One hundred years ago, on Jan. 12, 1910, the government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier introduced the Naval Service Bill. After third and final reading on May 4, the bill received royal assent and Laurier, who had been prime minister since 1896, achieved one of his fondest dreams: the establishment of a Canadian navy.
Laurier’s plan called for a fleet of five cruisers and six torpedo-boat destroyers. This was a tidy little squadron capable of effective patrolling off Canada’s coasts, and big enough to establish a Canadian service, with a shipyard to build and maintain the fleet, operational bases, recruitment depots, training schools and a naval college. A century after its founding, Laurier would be very pleased indeed with the ‘tidy little fleet’—and its extensive infrastructure—that now serves Canada so well.
The path to that capable national naval service, however, was by no means certain, and Canada learned the hard way that only a Canadian navy can look after its maritime security. Laurier’s ambition to build a large and distinct national service foundered in the 1911 general election. His scheme was too big for Quebec isolationists, and too puny for English Canadian imperialists. Sir Robert Borden’s new Conservative government attempted to redirect funds to the construction of British battleships before 1914, and the navy languished. Only the institution itself, the Royal Naval College of Canada (RNCC), and two aged cruisers, Niobe and Rainbow, acquired in 1910 for training purposes, endured. Fortunately, the ships came with British officers and crews who pined for repatriation. Without them the navy would have collapsed, since more Canadians deserted the Royal Canadian Navy prior to 1914 than were serving in it. As the RCN atrophied and Niobe rotted alongside the wharf at Halifax, only Rainbow, small enough to operate, enjoyed an active life policing the seal industry off the West Coast.
The First World War demonstrated the need for a Canadian navy. In August 1914, when the powerful German Asiatic Squadron—five modern cruisers—threatened to descend upon British Columbia, only Rainbow stood in the way. Her captain, Commander Walter Hose, was ordered to intercept them and admonished to “Remember Nelson and the British Navy.” Armed with shells packed with black powder or sand (for training purposes), Rainbow may have been within 50 miles of one of the enemy light cruisers off San Francisco. But the Germans ‘escaped’ and Rainbow was saved a glorious and futile end. The German squadron had gone south, where it destroyed Admiral Kit Craddock’s force off Chile in November—a battle in which four RCN midshipmen died, the first Canadian naval fatalities. The British finally caught and destroyed it off the Falklands.
In the meantime, the British Columbia coast was guarded by Canada’s first submarines, purchased by the provincial government at sea in the dark of night from a Seattle shipyard with a cheque equivalent to the entire annual naval budget, and by the arrival of a Japanese warship.
In fairness, the imperial fleet provided coverage for the East Coast in the early months of the war, when the threat from enemy cruisers was greatest. Niobe participated in these cruises until 1915 when her personnel were needed to man a growing fleet of smaller vessels developed to meet the increasing threat from long-range submarines. When U-boats arrived in Canadian waters in 1917 and 1918 the imperial fleet did nothing to help, and even failed to provide timely intelligence. The Americans sent modest assistance. Canada, however, was largely on her own, and the RCN’s East Coast Patrol—a fleet of trawlers, drifters and ex-yachts—could do nothing to stop the large, heavily gunned U-cruisers as they cut a swath through the fishing fleet. In the process they made a naval convert out of Sir Robert Borden.
By 1918-19, Borden was planning a substantial fleet, and he hoped that Admiral Lord John Jellicoe, commissioned in 1919 to produce a plan for the navy, would give him the right model. But Borden’s navy also came to nought. In the aftermath of the Great War no one wanted to spend money on armaments, and the disarmament conference in Washington in 1921-22 seemed to eliminate the need for large naval forces. Postwar recession and a change in government did the rest.
In 1922, Prime Minister Mackenzie King carved the defence budget to the bone. Most of the fleet, the RNCC, and ratings’ entry school were cast off. For the next two decades the professional RCN was little more than a tiny regional appendage of the imperial fleet. Even getting Canadians to join was a major problem. In the 1920s, 75 per cent of personnel were British on loan. Training, ship exercises and a typical officer’s career path depended on the imperial connection. Canada may have become a fully independent nation in 1931, but the navy was wholly tied to the ‘one flag, one fleet’ imperial concept.
