadron was deemed detrimental to the service. The exclusion of French as a working language in the new navy was a bitter blow to the French Canadians who had laboured hard to establish the service. It was quietly accepted in early 1911 not least because an open challenge would simply have confirmed the worst fears of Bourassa and the Quebec nationalists. Still, the policy meant the loss of whatever popular support the navy enjoyed in French Canada, and that the navy was much less a national institution than it ought to have been. And so it remained for the next 60 years.

The idea of local navies could only be pushed so far, so fast. Moreover, since Canada was still a member of the imperial family, in the key areas of training, discipline, promotions, conditions of service and the like, integration with the imperial navy was unavoidable. The new service immediately adopted the King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions and The Naval Discipline Act of 1866 as the basis of conduct and discipline. Training was to be to RN standards, while pay, promotion, and service experience was to be transferable, and a common seniority list was adopted. There was no scope here for unilingual francophones. The new Canadian navy was, for all intents and purposes, a squadron of the imperial fleet: in 1910 it could hardly have been otherwise.

But the fleet—even Laurier’s full plan—was also small and potentially of marginal use when the greatest peril facing the empire was the growing German battle fleet. Therefore, while Bourassa supporters attacked it for being too much, Tory imperialists attacked it for being too little. They remained firm in their desire to scrap the navy and provide direct financial aid to the RN. To forestall them, Laurier was anxious to let contracts for the fleet by May 1, 1911. It could not be done. Not for the last time, our government realized that to build a fleet it first had to build a shipyard. Laurier anticipated this, and had solicited bids from British firms that would find a Canadian partner to develop the infrastructure needed to build the fleet in Canada.

By 1910 the British firm of Vickers had established a yard in Montreal. The Harbour Commission and the city of Maisonneuve provided Vickers with a first-class location, an extended lease on the land, and deferred taxes. The new shipyard, Canadian Vickers, was incorporated in June 1911 and by then had ordered a massive floating dry dock, funded under the new Canadian Dry Dock Act, from a British builder. The establishment of Canadian Vickers, which was soon in direct competition with indigenous Canadian firms, was one of the more enduring legacies of Laurier’s navalism, and the yard would eventually play a pivotal role in the building of the modern Canadian navy. Its establishment in Montreal also meant that Quebec would be the major beneficiary of the new naval policy.

Unfortunately, even with British help the prospect of building a major warship in Canada in 1911 was daunting. After much debate it was decided that Niobe—perhaps not so obsolete as many thought —met the requirement for the heavy cruiser in the fleet plan, and that the construction period for the rest of the ships was extended from three years to six. Estimates on construction ranged from a low of $8.5 million to a high of $13 million, and all were inflated by the unknown costs of trying to build an industry while building the ships themselves.

While the government pondered tenders for the fleet, the new navy—still fettered by legal restrictions—finally went to sea. But here, too, the omens were not good. HMCS Niobe steamed to Yarmouth, N.S., in July 1911, for a summer celebration. On the 31st, while working her way homeward inside Canada’s territorial limit in a heavy blow and fog, she ran aground off Cape Sable. There she pounded for two hours in a raging sea, her starboard engine room flooding and one rudder and one propeller seriously damaged. When she finally floated clear she was in danger of sinking.

James Cosier, one of Niobe’s ratings, later recalled that it was a very close run thing. “We stood on deck all night… expecting any minute for her to go off into the plunge, but they stuffed our hammocks, 380 odd men’s hammocks into the…boiler room down below where it was taking tremendous water.”

With daylight on Aug. 1, most of the crew scurried into boats and rowed ashore while damage control parties saved the ship. Niobe was towed into Halifax, where it took 16 months to repair the damage. The political damage was irreparable. The grounding of Laurier’s flagship was a metaphor for his government’s naval policy, and in September—after nearly 15 years as prime minister—he faced a general election.

