PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA126721
The worst years of the Great Depression followed the Royal Canadian Navy’s adventure in El Salvador (The Invasion Of El Salvador, March/April). The bottom was reached in 1933, the year Adolph Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. The two events were closely related. By mid-1933, Hitler had subverted the German constitution, seized absolute power and started rearming. That same year, Walter Hose, the chief of the Naval Staff, fought his successful battle in Ottawa against the extinction of the RCN.
Not since the troubled years before World War I had the navy’s fortunes sunk so low, and one might have expected Hose to stay on to see the navy through to better days. But he did not. Even as he fought to save his service, Hose put the finishing touches on the career of his handpicked successor, Captain Percy Walker Nelles, RCN, the first man to join the ‘navy’ and the chief who would lead it to unimagined status.
In many ways, Nelles was an unlikely choice. Small in stature with his long face adorned by glasses, he looked more like a clerk in a family firm than a man who would build a service. Indeed, many evaluations from senior officers described him as rather quiet, tactful and well suited to staff work, but not a dynamic leader. His most enduring trait, as Hose confided in his 1932 assessment, was utter devotion to “the good of the service” and he kept “this object in view both in his attention to duty and in his social activities.”
This was hardly a ringing endorsement, especially at a time when other Commonwealth navies were finding their chiefs from among the distinguished officers of the Royal Navy. However, in 1934 the RCN decided to promote from within. It proved to be a wise choice, and Hose must have seen a bit of a terrier in the man to whom he entrusted the RCN at the height of the Great Depression.
Nelles was born in Brantford, Ont., in 1892, into what historian Roger Sarty described as “a family of ambitious middle-class professionals.” His father, Charles Meklam Nelles, served as militiaman in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, and was so enamoured of military life that in 1897 he took a commission in the Royal Canadian Dragoons just in time for the South African War, in which he was wounded. By 1912, Percy’s father was commanding officer of his regiment, and led it during WW I, finishing as inspector of cavalry and on the reserve list as a brigadier.
It seems likely that his father’s success in Canada’s small professional military establishment had a profound impact on Nelles’ future. Certainly, young Percy benefited from attendance at private schools, and his naval career was watched closely by the elder Nelles. But from the outset, Percy charted his own career course and it had nothing to do with horses or the rigours of army campaigning. His heart was set on the navy. When finally pressed by his father in 1908, at the age of 16, to make a decision between the Royal Military College and the navy, Percy is reported to have said, “You know, Dad, there’s only one answer.” His father duly wrote the minister of Marine and Fisheries, seeking a placement for his son as a cadet in the Canadian naval service.
The problem for Nelles was that there was, as yet, no Canadian navy. Sir Charles Kingsmill had only just arrived to militarize the Fisheries Protection Service, and he had only just announced that the FPS would accept cadets for training–in anticipation of the founding of a naval service. By the time Charles Nelles wrote on his son’s behalf on July 6, 1908, Kingsmill had already accepted a youth named F.A. Campbell. Kingsmill informed the minister of Marine and Fisheries that it would be better if the FPS had two cadets, but no more–at least for the moment. So, Nelles was actually the second cadet entered for service in the soon-to-be Canadian navy, but since Campbell promptly withdrew, Nelles alone constituted the entire class of 1908.
Confirmation of his appointment to Canadian Government Ship Canada was sent out Aug. 19, advising him that this “new departure” was likely to be fraught with difficulties. In compensation he received $15 per month and one uniform on entry and one uniform per year thereafter. That left Nelles as the founding recruit of the Canadian navy. The next year he was joined by Victor G. Brodeur, the son of the minister of Marine and Fisheries. The two were to become the only long-serving members of those early classes, and to some extent rivals. That also meant that in 1933 Hose had a very small cadre of potential successors to choose from.
The RCN was formally established on May 4, 1910. On June 26, Nelles and the other cadets of the classes of 1909-10–C.T. Beard, H.T. Bate, P.B. German, J.A. Barron and V.G. Brodeur–were appointed to His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Niobe as midshipmen, although they had to wait until she arrived in Halifax in October before joining the gunroom. When both the cruiser and the navy itself (metaphorically) ran aground in 1911, Nelles and his classmates were sent overseas to finish their training aboard His Majesty’s Ship Dreadnought, the ship that gave its name as a classification for all subsequent battleships armed with a single calibre of large guns.
