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Grumbling From Within

The destruction of U-210 by His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Assiniboine capped an impressive run for the Royal Canadian Navy’s mid-ocean escorts in the spring and summer of 1942 (Fire And Fog: Assiniboine Rams U-210, July/August).

Through May they battled wolf-pack Hecht to a standstill and in July and August they sank at least three U-boats and possibly more—initially HMCS Sackville’s three U-boat encounters in a single night looked likely to produce at least another kill.

Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, (third officer from left), on board one of Canada’s motor launches, May 1942. [photo: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105890]

Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, (third officer from left), on board one of Canada’s motor launches, May 1942.

However, in the aftermath of the dramatic action experienced while escorting convoy SC 94, the RCN’s luck ran out.

Instead of inflicting damage or destruction on the enemy, the RCN lost three vessels in one week to U-boats. Between Sept. 7 and 11, Canadian warships Raccoon, Charlottetown and Ottawa succumbed to torpedoes. As losses began to mount in late 1942, the weary men of the fleet began to grumble about their lack of modern equipment, especially radar and HF/DF (high-frequency direction finding).

It was frustrating not to be able to sink the enemy, but it was galling to hear of well-equipped British escorts fighting their way through wolf packs as Canadian-escorted convoys—both in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and in mid-ocean—suffered losses.

Historians have long noticed the RCN’s failings and shortcomings in 1942 as well as the media firestorm that engulfed the navy and the government over losses in the St. Lawrence, especially that year. But until Richard Mayne published his 2006 book, Betrayed: Scandal, Politics and Canadian Naval Leadership, no one knew how profoundly unhappy some members of the service were with the performance of the navy in that critical year. Nor was it clear just how much scrutiny and pressure both the navy and the government were under.

The disquiet came from a group of Canadians neither the navy nor the government could afford to ignore: Canada’s social and political elite. Many young men from established families had joined the RCN’s volunteer reserves in 1939 and 1940. Typically well-educated, well-connected socially and politically, this cadre of wartime sailors usually had little time for the “bullshit and gaiters” of the professional RCN.

Moreover, the ‘straight stripers’ of the professional RCN were typically drawn from a less well-educated and well-to-do strata of Canadian society. And they had achieved their rank and standing the hard way, by working their way up from the gunrooms of the imperial fleet. The result of the navy’s rapid wartime expansion and the infusion of thousands of Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserves (RCNVR) into the fleet was a culture clash and the tension—at times—was palpable.

Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve officers—the “wavy navy” types distinguished by the angular wave and the squared-off executive curl of their rank stripes—had a necessarily limited view of the global situation, and many had no ambition to carry on in the service when the war was over.

They, like virtually everyone serving at sea, were only dimly aware of the larger operational imperatives that shaped their experience of 1942, and the pressures the RCN was under to help the Allies. Most RCNVR members carried on stoically. But there were enough articulate and well-connected members of the Canadian social and political elite in what was known as the Sheep Dog Navy to make the naval minister, Angus L. Macdonald, uneasy in 1942.

By late summer and early fall, as losses mounted without any compensating U-boat kills, rising discontent in the fleet became a serious matter and there were definite signs of this.

Lieutenant-Commander A.D. MacLean (left) and Sub-Lieutenant A.B. Strange, November 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105646]

Lieutenant-Commander A.D. MacLean (left) and Sub-Lieutenant A.B. Strange, November 1941.

As Mayne explains in his book, Andrew Dyas MacLean was the scion of a well-established Toronto publishing family. He had served in the First World War and between 1927 and 1931 commanded Toronto’s naval reserve division, HMCS York. It seemed logical, therefore, that MacLean would enrol in the RCNVR for the Second World War. However, the RCN failed to immediately order him to active duty in 1939 so MacLean “broke regulations and joined the RCAF.”

When the RCN ordered him to report, he declined. As MacLean told the navy, the rank of lieutenant-commander was not sufficient inducement for him to quit the air force. The RCN was content to let him go. It had been nearly a decade since he resigned from HMCS York, and nothing in his experience or expertise warranted the rank of full commander. Meanwhile, his father weighed into the matter with his Conservative connections. At the time, it was a Liberal government in Ottawa.

MacLean eventually abandoned his RCAF commission and settled for lieutenant-commander’s stripes. The RCN quickly sent him to England to serve with the Royal Navy.

His sojourn with the RN was not a success and he was returned to Canada in 1941. The Chief of the Naval Staff, Percy Nelles, welcomed him back and then the commanding officer, Atlantic Coast, Rear-Admiral G.C. Jones, appointed him senior officer of Canada’s new fleet of fairmile motor launches (MLs). MacLean would soon give both Jones and the Chief of the Naval Staff reason to regret their generosity. Within weeks of returning, MacLean was in the Canadian press complaining about how the regular force RCN officer cadre was making a complete muddle of Canada’s naval war effort, and how it was failing to fully and intelligently employ gifted amateur naval officers like him.