The 1911 election was perhaps the only one in which naval policy was a dominant issue. The Liberals had already lost Laurier’s old riding in a November 1910 byelection to one of Bourassa’s nationalists largely on the naval issue. In 1911 Laurier’s naval policy remained a rallying point for an uneasy coalition of Tory imperialists and Quebec nationalists. In the end the decisive issue was Laurier’s proposal for free trade (Reciprocity) with the U.S. Booming Ontario, industrialized by the protectionist policies established by Sir John A. Macdonald a generation earlier, recoiled from Laurier’s free trade scheme.

Borden and his Conservatives wrapped themselves in the old flag and talked of defending Canadian national autonomy in the face of creeping American continentalism. Most Ontario Conservatives also favoured direct aid to the RN, and the province returned Tories in 72 of its 85 seats. Laurier was out, Borden and his awkward coalition of Tory imperialists and Quebec nationalists were in.

Borden promised to repeal the Naval Service Act, return to a militarized Fisheries Protection Service and spend the money allocated by Laurier for the cruiser fleet on battleships for the imperial navy. His government immediately suspended recruiting and the call for contracts for the new fleet. Only the naval college was allowed to carry on. Borden tried to pursue a cautious two-track naval policy designed to appease both extremes of his caucus—those who wanted much less, and those who wanted much more—and find a way to get whatever he passed in the House of Commons through a Liberal dominated Senate.

The details of proposed direct aid to the Imperial fleet were worked out in July 1912 when Borden travelled to London to discuss naval policy. Britain now wanted $35 million from Canada to build three battleships: roughly three times the maximum estimated cost of Laurier’s fleet. Borden agreed, and over the next five months he drafted the Naval Aid Bill. The scope of the proposed aid led to the defection of his Quebec lieutenant, Frederick Monk, and so to salvage his own Quebec wing of the Tory party Borden now also proposed a small coast defence force comprised of a torpedo boat flotilla.

The Admiralty sketched out the plan, all the while explaining that the only serious military threat to Canada was from raiders in the shipping lanes off-shore. If Canada insisted on building a navy, the Admiralty urged Borden to carry on with Laurier’s fleet of cruisers. Borden vacillated. Even small cruisers were too much for Borden’s Quebec wing, and in the end he promised to return to a militarized FPS as the basis of his permanent policy.

As it turned out, Borden did not have a free hand to pursue his two-track policy. The Liberals controlled the Senate and if Borden could not win some form of bipartisan support in the House of Commons then the Liberals could still kill his Naval Aid Bill. All through the early months of 1913 Parliament debated naval policy. Laurier’s Liberals obfuscated, forcing amendments, stalling the bill in committee and forcing Borden to invoke closure. By way of concession to the Liberals, Borden called for the retention of the two training cruisers and the basic naval establishment already in place as a result of the 1910 Act. The permanent naval force, however, would remain under civilian control and consist of coast defence vessels.

Few Liberal imperialists supported Borden’s compromise, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier would not have it. He imposed party discipline on Liberal senators when the Naval Aid Bill came forward for a vote on May 30, 1912 and it was rejected. Canada’s naval policy, insofar as it had one, was now in total disarray.

In the face of national gridlock on policy and the Tory government’s utter rejection of the fleet that the Liberals proposed, the RCN clung to life by its fingernails. Niobe, her refit completed by December 1912, was laid-up for lack of money and crew. Borden’s government allocated $1.6 million for the fiscal year 1912-13—half of Laurier’s estimates—and actual expenditures collapsed to a little over half million by 1913-14.

The commanding officer of the German cruiser Hertha—herself a reminder of the looming threat of the Kaiser’s new navy, even in Canadian waters—reported on Niobe’s state in late 1913. “The Niobe, with the breeches of all guns removed, is tied up alongside the dock as there are no maintenance personnel. English midshipmen from HMS Cornwall called the Niobe rotten, and a voyage aboard her as risky.”

By 1914 only tiny Rainbow, largely inactive since 1912, could be called upon. She was, in fact, Canada’s only local naval defence when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914 and plunged the world into war.

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