The Rise Of Leonard Murray: Navy, Part 30

December 12, 2008 by Marc Milner
Captain L.W. Murray in HMCS Assiniboine. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104197]

Captain L.W. Murray in HMCS Assiniboine.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104197

The establishment of the New­found­land Escort Force (NEF) in May 1941 marked the beginning of the modern Canadian navy. Previously, the Royal Canadian Navy had served either uniquely Canadian needs, or as part of the larger British imperial fleet. With the NEF, the RCN began to carve out distinct strategic, operational and tactical roles within an emerging western alliance dominated by the United States.

To a very considerable extent, the ‘father’ of the NEF, and the man who—for better or for worse—would see the RCN through this formative period of trade escort and anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic was Leonard Warren Murray. By May 1945, Murray exercised command over fleets of hundreds of warships and aircraft of several nationalities engaged in the key naval campaign of a global total war. No one could have foreseen that remarkable development in 1939.

Like most of those who have greatness thrust upon them, Murray was a survivor who happened to be in the right place at the right time. The second of four children, he was born in Granton, Pictou County, N.S., on June 22, 1896, and grew up along the shores of Pictou harbour. He saw his first warship at age 10 when the picket boat for His Majesty’s Ship Berwick landed near his home. Not long after that, Murray’s first naval command was that same picket boat. When the first class of the Royal Naval College of Canada was enrolled in 1911, Murray was among them. And at age 14 he was the youngest. He graduated third among 19 cadets in late 1912—two ahead of G.C. Jones who would become his great and bitter rival.

That class constituted the senior cadre of the RCN’s own officers for the next 35 years, and it proved to be a slender reed upon which to build a navy: especially since two thirds of them were pay­masters or engineers. By 1913, Murray and others of his class were aboard the cruiser Berwick, the flagship of the Americas and West Indies Squadron under Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock.

HMCS Saguenay off St. John’s, Nfld., August 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA151522]

HMCS Saguenay off St. John’s, Nfld., August 1941.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA151522

When sea training with the RN finished in early 1914, these young sailors were all sent home—literally—because there was nothing for them to do in the moribund RCN.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, all the RCN’s midshipmen in the Maritimes went to Halifax, except Murray who was ordered to Ottawa for duty. That assignment probably saved his life. When Craddock stopped in Halifax in 1914 en route to confront Admiral Graf von Spee’s powerful squadron in the South Pacific, he chose the two top midshipmen available (Arthur Silver and Walter Palmer) and two others by lot (Malcolm Cann and Victor Hathaway) to join him in HMS Good Hope. Three other RCN midshipmen joined HMS Suffolk. Silver, Cann, Palmer and Hathaway all perished off Coronel, Chile, in November when Good Hope was destroyed.

Murray’s temporary appointment to Ottawa in 1914 as a cipher officer allowed him to watch the initial stages of the war and gain experience of naval administration. Duty on His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Niobe followed. From there he served as gunnery officer for the Gulf of St. Lawrence patrol boats, then a short stint on HMCS Rainbow in the Pacific and thence to the cruiser HMS Leviathan, where he served as assistant navigating officer. It was not until early 1918 that Murray finally received an overseas appointment when he joined the battleship HMS Agincourt of the Grand Fleet. There, owing to illness in the wardroom, Murray soon became both acting first lieutenant and navigating officer. This was a huge responsibility for an acting lieutenant, but he handled it superbly.

For Murray, the immediate postwar years were the best and worst of times. After a navigation course in 1919 he joined the RN cruiser Calcutta, commanded by Captain Percy Noble, RN. Murray remembered Calcutta as “a happy and efficient ship” and later claimed that he learned how to deal with the men and achieve that state of bliss from Noble. In 1920, Murray returned to the RCN as navigating officer of the cruiser Aurora, which was soon discarded in the great budget cuts of 1921. The upside of that spell in Canada was that Murray married Jean Chaplin Scott in the Stanley Presbyterian Church in Westmount, Que., on Oct. 10, 1921. The downside was that his naval career now seemed to be going nowhere. By 1922, he was married, at home on half pay, seriously considering leaving the RCN to take up employment in a large manufacturing business.

Instead, Murray applied for a transfer to the RN and whiled his time away earning a master mariner’s certificate in marine insurance: a qualification that would serve him well in retirement. When Naval Service Headquarters (NSHQ) approved a temporary reassignment to the RN, Murray stayed in the navy.

