PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105509
The outbreak of a general European war in September 1939 surprised no one, certainly not Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The previous years had witnessed a series of mounting crises, and King’s acquiescence in the mobilization of the Royal Canadian Navy for war in August–an event virtually unacknowledged in Canadian history–says a very great deal about the prime minister’s understanding that Canada could not stand aloof.
Indeed, during a vacation to Bermuda in late 1938, King made that plain to Admiral Sir Sydney Meyrick, the commanding officer of the Royal Navy’s American and West Indies Squadron. Like most others, he expected the next war to result in another colossal struggle in France and Belgium between huge conscript armies. Whatever the situation, King was resolved to let the Europeans fight it out this time without the benefit of a large Canadian expeditionary force, and the huge casualties that would surely go with that kind of a commitment. And so industrial mobilization at home, support for aircrew training and naval expansion were the hallmarks of his policy in 1939.
By the time war was declared in September 1939, the RCN already had a clear good idea of the kind of fleet it wanted. Over the very short term it needed to fill out many of the essential tasks associated with defended ports. In some measure these requirements were met by taking up government ships for naval duty. In 1939, about two dozen vessels from various departments were taken over by the RCN. These included RCMP patrol boats and hydrographic vessels like Acadia, which had served by World War I and which remains preserved in Halifax today. It also included several trawlers built for the East Coast Patrol in 1917-18, and a few private and commercially owned vessels capable of useful tasks. However, this motley collection of ships was insufficient in quantity and quality to meet all the needs of Canada’s defended port system, especially in anti-submarine patrols and minesweeping.
Ideally, the RCN wanted to use Halcyon-class sloops as its primary auxiliary vessel. Built for the RN in the late 1930s, these vessels were suitable for local patrols, anti-submarine work and bringing the defended port system up to proper strength. However, the sloop was a naval design, built to naval standards, and the most recent ones were outfitted with steam turbine engines. Its specifications for scantlings and steel, higher standards of watertight subdivision, duplication and separation of vital command and communications systems, and the like, were all designed to absorb some level of damage and keep functioning. Unfortunately, no yard in Canada had yet developed expertise in building to naval standards, and no Canadian firm built marine turbine engines.
And so the auxiliary vessel problem was solved by adopting a new British design called a ‘whale catcher,’ plans for which had been obtained by the National Research Council during a technical mission in July 1939. Although the corvette, as the whale catcher was soon dubbed, did not fit into the RCN’s proper expansion plans, it had several crucial characteristics in the hectic summer days of 1939. First, it was suitable as an auxiliary vessel for the defended ports. Second, the corvette had all the same basic features as the Halcyon-class–about 245 feet in length, 850 tons, steam-reciprocating engines with a top speed of 16-17 knots. In fact, the RN abandoned construction of the Halcyon in 1939 in favour of the corvette, which could be built cheaply and in large numbers.
More importantly, since the corvette was designed to mercantile standards it could be built in Canada by any steel fabrication firm. Corvettes, as Rear Admiral Percy Nelles later observed, would form the stepping stones of fleet development–and much more besides.
The prospect of significant naval construction, spurred by the outbreak of war, suited the interests of both the navy and the government equally well. Admiral L.W. Murray, who was Naval Service Headquarters’ director of operations and training in the fall of 1939, recalled that the navy was given free reign in the first months of the war to plan its expansion over the next three to five years. When Murray and the navy’s deputy minister presented the first wartime estimates to the finance committee of the federal cabinet in February 1940, they passed, despite a very detailed inspection. Murray seemed surprised. However, since the prime minister intended to use the limited European war to revitalize Canadian industry, shipbuilding would help keep Canadians busy at home while the Europeans fought each other. In fact, in 1939, King worked hard to deflect the army’s ambition to repeat the exploits of the Canadian Corps on the western front, with its consequent butcher’s bill. His signing of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreement, turning Canada into the aerodrome of democracy and committing the Royal Canadian Air Force to aircrew training, was part of that larger scheme, while a token force of one division would suffice for the army’s commitment.
