The small ships of the Sheep Dog Navy at war in the vile North Atlantic came to be seen as Canada’s naval war, and as the origins of the modern Canadian navy. But during the Second World War the overriding objective of the professional Royal Canadian Navy was securing the basics of a balanced postwar fleet—destroyers and cruisers, and later aircraft carriers.
This meant continuing to train the young RCN officers in the big ships and establishments of the Royal Navy. It would also serve the ‘big fleet’ objective if Canadians were spread even more broadly in the British fleet during wartime. So Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve officer candidates were also sent to the RN, “to serve,” as Admiral Percy Nelles said in early 1940, “in interesting appointments overseas and represent Canada at the scene of operations.”
These decisions were taken early in the war, but they had long-term and unintended consequences. They meant that a large cadre of the best and brightest of both regular force and reserve Canadian naval officers were in the RN. Their crucial leadership skills and expertise were therefore unavailable to the Sheep Dog Navy when it was needed most.
There were at least three ‘streams’ of young Canadian officers flowing into the RN by 1940. The smallest and longest standing were the young Canadians who had decided to make a career of the navy and had joined the professional RCN. Following the closure of the Royal Naval College of Canada in 1922, all initial training—in fact the first five years of naval service—of young RCN officers was done within British establishments and ships. After successfully completing both a civil service exam and an interview, RCN cadets were sent to His Majesty’s Ship Erebus or Frobisher as part of the RN’s special entry program (which included public schoolboys and other aspiring officers from Australia, New Zealand and India) for 12 to 16 months of training. From there the new “midshipmen” were assigned to the gunrooms of British battleships or cruisers. There they learned their business as naval officers until they were promoted to acting sub-lieutenants and sent for specialist training within the British system.
Historians and others later criticized the RCN’s practice of ‘forming’ its officers in the RN. Unpretentious local lads with regional Canadian accents often returned after five years with ‘mid-Atlantic’ accents and all the affectations of the British upper classes. Even Richard Leir, who joined the RCN in 1940 and retired as a rear-admiral, later conceded that the system had “become archaic by the outbreak of World War II.”
Certainly, enculturation into British practice was cited as one of the failings of the RCN officer corps in the mutinies that swept the postwar navy.
But for Leir and his companions the experience was unparalleled. “Living, learning and fighting as a sort of ‘non-person’ in the military hierarchy, the midshipman existed between the two worlds of the officer and the man, with a window into each,” Leir recalled. “He could observe, at close range, the interaction of these worlds and develop, at an early stage, the skills required to bind them together.”
Once training at sea was completed, the new “Acting Sub-Lieutenants, RCN” were sent on training courses, so some of the first Canadian naval officers to see action were those attending courses at British establishments along the southern coast of England in 1940. Among them was Bob Timbrell, who was doing his gunnery course at HMS Excellent, near Portsmouth, as France fell. As the British army prepared to evacuate the continent at Dunkirk, Timbrell—all of 20 years—was summoned to the captain’s office, given a slip of paper and told to report to a ship called the Llanthony. He arrived to find a white yacht with a striking yellow funnel, with eight people milling around the dock. It was then that Timbrell opened the paper in his hand: The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty had appointed him in command of His Majesty’s Ship Llanthony, tasked with evacuating the British Expeditionary Force from Normandy.
Armed with a .45 calibre pistol, Llanthony made four uneventful trips between Dunkirk to Dover before the yacht was bombed. The blast killed five crew, cut the yacht’s fuel lines and left her stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. Timbrell and his men made repairs, drove a Bren gun carrier into the sea as an anchor to winch the yacht off at high tide, loaded it with more soldiers and carried on. Several soldiers and their weapons stayed on board to increase Llanthony’s armament, and later helped her fight off an e-boat attack. They kept at it for 12 days and brought 600 soldiers safely to the United Kingdom. When it was over, Llanthony was a shambles. Timbrell simply climbed onto a local bus bound for Portsmouth.
Dick Leir’s ship was a lot bigger than Llanthony’s and he certainly was not in command of her. He was the only RCN mid on the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales when she commissioned and joined the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in early 1941. It was a heady time as the fleet waited anxiously to intercept German warships breaking out into the North Atlantic. In the meantime, Leir got to know the other young Canadians in gun rooms around the fleet, including the three Canadian mids on the battle cruiser HMS Hood. A few months later, off the coast of Greenland, Leir was in the spotter’s seat of Prince of Wales’ forward 14-inch gun turret. He had a front row seat for the battle with the Bismarck and watched the Hood disappear in a shattering explosion. She took with her the only RCN midshipmen killed in action during the Second World War: Thomas Beard, Francis Jones and Christopher Norman.
In August 1941, Prince of Wales carried Winston Churchill to Newfoundland for his historic meeting with President Roosevelt, to whom Leir was presented by the battleship’s captain as “our captive North American.” Pleasant days on the RN’s most modern battleships soon ended for Leir, when Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sent to Singapore to deter Japanese aggression. When that failed, they steamed on Dec. 8 to intercept Japanese forces headed for Malaya, only to be swarmed and were sunk by Japanese aircraft two days later. The surviving midshipmen from both ships were transferred to the cruiser HMS Exeter. Leir survived her sinking, too, in February, and spent the next three years as a prisoner of war.
The experience of RCN midshipmen early in the war was paralleled by two groups of RCNVR officers. Very early in the war, the RCN recruited a small number of RCNVR officers experienced in electronics and physics to help the RN with the new radar systems being fitted to large British ships. The group was so successful that the British asked for more and the RCN obliged by enlisting a series of groups, and putting them through a program at the University of Toronto. Soon just about every major British warship had a Canadian radar officer. Indeed, “Canadian” and “radar” became so synonymous that one RN cruiser captain in the Mediterranean formally complained when his new radar officer was British: “Why cannot I receive a proper radar officer—a Canadian?”
