Kingsmill’s Little Fleet: Navy, Part 6

November 1, 2004 by Marc Milner



Trawlers and wooden drifters formed part of the East Coast patrol during WW I.

On the day 100,000 men of the Canadian Corps captured Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the Royal Canadian Navy had 10 ships in commission and a dozen auxiliary vessels, manned by fewer than 9,000 sailors. The fleet was larger by the time Canadians spearheaded Allied victory in Europe in 1918, but when heavily armed U-boats cut a swath through the east coast fishing fleet that year, the RCN still had nothing to fight them with. “Mr. (George) Desbarats fiddled while our fishing fleet was sunk,” one critic complained of the deputy minister of the naval service. The German operated in “our own waters, performing deeds of piracy and destruction at his own free will.”

One member of Parliament from Cape Breton, Daniel McKenzie, chided the government in 1919 that the deputy minister of the naval service “could not put his finger on one single thing that his miserable navy did for the defence of the Atlantic coast that was worth tuppence ha’penny.”

McKenzie was wrong, of course; the navy did plenty. However, most of it was the mundane and unobtrusive work of staffs who organized shipping, developed defended ports, regulated patrols, monitored wireless communications and provided support for British cruisers in adjacent waters. In the process, the RCN carved out a significant niche for itself in the postwar organization of imperial naval defence, while the government learned that in time of crisis no one would look after Canadian maritime interests except Canadians. What was missing from the Canadian naval experience of 1914-18 was not, in the words of the old naval toast, “A willing foe and sea room,” but the resources to fight him. That was not for want of trying. From the outset the Director of the Naval Service, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, worked hard to build a little fleet to meet Canada’s needs. His efforts in 1915-16 were almost entirely futile.

While HMCS Rainbow and the two submarines protected the Pacific coast, Canada’s Atlantic operations until 1917 consisted of HMCS Niobe’s important, but uneventful, blockade work and local patrols. When the government enquired of the British about using the wartime crisis to build a fleet, the Admiralty insisted that no significant naval threat existed to the East Coast. Canada’s best contribution to the imperial war effort was to send its sons to the Western Front: the Royal Navy would look after the Atlantic.

The Canadian government remained anxious, nonetheless, about the seaward defences of its main ports, and about the ability of Canadian industry to build ships in order to establish some minimal naval capability. The British remained adamant that Canada did not have the resources to build warships and should not attempt to do so during the war. That was why, in early 1915, Sir Robert Borden nearly went ballistic when he learned the British were secretly assembling American submarines in Montreal. The addition of a submarine service to the East Coast in 1915 would have been a powerful accretion of strength to the Halifax defences.

But submarines were no effective counter to the new threat in the Atlantic by early 1915: enemy submarines. Germany demonstrated the deadly effectiveness of its ‘Unterseebooten’-U-boats-against large warships in the first days of the war. The sinking of the liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915 in the approaches to Cork, Ireland, suggested that even the largest of merchant vessels were no longer safe. Size and gun power were no defence against this new menace. In early 1915 even the blockading fleet off American ports took precautions against the sub threat. The only action that Kingsmill could recommend in response to a rumour of U-boats heading west early in 1915 was to close certain choke points of trade, like the Strait of Belle Isle, to shipping.

Those U-boats never materialized, but the fear of U-boat attacks dominated Canada’s naval effort from 1915 onwards. The Admiralty confirmed the threat on June 25, 1915 when it warned Ottawa of “the possibility of German submarines operating in Canadian waters.” To reduce the danger, the British wanted the RCN to increase its local patrolling, especially of the vast and largely uninhabited northern shoreline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, “in order to prevent unfrequented harbours being used as a base of (U-Boat) operation….” The British could spare no cruisers for these patrols, so Canada was advised to build a force of small ships, “of good speed, armed with guns sufficient to destroy a submarine” and to patrol the Gulf and its approaches. This proved to be the genesis of Canada’s first operational fleet.

But the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a huge body of water, and with Halifax, Saint John and Sydney to secure, the navy was already over-committed. Niobe was too big and too vulnerable for anti-submarine work, and in any event by June 1915 was on her last legs. Kingsmill’s immediate measure was to begin a system of coast watchers and enlist a number of small local launches, a Motor Craft Reserve, to keep prospective U-boat bases along the north coast of the Gulf under surveillance. In the meantime, he cobbled together a fleet.