Fortunately, the interwar period was not all darkness: two really important developments occurred. The first was the establishment of the RCN Volunteer Reserve in 1923. The brainchild of Walter Hose, now the Director of the Naval Service, the RCNVR brought the navy to 15 cities across Canada and proved highly successful. Under Hose the navy also trimmed its ambitions, and concentrated on building a fleet of destroyers, the vessels needed in 1917-18 to combat the U-boats. This was a fleet which Canadian governments would support, and the first warships built for the RCN, Saguenay and Skeena, were ordered in 1927, and they survived attempts by the army in the Depression to slash the navy budget to virtually zero. When Mackenzie King returned to power in 1935, the navy prospered. It began with the purchase of five destroyers from the British in the late 1930s, and culminated in King’s naval policy of January 1939.
For the first time since 1910, the 1939 naval plan was big enough to establish a national naval service. It included expanded reserve forces, two new bases (Sydney, N.S., and Prince Rupert, B.C.), and a host of new ships; nine destroyers—eight of them powerful Tribal class—eight anti-submarine vessels, eight motor torpedo boats, 12 minesweepers and two depot ships. This would push the size of the RCN from 1,600 personnel to 6,000, and require training schemes, schools and new establishments at home. Laurier would have approved.
The war soon overtook Mackenzie King’s plans, but the scrappy little fleet of destroyers he had helped acquire in the interwar years served Canada well in the dark days to come. They “are the cavalry of the Navy,” one contemporary old salt wrote of destroyers. “They inculcate dash, nerve, initiative: and service in them brings out all the sailor in officers and men.” As historian Michael Whitby concluded, “Given the circumstances…it is difficult to see how they could have been much better prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.”
The Second World War proved to be Canada’s formative national naval experience. King’s government backed naval expansion from the outset, and developed both the industry and the shipyards to support it. Building the navy was both good business and—King hoped—it might redirect some of Canada’s martial interest away from the army and heavy casualties on the Western Front again.
Between 1939 and 1945 the navy grew dramatically, from a pre-war strength of barely 1,800 professional sailors and a dozen ships, to nearly 100,000 personnel and over 400 ships by 1945. Drawing largely on vessels built in Canada, the navy constructed new bases, schools, dockyards and permanent establishments across the country and abroad. In the process it assumed roles important to both Canada and her Allies, and became an important factor in ultimate Allied victory.
In fact, two Canadian navies were built during the war, and they fought, side by side, for rather different objectives. The professional RCN used the war to advance its long-cherished plans for a proper fleet—now to include aircraft carriers as well as cruisers. Work on that goal started in November 1940 and was sustained throughout the war. Even the British understood that the RCN was using the war to build a fleet. By 1945 the RCN was operating two cruisers (Ontario and Uganda), manned two small aircraft carriers, a couple of naval air squadrons, and a flotilla of modern destroyers, with the carrier His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Warrior on the way. This was a small, but powerful modern task force.
In the meantime, naval reservists—“hostilities only” personnel—operated the auxiliary fleet and fought the Battle of the Atlantic. Escorting convoys in the North Atlantic and fighting submarines came to be identified as Canada’s national naval war. Serving in small ships that were largely built in Canada and operating from Canadian bases—at home and abroad—the “sheep dog navy” was a significant contribution to Allied victory. The reservists manning the corvettes and frigates preferred to keep their distance from the regular RCN, and prided themselves on the rough and ready seamanship required of North Atlantic convoy escort duty.
Senior British officers often lamented the unruliness and unkempt appearance of Canadian sailors and ships, but the men of the Sheep Dog Navy were there to help win the war, not chart a career path. At the navy’s peak wartime strength, nearly 92,000 of its 96,000 personnel were Hostilities Only.
