The Original Rainbow Warrior: Navy, Part 3

May 1, 2004 by Marc Milner


From top: (Inset) Commander Walter Hose on the deck of HMCS Rainbow; HMCS Rainbow set off in August 1914 to find German cruisers along the American west coast; Canada’s first submarines, CC.1 and CC.2 were purchased by the Province of British Columbia in 1914.

Ninety years ago this August the world slipped into the Great War: An unprecedented four-year slaughter that left 20 million dead, empires in ruins and much of the world map redrawn. It is generally admitted that Canada came of age during that bitter conflict, at an appalling butcher’s bill: 61,326 dead on active service from a mobilized force of 620,000 soldiers. But Canada’s war need not have happened that way. On the day Britain and her empire, including Canada, declared war on Germany in August 1914, the German Asiatic Squadron under Admiral Graf von Spee was loose in the Pacific. The only warship that stood in their way across the entire eastern Pacific was Canada’s cruiser HMCS Rainbow, which was vastly out-gunned, manned by reservists and carrying only target ammunition. Despite the odds, Rainbow set off to find the Germans, but they ‘escaped’. When Sir Robert Borden’s government asked the British later in August what contribution Canada could make to the war at sea, it was told not to bother: the Royal Navy could manage. What the Empire needed was men to fight the huge conscript armies of the Central Powers. Canada responded accordingly. However, had Rainbow disappeared in a hail of shellfire in August 1914, Canada’s war and the history of the navy itself would have been markedly different. No Canadian government could have abandoned sea power with “Remember the Rainbow!” as the mantra for its war effort. Certainly, Rainbow’s fearless captain, Commander Walter Hose, understood the crucial importance of setting the right tone early on. Much, therefore, hung in the balance when Rainbow headed south in search of von Spee’s cruisers on Aug. 4, 1914. The German Asiatic Squadron represented a formidable challenge: Two modern armoured cruisers, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and four modern light cruisers, Dresden, Emden, Leipzig and Nurnberg. The two big ships carried 8.2-inch and 6-inch guns, and their gunnery was renowned as the best in the German fleet. Their armour was impenetrable to Rainbow’s guns at anything beyond point-blank range. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were also faster, by nearly four knots (23 versus 19.75): They could eat Rainbow for breakfast. The light cruisers were more of a match, but the German ships were newer and four knots faster, too, while their modern 4.1-inch guns had a longer range than Rainbow’s aging 6-inch. In fair weather, any one of them could stand off and beat Rainbow into submission without being hit. By late July 1914, this powerful German force was largely dispersed, with Leipzig and Nurnberg exchanging places off Mexico as part of an international force protecting foreign interests during the Mexican civil war. The British had few ships in the Pacific, and these were scattered across a quarter of the earth’s surface. The great uncertainty facing von Spee was the intent of Britain’s Pacific ally Japan. Her powerful fleet made the western Pacific untenable, while the heavy cruiser Idzumo was with the international fleet off Mexico and had to be watched carefully. Also off Mexico were two aging British sloops, Algerine and Shearwater, each of about 1,000 tons and utterly defenceless. The only British warship in the whole eastern basin of the Pacific Ocean was little Rainbow. Rainbow was ordered to prepare herself for war, while a group of British Columbia businessmen opened negotiations with a Seattle shipyard for the purchase of two submarines being built for Chile. Hose soon had Rainbow ready for sea, but high explosive shells for her guns were not expected to arrive from Halifax until Aug. 6 because the railway refused to handle the explosives. So Hose drew antiquated shells filled with black powder (modern shells used cordite) from old stores in Esquimalt, filled out his crew from local volunteer “reservists” (an amateur group of naval enthusiasts who had no official standing) and declared his ship ready. On the afternoon of Aug. 2, the British requested that “Rainbow should proceed south at once in order to get in touch with (Leipzig) and generally guard the trade routes north of the equator.” This was an ambitious order for a partially manned training cruiser equipped with little more than solid shot. At 1 a.m. on Aug. 4, Rainbow cleared Esquimalt harbour. Few