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Establishing The Naval Reserve: Navy, Part 12



His Majesty’s Canadian Ships Skeena, Saguenay and St. Laurent visit Bermuda in the 1930s.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s survival and prosperity between the wars depended on two key individuals: Commodore Walter Hose, RCN, the director and later first chief of the Naval Service who developed a sensible fleet plan, and William Lyon Mackenzie King, the sometimes liberal prime minister of Canada who bought it. It was an odd combination, but in many ways the foundations of Canada’s modern navy were laid by these two men in the first decade of the interwar years.

For most Canadians, King is an unlikely champion of navalism. In one of his more charitable passages, C.P. Stacey, Canada’s foremost military historian, described King as “unmilitary and anti-military; in this as in many other respects not an untypical Canadian.” However, in time King came to see the navy as perhaps the safest form of military expenditure he could make. Then as now, the navy served national sovereignty well, in theory it kept trouble at arm’s length, and provided the government with a measured response to international events. King’s cold and pragmatic attitude towards naval policy seems to contrast sharply with that of Walter Hose, who succeeded Sir Charles Kingsmill as director of the Naval Service on Jan. 1, 1921, and held the office for 12 crucial years. “A Sailor’s sailor”, Hose was even born at sea: on a liner in the Indian Ocean in 1875. He was absolutely committed to the RCN and he was astute enough to realize that building up a national foundation for the RCN and finding a fleet concept that the government would support were two key components of a successful naval plan.

The year Hose became director of the Naval Service was one of economic collapse and political upheaval. Canadian exports of wheat, flour and other staples dropped by roughly 40 per cent, and trade with the United States fell by as much. Unemployment soared in urban areas. King’s Liberals cashed in on the public discontent, attacked the morality and reputation of Borden’s Union government, and beat them soundly in the December 1921 federal general election. By the time King took office the international situation had also changed profoundly. The Washington Naval Conference convened in late 1921, and an agreement was reached the next spring among the world’s major naval powers. It stopped a nascent naval arms race, imposed strict limits on total tonnage of warships and the size of battleships, and settled outstanding tensions in the Pacific. It also replaced the Anglo-Japanese alliance, a major source of anxiety for Canada given tensions between the U.S. and Japan, with a multilateral agreement.

With the Washington Treaty, all threat of major war receded immediately for the foreseeable future. Even the British government had adopted a ‘rule’ that assumed no major war for at least a decade. In 1922, the decade promised an era of peace and disarmament, as well as precarious national finances: it was no time to argue passionately for a large navy.

It was no great surprise then that one of the first acts of King’s new government in early 1922 was to slash defence spending. The navy’s modest $2.5 million annual budget was cut, by the stroke of a pen, to $1.5 million, and further dollars were to be saved by bringing the armed forces together into one Department of National Defence. Both of these presented Hose with great challenges. But he understood that economic crisis, anti-militarism and a lull in international tensions were the reasons for the cuts of 1922, and that these were transient things. King also promised better days ahead when the economy turned around. Thus, Hose reacted to the 1922 budget news with equanimity. He paid off the newly acquired cruiser Aurora and the two submarines in July, reducing the fleet to the two destroyers Patriot and Patrician and four minesweeping trawlers. He also closed the Royal Naval College of Canada and the Youth Training Establishment and cut personnel to roughly 400, down from over 1,000 in 1919.

Convinced that the future of the navy lay in widening its base of national support and developing a fleet plan that the government could support, Hose directed much of his now slender budget into establishing a national naval reserve system and changing the direction of ship acquisition.

The former Naval Secretary of the RCN, Pay Commander J.A.E. Woodhouse, RN, observed in 1927, that the priority after the cuts of 1922 was “to educate the people. The most effective method of educating the people is to bring the Navy to their doors, into the lives of families and their friends…a reserve force distributed across Canada would bring the Navy home to a great number of people….” This was done by establishing the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve under Privy Council Order 139 of Jan. 31, 1923, with an authorized strength of 1,000 officers and men. The new RCNVR replaced the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve–the RNCVR–that had been in place since May 1914.

