Saved By A Few Good Men: Navy, Part 4

July 1, 2004 by Marc Milner

PHOTO: NOTMAN STUDIO, national Archives of canada--PA028499

PHOTO: NOTMAN STUDIO, national Archives of canada–PA028499

Members of the Royal Naval College of Canada’s class of 1912 practise rowing near Halifax.

By the time Canada was at war in August 1914, only tiny Rainbow, her crew augmented by volunteers, was able to respond. Indeed, she defended imperial interests in the eastern Pacific—from Chile to the Bering Sea. Her captain, Walter Hose, described these days as a “heart-breaking starvation time” for the Royal Canadian Navy. In the last two years before the war, more Canadians deserted from the service than joined.

George Desbarats, the deputy naval minister, sympathized with those who bolted from the “irksome and distasteful” life in ships alongside, and made no effort to bring the deserters back. And yet, there was a clear need for an effective naval service, as Rainbow’s search for German Admiral Graf von Spee’s cruiser squadron off California demonstrated (The Original Rainbow Warrior, May/June).

In 1914, much depended on the dedication of a small cadre of professionals and volunteers, and so it would remain until the 1950s. If anything, then, the formative stage of Canada’s naval development was really about people.

While the government dithered and debated the shape of Canada’s navy, there was general agreement that any naval service—no matter what its final shape and size—needed officers. In fact, the first class of 10 cadets was under training aboard the Fisheries Protection Service cruiser Canada in 1909, even before the navy was established. By the start of World War II, two of those first cadets were the most senior officers in the navy. One was Victor G. Brodeur, the son of the first naval minister. The other was Percy Walker Nelles who, as chief of the naval staff from 1933-43, became the architect of the huge World War II expansion that defined the modern RCN. The Naval Act of 1910 formalized officer education by providing for the establishment of the Royal Naval College of Canada, and the training came ashore to the old hospital in the Halifax dockyard. The task of the RNCC was “a complete education in all branches of naval science, tactics and strategy.” The course lasted two years and was open through competitive examination to boys 14 to 16 of “good health and character.”

The day started at 6:15 a.m. with boat work or gym, and ended at 9 p.m. with obligatory bedside prayers. The curriculum included a mixture of academics, physical education and service training, all under the direction of a small staff of British officers and petty officers. Upon completion, cadets were sent to a training ship of the Royal Navy for one year to qualify as sub-lieutenants.

The first class of 1912 produced a remarkable cadre of cadets who would, in time, shape the course of Canadian naval history. These included Leonard Warren Murray, who as a rear admiral became the most important operational commander in Canadian naval history, and George Clarence Jones who succeeded Nelles as chief of the naval staff in 1943. Like Brodeur and Nelles, Jones and Murray were the senior survivors of their class by 1939, a class that suffered nearly a 20 per cent mortality rate on action in World War I—the highest of any entering cadre of young officers in Canadian naval history.

Murray’s background and experience as a cadet of the pre-1914 RNCC seems typical. Born in Granton, N.S., on June 22, 1896, to a family of modest means, Murray grew up along the shores of Pictou Harbour. It was there, in 1906, that he saw his first warship, His Majesty’s Ship Berwick, when the cruiser’s picket boat landed crewmen near his home. That very picket boat later became Murray’s first command.

In 1911—when he was just 14—Murray enrolled in the RNCC. He graduated third overall in 1912, and by 1913, the whole class was aboard Berwick for sea training. Under the command of Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock, Berwick was then the flagship of the Americas and West Indies Squadron. When that work finished in 1914, all the Canadian midshipmen were sent home—literally—because there were no duties for them in the moribund RCN.

When war came in August 1914, the RCN’s idle midshipmen were mustered locally, with all the Maritimers—except Murray—going to Halifax. Murray was assigned duty at headquarters in Ottawa, and that assignment probably saved his life. When Craddock stopped in Halifax in late 1914 en route to the Pacific to find von Spee’s squadron, he selected two of the best available midshipmen, Arthur Silver and Walter Palmer, and drew two others by lot, Malcolm Cann and Victor Hathaway, to join him in HMS Good Hope. All of them perished at the battle of Coronel in November when Good Hope was destroyed. What those bright young officers might have accomplished we will never know. Fortunately, the RNCC continued to accept cadets until it closed in 1922 and these formed the critical officer cadre that, in time, built the modern service.

