On A War Footing: Navy, Part 19

January 1, 2007 by Marc Milner



Captain E.S. Brand (third left) disembarks from a destroyer in 1940.

It is conventional wisdom that the Allies entered into World War II unprepared. There is a kernel of truth in that: things might have been better. Certainly the strength of the Royal Canadian Navy at the time was not what the navy or the government wished. But the Canadian coast was not undefended in 1939, even if many thought the fleet should have been much larger than it was. Equally important, a great deal had been done ashore to ensure the basic organization of Canada’s maritime defence–the staffs, methods, communications, plans and procedures for coastal defence and for defending shipping–was ready. This reflected the increased professionalization of naval services, the influence of sound planning by the imperial navy, and quiet support from the governments. As a result of all the backroom work, the RCN’s shore establishment was generally prepared for war in 1939. Indeed, it was mobilized and on a war footing weeks before Canada herself declared war.

Ironically, all the interwar staff and organizational preparations for modern war meant the RCN was also more fully integrated into the British “imperial” naval infrastructure in late 1939 than it had been a generation earlier. In 1914, the RCN was too new, and all the problems of building a new naval service and working out its relationship to the imperial service remained for WW I to sort out. Indeed, clarifying the dominion and imperial naval responsibilities was perhaps the most important legacy of WW I for the RCN. None of this was seriously affected by Canada’s new status as a fully independent state as a result of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Indeed, as we have seen, the interwar RCN was so small and so dependent upon the Royal Navy that–rather paradoxically–it was perhaps more fully integrated into the imperial fleet in 1939 than ever before.

This included a common seniority list and training regime for officers in the British Commonwealth, while Canadian and other Commonwealth officers moved with comparative ease into and out of each other’s services, and British training establishments and staff colleges. The RCN continued to rely on the RN’s King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions as the primary basis for conduct and discipline in the fleet, although subject to the provisions of the Act Respecting Naval Discipline (Dominion Naval Forces) which was finally adopted by Canada in 1920. But there were, as yet, no “Canada” shoulder flashes or “Canada” on uniform brass buttons or maple leaves on ship funnels. And apart from the “HMCS” which appeared on the lower deck’s cap tallies, British and Canadian sailors and officers were indistinguishable.

Aside from sentimental and traditional attachments, there were good practical reasons why the RCN was so closely tied to the RN. Relations with the United States remained formal and distant, indeed perhaps wary, and there was no such thing as NATO yet. As a result, Canada’s only notional alliance system was the British Empire and Commonwealth. Moreover, even the apparently anti-military prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, understood that the only serious danger to Canadian interests lay overseas–and on the seas. And so the RCN was given more latitude than the other Canadian services to integrate its activities and plans with the British.

That integration extended especially to naval intelligence and naval control of shipping matters in which Canada–still linked closely to the British Empire by preferential tariffs–shared an interest with Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth. Moreover, having fought during the U-Boat crisis of 1917-18 to be included in the naval intelligence picture, Ottawa remained firmly tied to the British system after the war. This connection was sustained in two important ways. The first was to ensure that during the interwar years that the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) in Ottawa was always a British officer on loan. By 1939, the DNI had become the DNI&P, with the “P” standing for Plans. Although–as one DNI&P recalled–his “loyalty was always to Canada,” this RN officer retained the right to write directly to the DNI in London, and thereby provided the Canadian Chief of the Naval Staff with a backdoor and unofficial liaison with the British Admiralty. The second was to ensure the Canadian naval intelligence system and Canadian plans for naval control of shipping were fully integrated into the British global system. This ensured the transfer of timely operational intelligence, and facilitated the movement of merchant shipping in times of crisis and war. It was here where the Canadian and other Commonwealth navies were most intimately and effectively connected.

