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Walter Hose To The Rescue: Navy, Part 13



Top: Walter Hose (second from left) attends a defence meeting in Ottawa in 1930; His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Skeena is launched from her builder’s yard in England in 1931.

No naval officer was more integral to the early years of the Canadian navy than Walter Hose. From His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Rainbow searching for glory off California in 1914, to command of the east coast patrol during the Royal Canadian Navy’s first U-boat campaign, to his tortuous years as head of the service, in the first two decades the story just keeps coming back to Walter Hose.It was Hose who in 1927 convinced Mackenzie King’s government to adopt the first–successful–made-in-Canada naval policy. To be sure, it was a modest one: a small fleet of destroyers well suited to Canada’s immediate needs and pocketbook. It also proved to be one that Canadians of all political stripes would support. The proof of that came in the depths of the Great Depression when Hose fought one last and successful battle to save the navy from extinction.

Hose understood that naval policy had to be in sync with the requirements of national, not imperial defence. When the navy was first founded, the Tories used the danger of foreign entanglement shamelessly while campaigning against the Liberals in Quebec.

But by the 1920s even the Tories, still smarting from the failure of the imperial fleet to come to Canada’s aid during the U-boat crisis of 1917-18, understood that Canada needed a navy.

Indeed, Hose believed that by the mid-1920s the navy had ceased to be a partisan issue. It now remained to craft a Canadian naval policy and nurture “the idea that Canada, as an autonomous nation within the Empire, should provide for the defence of her shores and territorial waters….”

The decision in 1927 to build what became HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Skeena was the start of that made-in-Canada naval policy. The ships Hose wanted to build were, of course, small, and a four-destroyer fleet (replacements for Patriot and Patrician were being arranged) still constituted a very modest navy. But it was what both the Canadian government and the navy itself wanted. As J.A.E. Woodhouse observed, “Early ideas were on too big a scale” and were certainly too ambitious for either the government or Canadians to accept. Hose’s 1927 policy was based on the simple concept of defence of Canadian territorial waters and, with the experience of WW I foremost in his mind, therefore a fleet composed of a destroyer leader (a destroyer with additional accommodation for a flotilla staff), five destroyers and four minesweepers. By all previous standards it was not much: no cruisers, no battle cruisers. But it was politically and practically obtainable, and it was achieved within 10 years.

Once Mackenzie King’s government accepted the plan, things happened quickly. In early 1928 Patriot and Patrician were paid off and their crews sent to the United Kingdom to collect the sister ships Champlain and Vancouver. Hose, as the new chief of the naval staff, was there to greet the ships when they arrived in Halifax. Meanwhile, the government tried to place tenders for the new destroyers in Canadian yards and only when that failed did it accept a bid from John I. Thorneycroft of Southampton, England, in January 1929. By fall the frames of both ships were rising from the slipways, Saguenay a little ahead of her sister. It was fortunate for the RCN that the British firm could build the ships quickly. On Oct. 24, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed bursting the bubble of prosperity that characterized the late 1920s. That plunged the industrialized world into an economic crisis that would last for a decade, and seriously imperil Hose’s carefully crafted policy.

It took some time for the full effects of what became the Great Depression to grip Canada. However, by early 1930 Mackenzie King was anxious about his electoral prospects. He resolved the problem by visiting a fortune teller who told him the omens were better for 1930 than for 1931. She was probably right, but King lost the general election of July 1930 anyway. R.B. Bennett’s Tories won a comfortable majority, and what Donald Creighton called a tireless, eloquent, bright, driven and imperious man set out to wrestle the looming depression to the ground.

It speaks to the political support for the navy that it was not threatened in the first years of the Great Depression. When Hose presented his vision for the six destroyer-four minesweeper navy to the new government in late August 1930 it was unchallenged, and Hose continued to press his fleet plan. In particular, he urged that funds be allocated to replace the aging WW I vintage trawler/ minesweepers with “four modern minesweeping vessels,” that Champlain and Vancouver be retained until 1936 and that authorized strength be allowed to grow from 896 to 1,400. Hose’s plea was supported by Major-General Andrew McNaughton, Chief of the General Staff. “(T)he responsible officers of the Militia and Air Services endorse fully the conclusions reached by the chief of the naval staff as to the composition of the Canadian Naval Force,” McNaughton explained to the Defence Council. With that, Hose’s naval policy had survived its first major challenge: it seems that both he and Woodhouse were right, the time for political partisanship may well have been over. But Hose did not get the appropriations requested, and the support of the Chief of the General Staff proved to be thin indeed.