The RCNVRs or VRs formed the heart of Hose’s new national navy. For the first time citizens from all walks of life and from all across the country could participate in their navy. Volunteer reserve half-companies of 50 men were immediately established across the country. Saint John, N.B., and Winnipeg were allotted full companies of 100, while in Montreal two half-companies, one English and one French, were raised. The reserve companies were officered by local men of standing within the community, who served without pay.

The RCNVR companies were an instant success. “The RCNVR has fulfilled all the hopes that were placed in it,” Woodhouse concluded in 1927. “The Company Commanding Officers and other officers are very keen…. Most of the Companies have a waiting list of 40 to 50 men.” The waiting lists remained throughout the interwar period. Indeed, many VR ‘divisions’–as they were renamed–operated a ‘probationers division’ of men without uniforms or standing, who trained alongside those already enlisted while waiting for an opening. As Vern Howland recalled, “There were occasionally one or two gentlemen attending drills in the hope of being accepted as officers.” All this was done on a shoestring. “No one got paid,” Howland observed of his fellow officers, and “no money was available for the bits and pieces needed to build training aids.” To fill that need “officers reached into their already thin wallets,” while much was scrounged from civilian employers by enterprising chiefs and petty officers. By 1939 there were 113 officers and 1,292 ratings in the RCNVR.

The hardest task for the tiny interwar RCN was to get all these would-be sailors to sea, “which,” according to Woodhouse was “regarded by them as the greatest pleasure of their service.” Fortunately, the RN helped. In the 1920s and ’30s, many RCNVR personnel enjoyed their summer training on ships of the cruiser squadron based at Bermuda–itself enough enticement to fill drill halls on a wintry night. Training was not, however, always a positive experience. Woodhouse recounted an early instance when the Quebec half-company, all French speaking and most newly enrolled, were given a day aboard HMCS Patriot. At the end they were given a “small speech on naval matters” that exhorted them to “be faithful in their drills” so that in time of war they could do their part. “The mention of the word war,” Woodhouse opined, “was sufficient and the next day two officers and three men were all that remained of the half company.” It probably did not help that none of the three RCN officers assigned to administer the companies in eastern Canada could speak French.

Hose also developed a scheme of Royal Canadian naval reservists: qualified seamen in their own right who were prepared to undergo periodic naval training. The authorized strength of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve was 500 men, but lack of funding kept the number low initially and the mobility of the men themselves made it hard to anticipate what the outcome of the plan would be. By 1925, there were only 36 officers and 110 men engaged, and these figures had grown to only 67 officers and 199 ratings by the end of March 1939. Nonetheless, Hose’s plan to build a broad basis of popular support for the navy through an extensive reserve scheme was a master stroke in a moment of crisis.

While the new reserve force gave the RCN a national footprint, the regular service was simply too small in the interwar years and far too dependent upon the RN for it to develop into a truly national service. Even before Aurora and the two submarines were discarded there were not enough personnel in the fleet to justify keeping the Naval College for officers and the Youth Training Establishment for the lower deck. The navy itself concluded that it derived “comparatively little benefit from” the college and that it was “not essential.” The same was true of the Youth Training Establishment for ratings. Both had operated on the assumption the postwar fleet would be substantial: certainly much more than two small destroyers and a few minesweepers maintained for reservist training. The personnel of that fleet, and even the significantly expanded one of the mid-1930s, could be maintained by a trickle of new officers and a handful of ratings whose important training was done in British ships and schools. In the 1920s this clearly was not a major concern.