The RCN’s role in the longest, continuous battle of the war—the Battle of the Atlantic—captured public imagination at home and attention abroad. At its height in 1944 Canada provided close escort for the main Atlantic trade convoys from New York to Britain, and some 40 per cent of the anti-submarine vessels in British waters. By the summer of 1944 the Canadian escort and anti-submarine capability was so large—and so good—that the British considered withdrawing virtually all its anti-submarine and escort ships in the Atlantic and sending them to the Far East, leaving the RCN to run the show.
This national naval experience and the RCN’s own ambitions clashed in the post-1945 period, and then combined to produce the modern Canadian navy. In 1945, the government was prepared to let the RCN keep one aircraft carrier and several squadrons of aircraft, two cruisers and a few destroyers, but Mackenzie King was not committed to such a navy. He was not alone. And to man this larger fleet the navy had to retain Hostilities Only personnel who were not enamoured of regular navy discipline and manners. Reflecting on the tension between the two naval cultures after 1945, Brooke Claxton, the minister of National Defence by the late 1940s, recalled that, “The senior officers of the Navy were way out of line not only with Canadian sentiment, but with the feeling of junior officers, petty officers and ratings of our new Navy.”
The confrontation came to a head in 1948 in a series of mutinies. All were reactions to attempts to impose old traditions of personnel management on the new navy, and all were simple refusals by the lower deck to work. The Commission of Enquiry, under the direction of Rear-Admiral Rollo Mainguy, sided with the ‘new’ navy. Their chief opponent was Rear-Admiral Harold T. Grant, then Chief of the Naval Staff. Grant had ordered the removal of ‘Canada’ shoulder flashes from uniforms, buttons bearing ‘Canada’ from flag officers’ coats, and the maple leaf from ship’s funnels. “‘Canada’ flashes,” Grant testified to the Mainguy Commission, “looks like hell on any officer…. I refuse to wear it consistently myself….” When Claxton ordered that maple leaves be painted once again on ships’ funnels, Grant would go no further: “If they do not like it…we will take the maple leaf off and put ‘Canada’ on the seat of their pants….” The Naval Board reinstated ‘Canada’ flashes for the lower deck on Jan. 4, 1950, but Claxton had to intervene to extend the order to officers, including Grant. “An opinion is widely held amongst many ratings and some officers that the ‘Nelson Tradition’ is overdone,” the Commission concluded, “and that there is still too great an attempt to make the Canadian Navy a pallid imitation of the Royal Navy.”
In the aftermath of the Mainguy commission the navy embraced the wartime experience of the Sheep Dog Navy as formative. In October 1950, Trafalgar Day was replaced by Battle of the Atlantic Sunday as the RCN’s official ‘feast day,’ and the date for celebration shifted in 1951 to the first Sunday in May to commemorate the victory over the U-boats in 1943.
The navy also shifted focus from carrier-based strike forces to a modern convoy escort and anti-submarine navy. The Cold War and the emergence of NATO helped meld these two traditions. By the late 1940s Canada was back in an alliance virtually identical to that which had fought the Second World War, and the government accepted this as the basis for building a new fleet. The aircraft carrier, re-tasked in an anti-submarine and fleet air defence role, was retained, and only the cruisers got lost in the shuffle. The new fleet would consist of 24 sleek Canadian designed and built state-of-the-art anti-submarine frigates, the St. Laurent class and their derivatives.
The versatility and reach of a capable navy was well illustrated in the summer of 1950 when the Communists invaded South Korea. The navy was Canada’s first responder, sending three destroyers off in July to help stem the tide. After some action on the West Coast during the UN drive north, the navy’s Korean destroyers settled into a series of deployments in which they gained an enviable reputation as ‘train busters,’ smashing North Korean trains as they travelled routes along the eastern coast of the peninsula.
Meanwhile, the first Cold War fleet grew apace, as the RCN added scores of ships to the fleet. In addition to the Tribals from the Second World War and the new St. Laurents under construction, River Class frigates were salvaged from Crown Assets and modernized into “Prestonian Class” escorts, new minesweepers were built, and jet fighters acquired for the new carrier Bonaventure to provide air cover for the fleet. At the time of the navy’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1960 the RCN could put 100 ships of various types and 10,000 personnel at sea: Walter Hose lived to see it happen.