thought they would see her again. Hose spent the day on a southerly course off the coast of Washington State, training his crew and getting ready for battle. Late in the day news arrived that Rainbow’s high explosive shells were now in Vancouver, so Hose altered course north to fetch them. Meanwhile, Canadian authorities tried to elicit Admiralty support for the purchase of the Seattle submarines. With Britain on the verge of war, it was imperative to get them away before “international complications” prevented it. Finally, Sir Richard McBride, the B.C. premier, assured the Seattle company that they would receive payment regardless of the final price and the deal was closed at $1.15 million for the pair. At 10 p.m. on Aug. 4 (by which time Britain and Germany had already been at war for some eight hours), the two subs slipped their moorings under the cover of darkness and fog. Once clear of the harbour, they ran at full speed for a rendezvous just inside the Canadian line. The subs were met by the steamer Salvor, which carried Lieutenant-Commander Bertram Jones, RN, a qualified submariner, and Lieut. R.H. Wood, RN, Chief Engineer at Esquimalt. Jones and Wood took four hours to inspect the subs. Satisfied that all was sound, Jones produced a cheque drawn by the Province of British Columbia. British colours were hoisted and by morning the subs were alongside at Esquimalt. It says a great deal about the way naval policy was made, that a provincial government could spend twice the 1914 naval budget in the dark of night on two small submarines. Quickly dubbed CC.1 and CC.2, the submarines provided a powerful deterrent force for the B.C. coast even though, as Esquimalt confided to Ottawa, they lacked “all gear in connection with submerged tubes firing torpedoes; including gyroscopes, spare tools and manuals, artificers and ratings. We have nothing.” The enemy did not know this. About the time B.C.’s new submarine fleet arrived alongside in the dockyard, Rainbow was just south of Victoria, bound for Vancouver and her modern projectiles. Then at 6 a.m., Hose received new orders. Britain and Germany were now formally at war. “Nurnberg and Leipzig reported 4th August off Magdalena Bay (Mexico) steering north,” the Admiralty advised. Ottawa embellished the instructions by adding, “Do your utmost to protect Algerine and Shearwater, steering north from San Diego. Remember Nelson and the British Navy. All Canada is watching.” It was the most poignant signal in Canadian naval history. Hose immediately spun Rainbow around and headed back out to sea. If he was successful, he would meet the two old RN sloops, escort them home, and then stand guard off the B.C. coast. If he was less than successful, the two sloops might get home, but he would encounter at least one, and perhaps two powerful German cruisers. If he did, the result would not be in doubt. On Aug. 5, the fate of Rainbow was now little more than a coin toss. Rainbow arrived in San Francisco on the morning of Aug. 6, just ahead of the German freighter Alexandria. She had been ordered by Captain Haun of Leipzig to land her cargo and load coal in order to serve as a collier for the cruiser. Latest information provided by the British consul in San Francisco was that Leipzig and Nurnberg were now off San Diego and coming north. Hose assumed that Algerine and Shearwater were already north of San Francisco and safe for the moment. After being allowed to load only 50 of the 500 tons of coal waiting for her (by law belligerents were permitted just enough to get to the next friendly port), Rainbow sailed on Aug. 8 and took station off San Francisco to cover the retreat of the sloops, and to rendezvous with a supply ship from Esquimalt. What followed was Rainbow’s greatest moment of peril. In preparation, Rainbow jettisoned all her flammable material: furniture, panelling, cushions—anything that might catch fire in battle. The appearance of this flotsam near the Golden Gate Bridge briefly caused anxiety in naval circles. Hose might well have burned it to increase the length of his cruise. By Aug. 10, Rainbow was low on fuel, and at 10 a.m. Hose turned for home. While Rainbow patrolled, Leipzig came north from Mexico. At the time the British estimated that both Leipzig and Nurnberg were together, but only Leipzig arrived in San Francisco barely a day after Hose abandoned his patrol, and leaving Nurnberg’s whereabouts unclear. Leipzig’s captain boasted to the American press: “We shall engage the enemy whenever and wherever we meet him. The number and size of our antagonists will make no difference to us.” In fact, Capt Haun was anxious