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The Rush To Expansion: Navy, Part 28

HMCS Trillium in 1941, after she was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy from the Royal Navy. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105713]

HMCS Trillium in 1941, after she was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy from the Royal Navy.

On June 26, 1940, just two days after France formally surrendered to Germany, the first Canadian-built Flower-class corvette, His Majesty’s Ship Trillium, slipped into the St. Lawrence River from the Vickers shipyard in Montreal. Nine more corvettes for the Royal Navy followed from Quebec yards over the next eight weeks. By the end of August 1940, these ships had been joined by seven Royal Canadian Navy corvettes, including the first produced by Ontario and British Columbia builders. But getting hulls in the water proved much easier than getting ships into action. In fact, it was another nine months before all the ships launched in 1940 became operational. In part, this was the result of teething problems with expansion and relations with the British, but it also had a great deal to do with Canada’s geography and its extreme winter.

The process whereby the corvette fleet was built, fitted out and commissioned spoke to the larger problems of Canada’s shipbuilding programs. It was no accident that the 10 corvettes built to British contract appeared first: it was planned. Not only did the RN need the ships, but the RCN and Canadian yards needed some help in producing the first of the type. By building to British contract, Canada ensured a flow of expertise into Canadian yards from Britain, as well as a flow of cash and development of a capability which could be—and eventually was—used to build ships for the RCN.

The placing of these first orders in Quebec yards also reflected the more developed state of the shipbuilding industry there, and in time the lower St. Lawrence would produce half of the corvettes and over 75 per cent of the frigates built in Canada during the war. Canadian Vickers in Montreal had been established by Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1911 to build his proposed fleet, and it had constructed both submarines and patrol vessels during the Great War. By 1939, Vickers had five covered building slips and it was, according to the RCN’s official history, “one of the most completely equipped and self-sufficient yards in Canada.” At the same time, Marine Industries Ltd. at Sorel was rapidly expanding, in part as a result of contracts from the French government for artillery. The Sorel yard had also built the engines for the RCN pre-war Fundy-class trawlers. Further down the river, around Quebec City, a clutch of shipyards, including GT Davie, Davie Shipbuilding and Repair, and Morton Engineering formed the heart of what became a major shipbuilding centre. With ready access to the Atlantic, these Quebec firms prospered from the wartime expansion of the RCN, which included final fitting out of ships built along the Great Lakes. Their only limitation was the closure of the river to ice through the winter, which imparted a season character to the pulse of the navy’s growth.

Ontario yards contributed significantly to building programs from the outset, with yards in Kingston, Collingwood and Port Arthur building corvettes and Bangor-class minesweepers in the first programs. In fact, the second RCN corvette to hit the water—HMCS Collingwood (named for the town)—glided into Georgian Bay on July 18, 1940. Other firms around the Great Lakes later helped to build small warships as well. Unfortunately for Ontario firms the existing system of canals and locks (the seaway was not built until after the war) could just handle a corvette (or most minesweepers) if the ship was not fully ballasted. The limits of clearance over the sills of the locks was the main reason why all the final fitting out of Ontario-built corvettes and Bangors took place in Quebec yards and why no larger vessels—like frigates—were built there.

British Columbia yards, specifically Burrards Dry Dock in Vancouver, and Yarrows and Victoria Machinery Depot in Victoria, enjoyed no limits of season, weather or access to the sea—just the penalties of great distance. The long passage to the war in the Atlantic imposed delays on the final delivery of B.C.-built ships to the war zone, and the differences in wages and the costs of shipping materials across the continent increased their building costs. For example, Quebec yards bid $530,000 for a corvette in early 1940, while B.C. yards averaged $605,000 (Ontario yards came in at an average of $530,000 per ship). The need to treat firms fairly across the vastness of Canada, the importance of developing capacity for war use and the government’s policy of using the war to develop postwar industry all overcame the concern over higher-cost West Coast yards—that and their year-round capability.

The ice-encrusted deck of HMCS Wetaskiwin in 1942. [PHOTO: J.D. MAHONEY,LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA116836]

The ice-encrusted deck of HMCS Wetaskiwin in 1942.

