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Menace Below The Surface: Navy, Part 7



Workers add the finishing touches to two drifters being built for the navy at Lauzon, Que., in 1917.

The attack on Allied merchant shipping off New England in October 1916 by U-53 changed Canada’s naval requirements overnight, and laid the groundwork for the development of the navy for the balance of the 20th century. Suddenly Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill’s motley little fleet, the St. Lawrence Patrol, looked like the work of a genius.

Within days, the Admiralty reversed its opposition to the development of local Canadian forces and urged the “rapid expansion of (the) Royal Canadian Navy coastal anti-submarine patrol.” The Canadian government responded by ordering 12 small anti-submarine ships from Canadian yards and called the last of the government fleet into naval service. This new war against submarines required lots of small, rudimentary vessels. These were ships Canadian industry could produce, and the British ordered 160 small anti-submarine vessels from Canada before the war ended.

In short, the war against the U-boat drew the nation’s capabilities and the navy’s needs together in mutually reinforcing ways. Unfortunately, it is hard to improvise a fleet in a time of crisis, and our little fleet was still not ready when the U-boats finally attacked shipping off the Canadian coast in 1918.

In 1916, Kingsmill had reason to expect that the British would reinforce Canadian waters and that his fleet would be ready to meet the threat. Since 1914 the Germans had struggled to attack merchant shipping with U-boats without bringing international condemnation down upon themselves. It could not be done. U-boats could evade the Allied blockade, but they could never bring their ‘prizes’ home through the enemy cordon. So, Allied merchant ships had to be sunk. International law permitted this, but required that merchant ships be searched for contraband (ie, goods likely to directly support the war effort, like ammunition or food destined for troops) first, and that the merchant seamen’s lives could not be put in peril.

In the first year of the war, U-boats routinely stopped ships and checked their papers. But submarines could not accommodate prisoners, and so enemy seamen were usually left to their boats—humane, but not legal beyond sight of land. Nor was it legal for the Germans to declare a “war zone” around the British Isles as they did in early 1915, and warn that any vessel inside the zone would be sunk on sight. Some restrictions applied, such as not attacking passenger ships. But then the British were using large liners for the Northern Patrol, which blockaded off the North Sea between Britain and Norway, and troopships were always a legitimate target.

Discrimination was not always possible, as the sinking of the liner Lusitania off Ireland in May 1915 with heavy loss of life demonstrated. That incident effectively shut down the 1915 U-boat campaign, and similar loss of civilian life—including Americans—in the spring of 1916 took the stuffing out of that campaign. By then most merchant vessels were armed for self defence and were shooting back. When the British introduced Q ships, heavily armed merchant vessels manned by naval crews and sent out to troll for U-boats, it became too dangerous for submariners to even approach a suspected target: better to shoot first and ask questions later.

It was perfectly natural for Kingsmill to expect this escalating but still rather restrained war to spill over into Canadian waters. The only thing that really held the U-boats in check was fear that a completely unrestricted U-boat campaign on merchant shipping would bring America into the war on the Allies’ side.

With the war going poorly and discontent mounting at home, in early 1917 the German government finally opted for desperate measures. They smuggled Lenin into Russia to foment revolution, and in February they removed all restrictions on U-boat attacks in an attempt to defeat Britain before the U.S. could attack. It was a close-run thing. By April 1917 Russia was in chaos, America had declared war and Britain teetered on the brink of catastrophe. Even the Admiralty believed they were within weeks of defeat and that there was no solution to the deadly depredations of the U-boats. Under these conditions, any problems which Kingsmill anticipated in the western Atlantic looked very small indeed.

One of the reasons why the German attack of early 1917 was so dramatically successful was that there were serious flaws in the organization of British shipping defence. During the first three years of the war merchant shipping steamed independently based on the notion that the best defence was dispersion. And where ships naturally concentrated in the approaches to channels and harbours, the British developed sanitized or swept zones, where routine patrols were supposed to eliminate U-boats entirely. The system was an utter failure. Dispersion meant that U-boats always dealt with a single, out-gunned merchant ship without danger that another could help before the deed was done, and that the sea was littered with easy targets nicely spaced out. Swept zones absorbed thousands of small ships and aircraft in patrols, but U-boats simply avoided the hunters and concentrated on the targets.