But the postwar bubble soon burst, for two reasons. The advent of thermo nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and nuclear propulsion profoundly altered the tactical, operational and strategic situation at sea. In particular, nuclear powered, missile-carrying submarines posed an annihilating threat and needed to be tracked, and even the new St. Laurents were unsuited to the job. The fleet would have to be rebuilt, and new aircraft and probably nuclear powered attack submarines acquired. Unfortunately, no one in government was prepared to spend the cash needed, especially since it was not clear how rebuilding the navy would save anyone from the nuclear holocaust posed by intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The second thing that brought the halcyon days of the 1950s to an end was that the navy had gotten out of sync with the nation again. A decade after the 1948 mutinies, William Pugsley observed that, “The ‘artificial distance’ [between officers and men] mentioned in the Mainguy Report still exists today.” Fortunately, that barrier was now porous, with about half of the RCN’s officers having been promoted from the lower deck. This was bound to have a Canadianizing effect on the navy, as did the thousands of Canadians drawn in by the Cold War expansion. But the service remained the most ‘British’ of the three. Charles Westropp, one of many officers recruited from Britain in the 1950s, was struck by how ‘British’ the RCN was compared to the RN. By the late 1950s many of the key senior posts in Ottawa were held by RN officers who had transferred to the RCN, while many officers of the old navy retained a ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent and pre-war mannerisms that seemed affected and foreign to the average Canadian.
All this might not have mattered had the government not seen the navy’s loyalties as suspect. In 1952 it was all Canadian diplomats in Turkey could do to keep the carrier Magnificent from steaming immediately when ‘all British ships’ were ordered to Malta after a coup in Egypt overthrew King Farouk: her captain delayed a day and then went anyway. War between Britain and Egypt over the Suez Canal was averted on that occasion, fortunately. A more familiar case of ‘independent’ naval action occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis of November 1962 when the navy moved to support the new imperial power, the U.S. While John Diefenbaker’s government vacillated over what to do, the Flag Officer, Atlantic Coast, ordered the fleet to sea in support of the United States Navy. For years afterwards, the RCN prided itself on ‘going to war’ while the government dithered, but it was a dangerous game. Diefenbaker took no action against the RCN: Lester Pearson’s newly elected Liberals did. It is hard to shake the echo of journalist Charles Lynch’s comment in Time magazine in August 1964 that one of the key objectives of the Liberal’s defence policy was “getting the Navy.”
In April 1963, Pearson’s Liberals came to power promising “60 days of decision” on domestic, economic and defence issues. With a rising population, pressure for increased social spending and a Quiet Revolution in Quebec, Pearson pursued a distinctly Canada first policy. Social change, full integration of French Canada into confederation and a new flag were high on the agenda. So, too, was the financial crunch in defence and the need to differentiate Canadian forces from those of Britain, the old colonial power.
Just what Defence Minister Paul Hellyer thought of the navy prior to assuming his portfolio remains unclear, but in the late summer of 1963, when Commodore James Plomer publicly described the RCN as a “uniformed Tammany Hall” run by officers who saw the navy “as their own private property,” Hellyer deemed it his duty “to find out first-hand if the situation was as bad as alleged.”
Unfortunately, the first place Hellyer visited was Halifax, where the new Flag Officer, Atlantic Coast, Rear-Admiral Jeffry Brock, relished the pomp and circumstance of an admiral’s command. Just about everything Brock did to impress his new minister backfired, from the traditional mess dinners with polished silver on Irish linen, to the thoroughness with which Hellyer’s bed was turned down and his pyjamas laid out. “Old World hospitality was only made possible by treating ordinary seamen as lackeys,” Hellyer recounted in his memoirs. “Such practices seemed an abuse of indentured labour reminiscent of the dark ages…by the time I returned to Ottawa I knew I had my work cut out for me. The navy was going to need a lot of modernization to make it contemporary.”
