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Building A Scrappy Little Navy: Navy, Part 17



HMCS Fraser leaves Vancouver in 1937.

In the aftermath of the first Czech crisis of early 1938, Canada’s prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, vacationed in Bermuda where he spent two long afternoons chatting with Admiral Sir Sydney Meyrick, commander-in-chief of the Americas and West Indies Squadron of the Royal Navy. The two talked about war plans for the western Atlantic, and Meyrick was deeply impressed with King’s concern over naval preparedness. Indeed, as Meyrick reported to London, King believed that the “readiness shown by the British navy was a very big factor in the avoidance of war” during the recent crisis.

According to most historians, such an interest in things military was uncharacteristic of the prime minister, a man who is usually described as an isolationist and decidedly anti-military. But from 1935 to 1939, King presided over the largest peacetime expansion in the first 40 years of Canadian naval history, and his pre-war government remains the only one in peace or war to meet Canada’s naval requirements by simply buying a fleet offshore. In no small way, the navy of 1939–small, but modern and powerful–was the fleet that King built.

His navalism in the late 1930s was not a new phenomena. During his earlier tenure as prime minister in the late 1920s he supported Rear Admiral Walter Hose’s plan for a destroyer fleet capable of defending Canadian shipping in home waters. This, after all, was the basic lesson of World War I. In fact, the first warships built specifically for the Royal Canadian Navy (Saguenay and Skeena) were ordered by King’s government in 1929. The task of completing the fleet plan landed in King’s lap shortly after the Liberals returned to power in October 1935. By then the worst of the Depression was over. More importantly, however, the world was rapidly becoming a dangerous place. Across the Pacific, the Japanese were on the rampage in China, the Nazis were re-arming Germany, Italy invaded Ethiopia just days before the federal election of 1935, and Spain teetered on the brink of civil war.

By the time King addressed the League of Nations in September 1936, Germany had re-militarized the Rhineland and joined Italian troops on the fascist side in the war in Spain. King chastised the League for failing to live up to its own commitments, its charter and the principle of collective security. Canada, King intimated, now placed its faith in regional security arrangements, including the British Commonwealth. He might well have added that the best way for Canada to do that was to help in the naval defence of the empire, starting at home: this was the policy his government pursued.

In 1935, the navy consisted of four significant warships, Saguenay and Skeena, and the small destroyers Vancouver and Champlain. The latter were scheduled to be scrapped in 1936 as part of the British commitment to arms reduction under the 1930 Treaty of London. In November 1934 the navy put before R.B. Bennett’s Tory government its plan for a fleet of six destroyers and four minesweepers. This plan was accepted by King’s new minister of National Defence, Ian Mackenzie. Phase one was accomplished when the British Admiralty agreed to replace Vancouver and Champlain with two C-class destroyers, part of a half flotilla (four ships) built for the Royal Navy in 1930-31.

The Cs were very similar to Saguenay and Skeena and were immediately available. Besides that, they cost much less than new construction. In fact, Commodore Percy Nelles, the new Chief of the Naval Staff, had his eye on all four C-class destroyers, but the process of acquisition had to await the resolution of Mackenzie King’s defence policy in 1936. Once that was settled the first two ships, renamed Fraser and St. Laurent, were commissioned into the RCN in February 1937.

The C-class vessels were a vast improvement over Vancouver and Champlain, and may have been one of the best investments in defence dollars Canada ever made. Weighing in at 1,375 tons with a top speed of 31 knots, the ships were heavily armed for their size and designed to go in harm’s way in all sea states. Fraser, originally commissioned as His Majesty’s Ship Crescent, carried four 4.7-inch main guns, a couple of two-pounder pom-poms and eight 21-inch torpedoes. St. Laurent, formerly HMS Cygnet, was identical. Apart from being 40 tons heavier than Saguenay and Skeena, and with square bridge structures instead of the rounded ones of the Canadian-ordered ships, the C-class ships were virtually indistinguishable. Their most important asset–and the one least discussed by naval historians–were the sonar sets that Fraser and St. Laurent carried.