Young Percy’s progress was watched closely by his father, who received reports from the deputy minister. After passing his seamanship exam with a score of 862 out of 1,000 in early January 1913, Nelles and his fellow midshipmen went to the Royal Naval College for navigation, heat and steam, mathematics and electrical instruction. Nelles finished that program with a second-class standing–only German achieved a first–tied with Bate and Brodeur. Then it was on to the Whale Island gunnery school, where Bate and Nelles finished top of the class, and from there to pilotage exams where Nelles earned a second-class standing. The summer of 1913 was spent on manoeuvres aboard HMS Neptune, one of the latest British battleships.
With all his basic qualifications completed and the RCN at home totally moribund, Nelles and his father made enquiries late in 1913 about transferring Percy’s service to the imperial fleet. As Charles wrote Kingsmill in December, “I feel that he would have a better chance for advancement if he starts early in the British service….” That said, the elder Nelles confided that his son would “gladly come home when Canada gets ships….” Charles was informed that individual transfers were not possible, but that Percy’s seniority was secure within the imperial naval list. In the event, it was just as well that his father was watching closely. At the end of 1913 Percy had failed to apply for promotion to sub-lieutenant, and it had to be granted in mid-1914 retroactive to Dec. 1, 1913.
By early 1914, Nelles was home on leave with all his basic training completed and no navy to serve in. Then on Jan. 2 he received word that Kingsmill had mailed him a train ticket to New York, a steamer ticket for Bermuda, and $50. And so on Feb. 25, 1914, Nelles joined the wardroom of the cruiser Suffolk, then part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron based at Bermuda. Shortly after joining her, on July 14, 1914, Nelles was promoted to acting lieutenant, a rank confirmed on Aug. 29. By then Suffolk was cruising the east coast of Mexico, looking after British interests during the civil war. When the war started in August, Suffolk immediately came north to Halifax to guard shipping in the northwest Atlantic. Nelles stayed in that duty, transferring to the cruiser Antrim, until late 1916. Cruiser patrols in the western Atlantic were tiresome and uneventful.
Nonetheless, there was plenty for a very junior officer to do, and Nelles performed well. The captain in Suffolk described him as a “very zealous + hard working…. A good officer.” Antrim’s captain concurred, noting “A hard working, careful + painstaking officer…who takes a real interest in his work.” It was during this time that Nelles met and later married Helen Schuyler Allen in the Pembroke Parish Church in Bermuda. It was also during this period that problems with his eyesight almost ended his naval career, and forced him ashore in the United Kingdom. Until this was corrected he was considered “incapacitated from serving at sea.”
In the spring of 1917, the nature of the war at sea changed profoundly, and provided an important opening for young Nelles. The Germans opted for unrestricted submarine warfare. Allied shipping losses skyrocketed, and the RCN braced for an onslaught along the east coast. By then Nelles and most of his classmates were in the UK, awaiting assignment to British ships or–in Nelles’ case–his ultimate fate. At the end of March, Kingsmill ordered Nelles home, ostensibly to serve as his flag lieutenant, a post he held until Kingsmill’s retirement in 1920. Although Nelles soon found himself on the staff of the Royal Naval College of Canada, it is clear that Kingsmill wanted to give the young naval officer staff experience. “These sorts of extended staff appointments in Ottawa,” Sarty concluded, “were unusual; indeed, Nelles may have been unique among the young RCN officers…” who served almost exclusively in British ships and establishments before 1922. In fact, there is early indication that Nelles was among the chosen.
In 1920, Nelles went overseas for the intelligence course in England, before returning to Naval Service Headquarters (NSHQ) for “War Staff Duties (Intelligence).” While serving in Ottawa, Nelles was promoted to lieutenant-commander on July 14, 1922.
Staff appointments at NSHQ from 1917 to 1923 allowed Nelles to witness three salient events in the early years of his service. The first was the RCN’s reaction to the U-boat crisis of 1917-18. Nelles, like Hose on the coast, watched the U-boats cut a swath through the east coast fisheries in 1918, and saw first-hand the consequences of unpreparedness, not least the inability or unwillingness of the imperial navy to solve Canada’s problems despite its promises. He would also have witnessed Kingsmill’s struggle to assert Canadian control over Canadian establishments, and the importance of intelligence and naval control of shipping to the ultimate defeat of the U-boats. And then he watched as all that hard work was nearly swept away in the budget crisis of 1921-22. These were formative years, and Nelles’ commitment to the Canadian navy can only have been solidified by the experience. Moreover, the senior staff of the RCN, among them the new director of the naval service, Walter Hose, clearly liked what they saw of him.
