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Under The Imperial Influence: Navy, Part 16



Clockwise from top: Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray (right foreground) aboard HMCS Assiniboine at St. John’s in August 1942; Winston Churchill at Halifax in 1943; Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles as chief of the naval staff.

By the time Commodore Percy Walker Nelles, the first cadet ever to enter the Royal Canadian Navy, took over as chief of the naval staff in January 1934, the question of whether there would even be a Canadian navy had ceased to be a political issue. His predecessor, Walter Hose, had steered the navy through the worst of the Depression, and so by the time Prime Minister Mackenzie King launched his naval expansion program in the late 1930s even his Quebec caucus supported the scheme.

Contrary to what General Andy McNaughton had said about warships getting Canada into trouble, King and his fellow Liberals saw the fleet as a good way to protect Canada without getting involved in a bloody war in Europe. The quiet naval builders of the 1920s, especially Hose, could therefore take some pride in their accomplishment. Canada had a naval policy and a navy to match, but to a considerable extent the navy was not quite yet “Canadian.”

In 1927, the former naval secretary of the RCN, Pay Commander J.A.E. Woodhouse, RN, had complained that so long as the Canadian navy was comprised of ships transferred or on loan from the Royal Navy–with largely British crews–“it was impossible to give the country the useful essential idea (of) ‘a Canadian navy manned by Canadians’.”

There was a great deal of truth in what he said. Five years earlier, after the great slashing of ships and establishments in 1921-22, the navy was manned by only 500 personnel, with 450 of them borrowed from the RN. By 1927, those figures were reversed: about 460 Canadians served in the fleet alongside 40 British personnel. However, one suspects that a great many of those 460 were recent immigrants from the Mother country.

Alfred Wurtele, who served throughout this period, recalled that the crews of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Patriot and HMCS Patrician were all British. The simple fact was that throughout the interwar years, the tiny, professional RCN (although not its reserve forces) remained thoroughly British in background, character and temperament. The reasons for this are not hard to find and the legacy proved to have important consequences.

One of the ironies of maintaining so small a navy during the period was that it was utterly dependent upon the RN for formal training, professional career paths and even legitimacy. As historian Bill Glover so astutely observed, because the post-1921 service was so small “…all training of the permanent force beyond the basic new entry training for ordinary seamen had to be conducted by the RN, thus ensuring in practical terms the very close imperial naval link that politically had been deemed unacceptable.” In particular, when the Royal Naval College of Canada closed in 1922, the RCN lost effective control over officer training, while the small size of the regular officer corps restricted entry to a small, hand-picked cadre. Captain John Grant, RCN, recalled that when he was posted to the college in 1919 there were nearly 100 cadets “from right across Canada.” Many of these, including Harry DeWolf and Ken Adams, would make history later.

The RCN had no choice but to send its trickle of cadets–impressionable youths one and all–overseas immediately for five years of training with the RN. There, in the gunrooms of the great battleships and cruisers of the imperial fleet, they learned how to be naval officers. If all went well, the RCN got them back for a few years of quiet service in Canadian establishments and ships. Once their basic training and first posting were complete, all advanced training for both officers and ratings was conducted in British establishments. So off they went for more time in the imperial navy.

For officers this meant that the formative early years of their naval life was spent entirely in British ships. The effect was pronounced. Solid Pictou, N.S., country lads like Leonard Murray came back with all the mannerisms, many of the affectations and much of the accent of British wardrooms. According to Glover, the peculiarly British character of Halifax and Victoria, home to the navy’s only operational bases, reinforced that experience and acted as a cushion between the navy and the Canadian nation. “Trained, not educated,” Glover concludes, “the naval officers probably never recognized the growing gulf between themselves and their country.”