Known then as asdic, these were the first anti-submarine detection sets in RCN service. Both vessels were commissioned into the RCN on Feb. 17, 1937, and sailed from Portland, England, on March 12 to join Saguenay and Skeena in the Caribbean. St. Laurent and the two Canadian ‘Cadillacs’ later steamed to Halifax to form a strong east coast flotilla, while Fraser arrived at Esquimalt on May 3. For the time being she constituted the West Coast navy.

It was so far, so good. But as tension mounted in both Europe and the Far East, Canada once again faced the prospect of a two-ocean war. Only co-operation with the RN would secure the Atlantic, but as the Joint Staff Committee concluded in January 1937, if war erupted in the Pacific, protection of Canadian trade along the west coast was beyond the existing or even planned capabilities of the RCN. As in WW I, little help could be anticipated in the Pacific from the British. Moreover, the country that responded so effectively to Canada’s needs in 1914, Japan, was now the likely enemy, with one of the most powerful fleets in the world. Even Bennett, in opposition, pressed for increased naval expenditure, endorsing–according to historian Gilbert Tucker–Laurier’s point of view that Canada needed its own fleet.

Not surprisingly then, by July 1937 the minister of National Defence pressed King to acquire the remaining two C-class vessels: “We could get two more of the same type and age this year for one and a half million ….” If the government did that, Mackenzie observed, “our program is complete, six destroyers, four minesweepers and one schooner.” The requirement for minesweepers was of long standing, and Hose had made the case as early as August 1930. In the building tension of 1937 these contracts were finally let: two on the West Coast, one on the Great Lakes and one in Quebec. These were coal-fired copies of the Royal Navy’s Bassett-class minesweepers, strengthen for work in ice. All four–Fundy, Gaspé, Comox and Nootka–were commissioned in 1938.

Given the pressing need for manpower and effective training in the expanding fleet, the RCN opted for a uniquely Canadian variation on the sail training vessel: a schooner similar to the celebrated Bluenose that had captured the hearts of Canadians in the interwar years. In 1937–the year Bluenose first appeared on the Canadian dime–the navy let a contract of $57,000 to a firm in Meteghan, N.S., for a three-masted training schooner. HMCS Venture, as she was commissioned in October, marked an important milestone in the repatriation of basic training to Canada.

Buoyed by King’s defence policy which stressed naval and air forces and coast defence, Nelles also pressed hard for the acquisition of the other C-class destroyers in 1937. Getting them was now a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, not least because the government was bent on both increasing defence spending and deflecting money away from the army to avoid the possibility of expeditionary forces–and consequent high casualties. The issue came to a head on Sept. 14, when the new defence committee of the cabinet met to discuss the 1938-39 defence estimates. By that stage King was convinced of the need to further strengthen the fleet. As he wrote in his diary following the meeting, “Personally I am not opposed to the add(itional) destroyers as I think our Pacific coast needs protection.”

Moreover, King wanted to demonstrate Canadian resolve to help defend the empire, as well as Canada itself, without modernizing the army enough to encourage its use overseas. As a result, the defence committee passed a record estimate of roughly $35 million. This was only half of what the service chiefs wanted, but the navy’s annual appropriations doubled and the government stripped $2 million from the army portion of that budget and gave it to the RCN to buy the final two C-class destroyers.

Over the fall and winter King worked steadily to cut and pare the $35 million estimate, trying to pull money away from the army, but he remained committed to the destroyer purchase. In fact, these fit rather well into his new foreign policy of collective security. At the 1937 Imperial Conference, King repeated his commitment to collective security, and had occasion to remind his cabinet colleagues of the importance of demonstrating resolve. “I pointed out (to his cabinet) where Australia, New Zealand and even (South) Africa were all doing something to assist in their defences and strengthening the Empire as a whole…,” King confided to his diary on Jan. 11, 1938, “to do nothing was not playing the game….” Even the U.S. had to be supported, and to “do nothing in meeting our own defence was to become increasingly dependent upon the United States with possible serious consequences.” Not the least of these consequences might be a desire by potential aggressors to use Canadian weakness as an opportunity to attack the U.S. In this respect, “a few destroyers (on the West Coast) could be of real service.”

And so King, the anti-military prime minister, pushed naval, air force and coast defence spending as his priorities. In June 1938, a few weeks after German troops occupied Austria and as Hitler began his petulant campaign to seize Czechoslovakia, HMCS Ottawa, formerly HMS Crusader, and HMCS Restigouche, formerly HMS Comet, were commissioned in England. They left for Canada in September and after a brief stop in Halifax departed for Esquimalt to help protect the West Coast. The RCN now had six modern destroyers, four minesweepers and a sail training ship: the program proposed by Walter Hose a decade earlier was accomplished.