In 1917, the British global Naval Control of Shipping (NCS) and naval intelligence system had been established under the direction of Rear Admiral Sir Eldon Manisty, RN. This involved the setting up of a worldwide system of NCS and naval intelligence stations designed to feed information to London. There it was integrated with operational intelligence and British Empire civilian shipping agencies. In many ways, NCS acted like a modern air traffic control system: making sure routes were safe, directing traffic around danger spots, and monitoring its movement to ensure compliance and to detect losses which might indicate enemy action. NCS also organized convoys and helped ports schedule their work more effectively.

The British Commonwealth never let the global naval intelligence and NCS system die between the wars. During the 1920s the main task of the Director of Naval Intelligence in Ottawa included spying on the United States Navy in the period before the Washington naval disarmament conference of 1921-22, and monitoring Japanese naval radio traffic. By the early 1930s–as tensions mounted in the Far East–the RCN’s signal stations joined in tracking Japanese ships that were capable of being converted in wartime to auxiliary cruisers. Jean Gow later recalled that when her husband, Peter, was posted to Esquimalt, B.C., in 1935 as staff officer (intelligence), he spent much of his time trying to intercept the Japanese naval code, keeping a rather suspicious and untrusting eye on local fishermen of Japanese descent, and working out the details whereby the Japanese might use the Aleutian Islands as a route to attack North America–perhaps with bomb-laden balloons.

In 1936–as tensions in Europe deepened–the British overhauled their plans for trade defence and naval intelligence. Ottawa was tagged as the regional intelligence and NCS centre for Canada and the U.S. In addition to regular intelligence collection, this duty involved the distribution of Confidential Books, control of navigation aids and wireless stations–both civilian and naval–in Canada, and control of British consular agents in the U.S. who worked for naval intelligence and NCS. At home, much of this work normally fell to the federal departments of transport, fisheries and mines and industry, and in wartime they would continue to control wireless stations and navigation aids under naval direction.

This planning eventually found its way into the Canadian War Book, a document developed in conjunction with government departments. It outlined the steps to be taken in the event of war. Work on the War Book was underway when Manisty arrived in 1937 as part of a worldwide co-ordination tour. Among the most important developments of Manisty’s visit was the standardization of reporting procedures for NCS and naval intelligence throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth.

The greatest impediment to effective implementation of the RCN’s basic organizational structure in the late 1930s was a shortage of personnel. In October 1938, the DNI&P, Commander H.A.C. Lane, RN, reported that the RCN needed 648 officers to meet its requirements for the defended ports of Sydney, N.S., Halifax, Saint John, N.B., Quebec City, Vancouver, Victoria, Prince Rupert, B.C., and Yorke Island. The latter is located at the entrance to the Johnstone Strait, between Vancouver Island and the mainland. In most cases these ports required anti-submarine, minesweeping, gate and boom vessels, naval control of shipping, examination services, and staff officer (intelligence) personnel. In addition, a contraband control station was to be established at Shelburne, N.S., to screen vessels trading inside the blockade in European waters. Besides that, the naval intelligence and NCS staffs at Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa had to be filled out. By Lane’s count he could call upon only 250 retired RCN and RN officers in Canada to do all this–434 officers short of what he needed. Some of these shortfalls would be met by transferring federal government hydrographic and icebreaking vessels and their crews to naval service upon the declaration of war, and all 29 of the RCMP Marine Service vessels and manpower as well. These federal employees would be enlisted in the RCN Reserve under a category of Special Service No. 2 for the duration of hostilities. All of this and a great deal more besides was encapsulated into the War Book, which was completed in May 1939.

Until August 1939, preparations for and control of all this activity fell to one man, the DNI&P. His staff in Ottawa consisted of two key officers, a staff officer (intelligence) and a staff officer (plans), with all their key communications funnelled through the Signal Distribution Office of the Director of Signals Division. Because of the shortage of naval officers and the large number of small, active ports in Canada, very few of DNI&P’s operatives were naval. Apart from the eight designated naval ports, with their assigned naval-officers-in-charge and designated naval-control-of-shipping officers and staff officers (intelligence), effective control of shipping and distribution of intelligence in most small Canadian ports–84 on the east coast alone–fell to civilians. Even collectors of customs were enlisted in the NCS apparatus. Moreover, Lane had to operate a clandestine NCS system in the neutral U.S., where it was impossible to appoint uniformed officers. As a result, British consular shipping agents or CSAs–typically retired RN officers in civilian clothes–reported directly to Ottawa as well.

