Starting Wartime Expansion: Navy, Part 23

September 1, 2007 by Marc Milner

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104282

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104282

St. Croix, St. Francis and Columbia were three of the over-age destroyers given to the RCN.

The fall of western Europe to the Nazis by the end of June 1940 changed the nature of the war profoundly. Britain now stood alone in Europe against not only Germany and Italy, but also Germany’s notional ally, the Soviet Union.

It was a formidable array.

Europe, from North Cape, Norway, in the Arctic to the Straits of Gibraltar, was either at war with Britain or, in the case of Spain, openly hostile, while the whole Mediterranean was a war zone. Britain’s very survival now depended on her ability to withstand the onslaught. Should the German war machine–poised in all its might just a few kilometres from Dover–gain even a slender toehold in Kent, there was little doubt of the outcome. The evacuation of Dunkirk had plucked the remnants of Britain’s army from the continent, but stripped of its heavy equipment it was no match for the Wehrmacht. Never before was Britain and her empire in such peril, and not since 1812 were the consequences of war so grave for Canada.

In the summer of 1940, only three things stood in the way of German victory: an unbeaten Royal Air Force, a thin strip of English Channel and the naval power of Britain and her Commonwealth allies.

In practical terms, however, the still-neutral United States was Britain’s de facto ally and Canada’s, too. A shared heritage and belief in liberal democratic values bound these erstwhile rivals. Moreover, the Americans were as anxious as Canadians to ensure that the war did not spill over into North America. Consequently, during the summer of 1940, Canada made the first important steps to move from the British family into the embrace of the new American imperium. The Ogdensburg Agreement, signed by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1940, established a Permanent Joint Board on Defence, and opened Canada to American forces. One of the board’s first duties was to produce a worst-case war plan, code named Black, which postulated a British defeat. Joint Canadian-American planning for the defence of North America had begun.

The changing war also brought with it significant changes in the basic organization of naval administration and a rapid–and totally unplanned–expansion of the Royal Canadian Navy. The most salient of the administrative changes in the summer of 1940 was the creation of a minister for the Naval Service, a cabinet post abandoned in 1922. In July, Mackenzie King appointed Angus L. Macdonald, former premier of Nova Scotia, to the post, which he held until the last few months of the war. In theory, the new naval ministry, and the new air minister, Chubby Power, remained subordinate to Colonel J.L. Ralston, the minister of Defence who was also de facto army minister. In practice, however, Macdonald held a seat in the War Committee of Cabinet and ran his own service.

To help him in his task and to provide general direction and naval policy, a Naval Council–renamed the Naval Board in 1942–was established in August 1940. Its job was to set policy and provide higher direction, leaving the Naval Staff to look after routine administration and the day-to-day operations of the service.

Apart from Louis-Philippe Brodeur, the founding minister in 1910, Macdonald was unquestionably the most important man ever to hold the post of naval minister. During his tenure Canada’s navy came of age, and rose in size to become–albeit very briefly–the third largest in the world. Although it has been argued that Macdonald’s grip on his portfolio was unsure at best–as we shall see–he demonstrated unquestioned support for naval expansion and a passionate commitment to a large postwar fleet.

As Macdonald took his seat in the War Committee of Cabinet in the summer of 1940, the navy began its first significant wartime expansion. The yachts, purchased earlier in the U.S., arrived, were manned, armed, commissioned and sent to sea. More importantly, in September 1940, the RCN commissioned seven destroyers that had never been part of any plan. One of these was a replacement for His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Fraser, lost by collision off France in June (Dispatching The Destroyers, July/ August). The other six were ex-USN flush-deck or four-stack destroyers. These were part of the 50 acquired by the British in the famous destroyers-for-bases deal negotiated in late July and August 1940.

For a small navy striving to get crews ready for a flood of new corvettes and minesweepers, it was a challenge to find more than 800 officers and men to man six new destroyers. But the need for ships was desperate and the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The destroyers-for-bases deal was conceived in haste under enormous pressure and completed in a few short weeks. Its genesis lay in the losses suffered by the RN in the Norwegian campaign in April and the early stages of the German assault on the Low Countries in the first weeks of May. After learning of an offer by the Americans to provide France with ships, the British Prime Minister sent a telegram on May 15 requesting 16 modern destroyers and 32 flush-deck destroyers as well as other material for the RN. Nothing came of this request until German air fleets, troops and landing barges began massing across the English Channel in July, and the British tallied their losses in small ships from the Dunkirk evacuation.