Glover’s contentions are reinforced by what little statistical analysis has been done on naval personnel during the middle of the century. University of Victoria historian David Zimmerman’s work on Canadian navy personnel in World War II is suggestive about the character of the interwar navy because the professional RCN–the straight stripe navy–grew so little during the war. In fact, until the naval expansion of the late 1930s under Mackenzie King’s government, when six fairly modern destroyers were purchased from Britain and four minesweepers were built in Canada, there were only about 40 seagoing billets for officers in the RCN. The addition of 10 new vessels in the 1936-39 period represented nearly a tripling of the navy’s officer and lower-deck strength. That said, by 1939 there were still only 131 officers in the navy, and 53 of them were training in the imperial fleet. So the significant pre-WW II expansion did little to change the character of the Canadian navy’s officer corps. The best that could be said, according to the late Gilbert Tucker, who was the official historian for the navy, was that by the late 1930s native-born Canadians were beginning to replace British-born ex-RN officers and key ratings in the fleet.

Even so, those Canadians had a distinct British hue. Zimmerman reviewed the files of 1,179 wartime personnel, 251 of them officers, and of those 46 were professional RCN. His results confirm the Anglo-centric nature of the RCN as late as 1945. For example, while only some eight per cent of the male population of Canada was born in Britain, 28 per cent of the officers in the whole navy were British-born by war’s end. In the reserve–those merchant seamen who formed an already trained naval reserve–the percentage of British-born was even higher at 58 per cent. Among the officers, even religion conformed. Although in 1945 fully half of the Canadian population was Roman Catholic, roughly 90 per cent of the RCN’s professional officers were Anglican, United or Presbyterian. The research also showed that only five per cent of the Canadian navy’s officers were from Quebec, even though 27 per cent of the male population lived in that province. And even these officers from Quebec were overwhelming Protestant.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the situation in the interwar navy was similar. Those in the know understood the importance of Anglicanism as the religion of choice in imperial service. When Ralph Hennessy expressed an interest in joining the Canadian navy in the mid-1930s, his father–a Roman Catholic–marched him down to the nearest Anglican church and had him confirmed.

Not surprisingly, the few francophones who survived in this milieu were exceptions, and to some extent those who did were the legacy of that much earlier, failed attempt, to build a distinctly Canadian navy. The most striking example was Victor Brodeur, son of the minister of Marine and Fisheries who founded the RCN in 1910. Like all francophones, Brodeur adapted to naval life by learning English and fitting in. Ironically, in the imperial fleet with its bewildering array of accents–Geordies, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Cockney, Yorkshiremen, Australians and the like–Brodeur seems to have fit in well enough. Conventional wisdom has it that his accent was so thick he was nicknamed Scotty. Brodeur eventually rose to the rank of rear admiral, dogging Nelles every step of the way but never becoming the chief of the naval staff.

Ironically, Brodeur may well have been one of the few interwar officers sensitive to the independence of the RCN as a Canadian national institution. When he arrived in St. Lucia in the winter of 1936 with four Canadian destroyers to join in the annual manoeuvres with the British fleet, he flew a senior officer’s pennant from Skeena. When the Commander in Chief, America and West Indies Squadron, Vice Admiral Sir Matthew Best, RN, came aboard he asked sharply what Brodeur was doing flying the senior officer’s pennant “in my harbour?” In recalling the incident, H.N. Lay–a lieutenant in Skeena at the time–said that Brodeur, “who was about the same size as Best, drew himself up to his full five feet six inches and said, ‘Sir, I am the senior Canadian officer present.'”

Apparently, Best was not amused and as Lay remembered it, the visit was “rather unfriendly.”

But francophones who joined the navy prior to the 1970s, even those in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve –statistically the most representative branch of naval service in the country–had to learn English and adapt. As Zimmerman discovered when doing his study, language was so irrelevant that it was recorded on only five per cent of the files sampled. Alfred Wurtele, a member of the first class of the Royal Naval College of Canada, recalled that when he and two other officers were given charge of the first RCNVR companies east of the Lakehead in 1923 none of them spoke French. In a navy so closely linked to the RN, not much had changed by 1939.

