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The Roots Of Expansion: Navy, Part 18



HMCS Fraser plies the waters near Vancouver in 1938; (inset) Admiral Percy Nelles.

Walter Hose’s fleet plan was finally completed just as German troops pushed into Poland in 1939 and plunged the world into another world war. Long before that happened, however, the Royal Canadian Navy began to use the crisis in Europe to lever ever more substantial ships from a government now willing to build an even stronger navy. Had this truly ambitious phase of Mackenzie King’s peacetime naval program been completed, he would have presided over what amounted to the fulfilment of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s original scheme of 1910: a large and powerful fleet of essentially light cruisers well supported by ancillary vessels.

Such support for things naval is a remarkable insight into the thinking of the Canadian prime minister whom most consider anti-military. In the event, the outbreak of war quickly overtook King’s 1939 expansion plan. But the war did nothing to diminish his support for naval expansion, and it is interesting to reflect on the ways in which the navy’s unprecedented wartime growth had its roots in government policy of the late 1930s.

The four destroyers purchased from Britain in the late ’30s were perfectly suited to Canada’s needs. In fact, they were just the kind of vessels Hose had wanted in 1917-18 to deal with heavily armed U-Cruisers in Canadian waters. But by the late ’30s, Canadian defence planners were acutely aware that the kind of naval threat they faced in a new war with Germany would not be a few thinly plated submarines armed with one or two guns. In 1929, Germany began building a class of very long-range, ocean-going merchant raiders that the British quickly dubbed pocket battleships. Ships of this Deutschland class were a revolutionary new design. At nearly 12,000 tons displacement, they carried six 11-inch guns in two triple turrets, could cruise a very long distance and outrun anything they could not fight, except for three British battlecruisers that were faster than Deutschland’s 28 knots.

By the late 1930s, the Germans were building a whole fleet of modern, long-range, ocean-going warships of more conventional design. In 1938, these included two 31,000 ton battlecruisers with a 10,000 mile range and nine 11-inch guns in triple turrets, soon christened Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. By then plans were well developed to push the building program even further, with two 42,000-ton battleships of completely modern design, with 15-inch guns, and 8,000-mile range and 31 knots top speed. These eventually became Bismarck and Tirpitz.

In short, by the late 1930s it was evident to even the casual observer that Germany was building a fast, modern and very powerful fleet capable of cruising the North Atlantic. Moreover, with oil now replacing coal as the primary fuel and with a fleet of modern high-speed oil tankers under construction, German raiders would be able to patrol almost unrestricted in the vast expanses of the ocean. Given Canada’s importance to transatlantic shipping and its closeness to Europe, it was a fair bet that Canadian ports and waters would be targeted.

The modernization of battleship and cruiser design in the interwar years, especially their increasing size and speed, meant that fleet destroyer design had to keep pace. These vessels were used primarily to deliver massed torpedo attacks on the enemy fleet, to screen their own battle line from similar enemy attacks, and increasingly to guard battleships against submarine attack.

By the late 1920s, the Japanese were building larger, more powerful fleet destroyers of the Fubuki class, and in the early 1930s the Germans began to build big destroyers as well. These were later known in the British service as Narvik class, following the Royal Navy’s first brush with them in Norway on April 19, 1940. On that occasion the battleship Warspite and her supporting destroyers trapped eight of these large German destroyers, with five 5.9-inch guns, in the end of Narvik fiord. Three were sunk, and five scuttled themselves.

The British response to these big destroyers was eventually dubbed the Tribal class, after the policy of naming them for aboriginal peoples of the empire. These ships were half again bigger than the River class which the RCN acquired in the late 1930s, and carried a broadside of eight 4.7-inch guns: the only British destroyer ever to have that kind of firepower. They were, in fact, the first British destroyers designed to rely primarily on their guns, although they also carried four 21-inch torpedo tubes for their traditional role. By World War I standards, these large, heavily gunned destroyers were essentially light cruisers.