Meanwhile, the navy could expand to its heart’s content. Warship construction was good for Canadian business, naval expansion would get Canadians into the war, the coast needed defending in any event, and few Canadians were likely to get killed at sea.
The RCN’s real ambitions, however, revolved on securing that fleet of Tribal-class destroyers announced by the government in the wake of the Munich Crisis of late 1938. As pre-war planners surmised, these would give the RCN the punch it lacked during WW I and therefore be ideal for defending the Canadian coast against merchant raiders which were the dominant threat in the opening stages of war. But like the Halcyon-class sloops, Tribals were designed to naval standards which no Canadian yard had experience in.
The first solution, which was put to the British in the fall of 1939, was to secure a small number of skilled personnel from British industry in order to build the destroyers in a Canadian yard. Nelles had warned the government earlier that year, when the original expansion scheme was suspended, that in time of crisis it would not be possible to secure British help to build complex warships in Canada, and he was proven right in the fall of 1939. By the time the RCN made that request British shipbuilders were working flat out to meet the RN’s needs. Clearly it would be faster and much more efficient if Canadian Tribals could simply be built in British yards.
With this in mind the RCN and the Canadian government soon hit on a clever scheme. Since the RN had adopted the corvette as its basic auxiliary vessel, and since Canadian industry could build corvettes in considerable numbers, the Canadians proposed to trade corvettes for Tribal-class destroyers. Such a scheme was agreed to in principle early in 1940, about the time His Majesty’s Ship Gladilous–the first corvette completed–came down a British slipway.
As a result of this tentative agreement–during the first months of 1940–the Canadian government let contracts for 64 corvettes. This was nearly three times the number (about two dozen) that the RCN planned to use. The first three contracts, for Patrol Vessels 1, 2 and 3, were let to Saint John Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in New Brunswick. These proved to be the only Canadian warships of any class completed in the Maritimes during the whole war, as east coast yards were soon swamped by war repair work.
The lion’s share of the first shipbuilding program–and virtually all subsequent contracts–went to yards along the Great Lakes, the upper St. Lawrence River or on the British Columbia coast. The government also agreed to place orders for 24 Bangor-class minesweepers, another design to mercantile standards which Canadian yards could handle. This distribution of shipbuilding contracts, developed in part to support the government’s industrial strategy, suited the Phoney War nicely, but it held the seeds of serious problems if the war lasted for more than a couple of years.
The acquisition of a dozen Tribals, plus about two dozen corvettes, a similar number of minesweepers, and some other vessels taken-up from government service was the limit of the RCN’s expansion planning during the Phoney War (The First Convoys, March/April). The modesty of these plans was revealed to the minister of National Defence in January 1940, when he prodded Nelles about getting more volunteer reservists, especially prominent members of yacht clubs, into the navy and off to sea.
Nelles passed the issue off to his director of naval personnel who responded that yachting had about as much to do with modern naval warfare as kite flying had to do with the air force. As Nelles told the minister, the RCN planned to send all Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) personnel to serve in the RN. Proper naval expansion would depend on how quickly the Tribals could be secured.
Those hopes were dashed in March 1940. The barter scheme with the British collapsed because an equitable exchange rate of corvettes for destroyers could not be found. The British softened the blow by immediately allowing Canada to let contracts for two Tribals in British yards in 1940, with two more to follow in 1941. In time, these became His Majesty’s Canadian ships Athabaskan, Huron, Haida and Iroquois. In the meantime, the collapse of the barter scheme left Canada holding contracts for 40 more corvettes than the RCN ever planned to employ. Ten contracts were transferred to the British, but the others were allowed to stand to Canadian accounts. Industry could use the business, and with a war on the RCN could find something to do with the extra ships. Eventually, it was decided that those in excess of the needs of the defended ports of Halifax, Saint John, Sydney, Victoria and Quebec would be sent off to the eastern Atlantic where the action was, to do whatever British corvettes were doing.