The battle over unification that followed between the RCN and Hellyer was bitter and open. Hellyer started by ‘prematurely’ retiring the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Herbert S. Rayner, at the end of July 1964, and sacking Brock on Aug. 5. Other officers, like British-born Commodore Fraser Harris, the Assistant CNS (Air and Warfare) simply retired early. In response, the navy appointed Bill Landymore, a gruff, opinionated, direct sailor, with no pretence and no British affectations, to replace Brock. He proved to be Hellyer’s nemesis.
On Feb. 15, 1965, the RCN replaced its White Ensigns with the new Canadian Maple Leaf flag. Most naval personnel accepted that change with good grace, but the prospect of unification—the amalgamation of three services into one—drew the navy into a public feud with the government. Hellyer’s announcement in June 1965 that a new single uniform and rank structure would be in place by July 1, 1967—Canada’s Centennial—exploded in the navy like a bomb. Landymore advised his personnel to go public with their concerns, aided by an old boys’ network that pounded the government relentlessly in Parliament and in the media. Hellyer saw Landymore’s action as insubordination and possibly mutinous.
Hellyer’s position seemed to soften in the early summer of 1966 when it was announced that Highland regiments in the army would keep their distinctive formal dress. Landymore saw an opening and flew to Ottawa in July to raise the issue of naval identity with Hellyer in person. He got nowhere. In fact, during the meeting Hellyer demanded Landymore retire. When he refused, Landymore was told that he would be retired in four days. As he steamed out of Hellyer’s office Landymore found the West Coast commander, Rear-Admiral Mickey Stirling, waiting to tender his resignation. On July 16, 1966, Landymore was given a hero’s send-off in Halifax.
In August, Hellyer unveiled the new uniform: a bottle green imitation of the United States Air Force uniform. No one in the navy could understand why Highlanders could keep their kilts, but the navy’s distinctive uniforms would have to go. The issue of uniforms caused an explosion in Halifax in September, when Hellyer tried to defend his action to a wardroom packed full of serving officers. A near riot ensued when he charged the navy with a belief that their uniform was ordained by God.
The bitterness and acrimony of the debate intensified over the next six months as the act of unification, Bill C-243, cleared the House in May 1967 and was put into effect Feb. 1, 1968. On that day the Royal Canadian Navy (and the RCAF and the Army) ceased to exist. They were replaced by a unified service and a series of functional commands, with the fleet falling within something called Maritime Command. Naval uniforms disappeared formally on July 1, 1970. The navy salvaged only a few vestiges of its former identity. The ‘HMCS’ prefix was retained for ship names, and the sea-going branches were spared the embarrassment of having to adopt an army rank structure (which would have had ships commanded by lieutenant-colonels).
The humiliation of unification was paralleled by a declining budget and an equally sharp decline in the size of the fleet during the 1960s. The modernization called for in the late 1950s to meet the new threats was partly addressed by rebuilding some of the St. Laurents into helicopter carriers (the DDH classes), and adopting the Sea King with it dunking sonar as a response to faster subs. The aging Second World War vintage ships, including the destroyers, were discarded, replaced by four new DDH 280s class vessels—the new Tribals. A small squadron of three O class submarines were acquired for training purposes, and three fleet replenishment ships had been completed by the 1970s. To save the fleet the navy was forced to dispose of its carrier and its expensive fixed wing aviation. As a rule, the new government of Pierre Trudeau saw its armed forces as token commitments to NATO and allowed them to languish.
The 1970s were therefore the locust years of the modern Canadian navy. Dispirited by cuts and unification, and clothed in green uniforms, the fleet’s operational capabilities declined rapidly. By the end of the decade the only first-line capability left was anti-submarine warfare. However, the advent of sea-skimming missiles and especially submarine launched cruise missiles meant that by the late 1970s even the Gulf of St. Lawrence was unsafe for Canadian warships. To be safe while exercising their residual anti-submarine capability, Canadian naval forces had to be escorted by ships from other NATO navies. One editorial cartoon joked that the Russians were developing special “rust-seeking missiles” to deal with Canada’s navy.
