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A Rump Of A Navy: Navy, Part 11



HMCS Shearwater (left) and HMCS Rainbow at Esquimalt, B.C., in 1910.

When the enemy finally came to Canada’s shores in 1918, he ran amok through the fishing fleet and revealed the woeful inadequacy of the nation’s naval defence. Apart from keeping Canada’s coast defence batteries fully manned so the navy could retreat under their guns and avoid annihilation, there was little the federal government could do.

The British, despite their continued promises of aid in the event of a crisis, offered nothing. Only the Americans sent help. They passed along the British intelligence estimates for the western Atlantic, and assigned a number of sub chasers and patrol aircraft to Canadian waters. The real importance of the 1918 U-boat campaign lay in what it did for national naval policy. Sir Robert Borden’s government had steadfastly adhered to British Admiralty advice on naval matters throughout the war, resisting the pleas of the director of the naval service, Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, for naval construction, sending what little naval experience the nation possessed to the Royal Navy, and trusting the promises of the Admiralty that any serious threat in Canadian waters would be met by RN forces. The subs of 1918 reversed that policy and forced Canada to confront its maritime defences directly.

In September 1918, Borden went to London for the Imperial Conference, where there was talk of the war lasting into 1919. When he got home, Borden announced that Canada now had to build a proper navy and make it a significant force in its own right. Captain Walter Hose, Captain of Patrols in Halifax, proposed a force of no less than 33 destroyers and four submarines for the east coast. Staff in Ottawa, believing that Canada lacked the dockyards to handle such a fleet even if it could be obtained, recommended six destroyers be acquired as soon as possible. Kingsmill forwarded the navy’s acquisition plans for the six destroyers to the naval minister.

Quite apart from the inability of Canadian industry to build the necessary warships, there were other serious impediments to expansion of the navy in 1918. A major overhaul of the Halifax dockyard was still not done, even after four years of war. Hose had difficulty keeping even half of his force in operation. Maintaining a fleet of modern warships–of any size–was problematic at best.

Changes were needed in Ottawa, too. Kingsmill ran the war without a trained staff, in an environment dominated by civilians and without much government support. Georges Desbarats, the long-serving deputy minister, was identified by Borden as one major source of trouble. Desbarats, in turn, blamed Kingsmill. The British, who assessed the Ottawa situation at the end of 1918, blamed everyone. “The status of the Canadian Navy is certainly not, in the eyes of the Canadian public, the same as the status of its Army,” Captain L.G. Preston, RN reported. “The naval officers employed at the Navy Department (sic) do not appear to have any confidence in their position, and the whole attitude shows a lack of co-ordination.” Others believed that the overly civilian naval headquarters was to blame. Kingsmill himself had succumbed to this by allowing civilian authority to rule naval policy. In Canada, it seemed, the tail wagged the dog.

In fact, civilian control over the armed forces is the norm in liberal democracies. Such countries do not always get the armed forces they need, but they do get the armed forces they want. Kingsmill understood this and accepted it. In the end, Captain (later Admiral Sir) Herbert Richmond, RN, made the best assessment of Canadian problems. Kingsmill and the RCN were simply caught in a hopeless tangle between a British Admiralty that refused to countenance the notion of self-governing dominions, a nation that remained indifferent to its navy, and a government that could not decide on which policy it wanted. To resolve Canada’s naval problems required “a satisfactory settlement of the question of where Imperial and Canadian Naval responsibility begin and end…” and the end of a “laissez-faire or deliberate obstruction on the part of the (Canadian) government.” Richmond’s observations seemed a vindication of Kingsmill’s leadership during the war: during these early years the RCN’s greatest battles and most implacable enemies were at home.

Just what Borden would have been able to achieve with his new zeal for naval expansion remains a mystery. In the late summer of 1918, the Allies were on the move on all fronts. The Western Front, stretched to the breaking point by Germany’s savage offensive in the spring, saw a series of astonishing Allied victories. The onslaught was led by the British Expeditionary Force spearheaded in turn by the Australian and Canadian corps. Historians now accept that it was the British Expeditionary Force that inflicted the final telling blows on the German army in the west, and in the vanguard was the Canadian Corps. In a bit of grandstanding, the Canadians recaptured the Belgian city of Mons–site of the first British battle of the war four long years earlier–on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, just minutes before the armistice came into effect. That act culminated one of the most remarkable accomplishments in all of military history. For not only was the Canadian Corps one of the elite formations of the war, Canada had sustained it through its enormous losses. Nearly a quarter of a million men of the CEF became casualties: 62,000 died on active service. It was an astonishing sacrifice for a nation of just over seven million. That effort profoundly altered the constitutional arrangements within the empire. Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles in Paris in the summer of 1919 as an independent state, and gained membership in the League of Nations on the same terms.

Nothing the RCN accomplished in the war could compare. Indeed, after four dreary years of effort, no Canadian warship had even traded shots with the enemy, no lasting traditions had been established, no public consciousness or support won. Despite the positive assessments of later historians, the war was for the RCN a wasteland of missed opportunity in all respects except one. All federal parties now accepted that Canada needed its own navy. It remained to determine just what shape and size it would be.

The lines were quickly drawn. The Admiralty asserted its now familiar belief that the only viable option was a unified imperial fleet: “A single navy at all times under a central authority.” Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden flatly rejected the notion. “The experience gained in this war,” Borden observed at the Imperial War Conference in 1918, “has shown that in time of war a dominion navy (e.g., that of Australia), can operate with the highest efficiency as part of a united navy under one direction and command established after the outbreak of war.” In 1918 the Admiralty realized that without local political will, dominion naval expenditure was impossible, and the only way to secure that will was to build local navies. The fall-back position was to ensure that these navies conformed in all important respects–equipment, training, and the like–to the Royal Navy.

