Niobe’s Brief Operational Career: Navy, Part 5

September 1, 2004 by Marc Milner

PHOTO: NOTMAN STUDIO, national Archives of canada—PA028497

PHOTO: NOTMAN STUDIO, national Archives of canada—PA028497

Niobe sits in dry dock prior to her service in World War I.

Part 5

As war clouds gathered over Europe in July 1914, the Royal Canadian Navy’s only East Coast ship—HMCS Niobe—lay mouldering alongside the dockyard in Halifax. More than twice the size of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Rainbow and requiring 700 officers and men, the RCN’s flagship was simply too big and too expensive to operate in the grim years prior to 1914.

Moreover, unlike the West Coast, which was half a world away from the seat of British imperial power, Canada’s East Coast was guarded from any major European threat by the concentrated power of the Royal Navy in the eastern Atlantic. In the summer of 1914, the only immediate threat to Canada in the Atlantic came from two fast and modern German cruisers operating in the Caribbean, and from a fleet of equally fast and modern trans-Atlantic liners that could be quickly armed and turned into merchant raiders. The RN’s 4th Cruiser Squadron, based in Bermuda and—as needs be—Halifax, was large enough to deal with both forms of raiders, if they could be found. Thus, British deployments at home and abroad covered Canada and its Atlantic trade, which is why Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord, thought Canadians were lazy and got defence on the cheap.

Fisher was only partly right. It is true the naval defence of the East Coast relied on the imperial fleet. Indeed, by the end of 1914 there were more Australian cruisers—Melbourne and Sydney—operating out of Halifax than there were Canadian. But over the next four years, Canada paid more than its fair share of the costs of defending the empire. It remains a moot point whether a larger, more capable Canadian navy would have mitigated the carnage that followed in the trenches of France and Flanders. Certainly, the politicians who waged the next great war thought so. Unfortunately, the federal government’s dithering naval policy meant that no Canadian warship was ready to respond to the call on the Atlantic coast as the crisis in Europe deepened.

On Aug. 1, 1914, as Rainbow readied for sea in British Columbia, Ottawa finally ordered Niobe back into commission.

A month in dry dock was required to scrape the long beard of sea growth from her bottom and to coax her decrepit machinery back to life. The latter was helped along by drafting aboard all the engineers of the Fishery Protection Service. Other personnel joined from the British sloops Algerine and Shearwater, once they were safe in Esquimalt harbour, and by scrapping-up every RCN and volunteer reservist the navy could find. Even so, when Captain R.G. Corbett, RN, reported Niobe ready for sea on Sept. 1, she was still short of her wartime complement of 700, and her first cruise was to St. John’s, Nfld., to embark 107 seamen of the Royal Navy Newfoundland Volunteer Reserves.

The month’s delay in getting Niobe to sea means she missed much of the excitement—such as it was—in the western Atlantic. The German cruisers Dresden and Karlsruhe—operating in the Caribbean in 1914 in support of foreign interests in the Mexican civil war—had limited endurance, needed safe havens to re-coal and without bases they could not remain operational for long.

In an earlier age, when ships were sail powered, the danger from large surface raiders would have lasted throughout the war (and in a modern sense, in the form of submarines, it did). In the great age of sail, commerce raiders lived on the sea for years. Repairs could be done with material carried aboard, and re-provisioning was accomplished from the ships they captured or a visit to a neutral port. As late as the 1860s, the famous Confederate States of America raider Alabama had a final cruise that lasted 18 months without a port call. However, complete dependence on steam by the end of the 19th century changed all that. Modern coal-fired vessels had a very limited endurance, refuelling was laborious and time consuming, and maintenance of machinery required the services of a dockyard. Moreover, by the end of the 19th century, the world was linked by a system of telegraph cables, largely British owned and operated, that could report movements in a flash from even the most obscure neutral port. As a result of these changes in technology, everyone knew in 1914 that German cruisers on foreign stations were a rapidly diminishing asset.