The only Maritime yard to contribute to the first corvette building program was Saint John Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company of New Brunswick. It operated one of the largest dry docks in the British Commonwealth, and won contracts for the first three RCN corvettes, “Patrol Vessels 1, 2 and 3.” Like the yards in B.C., Saint John was ice free and could have pushed out new construction all year. But Maritime yards were soon swamped by the wreckage of war spilling out of Europe in 1940, as war-damaged merchant shipping sought repair. As a result, Saint John’s corvettes took exceptionally long to complete—HMCS Moncton, PV 3, set the record for all corvettes by taking two years from contract to commissioning. Fortunately, the other two New Brunswick-built corvettes distinguished themselves in better ways: HMCS Amherst by being the first, PV 1, and for her long and stellar career, and HMCS Sackville, PV 2, for being the last corvette in existence—now preserved in Halifax as Canada’s National Naval Memorial.

Canada’s geography, seasons and limited canal system to the Great Lakes imposed a certain pattern on construction and commissioning of ships from the outset. The priority given to British corvettes along the lower St. Lawrence in early 1940 was, in part, to ensure they would get away before the shipping season closed, and clear the slips for further construction. The first batch of corvettes was lucky to escape winter’s grip. Trillium and Windflower went in late October but the last eight RN corvettes and the first of the RCN vessels did not get out of the St. Lawrence until December. Chambly scrambled out of Montreal in mid-December with a builder’s crew, no bedding, stores, mess equipment or mooring hawsers. Food, blankets, mattresses, a small naval crew and two coils of rope met the ship at Quebec City and her way was cleared through heavy ice by CGS N.B. McLean. The last four RN corvettes left Quebec City on Dec. 31, 1940, behind several icebreakers.

Ontario yards faced similar constraints: ships had to ‘get out’ before the ice came or remained locked inland from November until April. If they could make it as far as the lower St. Lawrence by late fall, the ships could be fitted out over the winter. In any event, Canadian new construction tended to come in waves with the spring freshet—a phenomenon barely offset by new warships dribbling from B.C. yards.

The first corvette building programs reflected this seasonal pattern. At the end of 1940, 44 of the first 64 Canadian-built corvettes were in the water, but most of these—29—were either encased in ice over winter while they were fitted out, or were fitting out a continent away on the Pacific Coast. Only five RCN corvettes—Cobalt, Chambly, Colling­wood, Wetaskiwin and Orillia—were officially in commission by the end of 1940, and none were operational. It was not until the ice cleared along the St. Lawrence in April 1941 that the great wave of the first corvettes programs went into commission: five that month, 20 in May (spiked by the transfer of the 10 ‘British’ corvettes into the RCN) and nine in June. This boom-and-bust cycle of expansion complicated the RCN’s expansion problems in ways not fully explored by historians. Ostensibly, knowledge that a wave of new construction needed to be manned in the spring gave the navy a full winter to plan and train new crews. But as with many things in war, it was never that easy.

By late summer of 1940 the RCN was already struggling with unexpected expansion occasioned by commissioning of the six ex-United States Navy four-stack destroyers. This absorbed what little surplus manpower the navy possessed. The prospect of commissioning a wave of new construction in 1941—its own 54 corvettes, 25 of the new Bangor-class minesweepers and a small flotilla of motor launches—meant the RCN needed about 7,000 officers and men for sea duty over the next 12 months. This had to be accomplished while every available ship and experienced hand was committed to operations, most of them in European waters, and after nearly 1,000 officers and men were found for the “new” destroyers.

In the summer of 1940 the apparatus for making expansion work was either new or non-existent. Prior to 1940 the RCN possessed no separate naval minister or Naval Board: nothing equivalent to Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty (an elected MP and member of cabinet) or “Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,” to set policy and oversee its implementation. The small Naval Staff ran the navy, oversaw its tiny infrastructure and handled the very limited personnel administration. Higher policy issues were sorted out in the Chiefs of Staff Committee and by the Minister of National Defence and his cabinet colleagues. It was all very personal, and it worked when the navy was small and everyone knew everyone else. But the expansion thrust upon the RCN by 1940 demanded a more effective system. With the Naval Staff increasingly involved in fighting the war, the RCN needed oversight to tackle the larger planning and general policy issues, and to carry its needs to cabinet. Ordering ships and enlisting personnel had resource implications: bases, training establishments, accommodation, refits and repairs and a myriad of other items had to be planned for.