And so as the Depression deepened in 1931, Saguenay and Skeena joined the fleet. They were the first warships built for and commissioned into the RCN based on an adopted policy and fleet program. Saguenay commissioned at Portsmouth on May 22, 1931, under the command of Hose’s own protege, Percy Walker Nelles, a graduate of the first class of the Royal Naval College of Canada. Nelles’s rival from that class, Victor Brodeur–son of the first naval minister and one of the founding fathers of the navy–commissioned Skeena at Portsmouth a month later, on June 10, 1931. The RCN’s newest warships, commanded by its best and brightest, arrived in Halifax on July 3.

The ships were state of the art, basically British fleet B class but re-engineered to meet Canadian specifications. They were also the source of immense pride: sleek, handsome and entirely modern. The bows and forward plating were strengthened to deal with ice, and the ballasting improved to compensate for as much as 50-60 tons of ice and snow on the superstructure. Steam heating was provided to make winter service comfortable, while the need to operate in the Caribbean was facilitated by improved ventilation. As the Thorneycroft public relations material on the ships observed, “Many improvements were introduced, as the Canadian naval authorities were much more receptive to new ideas than the Admiralty.” With such novel items as heat and fresh water supplies, wider and more streamlined bridges, nicely flared bows and a higher standard of internal finish, the two new Canadian vessels were quickly dubbed the “Rolls-Royce Destroyers.”

Coming, as it did during the deepening depression, this distinction for Canada’s newest warships was unfortunate. Like Mackenzie King in his first mandate, Bennett was soon cash-strapped and looking for options. Staples exports collapsed by 1931 and so, too, did investment. National incomes fell by at least 45 per cent by the end of 1932 and unemployment–among those who bothered to register for work–rose to 25 per cent. Much of Canada was in the grip of real poverty. The lowest point was reached in 1933, and when the government went looking for major savings it looked like something would have to be ‘thrown from the sleigh’ to save the rest. That something was the navy.

Naval estimates had grown substantially over the previous decade and, like today, defence represented a major portion of the government’s discretionary spending. From the crisis of 1922 until the great year of optimism 1927, the annual budget had hovered around $1.5 million. Then through King’s second term as prime minister the naval budget more than doubled. The estimates for 1930-31 were $3.6 million: proof of Woodhouse’s and Hose’s belief in 1927 that better times lay ahead. The naval appropriations before Treasury Board in 1933 for the coming fiscal year, however, fell to $2,422,000 when the government announced it wanted to cut a further $3.6 million from the total defence budget. It threw the decision on where the cuts might come into the hands of McNaughton.

McNaughton’s relationship with Hose was fragile at best, not least because the army was the senior service in Canada and McNaughton considered himself the de facto Chief of the Defence Staff. So did the government. Moreover, McNaughton was smitten by the potential of air power, and the fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force was actually under his direction. But Hose steadfastly refused to subordinate the RCN to the army. He had already fought this battle against Maj.-Gen. J.H. MacBrien in the early 1920s and won. When a single Ministry of National Defence was established in 1922, the Chief of the General Staff (i.e., head of the army) was designated the Chief of Staff for all the Canadian armed forces. Under such a system, all professional advice to the government on defence matters was filtered through the head of the army. Hose threatened to resign over the issue and it was only resolved when, in 1926, MacBrien retired and the office of Chief of Staff was abolished a year later.