On July 25, the First Sea Lord raised the matter of U.S. naval assistance again, beginning 20 days of intense negotiations. Finally, the Americans agreed to provide 50 World War I vintage destroyers immediately in exchange for rights to build and operate bases from British possessions in the western hemisphere. They had driven a hard bargain, but American bases in British colonies was a small price to pay for the help, and the goodwill Britain desperately needed in the summer of 1940.

The larger British Commonwealth navies were approached by the Admiralty on Aug. 17 to help man this fleet. The Australians and New Zealanders declined, claiming their manpower was already earmarked. The RCN was not enthusiastic either. The vessels on offer were of an old, flush-deck design, long and thin and poorly suited to North Atlantic conditions. The newest was 20 years old and they had all been mothballed for most of the interwar period. All were considered unreliable, and ill-suited to modern requirements. Moreover, acquiring over-age American destroyers did not fit into any part of the RCN’s plans and they were no substitute for the River-class ships then serving overseas.

However, the navy also needed the little ships. German occupation of the coasts of France and Norway greatly increased the operational capabilities of their U-boat fleet, and provided excellent bases for deployment of large surface raiders. The first real evidence of how this changed the war came in August 1940, when U-boats began to attack British convoys on the surface, at night and in groups. The British responded by organizing more convoys, including a special series for very slow ships–the SC convoys–which began to sail from Sydney, Cape Breton, on Aug. 15, 1940. Now the RCN had two convoy assembly ports and two series of convoys to get safely to sea, and the east coast was bereft of significant warships. Not surprisingly, the RCN agreed immediately to take six of the American ships.

As the destroyers offered by the U.S. assembled in late August and early September, the crisis in Europe deepened. Massive air strikes by waves of German bombers had begun on Aug. 13, primarily on RAF airfields and installations. Ten days later, London came under sustained attack for the first time, and the next day–Aug. 24, 1940–No.1 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, joined the battle. By the time the destroyers-for-bases deal was formally signed on Sept. 2, 1940, the RAF’s forward airfields in southeast England were largely out of action. On Sept. 6, Britain was placed on Yellow Alert, meaning that invasion was expected within three days. One of the very few formations in reasonable shape to meet the invasion was 1st Canadian Division. Poorly trained and equipped, it was at least up to strength and was therefore held in a counter-attack role in Surrey: the Germans would have made short work of it.

Meanwhile, Canada’s three remaining U.K.-based destroyers–Restigouche, St. Laurent and Skeena–operated from Plymouth. Like the RN forces around them, they were there to make a dash into the Channel should the Germans be foolhardy enough to put an army afloat. HMCS Ottawa left Halifax on Aug. 27 to join them, leaving only Saguenay and Assiniboine, plus the gaggle of armed yachts and former government vessels, to do all the work in Canadian waters.

The same day Britain went on Yellow Alert, Sept. 6, 1940, Fraser’s replacement, HMCS Margaree was commissioned in the Albert Dock in east end London. Most of her crew had served on Fraser, and 13 wounded men had recovered enough to join the new ship. Already damaged by bombs, the RCN’s latest destroyer departed immediately for workups, and got away none too soon. The next day, the Luftwaffe abandoned its assault on the RAF and switched to a full-scale blitz on London. That night, 350 German bombers attacked the London docks. The change in targeting was seen, even then, as evidence of German failure to win the air superiority needed to cover any invasion, but it was some time before the threat of invasion diminished.

As the fate of Britain was decided in the skies through early September, American destroyers, along with waves of RN personnel sent out to man them, arrived in Halifax. The influx of several thousand sailors on a temporary basis created a sudden housing crisis, and so the animal sheds at the Halifax exhibition grounds were hastily converted into barracks for British sailors. It worked, but it also left some lasting impressions. One Brit recalled many years later that the Canadians were somewhat embarrassed by the nature and odour of the temporary accommodations, and so decided to treat the RN sailors to a corn boil. The delight of eating corn straight off the cob was entirely lost on the Brits, and for many RN ratings their brief memory of Halifax in September 1940 was of living in animal stalls and eating pig food. Fortunately, they were only housed ashore for a few days, before joining their ships and steaming home.