The radar officer of Prince of Wales in 1941 was Stu Paddon, who joined the RCNVR in 1940 and retired as a rear-admiral, RCN 30 years later. It speaks well for the Canadians sent overseas to operate British naval radar that Sub.-Lt. Paddon was responsible for the radar suite of the RN’s latest battleship during her trials in early 1941. “The ship,” Paddon recalled many years later, “was a showpiece and there were trials officers of every description from all quarters and branches inundating the wardroom at all times.” Among Paddon’s ‘staff’ was a scientist from the signal research establishment and over 30 RN personnel. It probably helped this bright young Canadian reservist that he had not been raised in the strict regimen of the gunroom. He needed easy familiarity with senior officers, the ratings who operated the equipment and the technicians on board to make the system work.
Paddon’s task was daunting. Previous British warships carried a radar set. Prince of Wales had 10; one air/surface warning set, and nine fire control radars for gunnery, including secondary and anti-aircraft guns.
While Leir watched the battle with the Bismarck from the forward 14-inch turret, Paddon monitored Prince of Wales air/surface warning radar. He ‘tracked’ Bismarck’s incoming shells until his antenna was destroyed, and later reported to the Admiralty that Bismarck’s fire control radar operated on 86 megacycles and occasionally interfered with his own set. The destruction of the air/surface warning aerial denied Prince of Wales crucial information in the poor weather and night that followed, and one of Paddon’s type 285 secondary fire control radar offices was destroyed and five operators killed. Paddon and the scientist aboard cleaned up those sets, picking pieces of his crew from the mangled radar monitors.
Paddon’s air/surface warning radar was silent on the morning of Dec. 10, 1941, as Prince of Wales and Repulse steamed off the coast of Malaya. The first hint of Japanese aircraft was therefore a visual sighting, at which point his radar was switched on, revealing enemy aircraft out to 20 miles. From his air defence station on the after part of the bridge, Paddon watched the attack develop. The Japanese concentrated first on Prince of Wales, which was quickly struck by three torpedoes. These hit nothing vital, and should not have been fatal, but one had hit the port propeller shaft while it was turning at high speed. The distortion of the shaft led to catastrophic failure in the shaft tunnels and engine rooms, leading to extensive flooding and a sudden list to port. Prince of Wales was soon stationary. The Japanese then turned their attention to Repulse, hitting her while she, too, was travelling at high speed. Paddon watched her roll over and plunged straight down into the sea with great loss of life.
Paddon was picked up by the destroyer Express (later HMCS Gatineau) and taken into Singapore. There the radar officer of HMS Exeter, Lieut. George Tidy, RCNVR, provided him with clothing. Both Tidy and Leir survived Exeter’s loss in February 1942. Paddon was luckier. He was sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he helped HMS Royal Sovereign’s radar officer, Lieut. Bob Battles, RCNVR, get the ship’s main fire control radar operational. Then after overseeing the installation of Trincomalee’s harbour defence radar, Paddon joined the staff of the RN’s Eastern Fleet as radar officer. Apparently he was the only one who could tell the admiral the radar capabilities of his ships. The Japanese fleet did approach Ceylon, and Paddon was able to watch on his radar as the British cruisers Cornwall and Dorestshire were sunk by aircraft. The Canadian radar officer of Cornwall later told him that after the ships had been sunk, the Japanese aircraft formed up and flew over the survivors in the water, dipping their wings in salute, just as they had done over the survivors of Prince of Wales and Repulse.
The third stream of young Canadian talent into the RN early in the Second World War was the dispatch of general service RCNVR officers into the training program at HMS King Alfred. This grew out of the early, very modest RCN plans for wartime expansion. When approached by yacht clubs and sailing enthusiasts in early 1940 about getting young men into naval service, the RCN saw little value in such Sunday Sailors. The type of ships “suitable to Canadian service conditions,” Admiral Percy Nelles observed, “are more suited to the employment of professional seamen than of amateur small boat yachstmen.” His view was shared. Even the Director of Naval Personnel noted that yachting had about as much to do with the qualifications of a modern naval officer “as kite flying has to do with the needs of the air force.”
The solution to this early war pressure to serve by many of Canada’s best and brightest young men was to send them, too, to the RN. The first batch of 50 was authorized in early 1940. They went to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve training establishment HMS King Alfred, at Hove, on the English Channel, for a six-week course. Gordon Stead, who was one of the first through King Alfred, recalled that the training “gave us a good start in signals, navigation, anti-submarine tactics and the beginnings of ship handling navy-style.…” From there the young officers went to several weeks of specialist training (such as navigation or gunnery), and then to sea. They were asked to list their preferences, such as cruisers, destroyers, motor launches and the like, and then took what was offered. Stead went to motor launches, and has a distinguished wartime record, including command of the 3rd ML which became the famed “Malta Flotilla” during the epic siege of that island.
When the manning requirements for the new auxiliary vessels finally hit the RCN in early 1941, the navy formalized the arrangement to train some of its RCNVR officers at King Alfred. They expected many—perhaps most—to come back to crew the new corvettes. Few, if indeed any, did. These men, the mids in the gunrooms and the Canadian radar officers throughout the British fleet, were welcome additions to the RN. One is left to wonder at what their expertise and energy might have accomplished for the struggling Sheep Dog Navy.
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