After leaving Ottawa in 1923, Nelles spent a decade alternating between British and Canadian posts, and sea and shore assignments. His first posting was to the British cruiser Caledon as executive officer in 1923, clear evidence that his vision problems had been corrected. When Captain Dudley North left Caledon in April 1924 he recommended Nelles for the war staff course, which he completed that year. The course went well and Nelles got a solid evaluation from the new captain of Caledon when he left her in October. “A very keen and zealous officer,” he wrote. “Small in stature with no great outstanding characteristics. He is most painstaking with his work, good tempered + very pleasant socially. Has taken a Staff Course and should make a good staff officer. Saved from being mediocre by his love for + keeness on his profession.”
By the time he finished the RN staff course, Nelles was already tagged for position of senior naval officer at Esquimalt. This was a reward that must have seemed like rustication for an officer who wanted to be at sea. After spending some time in Ottawa updating the west coast defence plans and then visiting the naval reserve divisions across the west, Nelles took command of Canada’s west coast naval establishment on Dec. 1, 1925. That same day he was promoted to commander, a full 13 months ahead of his closest contemporary, Brodeur. Nelles stayed at Esquimalt until 1929, and by then–if not sooner–he was Hose’s chosen man.
In 1928, Hose began lobbying the Admiralty for a sea assignment for his protege, and wrote an enthusiastic endorsement of his period in command on the west coast. Then, following the RN’s staff officer technical course in late 1929, Nelles landed the best sea-going job of his career: Executive officer of the Bermuda-based cruiser HMS Dragon in March 1930.
In the summer of 1930, Dragon set off on a South American tour and was making her way down the Pacific coast when her captain dropped dead. As Dragon’s executive officer, Nelles immediately assumed command. However, the Admiralty had no thoughts of abandoning the cruise. So Nelles was appointed acting captain and carried on, taking Dragon on a three-month program of visits to South American countries and serving as the empire’s ambassador.
Everyone was well pleased with his work. Vice-Admiral V.H. Haggard, RN, commander-in-chief of the America and West Indies Squadron, declared himself entirely satisfied with Nelles’ performance and recommended him for promotion to captain. So, too, did the RN’s Home Fleet commander, who “especially” recommended his promotion.
This was just the kind of endorsement Nelles needed. By December 1930, Hose was advising his deputy minister that Nelles was likely the next chief of the naval service. However, there were still several things Nelles needed to do to qualify for the job, and Hose saw that he did them. When he came home in 1931, Nelles took command of the new destroyer Saguenay upon her commissioning on May 22. Assuming as well the title of senior officer, Canadian Destroyer Flotilla, Nelles spent a year at sea before Hose brought him ashore in June 1932 for a brief stint as commander-in-charge of HMCS Stadacona, the navy’s east coast base.
With that, Nelles had commanded both of the RCN’s major establishments, one of its destroyers and, in fact, the flotilla as well, and held some key staff jobs at NSHQ. There was now just one thing left to do. On Jan. 1, 1933, Nelles was promoted to full captain and sent off to the Imperial Defence College in Britain for his final finishing as a senior officer. Nelles became the assistant chief of the naval service on Jan. 1, 1934, and, upon promotion to commodore first class, on July 1 of that year he took over from Hose as chief of the naval service. He was the first RCN officer to become the professional head of the service.
Nelsonic in stature, if not in deed, Nelles, by 1934, was nonetheless the youngest commodore first class in the British Commonwealth, and he was no pushover. General Andy McNaughton commented that during the 1933 debates over laying-up the fleet that Nelles was by no means “inflexible”, and was perhaps “open to conviction.” Maybe, but Nelles shared Hose’s passion for the RCN, and the army would find him uncompromising in his defence of his service. Indeed, within five years Nelles had secured the destroyer fleet laid out by Hose a decade before and was already working on more ambitious plans.