Hose’s change in title from director of the naval service to chief of the naval staff in March 1928 would seem to have finally settled the issue: he and McNaughton were, in theory, co-equals. However, Hose was deeply offended by his exclusion from the Canadian delegation to the 1932 General Disarmament Conference slated for Geneva. McNaughton would serve as the technical adviser on defence matters, as the senior chief–a view shared by McNaughton himself. After appealing directly to the prime minister that both service chiefs should go or none at all, and being rebuffed yet again, Hose prepared a letter of resignation. Just as he was about to make a public demonstration of his resignation, Hose was distracted by the dispatch of two destroyers to El Salvador where they intervened in the civil war to protect British interests. The Geneva conference was a flop, McNaughton soon came home and Hose stayed on to fight another day.

That was just as well, for McNaughton believed that traditional concepts of sea power were obsolete and that air power was the wave of the future. He showed his true colours when the government asked in May 1933 for advice on how the defence budget might be slashed by $3.6 million. As McNaughton informed Prime Minister Bennett, “the proposals as now formulated by the Treasury Board would involve the disbandment of the Royal Canadian Navy.” The RCAF, doing pioneering work in the north during an air-mad era, was already underfunded and the army funds were at a minimum given the need for simple internal order. McNaughton told Bennett the navy was too small to do anything useful, and it could not be expanded quickly in time of need, “in consequence, it seems to me that little is served in maintaining a small nucleus.” As a result, McNaughton recommended that the lion’s share of the cuts–some two million dollars–come from the navy budget. Just what McNaughton expected the navy to do with only $422,000 remains unclear, since there would not be enough to even pay off the personnel.

It is possible that McNaughton exposed the navy for elimination because he expected Hose to fight for his service and that, under the circumstances, he could do no better than to turn the pugnacious chief of the naval staff loose on the government. Indeed, McNaughton’s recommendations were accepted by the government, and he then presented them to Hose as a recommendation emanating from Treasury Board. Hose knew better. As he related later in a spirited chastisement of his minister for failing to follow the law by including him as a co-equal in discussions about budgets, “it is very difficult to avoid a connection between that advice (provided by McNaughton) and the proposals for reduction forwarded by the Treasury Board.” Hose’s initial response to the news was a lengthy memo outlining the rationale for the RCN, the nature of its policy and procurement plans, and the importance of sea power. When the minister of National Defence asked for McNaughton’s reaction to Hose’s memo, the chief of the general staff rejected virtually the entire argument, pointing out that his support for the navy in 1930 was conditional upon its continued growth and ultimately on six destroyers per coast. Anything less than that and the coasts were better protected by air power. From McNaughton’s perspective, the navy had to go.

What saved the RCN was the weakness of the case against it, and the force of Hose’s personality. When he appeared before Treasury Board on June 23, 1933, Hose made it clear that if the navy suffered further substantial cuts (it had already endured three), “I could not accept any responsibility for the proper conduct of the service.” Treasury Board officials had assumed that the navy would simply discard ships and establishments as they had during the crisis of 1922. Hose explained that in those days the navy was largely manned by British sailors on loan serving in cast-off RN ships. “Today we have ships which cost the Canadian taxpayers some seven or eight million dollars,” Hose went on, “…our complement was nearly 900 in the permanent force and that 850 of these were Canadians who had devoted their life and training to the Service.” When asked if he could not just “lay up the ships for a bit”, Hose refused. He defended his service, the Canadians who had made a commitment to it, and argued that the potential losses in operating efficiency and the attendant risks to ships and equipment because of degraded training standards and sea time were too much to put aside. In the end, Hose’s principal Treasury Board interrogator confessed, “I’m convinced. You’ve made your case clear to me. I have nothing more to say.”

If the government was not entirely persuaded by Hose, the fortuitous presence of Admiral R.A. Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, RN, commander in chief of the America and West Indies Station, in Ottawa helped. The British admiral supported Hose’s assertions about the continued importance of sea power, and the absurdity of having a navy with no ships. In the end, the naval budget for 1933-34 was cut by only $200,000, not the two million proposed by McNaughton.

As a result of Hose’s dogged determination, the navy that Mackenzie King built was saved by a cash-strapped Tory government. It seems that Hose’s faith in his 1927 policy and the end of partisanship was well placed. Hose retired as chief of the naval staff in January of the next year, having maintained the RCN’s stature as a co-equal in the defence of Canada, and having set it on a path that governments have supported ever since.


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