In Canada, information passed up and down a chain of command through a hierarchy of agents. Local port officials, such as the collector of customs, dealt with a regional routing officer in a larger port who was usually a naval officer. The regional routing officer reported in turn to the naval control of shipping officer for that region, who fed the information to DNI&P in Ottawa. Routing instructions from Ottawa came down the chain the same way. Communications with British agents on the east and west coasts of the U.S. could not be so open. So consular shipping agents communicated with Ottawa via sealed diplomatic bags or through encoded letters, written in the form of personal correspondence, to a fictitious shipping company in Montreal, which was merely a mailbox for DNI&P.

In this way, the DNI&P acted as a regional clearing house for shipping intelligence coming from northern North America. He, in turn, passed daily summaries to adjacent intelligence centres, such as Jamaica, informing them of traffic headed their way, and sent a daily summary to London, where a global plot of all shipping intelligence was maintained. What was missing from this system in 1939–and was quickly added once the war started–was any provision for pushing intelligence from London back down the chain to the regional intelligence centres. This system not only allowed for the tracking of enemy vessels, but British and eventually all Allied shipping as well. The latter started in May 1939, when the British Commonwealth began to track its own merchant vessels.

Keeping track of all the pieces on the board not only facilitated naval control over shipping, it also gave operational authorities a much better picture of what was happening at sea. The failure of vessels to arrive at their destination might, for example, be a sign of enemy action. This comprehensive and labour intensive intelligence gathering and NCS information exchange was known as the Vesca system.

All of this was in place when Eric S. Brand, RN, arrived to replace Lane as DNI&P in July 1939. Brand proved to be a major catch for the RCN. Bright, engaging and with a ready smile, he had a well developed sense of humour and all the charm of a gentleman. He eventually settled in Canada and became the founding director of the Canadian Coast Guard. Brand was able to report to London that the Ottawa regional centre was “an efficient organization.” It was also tiny. Still just two staff officers (intelligence and plans), supported by five civilian clerks, two typists, and the DNI&P’s own secretary, Miss Evans–“upon whom,” Brand later recalled, “the entire division rested.”

Final naval preparations for war therefore came at just the right time. The War Book, outlining how the Canadian government, its departments and military services would transition to war, had just been completed in May, and the August test of NCS and naval intelligence communications went well. Some anomalies remained, such as the government requirement that all communications be shared equally between Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways teletype networks. But the essential groundwork was in place for an effective and efficient global NCS and naval intelligence system, one that would expand in time to encompass all the major Allied powers as well, including the United States.

Everything was ready, nonetheless, when on Aug. 14, 1939, the Admiralty began a week-long cipher exercise, which Ottawa handled well. On Aug.16, Brand went to the east coast to finalize plans, and by the time he returned on the 21st the Admiralty had extended the communications exercise indefinitely: war was imminent. The next day, with government approval, Brand quietly began to mobilize personnel and dispatch them to their designated ports. Also on the 22nd Ottawa began to distribute codes and reporting documents to customs officials who were to serve as NCS officers. Two days later officers were ordered to start reporting on vessels which might pose a risk to navigation, such as those carrying explosives and cement. Finally on Aug. 26, the British Admiralty transmitted its famous “Funnel” signal, the code name for full naval control of shipping in the British Empire and Commonwealth. In Canada the transmission was slightly delayed by the need to ensure equal distribution of traffic between the two competing telegraph companies, but it went out the same day. At that point the RCN was on a war footing: a full week before the Germans invaded Poland, and two full weeks before Canada herself declared war. The British Commonwealth had worked hard in the 1930s to get the NCS and naval intelligence organizations into trim, and they proved to be the very bedrock of the Allied victory at sea by 1945.
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