Substantial vessels, in the 175 to 225-foot-long range, and the necessary guns to establish a viable standing patrol were hard to find. By 1915 the RCN had only a handful of auxiliary vessels in service. Among them was the Canada, arguably Canada’s first ‘warship’ and apart from the cruisers its most heavily armed, with two 12-pounders and two three-pounders. The new 756-ton steamer Margaret transferred from the customs service in 1914 and was armed with two six-pounder guns. The 262-ton steel trawler Gulnare came from the Fisheries Protection Service, but by all accounts she was never armed. Nor were the two little FPS vessels, Constance and Curlew, which served as minesweepers. Several other substantial vessels remained in government service for the time being, so Kingsmill was forced to find ships elsewhere. Early in the war he used the naval enthusiast and Toronto financier Aemilius Jarvis’s connections in the United States to secure the yacht Waturus, which he commissioned as HMCS Hochelaga in 1914. A large vessel, at 625 tons, she was equipped with only a single three-pounder gun. She earned fame as the only Canadian warship to sight the enemy during World War I-and infamy as the only one ever to run away.

By 1915, the only thing approaching a modern warship in service on the Atlantic coast was an ex-American yacht donated to the RCN by Toronto businessman Jack Ross. Ross bought his way into a commission and a command at sea by buying the Vanderbilt’s high speed, 153-foot long yacht Tarantula in 1914 and giving her to the navy. Re-commissioned as HMCS Tuna, with now Lieutenant J. Ross, Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve, in command, she was fitted with two three-pounder guns and two14-inch torpedoes. Trim, low, with twin funnels and a top speed of 24 knots, Tuna looked and performed like a 1890s-vintage torpedo-boat, and gave yeoman service until an engine mount fracture drove her from duty in May 1917.

The government was anxious to secure its coast against the U-boat peril, but balked at the potential cost and was not entirely happy about tying up its fisheries and customs fleets in naval service. While the government dithered in early 1915, Kingsmill further expanded his fleet with the help of businessmen. John Eaton’s family yacht Florence was commissioned into the RCN in July. An elegant-looking craft with clipper lines, Florence was ill-suited to extended patrols and open ocean work. Armed with a single three-pounder gun, she served as guard ship at Saint John, N.B., and patrol vessel for the Bay of Fundy until 1916.

Ross helped again by slipping quietly down to New York in July to purchase the yacht Winchester for $100,000 (which the government reimbursed). A more advanced version of Tuna, she was more than 200 feet long and was capable of 32 knots. Renamed HMCS Grilse, with her speed, trim lines, two 12-pounder guns and a torpedo tube, she looked for all the world like a modern destroyer. She stayed in service until the end of the war. By mid-July 1915, Kingsmill had enough vessels to establish the St. Lawrence Patrol, based at half a rented commercial pier and some buildings in Sydney.

With every experienced officer either at sea or serving with the RN overseas, Kingsmill had to appeal to the Admiralty for an officer to command the new patrol force. They went all the way to Australia to locate retired captain Fred C.C. Pasco, RN. Remembered by one veteran as “a gruff old fellow who’s (sic) speciality was finding fault,” Pasco arrived in Sydney on Sept. 15, 1915. The RCN might have done worse. Pasco had a humane side and seems to have worked well with his ad hoc fleet and essentially civilian personnel.

On one occasion when he found his men struggling to bring ashore a “sugar” barrel that clinked (with bottled beer) when they moved it, he simply reminded the men, “Don’t forget to send some of that sugar to my cabin, too.” Pasco’s fleet patrolled the Atlantic coast through the rest of 1915 and on into 1916, by all accounts without incident.

Meanwhile, politicians and senior Canadian and British officers debated the purpose and value of the St. Lawrence Patrol. Kingsmill and his staff were concerned not simply with patrolling the empty bays and coves of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but also about escorting shipping in face of a U-boat threat. If the subs ever came, the RCN needed to have something in place. The British treated their fears with scorn. “It may not be clearly enough recognized,” the Admiralty chided Kingsmill in mid-1915, “that the submarine danger on the Canadian coast is potential, not actual. Exaggerated measures of precaution are to be deprecated.” Even Sir Robert Borden sided with the Admiralty, and the government forced the laying-up of much of Pasco’s command when winter came in late 1915.