They were also the vessels that Rear Admiral Percy Walker Nelles, the chief of the Naval Staff, had his eyes on as war clouds gathered. His case was buttressed by the Joint Staff Committee (JSC) which tabled its latest estimate of Canadian defence problems and its recommendations for dealing with these on July 22, 1938. The JSC focused on threats from the new German battlecruisers and pocket battleships. Not only were these vessels possessed of tremendous firepower and the ability to range far and wide around the Atlantic, but aircraft launched from them could now hit cities in central Canada. Indeed, one of the now curious, but then very real threats driving Canadian estimates of forms and scales of attack in this period was fear of the establishment of secret German airbases along the remote coastline of the Atlantic and Hudson’s Bay. Anxiety was raised at one point when a German timber firm expressed interest in leasing land on Anticosti Island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. The request was denied–in part at least–out of fear of the establishment of secret airship bases able to launch attacks on central Canada. Existing German airships had routinely flown from Europe to North America during the interwar years, and therefore had the range to hit Toronto and Montreal on a one-way trip. Fixed wing aircraft from secret bases in the North could penetrate as deep. As a result, the canal locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., were given protection for most of the war.

This fear of new and dramatic means of attack, especially from the air, drove the defence budget to unprecedented heights by 1939 and provided the impetus plans of unprecedented naval expansion. In 1938-39, the whole defence budget was $33.5 million: the estimate announced in the speech from the throne in January 1939 for 1939-40 was $59.3 million. The lion’s share of the new money, $18 million of it, went to the air force. But the RCN’s budget jumped roughly 30 per cent in a single year, from $6.6 million to $8.2 million. In that same speech, defence minister Ian Mackenzie announced plans for the purchase of a destroyer leader (eventually HMCS Assiniboine) for the six River-class destroyers already in service, two new reserve forces (a Fleet Reserve of retired lower deck personnel and a Fishermen’s Reserve on the west coast), increased personnel in the three existing services–RCN, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and Royal Canadian Naval Reserve–and the building of new infrastructure on both coasts. The biggest news, however, was the government’s plan to increase the size of the fleet to 18 destroyers, and to add eight anti-submarine vessels, 12 more minesweepers, eight Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) and two depot ships.

The genesis of this plan went back to 1936 when it was generally agreed by the navy and the government that the minimum force for adequate defence was an active force of six destroyers per coast. That meant nine vessels per coast were needed in order to allow for refits and repairs. Apart from the MTBs, which were retained on the east coast because of the imminent threat from German vessels by 1939, the rest of the proposed fleet was to be split evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific. This was a shift from the previous concern over Japan. That remained. However, the danger from Germany had grown rapidly and the JSC agreed in 1938 that the navy had to be bigger and more balanced to deal with the two threats. To handle this new fleet the number of personnel would have to grow from 1,600 to 6,000 and two new bases would have to be built, one at Sydney, N.S., and one at Prince Rupert, B.C. In short, what Mackenzie King’s government proposed in January 1939 was a tripling of the RCN in ships and men.

The speech from the throne announcing these ambitious naval expansion plans coincided with the second Czech crisis. In January 1939 Germany renewed pressure on Czechoslovakia over its Sudeten Germans, and threatened war again. Nelles used the opportunity to push for the acquisition of Tribal-class destroyers. Such ships, he told the government, seemed ideally suited to Canadian needs.

Half again as big as the RCN’s existing destroyers, and mounting a gun armament fully twice as heavy, the new ships were virtually light cruisers that would stand a fighting chance against many of the enemy’s surface raiders. They also carried anti-submarine weapons, Canada’s other main requirement, and yet were considerably smaller and cheaper than full-fledged cruisers.

Nelles was right about their power and the ability of modern destroyers, if well handled, to deal with almost any threat. In fact, the RCN trained for just such a contingency, working out the details of massed attacks under the cover of darkness. Opportunities to do this lay at the heart of destroyer flotilla tactics. The best example in WW II occurred in May 1945 when the Royal Navy’s 26th Destroyer Flotilla pulled it off. Under the cover of night–and relying on their own superior radar to co-ordinate the attack, the leader Saumarez and four modern Fleet V-class (the same class as the late-war Canadian destroyers Algonquin and Sioux), ambushed the Japanese cruiser Haguro in the Straits of Malacca and sank her with negligible casualties to themselves. Nelles’ claims about the latent power of destoyers were therefore anything but fanciful. Moreover, unlike cruisers, Nelles explained, there was a realistic possibility that Tribals could be built by Canadian yards, provided that expertise could be drawn from Britain for the first batch of two.