The solution to the submarine attack on shipping was to gather the ships into groups known as a “convoy” and escort it with warships and aircraft. This was an ancient concept, and it was used successfully from the outset of the war for troopships and, by 1917, trade with the Netherlands and the coal traffic to France. Under the pressure of the German assault of 1917, convoys were introduced for oceanic shipping over the late spring and summer and they reduced losses to a manageable level.

The introduction of the convoy system required two things, both of which had a profound impact on the development of the Canadian navy. The first was an extensive bureaucracy to organize the shipping into convoys. The second was a fleet of small ships to serve as escorts. In 1917, Canada built the organization needed, but it failed to acquire the ships.

The convoy system required the effective control and management of merchant shipping. Ships needed to be tracked, moved to assembly ports, and dispatched in tightly controlled groups under escort. These movements needed to be co-ordinated with fleet operations and with the latest intelligence estimates. As a result, in 1917 the large commercial ports of Atlantic Canada became important as trans-Atlantic convoy assembly ports. The Admiralty sent Rear-Admiral B.M. Chambers, Royal Navy, to Halifax in August to take charge of this new system in the northwest Atlantic. Since Chambers’ outranked any Canadian naval officer on the east coast, the RCN made it clear to the British that his writ ran only to the organization and sailing of convoys, not to local Canadian establishments and vessels.

Chambers understood his delicate position well and there was never any problem. But to make the point, in the fall the regional naval intelligence centre was moved from St. John’s, Nfld., to Halifax, and brought under Ottawa’s direction. And in February 1918, the RCN moved Rear-Admiral W.O. Story east from Esquimalt, B.C., promoted him to vice-admiral (thus outranking Chambers) and appointed him superintendent of the Halifax Dockyard.

Securing Canadian sovereignty on the east coast was an important precedent and a crucial step in the evolution of the RCN, but it was also the easy part. The RCN still lacked the ships needed to secure its end of the convoy system, and to hunt U-boats. When U-53 attacked off Nantucket in October 1916 there were less than a dozen ships in commission. The situation was a little better a year later when the Canadian fleet numbered only 20. However, some help was on the way in the form of the 12 large Battle-class trawlers on order from yards in Montreal, Kingston, Ont., and Toronto.

Named for the actions fought by the Canadian Corps since 1914, the first ships, Festubert, Messines, St. Éloi, St. Julien, Vimy and Ypres, were commissioned in Toronto on Nov. 13, 1917. These were steel-hulled vessels of 320-357 tons, mounting one 12-pounder gun, with a top speed of just 10 knots. They were the first warships built in Canada for the Canadian navy and they did yeoman service. All of them, except Thiepval, which sank after striking a rock in Barclay Sound, B.C., in 1930, served in WW II as well.

Finding guns for these ships proved nearly impossible and men, too, were scarce. But eventually the guns were located, and the men were found by decommissioning HMCS Rainbow on the west coast where the threat was now minimal.

A promise of even smaller, slower and more poorly armed ships than the Battle-class was advanced by the Admiralty in 1917 when its own shipbuilding program in Canada was transferred to the Dominion government. Sixty 136-ton steel-hulled trawlers (about half the size of the Battle-class) and similar wooden-hulled drifters were on order in Canadian yards. They began to pour out of the St. Lawrence in the spring of 1918 but proved a very mixed blessing. They could neither catch or kill a modern submarine, and the RCN had no men to man them anyway. As historian Roger Sarty concluded, “because Canadian industrial resources and manpower had already been so heavily committed to the overseas army, the vessels were poorly finished and manned by inexperienced crews.”

The increasing size of the patrol fleet also required a more senior officer in command than Captain Fred C.C. Pasco who came to Canada to command the St. Lawrence Patrol (Kingsmill’s Little Fleet, November/December). So in March 1917, the Admiralty sent Vice-Admiral Sir Charles H. Coke, RN, to take over. Coke took the acting rank of commodore so as not to embarrass the local command structure under Vice-Admiral Story. But Coke could not be restrained from meddling and seemed little interested in his primary duties. The Admiralty admitted that Coke was an inappropriate choice and agreed to replace him. In the meantime, Kingsmill appointed now Capt. Walter Hose, RCN, the former commander of Rainbow, as “Captain of Patrols”—putting the burgeoning Canadian fleet under Canadian command. When the Admiralty’s new appointee, Capt. J.O. Hatcher, RN, arrived in the summer he agreed to serve in an advisory capacity to Hose: a relationship that worked well.