Instead, Canadians basked in the triumph of the 1st Cdn. Div. at the Second Battle of Ypres in April, which held the line in the face of the first major gas attack in the history of war. Dreadful and costly counterattacks in support of the French followed at Festubert and Givenchy in May 1915. Canada had begun the bloody sacrifice of its youth. More men, of the 2nd Cdn. Div., arrived at the front by late summer and the Canadian Corps was formed. As the British would say, Canada was “stuck in” and as the war became one of attrition, more men arrived. In January 1916, Borden promised an army of half a million men and two more divisions. The overseas army became so big by the end of 1916 that a separate government department was established to administer it.

Meanwhile, the navy went nowhere, fast. Some noticed. The Liberal MP for Pictou, N.S., chided the government in early 1916 for doing virtually nothing at sea, and relying on the Japanese and Australian navies for protection against German cruisers. He also needled them for relying local defence on yachts purchased for the government or donated by wealthy individuals, and for not building proper warships in Canada, as the British were doing in Montreal. But even the Admiralty continued to advise against anything but a very small local force, since they believed that U-boats would need to have a supply ship or a clandestine base in order to operate in the western Atlantic.

That said, the general mood in mid-1916 was more anxious. Vice-Admiral Sir George Patey, the British admiral at Bermuda, believed subs would indeed come to North America in that year, and even the Admiralty stopped undercutting Kingsmill’s modest attempts to build up a local fleet. They now warned that if the subs came they would be “well armed vessels of the latest types” and that it was “improbable that any lighter guns than a 12-pounder will be able to put them out of action.” That meant few Canadian ships had a fighting chance against a

U-boat on the surface: none of the fleet could deal with a submerged U-boat at all. The Admiralty, of course, advised “that no British vessels were available” to help. Whatever small vessels the British possessed were badly needed in home waters to deal with a real submarine problem.

Kingsmill demanded that the Canadian government, in conjunction with the British, commence a program of destroyer construction, vessels with the size, speed and firepower to deal effectively with the new menace. The Admiralty said it would take too long and require too much help from busy British yards. The Canadian government agreed. It responded to criticism of its lack of naval effort by launching a recruiting drive for the Royal Navy. The U-boat menace in Europe fostered a need for small boatmen, a duty the amateur sailors of the Dominion could well fill.

Undone by his own government and unsupported by the parent service, there was little Kingsmill could do to improve the navy in 1916. The St. Lawrence Patrol carried on without British help, or even encouragement it seems. As it turns out, the Admiralty also wanted to avoid a clash over jurisdiction in Canadian waters. For example, the RN’s main intelligence centre for the Northwest Atlantic was in St John’s, Nfld., although the main operational base remained Halifax. The commander of the British cruiser force operating from Halifax, however, dealt directly with the RN through St. John’s and actively discouraged RCN intelligence officers in Halifax from communicating directly with Ottawa. The St Lawrence Patrol, therefore, operated in something of an intelligence vacuum. So, too, did Kingsmill and his staff at RCN headquarters. No one, least of all the Canadian government, seemed concerned.

Then in 1916 the complacency that overshadowed Canada’s maritime defence was shattered. In July, the world’s first submarine freighter, U-Deutschland, arrived in Baltimore. After much fanfare she loaded a cargo of rubber, nickel (some of it from Sudbury), tin and jute for sandbags and departed for Europe. A second submarine freighter, U-Bremen, sailed for the United States in late August, but failed to arrive. But in October 1916 a third one did, a warship, U-53: 1060 tons total displacement, one 88-mm gun, six torpedoes. Her range of 9,400 miles on the surface put North America within easy reach. After a short stay in Newport, Rhode Island, again to much fanfare,

U-53 departed on Oct. 8 and promptly sank five Allied steamers off Nantucket Island. Americans, so enamoured of the novelty of U-53’s visit, were equally appalled by her “piracy” within sight of their coast. As the New York Times observed naively, “No one had thought of the long gray visitor as a destroyer of shipping and perhaps of lives.” But Kingsmill had, and now only his motley fleet of auxiliary vessels stood in its way.

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