about meeting even Rainbow, since almost any battle damage could not be repaired and anything that impaired his mobility would be catastrophic. Haun was also looking over his shoulder at the Japanese heavy cruiser Idzumo, which was still off Mexico. If Japan declared war on Germany, Idzumo was, according to the Victoria Times, “big enough to swallow her (Leipzig) with one bite.” Whatever Haun’s fears, he was back at sea on Aug. 12, patrolling waters recently abandoned by Rainbow. Had Hose been able to refuel completely in San Francisco—or perhaps burned his combustibles rather than jettisoning them—the two cruisers might have met. But by the 12th, Rainbow was well to the north, where at 8 a.m. she suddenly came upon a vessel with a cruiser hull and three funnels steaming south at speed. For a brief moment it looked like the Germans had gotten behind them, and now barred the way home. Rainbow went to full speed and Hose sounded action stations. Guns were cleared and not a few hearts beat faster until it was realized that the steamer was Prince George sent out from Esquimalt as a hospital ship to pick up whatever was left of Hose’s crew. At a distance, Prince George’s cruiser-like hull and three funnels made her a dead ringer for Leipzig. The two ships arrived at Esquimalt in the early hours of Aug. 13, after meeting Shearwater in the harbour approaches. Now only Algerine remained unaccounted for and Rainbow found her the next day off Washington. By the time Rainbow returned to Esquimalt with Algerine, Leipzig was off Cape Mendocino in northern California, the closest she ever got to British Columbia. Haun was ready to spar with his Canadian opponent, but was now anxious about coal supplies and was forced back to San Francisco on Aug. 17. The next day, Leipzig resumed patrols just as Hose was ordered south again to “engage or drive off Leipzig from the trade routes.” However, Rainbow was no sooner at sea than her orders were countermanded because the British feared that both German cruisers were together and Rainbow was no match for them. Finally, reports of phantom cruisers off Prince Rupert drew Rainbow north, and there she patrolled for the balance of the month. By then, Leipzig was headed south to a rendezvous with her squadron at Easter Island in October, and to avoid Idzumo. Japan declared war on Aug. 23 and the big cruiser arrived in Esquimalt two days later. With that, B.C. was safe, and even more so when cruiser HMS Newcastle arrived from Yokohama on Aug. 30. Von Spee was bent on heading home and his concentration off the South American coast brought with it a closing net of Allied forces. An Anglo-Japanese squadron, including Rainbow, assembled off Mexico, and another force of old cruisers and armoured ships came from the Atlantic around the Cape Horn. Rainbow was refused permission to join the larger cruisers in their southern patrols, and served mostly as a wireless relay link. On Nov. 1, von Spee’s squadron met Rear Admiral Christopher Craddock’s Atlantic force off Coronel, Chile. The result was a stunning German victory: two of the four British ships were destroyed, including Craddock’s flagship HMS Good Hope. With her went the cream of the Royal Naval College of Canada’s first term: Arthur Silver, the Chief Cadet Captain, W.A. Palmer, the senior midshipman, Malcolm Cann and Victor Hathaway. They had joined Craddock’s ship in Halifax and became the Canadian navy’s first battle casualties. Von Spee’s squadron met its end a month later, destroyed off the Falkland Islands by two powerful battle cruisers hastily dispatched from Britain, like hit men sent to resolve a nagging problem. Only the cruiser Dresden escaped, and she lived a fugitive existence until her destruction in the South Pacific in March 1915. It is interesting to speculate on how the fate of many thousands of young Canadians might have changed had Rainbow met her end in a blaze of glory off San Francisco in the early days of August 1914. Futile death at the hands of a powerful enemy in defence of hearth and home was the stuff of popular sentiment. Tiny Rainbow’s destruction by a powerful enemy would have become the stuff of legend—“Remember the Rainbow!” might well have become Canada’s battle cry. The obvious need for naval defence and the desire for revenge at sea could have stayed the government’s hand in the dispatch of troops overseas. But it was not to be. Hose and Rainbow sailed on into obscurity, and the navy slumped into decay. Canada had little option other than to sacrifice the youth of a generation on the blood-soaked fields of Flanders.

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