The Stuff Of Victory: Navy, Part 37

February 14, 2010 by Marc Milner
A member of the RCN Naval Control of Shipping Service emerges from a ship’s hold after examining the cargo. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104427]

A member of the RCN Naval Control of Shipping Service emerges from a ship’s hold after examining the cargo.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104427

Naval historians tend to focus on action at sea, and in the early period of the Second World War they typically find much that is wrong with Canada’s burgeoning wartime navy. There is ample evidence—as we have seen in this series—that the fleet was unprepared for war, and that the operations of Newfoundland Escort Force left a legacy of bungling ineptitude that haunted the Canadian navy for generations.

However, the distinguished British naval historian Sir Julian Corbett once opined that historians focus on battles and “forget that naval history is not made up of them.” For Corbett, the key to success in maritime war was sound strategy and solid administration.  If this is so, then the Royal Canadian Navy’s contribution to Allied naval control of shipping during these troubled early years was perhaps its most important contribution to victory.

The bedrock of Allied strategy in the Atlantic war was the successful movement of the people, ships and materiel. This was true when France was Britain’s major ally, and especially true after Western Europe fell, and Britain, her Empire and Commonwealth—aided by the United States—formed the western coalition. Not only did Britain’s survival as a nation depend upon the free use of the sea, but so too did waging war against the Axis. Despite the tactical and occasional operational short­-comings at sea, the basic organization—needed to defend that vital shipping—constituted a silent victory.

It was well understood by senior British Commonwealth officers that escort forces were the last line of defence for merchant shipping—not the first line as claimed by wartime propagandists. The principle means of defending shipping was always avoidance of the enemy, and this required sound organization and effective command and control. The first line of defence was always the general covering action of the main Allied fleets, in combination with intelligence on the enemy’s movements. The fleet prevented the enemy from reaching the broad Atlantic or—as in the case of the Bismarck in May 1941—hunted him down and sank him if he did. Organizing shipping so it could be defended was the task of Naval Control of Shipping (NCS). NCS could either route individual ships clear of danger or, if the enemy could not be avoided (as was the case with U-boats, that easily escaped the Allied blockade), assemble it into convoys, move it under escort, and route it clear of danger. Only if all this failed, was the escort of the convoy expected to fight.

This conception of maritime strategy was well understood prior to the war (On A War Footing, January/February 2007), and the RCN was part of it from the outset. To make it work, the British Empire and Commonwealth ran a global system of regional naval intelligence and naval control of shipping centres co-ordinated through the Admiralty in London.

The Ottawa regional centre of this network during the first half of the war was the Directorate of Naval Intelligence and Plans (DNI&P), operated by Captain Eric S. Brand, RN. As director of naval Intelligence, he carried a huge burden, but the NCS work took up most of his time. He had to work closely with other government departments and civilian agencies at the highest level, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Department of Transport, Department of External Affairs, the Censorship Co-ordination Committee, British passport officials, the Economic Warfare Section of the British embassy in Washington, CN and CP communications (telegraph and wireless) and even the Meteorological Service of the Canadian government.

Intelligence gathering, collation and dissemination and NCS were daunting tasks, and eventually in 1943 they were separated into an Operational Intelligence Centre and a Trade Division of the Naval Staff with Brand as its first and only head.

Capt. Eric S. Brand in front of a poster extolling the value of the merchant navy. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA204258]

Capt. Eric S. Brand in front of a poster extolling the value of the merchant navy.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA204258

In the meantime, Brand’s DNI&P office did it all. In December 1939, he had nine officers and two civil servants to run his office. A year later he had 11 officers, but his civilian staff had swollen to 65. The growth reflects Ottawa’s important role as the British Empire and Commonwealth’s regional intelligence and trade centre for North America. It was responsible for a network of naval intelligence, NCS, civilian reporting officers and British agents in all Canadian and American ports, except for the Gulf of Mexico, which at this stage was run from Jamaica. Few of these, mostly the staff officers, intelligence and naval control of shipping officers in Canada’s defended ports, were naval officers.  The vast majority were civilian reporting officers (ROs)—typically collectors of customs—in a multitude of smaller ports, and British consular shipping agents (CSAs) along the American coasts. All of them reported routinely to Ottawa, and all received a stream of routing instructions from Ottawa for ships departing their local ports.