All six of the new RCN ships were commissioned on Sept. 24, doubling RCN’s destroyer strength in a single day and providing much needed help for local escorts. The RN dubbed the American flush-deckers the Town-class, and opted–at least initially–to simply take over the USN names out of courtesy. The RCN followed their practice of naming destroyer after rivers, in this case those shared in some fashion with the U.S. So, HMCS Annapolis, Columbia, Niagara, St. Clair, St. Croix and St. Francis joined the fleet. All had recently been re-commissioned into the USN and so were in generally good operational condition. And as with all the destroyers transferred from an ostensibly neutral USA, all 50 vessels came loaded with stores, packed with ammunition and laden with spare parts.

That said, the ships themselves were old, notoriously unreliable and something of a liability in the hands of wartime crews in the vile North Atlantic. Manoeuvring the pencil-thin destroyers was as much an art as a science, not least because their sterns were so narrow that the twin props stuck out well away from the hull and were prone to damage. Several British Town-class vessels were delayed in their onward passage by collisions. HMS Hamilton (named for Hamilton, Bermuda) was seriously damaged in a collision shortly after commissioning and never did get to the U.K. After lying in Saint John, N.B., for nearly a year, she finally transferred to the RCN and commissioned as an HMCS in July 1941. HMS Buxton was so plagued by defects that she, too, never got overseas. Although never formally transferred to the RCN, Buxton remained in Canadian service and largely Canadian manned.

The Canadian Town-class ships had similar problems. Annapolis blew a boiler almost immediately and was out of service for several months. St. Croix ran into a hurricane while en route to Britain in late November and was so damaged she never did formally go overseas. J.M. Robertson, who eventually retired from the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve as a captain, recalled that he could stand on Columbia’s quarterdeck and watch the four funnels shift in various directions as the slip worked her way through the sea: “The only time the four funnels were in line was when we were tied to a jetty.” That same movement opened hull plates and allowed sea water to routinely contaminate Columbia’s fuel oil. When that happened, Robertson remembered, “Large globs of dirty yellow and black smoke would spew from the funnels and the ship would stop dead.” Fortunately for Robertson, Columbia’s excellent stokers invariably got her going again.

St. Francis, too, gave trouble throughout her time in service. She, along with St. Croix, were slightly larger, carried an additional 100 tons of fuel and had a useful range of 2,900 miles, giving them a transatlantic operational radius. But St. Francis was never a reliable long-range performer. The RCN’s other four Towns carried 275 tons of fuel, giving a useful range of 2,000 miles. These short-range ships spent much of the war doing local escort duty out of Halifax, which was good because they needed a lot of coaxing. It is also fair to say that these aged American destroyers did yeoman service and filled a huge void in the RCN’s fleet at a time of critical need.

Manning the Town-class destroyers and the armed yachts exhausted the RCN’s supply of personnel in 1940. However, far greater requirements for personnel loomed. The collapse of the barter scheme for Tribal-class destroyers left the RCN holding orders for 54 corvettes, plus 18 Bangor-class minesweepers. The crisis of the summer of 1940 prompted the government to order 16 more corvettes and 10 more Bangors. By the fall, the RCN needed to double its personnel strength quickly, adding approximately 7,000 officers and men for the new construction. No one had thought about this. The Chief of Naval Personnel reminded the Naval Council in late 1940 that he needed at least 300 Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve executive officers by May 1941. When other Naval Council members pointed out that they still had no accommodation or training facilities built for these men, Macdonald reminded them that no training was possible until they bought the necessary land for the new facilities!

As the Chief of Naval Staff Rear Admiral Percy Nelles explained to the Admiralty, the RCN was now making bricks without straw. In fact, the great unbridled wartime expansion of the RCN had started and no one in Ottawa had the slightest idea of where it would all lead.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com


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