From left: Rear-Admiral G.C. Jones, Admiral L.W. Murray and Commodore Percy Nelles. [PHOTOS: GERALD M. MOSES, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA204268; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA198510]

From left: Rear-Admiral G.C. Jones, Admiral L.W. Murray and Commodore Percy Nelles.
PHOTOS: GERALD M. MOSES, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA204268; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA198510

The next six years were spent largely in British ships and establishments. His initial appointment was as second navigating officer of HMS Revenge, commanded by Capt. Sydney Meyrick, and in May 1923 he became assistant to the master of the (Atlantic) Fleet—assistant fleet navigator—aboard Queen Elizabeth. From there it was a logical step to the “big ship” navigation course at Portsmouth, which Murray “passed with ease” and stayed on as an instructor in navigation and fleet tactics and manoeuvres for a brief spell. By then he was marked as a gifted navigator, and according to many of his contemporaries he was the best ship handler of his class.

A short stint in command of the RCN barracks in Halifax in 1925 was followed by six months as navigating officer of the battle cruiser Tiger, then the second heaviest ship in British service, which he left with a glowing endorsement to attend the Naval Staff College at Greenwich. It was at Greenwich that Murray’s insight into convoys is first recorded. During a joint amphibious exercise he was tasked, as naval commander-in-chief, with organizing the convoys and their escort. When his plans for a 36-ship convoy were tabled he was sharply criticized by the college’s deputy director for planning convoys of suicidal proportions. “Yet in 1940,” Edward Kemp wrote in 1945, “when Murray was deputy chief of the naval staff, he found it necessary to group as many as 70 ships in a convoy—and the officer commanding the escorting forces…was the officer who had been Deputy Director of the Naval Staff College.”

After the heady days of the Naval Staff College, Murray was promoted to commander on Jan. 1, 1929, the same day as G.C. Jones. He took charge of the RCN’s West Coast establishment at Esquimalt, B.C. Although he had responsibility for running the command and making mobilization and war plans, it must have seemed like rustication. So, too, his brief episode in Ottawa in 1931, although this was tempered by the certainty that he was in line to command one of the RCN’s new River-class destroyers. Up to this point Murray had never held his own command, while George Jones had commanded three ships: HMS Vanquisher during the war, plus HMC Ships Patriot and Patrician. Ronald I. Agnew, the other contender from the class of 1912, had commanded Patrician and Vancouver. By this stage, the battle for succession was fairly joined, with Murray and Jones clearly out in front of Agnew by one year’s seniority in the rank of commander. But Murray had never commanded a ship. He finally got Saguenay in 1932, the same year Jones took over Skeena.

The next few years proved to be crucial for Murray’s career, and in the struggle between the two rivals for the RCN’s senior posts. The appointment of Commodore Percy Nelles as Chief of the Naval Staff in 1933 was probably decisive. The previous CNS, Commodore Walter Hose, seems to have liked Murray. Hose’s final evaluation of Murray completed at the end of December 1933, rated him nine out of a possible 10 in professional ability, zeal, power of command, reliability, initiative and judgment. As for ‘judgment,’ Hose rated Murray only ‘seven’, commenting that “His failing lies in letting his heart run away with his head somewhat.” On the whole, Hose thought rather well of Murray: “A level-headed officer who has the ultimate interest of the service at heart in all his activities, whether service, social or sporting….”

Destroyers Ottawa (left) and Assiniboine at Halifax, 1940. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104139]

Destroyers Ottawa (left) and Assiniboine at Halifax, 1940.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104139

For the rest of his naval career Murray never received more than a bare passing grade from Nelles. Nelles’ first assessment of Murray in 1934 rated him five out of 10 for professional ability, zeal, initiative and reliability, and significantly a failing grade of four on power of command. Judgment, too, slipped from a seven to a six. Only as an administrator did Nelles concede that Murray was better than mediocre—a seven. “I do not think that this officer is a sufficiently strict disciplinarian,” Nelles observed, “with either officers or ratings. This I attribute to a dislike of hurting humans rather than to any weakness of character.” Although Murray continued to get outstanding assessments from RN officers, Nelles’s tone never wavered—even during the war years.

In the end, Murray never got much of a chance to prove himself as a ship driver. His command of Saguenay lasted just two years, the only time—apart from a very brief stint as commanding officer of Assiniboine—he commanded his own ship. In 1936, after two years as commander-in-charge at Halifax, Murray returned to the RN where, as executive officer of the old battleship Iron Duke, he worked for the experimental and gunnery staff at Portsmouth. From there the obligatory Imperial Defence College course followed in early 1938. His confidential assessment from the IDC was positive, but guarded. “In comparison with the other officers of the Dominion navies, he has shown himself to be most exceptionally well informed on the naval service,” the commandant wrote. His powers of expression were “in no way inferior…to captains of the Royal Navy,” and despite his “naturally quiet,” but “very pleasant personality” it was reckoned that he could fill any naval staff position “with great ability”—an assessment even Nelles might have agreed with.