A free flow of information was crucial, and this was good from the outset and steadily improved. Reporting officers in small ports passed information to the regional SO(I) or local NCSO, who then channelled it to Ottawa. Routing information for outbound traffic passed down the system through the same chain. Delays occurred when NCS officers carrying secret material, that had to be delivered by hand, got stuck on snowy roads on the way to smaller ports, but generally the system worked well.

The information flow from American ports was more problematic. Since the United States was neutral there could be no overt naval control of shipping or naval intelligence presence in American ports. The CSAs—retired British naval officers all, paid through the RN establishment in Bermuda—reported through diplomatic channels to Ottawa when possible. But Brand also maintained a fictional civilian “shipping office” in Montreal, through which he received personal letters containing information from agents in the U.S. Early in the war these letters suddenly stopped coming. Shortly afterwards Brand was visited by the RCMP, who requested his help in a case of shipping espionage. The police had discovered that shipping intelligence from American ports was being passed through the mail to a ‘Mr. Edgar Q. Winger’ of Montreal. Brand had to confess that he was Mr. Winger, and the letters started coming through again.

By 1940, much of what DNI&P did involved tracking shipping and co-ordinating its movement. The Mercantile Intelligence section was perhaps the key. It tracked information related to the movements of merchant ships. This included not only their positions at all times, but their fuel states, the movements of key commodities such as oil, and secret wireless traffic. It acted as the link with the British Ministry of Economic Warfare in London, and was the conduit for all information flow to Ottawa’s network of NCSOs, CSAs and reporting officers. It was the Mercantile Intelligence section that issued daily summaries of traffic to interested authorities, such as the Ministry of War Transport, the Admiralty, other regional centres, the Norwegian, Dutch and Polish governments, and operational authorities on the two coasts. It also co-ordinated postal shipments and tracked and reported shipping on the Great Lakes. While this was going on, Mercantile Intelligence tracked Japanese merchant ship movements and forwarded these to Naval Intelligence.

Brand’s Foreign Intelligence section initially monitored the movements of all other enemy merchant ships, but by 1941 this had expanded to include neutrals. Much of its work involved radio intercepts and wireless traffic analysis. By 1940, it operated the wireless intercept station at Esquimalt and was reading certain Japanese merchant codes. By 1943, this section of DNI&P had evolved into the RCN’s Operational Intelligence centre. Meanwhile, North America’s English language media was screened by the Director of Naval Information, who watched for media leaks of shipping movements. This was soon found to be a waste of effort and was abandoned.

While these sections gathered intelligence, the naval control of shipping tasks fell to two sections. The Movements Section was the central clearing house for all Allied ship movements, both naval and mercantile movements, and it tracked known positions of enemy forces. This information was used to develop and issue routing orders to merchant shipping, both independents and convoys. It was the task of the Routing and Convoy section to track movements of convoys and independently routed shipping to ensure proper separation, and to keep accurate record of positions, and expected arrivals. Of necessity, the Routing and Convoy section worked closely with Mercantile Movements, and both had to work closely with Naval Intelligence and operational forces.

The objective was to track all pieces ‘in play’ on the surface of the sea. Knowing where everything was—or was supposed to be—allowed merchant shipping to be routed safely. Equally importantly, it alerted operational authorities to when ships were either ‘out of place’ or late arriving. Since Axis merchant raiders often disguised themselves as Allied or neutral ships, it helped to know where the real vessel was. A case in point was the loss of His Majesty’s Australian Ship Sydney to the German raider Kormoran in the Indian Ocean. The raider reported herself as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka which bought her time to open fire first on the powerful cruiser and ultimately sink her. Knowing that the Dutch ship was actually elsewhere at that time might have saved Sydney. It was also important to ensure any sudden spike in tardy or non-tardy arrivals was noted, as this could indicate an enemy vessel along a given route.