Fortunately, the 1970s also ushered in the beginning of the naval renaissance that resulted in the building of the second Cold War fleet and events that would carry the navy into the 21st century. By the middle of the decade even Trudeau realized that the poor state of NATO conventional forces increased the danger of a pre-emptive Soviet strike and the ultimate horror of a nuclear exchange. To keep nuclear war at bay, NATO had to be prepared to fight—and win—a conventional war. At sea this meant modernization of the navy, and in December 1977 the government announced plans to build a new fleet of Canadian Patrol Frigates as a move towards an operational fleet of 24 major surface vessels. Getting these ships in the water would take time, and in 1978 a Destroyer Life Extension (DELEX) program was begun for the existing fleet. A replacement project for the Sea King helicopter fleet was also announced in 1977. Further announcements followed in the 1980s, including a program to upgrade the O class submarines from training subs to fully operational submarines, and a scheme to refit the four 280 class DDHs.
The naval renaissance continued until the end of the Cold War. Among the most ambitious plans were those for a fleet of nuclear powered attack submarines. These were ostensibly intended as a response to Soviet submarine activity in the Canadian Arctic, but in fact they would also serve to put Canada inside the nuclear sub camp and allow us to monitor what our friends were doing there, too. As part of this expansion, a second batch of CPFs were also ordered.
Of course, not all the elements of the last Cold War naval building boom were realized. The CPF contract was awarded in 1983, the DELEX program went ahead, as did the submarine and Tribal upgrades. But the nuclear submarine project collapsed as the Cold War ended, and new helicopters remained an elusive dream for the next 30 years. The good news by 1990 was that the navy had a great deal of modern equipment around, and much essential preliminary training done on the new systems, so that the existing fleet could be retrofitted before a task force departed for the first Gulf War in the fall of 1990.
In addition to rebuilding the fleet, governments in the 1980s also rebuilt the morale and the national character of the service itself. In 1983, the naval reserve headquarters was moved to Quebec City, to give the navy a better presence in the province and help nurture a welcoming milieu in the service for francophones. The move was remarkably successful, as the navy came to be functionally bilingual and francophones rose up the ranks. The navy also got back into blue—and summer white—uniforms in 1985, as a 75th anniversary gift. As one officer recalled about the ‘new’ uniforms as he walked the Vancouver waterfront, “I felt on top of the world!”
By the time the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, the Canadian naval renaissance was well underway. The second Cold War fleet was on the stocks, the existing fleet was being modernized, morale had been restored, and Canada’s franco-phone community had found a home in the service. The long dark days of the navy’s Babylonian captivity in unification green during the 1970s had purged it of any notions that it was anything other than Canadian. To a considerable extent Laurier’s dream had been realized.
Canada’s Merchant Navy
The destruction of the Canadian merchant ship Maplecourt on Feb. 6, 1941, was quite typical of enemy thinking on how to deal with Allied shipping: cut off the Allies Atlantic lifeline and you starve Britain into submission. Approximately 40 sailors died after Maplecourt was torpedoed in the frigid North Atlantic, west of Ireland. Her loss would be recorded as one of more than 70 Canadian merchant ships destroyed by enemy action during the war.
The most important part to remember though is that the service and sacrifices made by Canada’s merchant seamen made them true heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic. In crossing after crossing, they faced the risks and pushed themselves beyond what most of us would consider the limits of human endurance. Those with First World War experience could tell stories about enemy submarines and mines and, of course, the wild North Atlantic weather. But they also understood that the enemy had to be defeated—that the crucial transatlantic lifeline had to remain open.
Spanning more than a hundred years, the overall story of Canada’s merchant navy is incredibly vast and that is why Legion Magazine will present an in-depth feature on the subject in an upcoming issue that will reach your mailbox soon.
This story will, most notably, reflect on the early days and examine the tremendous and often forgotten contributions made during wartime. It will also examine the specific challenges faced by government and industry and by the sailors themselves. It will also look at the difficulties faced during the postwar years with respect to the lack of recognition for service and sacrifice.
We look forward to delivering this story to you. — the Editor
Email the writer at: [email protected]