It was expected that until Canada ‘grew’ enough of its own officers, the senior ones would have to be provided by the RN. Commanding officers for Niobe and Rainbow were loaned, as were several other key officers, for staff appointments in Ottawa. Indeed, this too remained a common practice until after World War II. Hose was among those to come prior to World War I. He took over Rainbow in 1911, and retired from the RN so he could transfer to the RCN in 1912.

Unquestionably the navy’s best sea-going officer during its first decade, Hose’s dedication to Canada’s navy proved unwavering and he would live long enough to see it become large, modern and powerful by 1960.

Men for the new fleet presented a more difficult problem. The potential for local recruiting was there, with thousands of Canadians already engaged in maritime pursuits. At least 1,000 were needed simply to fill the hammocks in Niobe and Rainbow. But when—or perhaps if—a fleet was built, a great many more would be necessary. In 1910, the problem of manning the ships was eased by the retention of key British officers, the transfer of a few crucial men to the RCN, and the retention of some 100 British sailors on five-year loan. Filling out the full complement of the two training cruisers could be done by local recruiting, and these men could be trained on board the ships. Finding the manpower for a fleet was a much more complex task. A naval service of almost any size required a training system for the lower deck, including schools and staff.

When Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s naval policy fell apart following the 1911 general election, and Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s new government announced plans to scrap the 1910 Naval Act and fund British battleship construction, nascent plans for a training scheme for men simply collapsed (It Began With Fish And Ships, January/February). Recruiting never really got going. Without the hundred British seamen on loan it would have been impossible to keep even Rainbow at sea.

From its peak strength of more than 800 officers and men in 1911, the RCN declined to about 350 by mid-1913, including British personnel on loan. Used to a comparatively high standard of living, not inured to the sea, and put off by the political bickering, Canadians were reluctant to join. Some, like young James Douglas Prentice from British Columbia, were forbidden by their parents to join a moribund service. Prentice, who distinguished himself in the RCN during World War II, was told if he wished to join the navy he should join a real one. So he and many others went into the RN. By the end of 1913, only 350 Canadians had joined the lower deck of the RCN, and by all accounts most soon deserted.

Meanwhile, the British servicemen on loan had to endure. “We were all looking forward to the time when our time was up so we could go home,” James Cosier recalled years later. “We didn’t care what you did in Canada (about the navy). You see, we wasn’t wanted.” According to Cosier, even the citizens of Halifax “resented the navy,” and local girls switched to the other side of the street when they saw a sailor coming.

Rear Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, the director of the Naval Service, and his staff officers did what they could to keep a pulse in the navy during these grim years. As in all times of trial, people were unquestionably the navy’s greatest asset. Commander Richard Stephens, who had passed command of Rainbow to Hose and moved to Ottawa as Kingsmill’s chief of staff, drafted the navy’s War Book, that secret set of plans for action on the outbreak of war. He also pressed the Canadian Militia into effective co-ordination of coast defence as part of a general war plan. Perhaps more importantly, at Stephens’ instigation, vessels from the Fisheries Protection Service were employed in naval exercises. In 1912 and 1913, two FPS vessels were outfitted with minesweeping gear and the task of sweeping the channel into Halifax was exercised.

Another pre-war exercise saw the FPS vessels practising duty as harbour examination service, working in conjunction with the coast artillery batteries. By spring of 1914, according to the RCN’s first official historian Gilbert Tucker, “the first full scheme for Halifax had been completed.” Tucker also noted that “five Fisheries Protection Service vessels and nine other civil craft of potential military value were earmarked for these duties.” That the East Coast was ready for war at all in 1914 was due entirely to the efforts of a few dedicated professionals, another enduring characteristic of Canada’s military experience.