Germany’s Admiral von Tirpitz opined on Sept. 28 that “The cruisers out at sea must one after another perish for lack of coal, provisions and refitting stations.” In the month it took Niobe to get to sea, the cruiser phase in the western Atlantic was largely over.

To track Dresden and Karlsruhe, the British had the 4th Cruiser Sqdn., consisting of one light and four armoured cruisers under Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock, RN, based at Bermuda, plus two French cruisers. When the war started, Craddock was at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in His Majesty’s Ship Suffolk with Bristol in company, protecting foreign interests in the Mexican civil war. Dresden was at the Danish Caribbean island of St. Thomas, refuelling and en route home. Karlsruhe, her replacement, refuelled at Havana, Cuba, in late July and was trying to stay clear of Allied patrols until her orders were clear. Of the two, Dresden was best placed to run north and attack the concentration of shipping south of Newfoundland.

Once war was declared, the North American press was filled with reports of German cruiser activity in the main trans-Atlantic route. Even the British consul in St. Pierre and Miquelon joined in the rumour mongering, reporting both German cruisers in nearby waters ready to strike at trade. Newspapers, such as the Victoria Daily Colonist, fed on the rumours, reporting Aug. 3 that “a naval fight seems imminent in these waters.” Amid the panic, shippers in New York refused to clear vessels for Britain—perhaps because the liner Lusitania reported Dresden off the harbour—and something needed to be done quickly to restore confidence. And so Craddock’s first task was to secure the waters south of Newfoundland. HMS Essex was already there, and Lancaster was dispatched from Bermuda.

Meanwhile, Craddock rushed north from the Gulf of Mexico with his two cruisers, sighting the much faster Karlsruhe on Aug. 6, but he could not catch her. Craddock was content to drive the German cruiser south and ordered the French cruisers to give pursuit. As it turns out, Karlsruhe had armed the liner Kronprinz Wilhelm, converting her into an armed merchant cruiser—something the British had feared might happen. By Aug. 15, the 4th Cruiser Squadron was concentrated at Halifax, which became its base of operations for the next few years. Niobe’s only contribution to this was to send a small party of men and two 12-pounder guns to Glace Bay, N.S., on Aug. 4 to protect the wireless station until the army arrived on the 7th.

Meanwhile, the cruiser campaign—as on the West Coast—soon drifted south. Karlsruhe escaped interception only to be destroyed by an internal explosion in November. Craddock hoisted his flag aboard HMS Good Hope and took a squadron south, around Cape Horn, and perished along with most of his ships when they met Admiral Graf von Spee’s cruisers off Coronel, Chile, on Nov. 1. In the wake of that disaster, the British dispatched two powerful battle cruisers, Inflexible and Invincible, to the South Atlantic: As Winston Churchill observed, like two hit men sent to deal with a nagging problem. They were lying at Port Stanley on Dec. 6 when von Spee’s squadron, now joined by Dresden, arrived. When Gneisenau reported the presence of tall, tripod masts in Stanley harbour, everyone in von Spee’s squadron knew the end had come: They could neither fight nor escape battle cruisers. Of the five German warships, only Dresden—the fastest of them—got away. She was found in the Pacific in March 1915 and surrendered after a brief fight.

When Niobe set off for St. John’s on Sept. 1, the outcome of this lay in doubt, although it was a fair bet the Germans would not come north where the Allies were strongest and neutral ports few. However, more than 50 enemy vessels lay in American ports along the east coast. Thirty-three of these were in New York alone, and many of them, like the Kronprinz Wilhelm, were fast liners suitable for arming. So there remained much for Niobe to do. Her first operational assignment was to cover the movement of the Royal Canadian Regiment to Bermuda in early September, and the movement of the 32nd Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regt. back to Halifax en route to the front in France. A condenser defect kept her in Halifax for a brief period, then news of a mysterious cruiser north of Cape Breton—actually HMS Lancaster—drew Niobe into patrol in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, by late October, the Strait of Belle Isle.