It was fortunate that no U-boats arrived off Canada’s coast in 1917, for the RCN was by no means ready. Instead, the U-boat crisis remained in the waters around Britain during that crucial year, where the Germans achieved quick results and soon imperilled the British war effort. The American declaration of war on Germany on April 6 offered hope, as did the promise of the new government in St. Petersburg to stay in the war and the commencement of a massive Anglo-French offensive in the west. The Canadian Corps started the assault well by capturing Vimy Ridge on Easter Weekend 1917 at a cost of over 10,000 casualties in a few days. But the larger Allied offensive stalled, and the French army mutinied.

To help preserve the front until the French could recover and the Americans arrived, Sir Robert Borden’s government introduced conscription in May 1917 and formed a Union government to pass the bill and rig the election that followed. While Canada descended in chaos, the British launched the gruelling third battle of Ypres, commonly known as the battle of Passchendaele, to keep the Germans busy. As the Canadian Corps consolidated the ‘success’ of Third Ypres by taking the smudge that had been the village of Passchendaele on Nov. 7 at a cost of 7,000 men, Canada threatened to come apart. Anti-conscription riots broke out in Quebec and the Ontario militia, armed with baseball bats and pick handles, charged the mobs. Sandbags, sentries and machine-guns protected federal government buildings. With some justification French Canada rejected conscription, pointing out they did not have to go to Europe to fight militarism. All of this was to hang like a pall over Canadian defence policy for the next 40 years or longer.

It was small wonder that Kingsmill’s anxiety over the possibility of U-boat attacks on the east coast seemed less than pressing to his own government and the British. In fact, throughout 1917 Kingsmill pressed the British to tell him what their expectation of the German threat in North American waters was, and all to no avail. American participation now dominated British naval planning and the tiny RCN could not even get information. Only after sending an officer to Britain to knock on doors did Kingsmill discover what the British had long been telling the Americans: that specially built long-range U-boats would strike in North American waters in 1918.

According to the Admiralty, Canada needed at least a dozen modern destroyers with the speed and firepower to sink any U-boat. These would be found, the British promised, from the RN or levered from the United States Navy: Canada’s coast would be defended when the need arose.

In fact, the Admiralty had no intention of sending help and Kingsmill probably knew it. Even the new commander-in-chief of the North American and West Indies Station, Vice-Admiral Sir W.L. Grant, RN, knew the British promise was a fraud. According to Sarty, Grant was “angered and embarrassed by the circumlocution of his service” over the issue of reinforcing Canadian waters. Finally, out of exasperation, Grant appealed directly to the USN, which offered six 110-foot sub chasers and some flying boats: a token gesture and hardly enough to handle the looming threat, but in the event the best forces in Canadian waters in 1918.

By the time American help arrived, the strength of the RCN stood at nearly 100 vessels, mostly trawlers and drifters. As in the second great war, this auxiliary motley flotilla made the convoy system—the essential element of trade defence—possible. Keeping shipping away from the enemy was the primary means of defending it, and the little ships provided the escorts necessary to do that. They also provided a minimal deterrent to a submarine thousands of miles from home on a hostile sea and might force U-boat captains to look for easier prey. Like the corvettes of the next war, the trawlers, drifters and armed yachts did their job by just being there.

All this looked good on paper, but none of Kingsmill’s vessels, even the American ones, were capable of fighting a large, modern U-cruiser armed with torpedoes and 5.9-inch guns. Nor, indeed, did they have the speed to get away. As Hose lamented, without destroyers his fleet did not possess even one gun “which would be able to get within range of a U-cruiser before the patrol vessel would, in all probability, be sunk.” A lone U-cruiser commanded by an aggressive captain could wipe out a whole division of Canadian anti-submarine craft without any danger to itself. For that reason the coast artillery garrisons of Halifax, Sydney and Saint John were maintained at full strength for the balance of the war: to provide a refuge for the fleet itself in the event that the enemy really did come.

Canada’s east coast was less well defended at the start of the fourth year of the war than it had been in the first weeks, and Hose’s worst fears were realized over the summer of 1918 when the U-cruisers finally came calling.


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