In contrast, the West Coast was far removed from the most immediate threat from European-based raiders and, yet, it was also many thousands of miles away from the most immediate support of the RN. Consequently, British Columbians felt isolated and vulnerable, and they were more prepared to support local naval initiatives. One was the creation of an unofficial naval reserve. The Naval Service Act of 1910 included provision for both a naval reserve of qualified civilian seafarers and a naval volunteer reserve of dedicated amateurs, but no action was taken prior to 1914.

Prominent British Columbians pushed for the development of reserve forces, and the government remained poised on the edge of action from 1912. But tired of waiting for Ottawa, in July 1913 a body of some 50 enthusiasts in Victoria established themselves as a Company of Volunteer Reserves with no pay, no uniforms and no official status. J.D. Hazen, the naval minister, encouraged them, and gave permission to use facilities at Esquimalt. The RCN, including Rainbow, provided instructors. By the following July, the Victoria volunteer company numbered 140 men. Tucker said the Victoria company “blazed the trail for all the official Canadian reserve organizations that were to follow.”

The government finally caught up to the volunteer movement in May 1914, when it established a naval volunteer force by Order in Council. The force was to consist of volunteer “seafaring men and others who might be deemed suitable.” With a total authorized strength of 3,600, it was to be organized into three main regional divisions with companies of 100 men. The purpose of the reserve force was not to simply build a reserve of men capable of manning Canadian ships. Rather, the new Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve—which came into being July 9—was intended to augment the personnel of the imperial fleet in time of war. Under this new scheme, the Victoria Company of Volunteer Reserves became No.1 Co. of the RNCVR, and within days 50 of them joined Rainbow as she prepared for her scheduled seal patrol to the Bering Sea—the first Canadian reservists to go to sea.

The mobilization of reserve forces in 1914 indicates that Borden’s naval policy remained committed to support for the imperial fleet. Beyond that, there was no clear policy or plan. Borden was not helped much by advice from London. The Admiralty staff insisted that Laurier’s navy of cruisers was the best bet for Canada. Meanwhile, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, prodded Borden to finance battleships. Borden’s last attempt to break the log-jam came in early 1914, when Churchill suggested that a senior RN officer—the Second Sea Lord, Sir John Jellicoe—be sent to Canada to discuss the Dominion’s long-term naval plans. Borden vacillated for several months and then, in late July, asked that a naval officer “of adequate experience and capability” be sent to help sort out the mess. Twelve days later, Britain declared war on Germany.

Ironically, apart from chasing Americans away from the fishing grounds and defending the interests of sealers, the only naval intervention in ‘defence’ of Canadian interests prior to 1914 was directed at members of the British Empire. British Columbians preferred to keep Asian subjects of the King on ‘their side of the ocean’ and demonstrated that in May 1914 when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver with 400 East Indian would-be immigrants. They were told to go home, but refused. In mid-July, 175 police attempted to remove the passengers and put them aboard the Empress of India for return passage, only to be seen off by a barrage of coal from the Komagata Maru’s bunkers. Rainbow, ready for her seal patrol and filled with reservists, was ordered from Victoria to take charge and Vancouverites thronged the waterfront on the morning of July 19 in anticipation of action. They were disappointed. The simple presence of the cruiser crushed the spirit of those would-be Canadians. Under threat of naval action, the ship was re-provisioned and Rainbow escorted her to sea, ending one of the most embarrassing incidents in Canadian history.

By accounts, Hose did a superb job defusing the Komagata Maru incident and executing his orders while avoiding violence. He also set an enviable standard for professionalism in pursuit of the German cruisers Leipzig and Nurnberg off California a month later. With both he set a high standard of professionalism and duty for Canadian officers to emulate. Eventually, Hose would leave a further indelible mark on the service itself, as its second director. At the same time, Rainbow and her volunteers earned their keep. Without the Victoria volunteer company there would have been no formed group of men to embody the first company of the RNCVR, and no personnel to bring Rainbow to war readiness in July 1914. As the navy fought its first war, the legacy of those starvation years prior to 1914 haunted its fortunes, but the pattern of personal dedication to service and country had been set.

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