The essential problem, of course, was that until WW II the navy was just too small to be anything other than a training organization attached to the RN. The irascible Admiral Jackie Fisher, twice First Sea Lord of the RN, opined before WW I that Canadians were such naval beggars that eventually grass would grow on the parade ground in Halifax. When Wurtele fought his way through the muck, rusted metal and abandoned equipment of the dockyard to the parade ground in 1923 he found grass on it. Wilfrid Pember, who transferred to the RCN in 1931 as a regulating petty officer, arrived at Esquimalt in 1924 on loan from the RN and found it “a pretty sleepy place.”

It says a great deal about the size of the RCN in the early 1930s that when Brodeur had Skeena on the west coast, every officer in her wardroom–except one–reached flag rank. Through most of this period the RCN consisted of at best four warships divided equally on either side of a continent. Canada’s “two-ocean navy” was the butt of much humour in the RN. It was a hard jibe for aspiring young RCN officers to endure while serving in the greatest navy the world had yet seen, and many remembered it for life.

Finally, the failure to create its own useful history during WW I condemned the RCN to cling to the parent service for legitimacy. It’s hard to say what would have become of the post-1922 Canadian navy had Walter Hose perished in HMCS Rainbow in pursuit of Graf von Spee’s squadron off California in August 1914 (The Original Rainbow Warrior, May/June 2004). But had Rainbow gone down in a blaze of glory in a hopeless fight against overwhelming odds her sacrifice would have become the stuff of legend. Instead, when the RCN finally met the enemy in 1918, HMCS Hochelaga ran away (The U-boat Summer of 1918, March/April 2005).

Submarines ran amok through the fishing fleet while the tiny vessels of the navy sheltered under the army’s guns inshore. It was hardly their fault, but there was nothing in it to brag about. So for the RCN, legitimacy as a navy derived from the British connection: it could hardly be otherwise.

The great three-fold expansion of the navy in the late 1930s came too late–and too hard on WW II–to change much of this. In October 1935, Mackenzie King’s Liberals crushed Bennett’s government at the polls, taking 171 seats in Parliament and leaving the Tories a dismal 39. King had a free hand to govern, but the lingering Depression limited what he could do. That said, the world was spiralling into chaos and King was determined not to commit Canada to the Western Front again, where 60,000 Canadians had died. However, international tension abounded, and Canada could not ignore it. The Japanese government had been taken over by the military in the late 1920s and by the mid-1930s their forces were rampaging their way through China. It was unclear to western powers where they would stop.

In Europe, the clouds of war gathered, too. Hitler and the Nazis took power in Germany and by 1935 Hitler, who King thought rather well of when he visited him in 1937, had subverted the constitution and installed himself as Fuehrer. He was also busy re-arming at a brisk pace. Meanwhile, Spain was on the brink of ripping itself apart in a brutal ideologically driven civil war that would divide western nations along fascist and communist lines. And even as Canadians went to the polls to elect King for a third term as prime minister in 1935, Italy breached every solemn agreement so labouriously reached by the League of Nations, and–because it seemed like the thing to do–invaded Ethiopia. The attack sent the League into fits of nervous and ultimately futile activity. Nearly every nation, including Canada, condemned Italy’s action: none lifted a finger.

Mackenzie King realized, of course, that Canada was not a fireproof house far from flammable materials. Canada’s community of interest–the western powers–would likely be forced to act. King needed a clear defence policy and the will to adopt it. The will and direction came from his long dead grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, a leader of the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada. The dead were never beyond Mackenzie King’s reach: he simply held a seance and asked his grandfather what he should do. During the seance the old rebel barked a single word into his grandson’s ear: “Preparedness!” No one has yet found a clearer and simpler method of making defence policy in Canada than Mackenzie King, and the resulting policy was as sound as any ever made.

One way to keep trouble at arm’s length, to show Canada’s resolve, to defend the country and to keep casualties low was to expand the navy. And so in 1936, King doubled the naval appropriations and started buying a fleet offshore. By international standards it was not much, but by Canadian standards the purchase of six modern destroyers in peacetime was unprecedented, and it laid the groundwork for the massive wartime expansion that followed.


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