But Nelles was not content to allow the opportunity to pass. In July 1938 he pressed for the acquisition of a seventh destroyer, materials for fixed anti-submarine defences for ports, ‘educational orders’ for two anti-submarine vessels with Canadian shipyards and–the ultimate objective of all previous ambitious expansion plans–some cruisers. Nelles pressed again in November, but the only morsel the government took was the additional destroyer–the flotilla leader which was all that remained to be acquired of Hose’s original plan.

In mid-1939 the Admiralty sold Canada HMS Kempenfelt, which was transferred to the RCN as Assiniboine in the fall of that year–shortly after the shooting started. By then far more ambitious plans for naval expansion had been laid, but Nelles could content himself that by 1939 Hose’s design was complete. Canada had a small, but modern and efficient little fleet built to a made-in-Canada policy: even Mackenzie King was happy.

King believed that should war come, a large navy could keep Canada out of trouble in two important ways. The most obvious was the defence of Canada itself, which was why King’s government favoured naval and air force expansion in its pre-war policy. As the tension mounted over Czechoslovakia again in early 1939, King heated-up the rhetoric in support of home defence, something that sold equally well in English and French Canada. Given the range of modern aircraft, German intentions of establishing a base in Iceland or Anticosti Island or James Bay–and the danger from submarines, King warned the country and Quebec in particular that Canada could no longer escape attack. U-boats could turn up immediately, and if they did “the St. Lawrence would be closed….” Equally important, by building up naval and air forces King hoped to avoid sending another expeditionary force to Europe, with all the consequences of heavy casualties that entailed.

The sharp increase in the size of the fleet in the late 1930s gave Canada a small, but modern and highly effective little navy. Until 1937, with only two destroyers on either coast, and two of those mechanically unreliable and slow, it was hard to undertake realistic training. Indeed, there was seldom even anyone or anything to practice against. Torpedo runs against a slow moving trawler could not simulate the challenge of hitting a high-speed raider, and no one would allow the navy to practise against passenger liners.

However, by 1938 with a flotilla of fleet class destroyers capable of delivering a combined total of 48 torpedoes, the RCN packed a significant punch. As a result, the navy became particularly adept at night torpedo attacks on the ‘enemy’ battle line, not least because they practised them routinely at home. The RCN reckoned that the only way to deal effectively with a powerful raider, like the modern German pocket battleships with their 11-inch guns, was to strike en masse under the cover of darkness.

So when all the RCN’s destroyers from both coasts were brought together for the annual Caribbean exercises in the late 1930s, their ‘half division’ attack on the ‘enemy’ fleet usually went well. “The fact that Canadian ships could match the performance of British destroyers (considered the cream of the fleet),” historian Michael Whitby has written, “was not only a telling measure of efficiency but spread confidence throughout the navy.”

The RCN downplayed the threat from aircraft, just as the RN did, believing that its gunnery and speed were more than a match for anything in the air. The danger from submarines was passed off nearly as lightly. Like all Allied naval planners, the RCN hoped that international law would sharply restrict the depredations of submariners in any future war. Failing that, the asdics (now called sonar) of the newly acquired C-class destroyers–and a few well-placed depth charges–would handle them.

Time soon shattered everyone’s comfortable notions of how the next war would be fought. In that sense, the fleet that Hose, Nelles and King built was excellent preparation. If the dreamers had had their way, on the eve of WW II the RCN would have been patrolling the oceans of the world in posh cruisers, all gleaming brass and holystoned decks, looking for immortality in single combat with some enemy raider.

What Canada had instead by 1939 was a scrappy little fleet that had to brawl in the dark to win. A fleet, nonetheless, of sleek greyhounds which honed the navy’s basic skills and instincts. They “are the cavalry of the Navy,” one contemporary old salt wrote of destroyers, “they inculcate dash, nerve, initiative: and service in them brings out all the sailor in officers and men.” As Whitby concluded, “Given the circumstances of the period it is difficult to see how they (the RCN) could have been much better prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.”


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