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Cutthroat Careerism: Navy, Part 36

Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray (left) speaks with sailors at St. John’s, Nfld., in 1942. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA115347]

Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray (left) speaks with sailors at St. John’s, Nfld., in 1942.

The first months of Newfoundland Escort Force operations were trying. The rapidly expanding Royal Canadian Navy was confronted with the harsh realities of both war and the brutal northwest Atlantic. NEF made the system of trans-Atlantic convoys possible, but it pushed the capabilities and stamina of the burgeoning escort fleet to the limit.

British and American sailors—only dimly aware of the larger strategic picture but mindful of the standards of performance which they expected at sea—watched the struggling Canadians with a critical gaze. As a result, the RCN earned a reputation as overzealous, bungling and incompetent that would haunt it for decades. But what no one outside the RCN knew was that operations in late 1941 were also hindered by bitter factionalism within the tiny service in a confrontation that would also last the war. The effect on the navy of this enmity between key senior officers we only dimly understand, but we do know it revolved around George Clarence Jones.

It bears emphasizing that in 1939 the RCN was a small institution indeed, and its professional officer corps was tiny: 131 in total. The senior leadership cadre could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In 1939, Percy Nelles was Chief of the Naval Staff and the other serving member of the 1911 class of the Royal Naval College of Canada, Victor Brodeur, was a captain in charge of the base at Esquimalt, B.C. G.C. Jones and Leonard Murray, the senior survivors of the class of 1912, were both captains. Then—in the strict hierarchy of the RCN—came a smattering of the RNCC classes of lesser rank and seniority.

So, at the start of the war control of the RCN rested in the hands of a very small group of men who had known each other for decades, and had competed fiercely for advancement. Even the Naval Staff, such as it was, was miniscule. With Nelles at the top, there were only four directorates led by naval officers: Murray held Naval Operations and Training, Captain Eric S. Brand, RN, was Director of Naval Intelligence and Plans, while naval officers ran Naval Reserves and Naval Engineering. The other directors—Stores and Appropriations—were civilians, and the judge advocate general and medical services were provided by the army. And, unlike other British Commonwealth nations who drew heavily on the RN for the senior naval leadership, the Canadian government decided early on that only serving RCN officers would hold key commands. This included both key staff positions in Ottawa and commands on the coasts.

The exception in this period was the Director of Naval Intelligence in Ottawa, who by custom was an RN officer on loan. Even the RN admiral in command of the Third Battle Squadron based in Halifax during the early years of the war was obliged to keep his flag afloat so his rank and seniority would not upset the RCN command structure ashore. All of which meant the RCN had to draw from within its own tiny officer cadre for the men needed to organize and run its war effort.


Commodore G.C. Jones.

None of this would have mattered had the senior office cadre of the RCN been both collegial and wholly competent, but in 1939 they were neither. The nub of the problem was the Nelles-Murray-Jones relationship. Murray, as noted earlier, had prospered under Walter Hose’s regime. Affable, competent, an expert ship handler and well loved by the lower deck, Murray was rated highly by Hose and those he served under. Nelles thought otherwise. While there is no clear indication Nelles actively disliked Murray, he seldom granted Murray more than a passing grade. According to Nelles, Murray was soft-hearted and too pro-British. Rather, Nelles appears to have held Murray’s rival from the class of 1912, George Clarence Jones, in much higher esteem.

G.C. Jones is a difficult and problematic figure in Canadian naval history. Born in Halifax on Oct. 24, 1895, like Murray he entered the Royal Naval College of Canada in January 1911.  His time at the college, Jones later recalled, were the best years of his life.  Rated about fourth or fifth in a class of 20, one of his early contemporaries remembered Jones as “always bright and sometimes brilliant” with an infectious laugh and a warm smile. This warmth was tempered with hard work—and an admirable hint of ambition.  Richard Oliver Mayne, whose chapter in the book, The Admirals, is the best assessment written on Jones, concluded “that accounts of him in the earlier part of his naval career seem to describe an entirely different man” from what he had become by 1939.