Naval minister Angus L. Macdonald is flanked by Captain G.C. Jones (left) and then-Commander E.R. Mainguy during a visit to HMCS Ottawa in 1940. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104080]

Naval minister Angus L. Macdonald is flanked by Captain G.C. Jones (left) and then-Commander E.R. Mainguy during a visit to HMCS Ottawa in 1940.

MacLean had ambitions for his role as senior officer of the fairmile motor launches and especially wanted to control them in an independent command. His seniors in the east coast naval establishment—all regular RCN types—had no intention of allowing MacLean to command the MLs.

By early 1942, MacLean increasingly exhibited a self-fulfilling paranoid fantasy about the regular navy officers being out to get him—or certainly out to stifle his genius. And he was not content to keep his frustrations inside the service.

In February, the naval minister faced pointed and well-informed questions in Parliament from MacLean’s home member of Parliament about the employment of Canada’s burgeoning fleet of fairmiles. Then Boating Magazine, which MacLean still edited, published an anonymous editorial on the “Fairmile Fuddle,” making similar claims about the RCN’s incompetence.

MacLean’s immediate superior in Halifax, Captain Rollo Mainguy, RCN, the Captain (Destroyers), tolerated his indiscretions, but that changed in the spring when Capt. G.R. Miles, RCN, replaced Mainguy. In Mayne’s words, Miles was “a tough and temperamental man,” and he showed little patience for MacLean. As a result, MacLean was soon in open rebellion. According to Mayne, “throughout May and June 1942 he tried to get reservists to do the same.” He found few followers. The educated and socially connected members of the RCNVR may not have been happy with the state of affairs at sea by mid-1942, but few of them wanted to be associated with MacLean. Miles’s annual performance review of MacLean in July provided sufficient grounds for dismissal, and he wanted him gone. For the moment the navy was unclear whether it was safer to have MacLean in service—and subject to naval discipline—or throw him out and run the risk of what he might do in the national media as a private citizen.

While MacLean’s fate was being resolved, others in the Sheep Dog Navy grumbled quietly. Some, it is true, shared MacLean’s views that the regular force RCN was incompetent and clinging to shore postings while the reservists fought the war. More thoughtful RCNVR officers understood that the RCN officer cadre was small, that little in their pre-war training could have prepared them for managing a war and a fleet on a scale evident by 1942, and that someone had to hold the key staff positions. Nonetheless, rumours abounded of straight-stripers scampering into staff jobs, and there was a general sentiment afloat that few in Ottawa really understood the operational and technical problems faced by the escort fleet.

The issue of MacLean’s continued service was passed to the chief of naval personnel and the Naval Staff itself to decide. On the last day of August the Naval Staff recommended MacLean be asked to submit his resignation. Failing that he “should be discharged from the service.” As Mayne writes, the staff recommendation put the naval minister in a tight spot, and he was fearful of what MacLean might do once free of the bonds of service discipline.

In the end, MacLean was persuaded to resign when the navy threw two bones his way. The first was that the naval minister’s executive assistant, J.J. Connolly, would investigate MacLean’s charges of systemic discrimination against the RCNVR by the RCN. The second appears to be the agreement that MacLean would be appointed to the rank of full commander the day following his retirement—a recognition of his talents and abilities which he had sought three years earlier.

MacLean dismissed the navy press release announcing his retirement, labelling it an “obituary,” and was, according to Mayne, unimpressed by the navy’s recognition of his “long service.” The naval minister hoped he had mollified MacLean, and that the conditions of his retirement from the RCN, made official on Oct. 20, marked an end to the affair. “Unfortunately for Macdonald,” Mayne writes, “these tactics worked only in the short term. A few weeks later MacLean would return to haunt the minister with renewed threats…”

In the meantime, Connolly prepared himself for a swing through the operational bases of the east coast. He was a bright and perceptive man, with a PhD from Notre Dame and a law degree from the University on Montreal. Some of his friends and professional colleagues were serving in the escort fleet. These included Louis Audette, a Montreal lawyer Connolly knew from childhood and who was now in command of the corvette HMCS Amherst, and Barry O’Brien, a lieutenant aboard HMCS Trillium whose father had given Connolly his first major job as a lawyer. There were others.

Connolly also knew that he really knew nothing whatsoever about navies, and desperately wanted a naval officer to accompany him. Given the nature of his investigation it would have been inappropriate to take either an RCN or RCNVR officer, so Connolly asked the Director of Naval Intelligence and Trade, Capt. Eric S. Brand, RN, to come along. It was an inspired choice. Brand was easygoing and pleasant company, but also bright, knowledgeable and a keen observer. As a Brit he was also ‘neutral’ in the domestic squabble within the navy. Connolly and Brand departed for the east coast on Oct. 20, and by the time they got there the glow of summer success was long gone.


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