Since many of her records were destroyed in the Halifax explosion of December 1917, and none have ever surfaced elsewhere, very little else is actually known about Niobe’s brief operational career. We do know that by November she had joined the rest of the 4th Cruiser Sqdn. in its blockade of New York. Its task was to board and search every vessel leaving the port. As tedious as this was, the use of blockade was the central element of the exercise of seapower. It denied trade and money to the enemy and secured both for one’s self. Moreover, as World War I deepened into a modern industrial war, blockade became an increasingly important way of strangling the industrial capacity of the enemy.

In the early months of WW I, before the blockade became total, Niobe and her sisters had to check cargoes and manifests of both enemy and neutral shipping to ensure that only permitted goods were getting through to Germany. This included many things, such as food and other supplies not destined for fighting forces. German reservists, travelling home in neutral ships, were taken off and imprisoned. In time, all German trade was stopped, and neutral vessels were checked to ensure their cargo was not destined for the enemy. The American press complained about the British blockade and the cruisers were forced to move almost out of sight of land. But, as Commander C.E. Aglionby, RCN, Niobe’s executive officer, recalled many years later, the U.S. Navy gave them no grief. “The American navy were very friendly to us, and when their ships passed us they used to cheer ship and play British tunes.”

Niobe stayed on the blockade for nine months. However, unlike Admiral Horatio Nelson who was on blockade duty for nearly two full years before getting ashore again, blockades by steamships required relays of vessels. Niobe averaged 16 days at sea, followed by layovers in Halifax for coal and provisions, and to clean boilers. That said, steam-powered vessels could hold their station in virtually all kinds of weather and sea states, and in all seasons of the year. As Aglionby remembered, “sometimes the temperature off Nova Scotia would fall to -20 F …and the spray would freeze into a solid coating all over the ship, making it almost impossible to work the guns.”

There were at least a couple of times when Niobe might well have needed her guns. On one occasion word was received that the German liner Vaterland had raised steam and would try to run the blockade that night. By monitoring American wireless traffic they soon learned that it was the Dutch Vaderland which was getting ready to leave New York. On another occasion, Niobe was hastily dispatched to Newport News, Va., to intercept a German raider making for the port. En route, Niobe was delayed by a fierce gale, forced to hove-to for many hours, and arrived to find the German ship safely in port, from which it declined to move thereafter. By late 1914, there was also an increasing—if unfounded—fear of German submarines, and so Niobe had to keep steaming and adopt a zig-zag course to avoid becoming an easy target. It was, as Aglionby observed, “very monotonous” work. But it was also essential work. Over the nine months Niobe served on the New York blockade no enemy ship sailed from the port.

Niobe’s operational career ended July 17, 1915, when she returned to Halifax in need of major repairs. As historian Gilbert Tucker described her, the hull was intact “but the funnels were collapsing, the boilers worn out, and the bulkheads in bad shape, besides she had no fire control (for her guns).” Sir Robert Borden had already secured a replacement, in the form of HMS Sutlej, a newer and more powerful Bacchanti-class cruiser—a type that had earned a reputation as particularly vulnerable to torpedoes. Already anxious about the potential of German submarines in Canadian waters, the RCN senior staff wanted nothing to do with Sutlej. In their view, the use of cruisers was not the way to fight submarines. The navy desperately needed the 333 Canadians aboard Niobe to man the small ships of the St Lawrence Patrol. The British offered no protest since they, too, needed their portion of Niobe’s crew. Only Borden seemed dismayed that his naval staff would reject the offer of a replacement cruiser.

Besides, the RCN had other uses in mind for the tough hulk that was Niobe: She became the depot ship for the burgeoning system of local patrols. With over 800 men soon borne on her books, the old cruiser provided a personnel and administrative base for the patrol. Niobe soldiered on in that role until the end of the war, surviving the great Halifax explosion of 1917. She was eventually scrapped in 1920. Two of her six-inch guns remain, one gracing the front lawn of HMCS Brunswicker, the naval reserve division in Saint John, N.B.: Still in ‘naval service’ after all these years.

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