Unlike Murray, who shifted from staff to sea posts primarily on the Canadian side of the Atlantic during the Great War, Jones stayed with the Royal Navy from the time he joined His Majesty’s Ship Berwick as a midshipman in January 1913 until the end of the war. After taking his sub-lieutenant’s course in 1916, Jones was posted to the destroyer Vanquisher as first lieutenant. He came back to Canada in 1919 and after a short stay at the RNCC took command of Canada’s first destroyer, His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Patrician in 1920—the first from his RNCC class to get a command. Following two years commanding Canadian destroyers and a brief stint in Ottawa, Jones went back to the RN for the naval war course and some time in British battleships, before returning to Canada as commander in charge at Halifax in 1929. In 1932, Jones took command of Skeena, one of the first destroyers built for the RCN. Somewhere along the way in this peripatetic life his countenance changed from that of a smiling, agreeable and ambitious youth, to a bitter, intolerant and ruthlessly ambitious man.

Just when and why this happened no one knows. By the 1930s Jones had already gained a reputation as a disagreeable careerist, and by early in the Second World War he was widely known within the RCN as a ‘tyrant.’ His disagreeable temper was feared and widely commented on. Mayne recalls a joke which circulated in the wartime navy that illustrates the point: “Isn’t it wonderful? CNS spoke to me this morning. He told me to get the hell out of his way!” One of his junior staff who ventured to report on a file which Jones had asked him to oversee, recalled being told abruptly to “Shut my f—king mouth and get out!” As Mayne writes, “Others had similar experiences.” Mayne mitigates this harsh view by pointing out that Jones sometimes felt remorse at his gruff behaviour and was known to apologize on occasion. It must also be said that Jones surrounded himself with good staff officers.

Nonetheless, Mayne concludes that the view of Jones as a grasping careerist is essentially correct. When he moved to Ottawa in the fall of 1942, Jones began scheming to have Nelles removed as CNS and himself installed in the job. At the time, an old Halifax friend, Angus L. Macdonald, was Canada’s Naval Minister. Once ensconced as CNS, Jones bulldozed the Naval Staff and Naval Board, eventually ending formal meetings and issuing fictional ‘minutes’ as a way of recording formal decisions. A driven man, careless of his own personal health, Jones suffered a heart attack in March 1942. A second one killed him in office in February 1946.

All of this would have been bad enough had Jones not entertained a bitter personal hatred for his classmate Leonard Murray. The extent to which this was reciprocated we can only guess. But Murray had some grounds for complaint. He had generally been ahead of Jones in seniority during the 1920s, in part because Murray had been able to develop his professional qualifications quicker. While Jones was at sea commanding men and ships, Murray completed his long navigation course which—in 1920—earned him six months seniority over Jones. What rankled Jones was that his executive officer on HMCS Patrician, R.I. Agnew, had also completed the long-N course and was therefore also ahead of him in seniority. In 1924, Jones appealed his seniority to Hose, arguing that time in command warranted as much consideration as formal courses. He won his case. Jones and Murray were both promoted to lieutenant-commander on the same day: Jan. 1, 1925.

Mayne observed that Murray maintained a “slim advantage throughout the early 1930s,” but only because Hose favoured him. Both men were promoted to commander on Jan. 1, 1929, so neither enjoyed seniority over the other. However, Jones’ fortunes changed when Nelles became Chief of the Naval Staff in 1934. If Murray needed confirmation of this, he had only to read his first S206 (what would now be called a Personal Evaluation Report) from Nelles in the fall of 1934. Whereas Hose judged Murray “A level-headed officer who has the ultimate interest of the service at heart,” and rated him nine of 10 in ability, zeal, power of command, reliability and initiative, and seven of 10 in judgment, Nelles thought otherwise. Murray barely passed his first S206 from Nelles, scoring five of 10 in half the assessment categories, mediocre grades on four others and failing on power of command. This might be dismissed as a new CNS setting his standards high and giving his officers a push, but Murray fared little better in his 1942 S206 from Nelles. We will never know what Jones scored because he apparently stripped his file of all assessments, not even his S206s survive. If Murray and Jones wondered who Nelles favoured, the word was out when promotions to captain were announced in August 1938: Jones was promoted on Aug. 1, 1938, Murray the next day. Jones retained seniority over Murray for the balance of his career.