While Hose campaigned at home for a naval constituency, King politicked within the empire to confirm Canada’s status as an independent state. Much like a toddler with a limited vocabulary but a strong will, King’s only real option in dealing with the British in the interwar years was to say ‘No!’ This meant no to unqualified Canadian endorsement of imperial foreign policy, and therefore no to anything that smacked of a single imperial defence policy, including an imperial fleet concept. King refused, for example, to be drawn into the Chanak crisis with Turkey over the Dardenelles in the spring of 1922, and made it known to the British government that Canada would not be a signatory to any international agreement negotiated by the British government–with Turkey, Austria, Hungary or whoever–unless Canada was represented in the negotiations. King won his point in full the next year, when the 1923 Imperial Conference agreed to limit and define the imperial government’s powers to make treaties on behalf of the dominions.

Given King’s ongoing battle of independence against the British Empire it would have been too much to expect him to commit to a major naval policy initiative during his first term as prime minister. In any event, by the fall of 1925 he was fully absorbed in an indecisive federal election that resulted in nearly a year of constitutional chaos: the famous King-Byng Affair. Sir Arthur Meighen’s Torys won the most seats, but because neither side had a clear majority, King refused to give up power. When his minority government was defeated in the House, King asked Governor General Sir Julian Byng to dissolve Parliament. Byng refused and asked Meighen to form a government, which quickly failed. When the country returned from the polls late in September 1926, King had secured a solid majority and five years of stable government ensued. As things turned out, the navy’s fortunes rose with those of King’s government, his constitutional battles with the British and with the Canadian economy.

The economic surge that occurred before the 1929 stock market crash loosened the government’s purse strings slightly, and King won an important battle in his campaign of independence. The Balfour Declaration of the 1926 Imperial Conference stated that Great Britain and the dominions were, “…autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of the domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” Here was the constitutional victory King longed for. Nonetheless, he remained wary of the British until well into the next great war, and it remained to be seen in 1926 how that new independence would manifest itself in defence policy.

The optimism engendered in naval circles by the victory of King’s consensus building Liberals in September 1926, by the economic upturn, and the constitutional victory was enhanced by the appointment of Colonel J.L. Ralston, a new member of Parliament from Nova Scotia, as the minister of Defence: “He is said to be the greatest find in political life that Canada has had for a long time past,” Woodhouse observed. During his first eight months in office Ralston showed great interest in the navy, and the most immediate manifestation of the new commitment to the RCN was the decision to replace aging destroyers Patriot and Patrician.

When King’s government first approached the Admiralty it asked for charity: the best two destroyers currently lying in the reserve fleet for scrap metal prices. Not surprisingly, the British refused to allow Canada–an ‘autonomous Community, equal in status’–to maintain a navy at British taxpayers’ expense. “If the Admiralty accept this situation now,” the RN’s director of plans wrote in April 1927, “they will be condoning, for a further indefinite period of years, the failure of Canada to develop her naval resources and acquiescing in Canada retaining a special position in this respect vis-a-vis the other Dominions.” Moreover, the Admiralty still wanted Canada to develop a fleet of cruisers as part of an imperial naval plan for trade protection in time of war. Destroyers, Canada was advised in May 1927, “were unsuitable for Canada’s needs.”

But destroyers were exactly what Canada needed and what Hose wanted: his fleet was based on defence of Canadian territorial waters and the experience of World War I. By 1927, he wanted a destroyer leader (with additional accommodation for a flotilla staff), five destroyers and four minesweepers. King supported it, and levered the two replacement destroyers from the British, commissioned as Champlain and Vancouver in early 1928, by vacillating over the storage of British armaments for merchant cruisers in the dockyard at Esquimalt, B.C. He then agreed to build two new destroyers: the first modern warships ever ordered and built specifically for the Canadian navy.

The decision to build what became HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Skeena was the first time that naval planning and government policy came together to bear fruit. King even let the orders stand following the stock market collapse, the start of what became the Great Depression, later in the year. Hose, who became chief of the naval staff in March 1928, had every reason to be proud of his accomplishment: he has a vibrant naval reserve system across the country and a fleet plan the government was actively pursuing.


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