Work inside the Davie Shipbuilding and Repair Co., June 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105431]

Work inside the Davie Shipbuilding and Repair Co., June 1941.

To tackle these problems the government appointed a separate Minister of the Naval Service on July 12, 1940. Filling the post was Nova Scotia MP and former premier of the province, Angus L. Macdonald. One of his first tasks was to appoint a Naval Council to facilitate the higher direction of naval policy, planning and development. This council consisted of the senior staff officers of the navy (essentially the Naval Staff) plus Macdonald and the deputy minister and other officers at the minister’s pleasure. The combination of higher direction and operators in a single committee proved workable. However, volume of work led in early 1942 to a separate Naval Board and Naval Staff. In these initial and hectic days of frantic expansion the Naval Council met but once a month, starting in September 1940.

It is a measure of how busy Naval Service Headquarters was in the late summer and early fall of 1940—with Britain facing invasion, aerial bombardment and blockade by sea—that it was not until Oct. 30 that the Naval Council dealt with the looming problems of massive expansion in the spring of 1941. Meanwhile, the RCN’s fleet plan changed almost weekly. With the first corvettes in the water by the summer of 1940 and some building slips already standing empty, with German attacks on British trade intensifying, and the war effort growing, the government ordered more small ships: six more corvettes and 10 bangors in August, 10 more of each in September. This brought the total ordered for the RCN to 70 corvettes and 48 minesweepers. Moreover, by late September it was agreed that this building program would be completed by the end of 1941: two years ahead of the original plan.

Little of the infrastructure to support 118 new vessels was available, so when the Naval Council met on Oct. 30 to discuss expansion plans it really was—as Percy Nelles later confided to an Admiralty colleague—“making bricks without straw.” At that meeting the Director of Naval personnel, Captain H.T.W. Grant, informed his minister and Naval Staff colleagues that the RCN needed 300 Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve executive officers by next May—barely six months away—and none of these men had yet been enlisted. But this was not the worst of it. Other members of the Naval Staff observed that the training establishments—accommodations, classrooms, messes, administration offices, etc.—would have to be built first. And if that was not bad enough, Macdonald summed up the problem by commenting that before the navy could build anything it would need to acquire some land! Needless to say, the RCN was not ready for the spring of 1941.

Meanwhile, the war continued to pull away at what few plans the RCN was able to make. The navy agreed, for example, to man the 10 British corvettes for delivery to the United Kingdom, and then to shift the delivery crews into a manning pool to support destroyer operations in British waters. The first to leave were Trillium and Windflower. After a layover in Halifax to check equipment, conduct trials and mount dummy guns made of telephone poles, the two departed with skeleton crews as part of the escort for HX 94 on Dec. 6. Only the captains and a couple of the petty officers and senior ratings had any experience at sea, the rest were RCNVR, fresh from the manning depot. Alan Easton, who took one of the RN corvettes across in early 1941 recalled, “it was hard to perform our simple task: to keep steam up, avoid shoals or even steer a straight course.” Had the Germans turned up, “there would have been a shambles.”

Fortunately for Trillium and Windflower the worst that happened was a gale, with seas higher than what Lieutenant-Commander R.F. Harris, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, commanding Trillium, had seen in 20 years at sea. Harris thought his new ship handled the conditions magnificently. Lieutenant J.H.S. Macdonald, RCNR, aboard Windflower was less pleased. His engines were “doubtful” all the way across, and engine bearings burned out regularly when running at full power. They arrived safely in Scotland with their wooden ‘guns’ so warped that one ship flashed a signal asking if the navy was now “beating the enemy to death.”

The last of the Canadian-built RN corvettes, Bittersweet and Fennel, arrived in the UK on March 21, 1941. By then the earlier corvettes, and their scratch Canadian crews, had been absorbed into the Clyde Escort Force and committed to operations. It had all been a tale of miscommunication and misguided expectation. RN operational authorities thought the ships were supposed to be fully manned and equipped, and they complained about the poor state of vessels and crews. The RCN expected its personnel to be released, immediately or gradually as the RN took over the ships—a kind of floating manpower pool. In the event, the RCN ended up with over 540 of its available personnel, including many of its small pool of qualified seamen, stuck in 10 British corvettes escorting convoys in the eastern Atlantic.

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