This did not mean, however, that Jones was well liked in the service or that he was a good seaman. While serving as East Coast Captain (D) in HMCS Ottawa in the early stages of the war Jones’s destroyer spent so much time alongside that it became known in Halifax as the “O” block. It was generally understood that he was a poor ship handler and a nervous captain. Victor Brodeur commented once that it took Jones “an hour and a quarter to get the ship alongside, whereas it took me five or ten minutes!” When he shifted his pennant to Assiniboine in May 1940, some of her sailors are reputed to have painted the words Jetty Jones on her side prior to his arrival. As it turned out, Assiniboine did not move from her berth for some time after he took command, but only because her previous captain, E.R. Mainguy, had hit the harbour ferry. However, in the lore of the navy, Assiniboine’s idleness, too, was attributed to Jones. It was also well known in the Navy that Jones and Murray could not be in each other’s presence. So when Assiniboine was slated to pass from Jones to Murray, Cuth Taylor assumed command for a few days and Murray took over the destroyer from him.

Despite the fact that Jones had spent much of his early career at sea and in positions of command, his forte was staff work. As Mayne concluded, “this is what mattered to Nelles.” It was what ultimately earned Jones the job of Commodore Commanding Halifax Force in June 1940, and then as Commanding Officer Atlantic Coast on Sept. 28, 1940, a job he held for the next two, crucial years.

Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C17287]

Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles.

The potential for tension between Jones and Murray would seem to have been avoided in late 1940, as Nelles very cleverly sent Murray off to the United Kingdom to become Commodore Commanding Canadian Ships. This was a near meaningless notional ‘command’ of Canadian ships in European waters serving in British commands. That left Jones to run the war and the RCN’s main base in the western Atlantic. But Murray used the opportunity of the spreading U-boat war to secure an operational command in the northwest Atlantic: the Newfoundland Escort Force. A Canadian naval officer in command in Newfoundland served Canadian interests extremely well, as Murray knew.  And since NEF operated under the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, Murray and his ships were beyond Jones’s grasp. In any event, NEF was soon seen as a stop-gap pending American engagement in the northwest Atlantic. As Commanding Officer, Atlantic Coast, Jones exercised no authority over Murray or the NEF. Or so it seemed.

Events over the summer of 1940 changed things dramatically. While Jones commanded access to Canadian bases, refit, repair and training facilities, NEF grew in importance to become the main RCN operational effort. In modern jargon, Jones became the primary force generator (and logistical supporter) for Murray’s operational command. At a crucial moment, when the navy needed to work together, the two key elements of its war effort were commanded by bitter personal rivals.

The question for historians then, one which has not yet been answered, is whether the Jones-Murray feud had any demonstrable impact on RCN escort operations in late 1941.  Murray certainly felt it did. Jones’s mandate in 1941 was to build the fleet and its manpower as quickly as possible. His staff at Halifax did this by constantly breaking up trained and experienced crews and spreading their expertise into new ships as they arrived. Murray and his staff in Newfoundland, who had to work with the results of this manning policy, argued that new ships ought to commission with new crews (except for a small number of key personnel) and then be left alone. Their protests in August, October and ultimately November 1941 fell on deaf ears. Murray’s frustration boiled over in October in a scathing memo that labelled Jones’s staff in Halifax as pirates, and charged all of them with “lacking the breadth of vision to see that the RCN’s reputation in this war depends on the success or failure of NEF.” Murray was ultimately right, but it is unlikely that Jones was much concerned about the reputation of Murray’s command.

G.C. Jones took command of HMCS Skeena in 1932. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105698]

G.C. Jones took command of HMCS Skeena in 1932.

Moreover, the RCN—and Jones—had bigger fish to fry. Both his establishment and the headquarters in Ottawa were, by the fall of 1941, focused on the long-term implications of Canada’s budding status as a sea power. The government’s major commitment to building more warships plus a Canadian merchant fleet hinted at the development of a ‘maritime policy’ that would make Canada a significant sea power. Building the navy quickly, especially developing a large pool of trained manpower was more important than the immediate needs of NEF. When Murray appealed to the Naval Staff about the manning policy in November he was told as much: the navy was planning ahead, the manning policy would continue. All of which leaves historians to wonder what might have happened had Murray and Jones been friends, had Jones amended the manning policy based on Murray’s operational needs, and had NEF not been running in sand in the fall of 1941.

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