The capitulation of Czechoslovakia to German aggression in March 1939 put those plans on hold. For the moment at least, war was not imminent. However, the signs were not good. Having bullied European states into sacrificing Czechoslovakia for the sake of peace, Hitler pressed Poland to surrender the Free City of Danzig and in April unilaterally revoked Germany’s non-aggression pacts with Poland, Britain and France. For most people, war with Germany was now not a matter of if, but when.

The government nonetheless suspended the 1939 expansion plan in the immediate wake of the ‘resolution’ of the second Czech crisis, and the estimates were never tabled before Parliament. Thus, despite the minister of defence’s pledge to Parliament in May 1939 that, “The ultimate objective which the navy has set out for Canada is to build up a naval force of 18 destroyers, nine on each coast; eight anti-submarine vessels, four on each coast; 16 minesweepers, eight on each coast, eight Motor Torpedo Boats, to be used on the east coast only; two parent vessels, one for destroyers on the west coast and one for the Motor Torpedo Boats on the east coast,” the program remained unfunded through the first eight months of 1939.

Nelles had hoped to build two destroyers a year for the next six years, plus an accelerated program of anti-submarine vessels and minesweepers (to be completed in three to four years), but the navy received no money to begin expansion. By the high summer this meant that the program announced in January was at least a year behind schedule. Just a month before the war started, Nelles explained to the Honourary Naval Advisors Committee that the lack of anti-submarine vessels, in particular, made the Naval Staff uneasy, given the state of things in Europe. Moreover, Nelles warned that once a war started, both the British Admiralty and British shipyards would be far too busy to loan the expertise needed to get the Tribal construction program underway in Canada.

In the short term all that could be done was to acquire the final piece of Hose’s plan: the flotilla leader. HMS Kempenfelt, a destroyer flotilla leader with extra accommodation for flotilla staff, was commissioned HMCS Assiniboine on Oct. 19, shortly after the final collapse of Poland.

In fact, even before Poland was invaded on Sept. 3 and Britain declared war on Germany, the British made it clear that Canada could expect no help with the Tribals. British industry was already scrambling to build the weapons and equipment it needed for the looming fight with Germany. When a high-level delegation from Canadian industry and the general staff went to Britain in early August to see how Canada could best serve in the industrial mobilization for war, it was told to concentrate on what Canada did best. For the navy this meant simple ships of mercantile design, like the trawlers and drifters of WW I. The best the delegation could do for the RCN was to bring home plans for the new British auxiliary anti-submarine vessel based on a whale catcher design, which the Admiralty proposed to build and use in large numbers.

As a result, nothing was accomplished in the ambitious naval expansion plan of January 1939 before the navies of the Commonwealth went to alert status on Aug. 28.

The RCN also went on a war footing that day, calling up its naval intelligence and naval control of shipping personnel. Their mobilization had been fine-tuned in the last months of peace, with Mackenzie King’s concurrence. As Admiral Sir Sydney Meyrick in Bermuda anticipated (and as he confided to the Admiralty), Canada’s prime minister turned a blind eye to this belligerent activity while Canada, herself, remained officially neutral. “Parliament will decide,” King had always asserted, but in August 1939 he let the navy go to war.

Two of the four destroyers on the west coast, Fraser and St. Laurent, made a hasty departure for Halifax on Aug. 31. Fifteen days later they arrived, having steamed so hard that the bricks in their boilers collapsed upon arrival. Their passage may still be a recordtime. By then the war was well underway. On Sept. 3, the day Britain declared war, the liner Athenia was sunk without warning by U-30. It was a tragic mistake: Germany had issued strict instructions to obey international law, and reinforced those orders in the aftermath. But the British saw the incident as the commencement of another unrestricted submarine campaign against Allied shipping. The gloves were off. That same day Nelles received word that the funds for the 1939 expansion program would be released. Canada’s formative naval experience was about to begin, and it would take the navy further than anyone ever dreamed in 1939.


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