In early 1940, the RCN took other steps to fill the gaps in its fleet. In January the government advised the United States State Department of its intentions to purchase large, ocean-going private yachts from wealthy Americans to augment the fleet. It was suggested that should direct government involvement in the purchase contravene American law, then private individuals would be contracted to make the purchase. The Canadian government was informed that either method was illegal, and that any individual caught doing so–whether private citizen or government agent–was liable for a $10,000 fine, three years in jail and confiscation of the ship. With these formalities out of the way, the RCN adapted its plan to suit the legal niceties of the situation and went forward with its scheme.
While the U.S. Defence Department identified the most suitable vessels in the American registry, the Canadian government worked with what historian Gilbert Tucker called “a number of highly reliable Canadian yacht owners who agreed to co-operate” in the purchase scam. The first step was to requisition the yachts owned by these gentlemen. Aggrieved by the callous seizure of their property, these yacht owners immediately went south to replace their vessels. Curiously, they all seem to have purchased large, modern vessels which the United States had noted were suitable for conversion to auxiliary naval duty. Once these new yachts were delivered to their Canadian owners they were immediately requisitioned for naval service, and the gentlemen’s original yacht was returned to them. Since the vessels had been purchased in the U.S. by private individuals only to be seized by the government, no American laws were broken. Through this method, 14 large yachts were acquired by the RCN by the spring of 1940. All of them, except Amber and Sans Peur, are identifiable by their animal names, eg, Otter, Raccoon, etc.
The armed yachts, most of which entered service in mid- to late-1940, helped fill the requirement for local auxiliary vessels, but they did nothing to give the RCN any punch. Even allowing for the speed with which wartime building took place, it would be 1941 at the earliest before the first Canadian Tribals arrived. So the RCN focused some of its early efforts on acquiring the three small liners suitable for conversion to Armed Merchant Cruisers. In fact, on Sept. 19, 1939, cabinet approved requisitioning for the Canadian National Steamships vessels Prince Henry, Prince David and Prince Robert. These 6,892-ton vessels were essentially small luxury liners, designed for the Vancouver-Victoria-Seattle service and cruises to Alaska. With a speed of 22 knots and a maximum range of 6,000 miles, they were a little slow and of modest range, but they suited Canadian needs admirably.
In the end, the RCN planned such extensive conversions of the ships that it was finally agreed to purchase them outright, which was done in early 1940. Prince Robert was the first to be completed in July 1940. Prince David and Prince Henry followed in December. Armed with four six-inch and two three-inch guns, as well as some light anti-aircraft armament, they were the most heavily armed ships in the RCN until cruisers were acquired late in the war. In 1940-42, these vessels filled a crucial gap in the fleet, and in time took the RCN to places no one had ever dreamt it would go.
Little happened in the war at sea during that first winter to alter the RCN’s plans. German surface raiders, including their pocket battleships, cruised the ocean while Allied patrols tried desperately to track them down. The U-boat campaign drifted into a less restricted mode over the winter of 1939-40, but during this Phoney War the Germans tried to weaken the alliance by going easy on French shipping, and they remained very circumspect in their attacks on neutrals. In any event, the submarine war was localized in British waters. Convoys had to be protected in narrow seas or the approaches to harbours, but the combination of international law, a system of convoys supported by airpower, and asdic-equipped ships seemed to have reduced the submarine to nuisance status.
This comfortable Phoney War ended in April 1940 when German troops crossed into Denmark and landed in Norway. Canada’s prime minister was soon under pressure to raise the Canadian army commitment to Europe to a corps, and soon Royal Canadian Air Force fighter squadrons were needed to defend Britain. In May, the floodgates into the low countries and France opened: the German juggernaut was relentless and unstoppable. By May 23, British destroyers were duelling with German tanks on the outskirts of Boulogne, France. The next day, Skeena, Restigouche and St. Laurent slipped from their berths in Halifax and headed eastward, across the Atlantic. Fraser went direct from Bermuda. By late June, France had collapsed, and the Nazis armies stood poised and menacing along the channel. Suddenly, everything had changed and the RCN’s tidy plans for expansion were swept aside by new and unprecedented schemes for growth.
Email the writer at: email@example.com
Email a letter to the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org