A rating of the Naval Control of Shipping Service inspects a cargo of shells aboard a wartime merchant ship at Halifax. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104377]

A rating of the Naval Control of Shipping Service inspects a cargo of shells aboard a wartime merchant ship at Halifax.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104377

In addition to these functions, DNI&P handled a few others. The Naval Distribution Authority supplied, distributed and was responsible for security of all confidential books and secret publications for the naval and merchant ships. The Defensive Equipment of Merchant Ships (DEMS) also fell to DNI&P’s office by 1940. It oversaw the provision of weapons, armour and other defensive equipment to merchant ships. The Sea Transport section took care of troop movements, including co-ordination with Canadian railways and the British authorities that controlled the liners. And prior to the fall of Western Europe, DNI&P ran a Contraband Control section to oversee trade through the Allied blockade with Germany. Its main operation was the control station at Saint John, N.B., where U.S. ships, in particular, bound for ports in northern Europe could obtain clearance to pass through the blockade.

As the regional centre for North America, it was DNI&P’s task to gather all shipping intelligence together at the end of the day and issue summaries to London and other regional centres around the world. The Admiralty’s Trade Division received the data and kept a master plot of the world situation. Summaries to other regional centres kept them informed of clearances from Canadian ports for destinations in their area, with routes and estimated times of arrival. Ottawa, in turn, received similar daily reports, so in theory there were no surprise arrivals: harbour masters knew who was due and when.

The only major gap early in the war was the failure of London to issue its own summaries to regional centres. This massive global exchange of information was known as the VESCA system, and it formed the bedrock of Allied victory at sea.

The only major addition to the process of naval control of shipping after 1940 was the advent of the British Ministry of War Transport (MWT) in May 1941. Its task was to act as a civilian clearing house of information and control over the movement of merchant ships and their cargoes as part of the larger scheme to manage Britain’s war economy.  The opening of an MWT office at Montreal in 1941 came as a surprise to Brand, as did the sudden demand for information on the movement of Allied shipping in the Canadian zone. After a voluminous correspondence and a high-level conference with Sir Ashley Sparkes, the MWT representative in Washington, a modus vivendi—based on a strict need-to-know policy—was worked out. What MWT needed to know was when it could expect its ships to sail and when it could expect them to arrive. Given the general vagaries of seaborne transport, absolute precision was not necessary, merely rough estimates. So Brand and MWT settled on “desirable sailing” dates as targets for MWT to work towards. If this date was met, then the navy ensured final arrival within a certain window. For example, ships arriving in Halifax by a certain day could expect to meet the next convoy sailing and—depending on the speed of the convoy—to arrive in the U.K. a few weeks later.

Co-ordination between MWT and Brand’s staff was soon smooth. It helped that most of the MWT personnel were veteran shipping agents, and that they appreciated what the navy was doing to protect them. The navy, meanwhile, knew its role was to protect merchant shipping, not manage it. Civilian and service agencies had information crucial to the other’s tasks: ship speeds, cargoes, fuel states, length of voyages, ports of loading, destinations, and even handling, signalling and accommodation. MWT sought to run merchant shipping like a railway, using available tonnage to move a desired volume of cargo in the most efficient way. NCS, in turn, operated much like modern air traffic control, keeping track of the moving pieces so they could be routed safely or escorted, while getting everyone where they needed to go quickly and efficiently.

In 1941, Brand’s office began to draw the U.S. Navy into its embrace. The Americans knew he was running a secret reporting network from their ports, and by the spring the process of building a United States Navy NCS system was underway. Canada played a key role in making that happen. A Canadian officer from Routing and Convoy Section was seconded to Washington in 1941 to help. The new USN port directors began learning from the CSAs, while Ottawa supplied the confidential information and special publications related to NCS the USN needed. The American NCS system, especially the diversion room needed to control the movement of shipping, was not fully developed when the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. In the interim, Brand’s office assumed responsibility for merchant ship routing and diversions in the western hemisphere north of the equator. It was an enormous responsibility and one superbly executed. Unlike battles, none of this was dramatic and it is of little interest to historians, but it was the stuff of victory.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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