Whether Nelles accepted the IDC recommendation for “Accelerated” promotion is another matter. Murray was, nonetheless, promoted to captain immediately after the IDC on Aug. 2, 1938: his first promotion under Nelles’ regime. Significantly, Jones, at home in command of Ottawa and Captain (D) of the Canadian Flotilla, was promoted to captain the day before. From that moment on, Jones always enjoyed seniority and to a considerable extent the course of assignments was set for the war that followed.

In late 1938, Murray returned to Ottawa as director of naval operations and training, a task he was now well suited for. Jones, with seniority and much more command experience, remained in Halifax in command of the destroyer flotilla. Murray was therefore involved in much of the immediate pre-war planning. This included liaison with the flag officer, America and West Indies Sqdn., now Rear-Admiral Sir Sydney Meyrick who Murray knew well from his time in Revenge, and travelling Canada meeting all the retired RN officers who would be mobilized for RCN service.

The organization of NSHQ in the event of war was also a major concern. Murray recalled later, it was “a matter we’d considered generally, in fact we made out a mock-up of it on the back of an envelope one day….” It was Murray who got naval mobilization going on Aug. 21, 1939, the day the Admiralty mobilized for war and weeks ahead of the Canadian declaration, because Nelles was out of town. When Nelles returned they put the draft organization into action, and Murray was elevated to the post of deputy chief of the naval staff. His experience and contacts served the navy well in 1939. He had, after all, been at headquarters in 1914 when that war started, and much of his sea time in Niobe, Leviathan and with the Gulf of St. Lawrence patrols had involved trade protection and small ship work.

By his recollection, Murray—as deputy chief of naval staff Murray—spearheaded—from the outset—the charge towards a small ship anti-submarine navy. The crucial event was the sinking of the liner Athenia on Sept. 3, 1939, which suggested that the Germans would immediately wage another unrestricted submarine campaign. “The prime minister was very concerned,” Murray recalled in his 1971 interview, “and we were able to impress on him that this kind of anti-submarine war was one that our small Canadian navy was best fitted to compete in. We got his approval for anything that could be done and there was never anything to stand in our way.” It was Murray and the deputy minister who made the case before the finance committee of Parliament in February 1940 that the budget increase from $8.5 million to $111 million in order to finance the expansion program of largely small auxiliary vessels.

According to Colonel J.L. Ralston, the minister of Defence, the navy was the first branch of the armed services that had gone away “with what it had asked for.” By the time Murray left Ottawa to replace Jones as Senior Officer, Halifax Force, the initial stages of RCN expansion were well underway, with nearly 100 corvettes and Bangors on order. This was the fleet Murray would ultimately command in war.

In October 1940, Murray raised his pennant as commodore over the flotilla leader Assiniboine in Halifax harbour. He actually took over from Cuth Taylor who was given temporary command so Murray and Jones would not have to meet. His time in Assiniboine—and in Halifax—was short, which was probably for the best since Jones was now ashore as commanding officer, Atlantic Coast. Moreover, since the RCN’s destroyers were now all overseas, Murray’s time was spent largely working with the new Canadian-American Permanent Joint Board on Defence. His one notable accomplishment as the commander of the fleet was to appoint Commander James Douglas “Chummy” Prentice, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, as Senior Officer, Canadian Corvettes and put him in charge of getting the small ships ready for duty. This was the beginning of a tight working relationship which was to last until the spring of 1944 and have a profound influence on the fortunes of the RCN.

By the time Murray arrived in Newfoundland to assume his duties as commodore commanding, Newfoundland Force on June 15, 1941, he was clearly convinced that both he and the RCN had found their niche. The NEF gave purpose to both the service and to the burgeoning fleet of auxiliary vessels ordered under Murray’s watch in NSHQ, but it was clear that great challenges lay ahead. St. John’s harbour offered shelter from the sea and fuel oil, but little else to hastily built ships and green crews. To their east lay the vilest stretch of the North Atlantic and an implacable enemy. To their west lay the navy’s east coast establishment run by Murray’s bitter personal and professional rival, G.C. Jones. Historians still do not agree on which of these challenges proved the hardest to overcome.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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