In theory it was all a very logical course of action. The 1918 Imperial War Council agreed on the principle of independent navies, and Borden’s government was now committed to creating one. To co-ordinate the development of all these local navies, it was agreed as well that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet at Jutland and latterly First Sea Lord, would tour the empire to establish the basis of common action and make recommendations on the shape and size of the local fleets. It was assumed that Canada would choose one of Jellicoe’s plans, and the RCN would emerge from the wreckage of WW I with a proper establishment and a secure future.

Whatever Jellicoe recommended, Canada would have to start from virtually scratch. There was little in the rump of the wartime navy, at least in terms of ships, that Borden’s government was prepared to save when the war ended. Until the new policy was clear, the existing establishment was run down to little more than care and maintenance. The only surface vessels in commission by 1919 were nine trawlers acquired late in the war. These were of little military value. Only submarines CH-14 and CH-15 were of any earthly use. Pending the results of the Jellicoe Commission, the Admiralty offered Canada any surplus British warships–and there were hundreds of them to be had–that Borden’s government wanted for its new, larger RCN. A cruiser and two destroyers were soon earmarked, but these were retained in Britain until Canada decided which course to follow.

While Jellicoe made his way to Canada in 1919 via India, Australia and New Zealand, the independence of the RCN from the imperial service was quietly consolidated and the Canadian naval staff tinkered with wildly ambitious plans for naval expansion. Recognition of the RCN as the British Imperial naval authority in North America came through the reorganization of naval intelligence. The Admiralty based its North American intelligence system in Bermuda during the war, and preferred to deal directly with operational intelligence centres at the RCN bases in Esquimalt, B.C., and Halifax. This left Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa completely out of the loop from 1914 to 1918. In part this was because there was no qualified RCN officer to act as director of naval intelligence, but it also reduced Canadian forces to subordinate commands of the British Admiral in Bermuda: the British idea of happiness.

The problem of the RCN’s status as an institution was solved when the Admiralty finally agreed to assign an officer to Ottawa to act as director of naval intelligence, to be paid by the RCN and who would also be responsible to the Canadian government. Under this scheme, in place by 1921, Ottawa became the North American intelligence centre for the British Empire and Commonwealth, and was responsible for intelligence matters north of the Gulf of Mexico. The system worked, and for the next generation the Department of Naval Intelligence in Ottawa was always a British officer on loan. This compromise balanced Canadian interests in local control and the need for worldwide co-ordination of imperial forces under Admiralty direction. This undramatic little victory was perhaps the most important legacy of the RCN’s difficult war experience.

As for the future shape of the navy, Admiral Kingsmill and his planners in 1919 thought big:

A fleet of seven cruisers, 12 destroyers, six subs, 18 patrol boats and three parent ships, with a complement of nearly 9,000 officers and men, in service by 1934. Battleships might logically follow. The desire to have a substantial, conventional fleet proved to be one of the enduring themes in Canadian naval planning throughout the 20th century. Borden’s government, it is true, was also bent on building a sizable fleet in the immediate postwar era. Many, such as C.C. Ballantyne, the naval minister, wanted no half measures. As Ballantyne told Admiral Jellicoe in November 1919 upon his arrival in Ottawa, “unless a serious start is made now, he (Ballantyne) intends to wipe out completely the present Canadian Naval Service, as being a pure waste of money.” As Jellicoe later confided to the First Lord of the Admiralty, “He is right.”

By the time Jellicoe’s recommendations for the new Canadian fleet were tabled in Parliament in 1920, the bloom was off the rose. The cheapest option, essentially a coast defence force built around submarines with a handful of destroyers and patrol vessels, was too little for the naval enthusiasts and too much for those who wanted nothing at all. All Jellicoe’s other options, which ranged up to a fleet of two battle cruisers, a gaggle of cruisers, two aircraft carriers and a miscellany of other ships, were too much for most Canadians, and especially for Quebec. Moreover, by 1920 Borden’s popularity was slumping, his Union government was faltering, and public opinion was set against defence expenditure. As a result, the government rejected all of Jellicoe’s advice. Instead, it opted to carry along on prewar lines and accept the offer of Great Britain of one light cruiser and two torpedo-boat destroyers. These would be added to the two submarines and nine patrol vessels, the Naval College, the Youth Training Establishment (for lower deck entry) in Halifax, and the two dockyards to form a small navy that would, in the government’s estimation, be nonetheless “absolutely efficient.”

The British were flabbergasted by Borden’s about-face, but not really surprised. Ballantyne had sworn to build a proper fleet or none at all, and now his government had chosen a third option: settle for the gifts already offered from the British and maintain a rump of a navy. The new Director of the Naval Service, Commodore Walter Hose, the governor general and the naval minister travelled to Halifax in December 1920 to welcome home the “small but modern squadron” that constituted Canada’s new navy. Meanwhile, not everyone had given up on Ballantyne’s second option: extinction. A month earlier the leader of the Liberal Party, a young lawyer named William Lyon Mackenzie King who had spent the war in the U.S. helping American businessmen break strikes, made his first visit to the naval establishment in Esquimalt. “The whole institution with (HMCS) Rainbow at the wharf seemed a great waste of public money,” King confided to his diary. “Idle officers, 15 mounted police, etc. It is shame the waste on these military & naval fads….” Thirteen months later, King was prime minister. One of his first acts was to cut the naval budget from $2.5 million to $1.5 million. In four short years Canada went from a humiliating and disastrous defeat at sea, to dreams of a proper navy, to a service on life support: such were the passing fads of governments.


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