Official lineages, Volume 2, Part 1: Extant Commissioned Ships

Introduction to the history of Royal Canadian Navy ships still in service as of April 24, 2001.

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At first glance the definition of the word "ship" seems perfectly clear. In reality it is not. The meaning of the word has changed over the years, and its use is quite complex in the Canadian Forces.

Originally a "ship" was a vessel with a bowsprit and three to five square‑rigged masts, but the word is now used to describe any large, multi-decked seagoing vessel. Smaller vessels are generally called "craft" or "boats." Submarines, which can be as large as a Second World War cruiser, are never referred to as "ships," and instead are colloquially called "boats." Naval shore establishments, some of which are very large groupings of people and buildings indeed, have been and, with some restrictions, continue to be "commissioned" as "ships," and are sometimes colloquially referred to as "stone frigates." All "ships," therefore, do not float; and not everything that floats is a "ship." For the novice, then, some descriptive definitions are required.

The "commissioning" of naval vessels

The phrase "in commission" originated in the days of sail and referred to the captain being given a commission to bring one of the ships of His/Her Majesty (HM) into service. The captain, on being appointed "to a ship laid up 'in ordinary,' hired a boat and had himself rowed out to the ship." He then gathered his crew members, hoisted his pennant and the appropriate ensign, and read aloud his commission. From this point on, the ship was said to be "in commission." Thirty years after the Royal Canadian Navy was founded in 1910, a commissioned ship was defined as "a ship placed in service in His Majesty's Canadian Naval Service in accordance with a commissioning order issued by the Minister." Today a ship can be defined as "a unit that is a vessel (ship) of the Canadian Forces, commissioned or ordered to be commissioned." Under this current definition, four characteristics indicate a warship "in commission":

  1. the title His/Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS);
  2. the commissioning pennant;
  3. the Canadian Naval Jack; and
  4. a crew in naval uniform.

When a ship reaches the end of her commission, she is paid off, a term that dates from the day when sailors were literally paid the wages owing them as they went ashore. The ensign and the Captain's pennant were hauled down, and the ship was usually placed in reserve. During the winter months it was also common for some of the smaller vessels to be paid off annually until the spring thaw or start of the next reserve training cycle. Today, Her Majesty's Canadian ships are paid off into one of three categories: major refit or conversion, reserve, or disposal. Occasionally the word "decommissioned" is heard but this term, which is used in navies of other nations, is not in keeping with our Canadian naval heritage.

The title His/Her Majesty's Canadian Ship

At one time, naval officers and ratings had to be borne on a ship's books for pay, administrative and disciplinary purposes. This seagoing practice was continued ashore, as the first static establishments often were hulks. Gradually less and less business was transacted on board, but regulations continued to require that personnel belong to a "ship." Such arrangements were impractical for large numbers of personnel, and, following British practice, shore establishments were commissioned as independent ships during the Second World War, each with a small boat to provide the floating vessel as required by regulations. Almost immediately, however, this obvious fiction was abandoned under the pressure of war. Post-war orders were written to reflect a reality of "ships" which included both war vessels and shore establishments. Thus, organizations such as Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa and that of the Commanding Officer, Naval Divisions, in Hamilton, were all commissioned shore establishments, in these two cases HMCS Bytown and Patriot respectively. With Unification in 1968, the practice of commissioning shore establishments as ships changed. "HMCS" is now only used to designate vessels and, for motivational and historical reasons, naval reserve divisions.

Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps are authorized to use the title "HMCS" and a modified ships' badge frame (the maple leaves are in red vice gold and the name plates are in gold with black lettering). When a cadet corps is named after an HMC ship, the central device in the cadet corps' badge is normally the same as the ship's. Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps badges are designed, authorized and approved by the Navy League of Canada, which is not part of the Canadian Forces, and are not shown in this book.

Naval Reserve divisions

The reorganization of the Royal Canadian Navy began shortly after the First World War and was largely complete by early 1920. This post-war period of reorganization saw the demobilization of all officers and ratings not deemed essential, and by the end of 1922 this included the closing of the Royal Naval College of Canada and the discharge of the officers undergoing training. The end result was that Canada’s permanent naval force was composed of approximately 400 all ranks allocated to Naval Barracks, Halifax and Esquimalt, and the only two ships remaining, HMC Ships Patriot and Patrician.

In 1922, as a result of a marked decline in the navy’s budget, the Chief of the Naval Staff recommended to the Government that reserve training centres should be established across Canada as an economical means of producing trained sailors. This proposal was accepted with minimal legislation as a "Naval Volunteer Force" was already authorized in the Naval Service Act of 4 May, 1910. Thus, on 31 January 1923 Privy Council Orders No. 139 and 140 simultaneously disbanded the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve (formed in 1914), and formed the Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve with an authorized strength of 1000. The prefix 'Royal' being granted shortly thereafter.

The Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve was organized in company (100 all ranks) or half-company (50 all ranks) groups and by 1926 it was represented in each province according to population and facilities available. In 1935 these companies were redesignated as "divisions" and on 1 November 1941 they were commissioned as HMC ships. A simplified chart detailing these changes is provided at the end of this introduction.

Ship names

The naming of ships is a time-honoured maritime tradition. Sailors of all nations have always had a great affinity for their ships and, in English, refer to them with the feminine pronouns "she" or "her". This custom is thought to have evolved from the sailor's desire to give his ship a living personality worthy of his loyalty, devotion and service. A ship's name often has historical and geographical connotations and references. The meaning or significance of the name influences the badge, and selecting a name may mean perpetuating the battle honour and heritage of a previous "ship of the same name". (Although numbered vessels in the hundreds served during the Second World War, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill directed that the numbered submarines in the Royal Navy during that war be named. His reasoning was that it was difficult to ask a man to die for a number.)

Prior to the Second World War the Royal Canadian Navy had few ships and naming them was no problem. Initially Royal Navy names were merely continued when a vessel was transferred to Canadian service, as was the case with the cruisers Niobe and Rainbow, Canada's first warships. In the inter‑war years, however, the practice grew of giving Canadian ships Canadian names or names with Canadian connections. With the great expansion caused by the Second World War, this practice was systematized.

Canadian ships' names tend to be selected to perpetuate the names of distinguished ships of the past or to name vessels according to class. During the Second World War, class names predominated because of the great numbers involved. The practice was established of naming corvettes and minesweepers after Canadian cities and towns or names associated with them if the city's name could be confused with a ship previously named (minesweepers had originally been named after bays, and destroyers after Canadian rivers and Indian tribes). Reserve divisions were named on a different basis. They were given the names of former ships, not then included in Navy Lists, which had an influence on the area in which each appropriate division was located. In this way, names such as Discovery (Vancouver) and Chatham (Prince Rupert), Captain George Vancouver's ships on his 1791 voyage to the Pacific North-West, entered the Royal Canadian Navy. Some divisions were named after commercial vessels. Nonsuch (Edmonton), for example, was the name of a merchant ketch sent to Hudson's Bay in 1668 by what was to become the Hudson's Bay Company; York (Toronto),the name of a 66‑ton schooner, the first British commercial craft on Lake Ontario.

After the war, this policy was confirmed when the names of Royal Canadian Navy ships were considered for possible revision. The revision was never carried out ‑ though HMCS Uganda was renamed Quebec ‑ but the factors considered in the recommendation are still valid:

  1. each name should, so far as possible, be immediately recognizable as Canadian;
  2. adequate cross‑Canada geographical representation is desirable;
  3. some notice should be taken of established tradition; and
  4. it is normal to name a class of ships after the first named ship in the class.

From the earliest days of the Royal Canadian Navy until after the Second World War the reigning sovereign took great personal interest in the granting of His approval for the names of all ships in His navies. More recently, approval has been granted by the Minister of National Defence with the advice of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the concurrence of the Privy Council.

When new ships are ordered, they are often assigned names prior to being laid down. During the Second World War especially, it was common to have names changed before or during the construction phase. Generally, changes or exchanges of names were as a result of local politics; however, many changes were also made when it was realized that the name was already in use by other navies or it was thought that the name was so similar to another allied vessel that confusion could result. These changes are superbly described in David J. Freeman's Canadian Warship Names.

The official badge

Ships have carried emblems and devices from the earliest of times to identify themselves to friend and foe alike. By the eighteenth century the custom evolved to the point that shipbuilders and captains enthusiastically adorned their ships with elaborately carved and painted bowsprit figureheads. Canada's navy draws upon much of this naval heritage and in particular the time honoured customs of the Royal Navy.

Although the exact date of when badges were first carried by Royal Navy ships is not known, it is believed it is from these early days of adorning and decorating ships that ship badges evolved. It is known that the Royal Navy first authorized "official" badges in December 1918. Prior to and during the Second World War, Royal Canadian Navy ships often displayed unofficial badges designed by the crew but it was not until 1946 that official badges, carefully designed in accordance with heraldic practice, were approved for commissioned Canadian ships. In rare cases badges were approved for ships undergoing construction or sea trials but which were subsequently sold or placed into reserve prior to commissioning.

The badge is an integral part of the everyday life of sailors. They wear it on their combat jacket, they use it on letterhead, Christmas cards, invitations, and the like, and it is prominently displayed on the ship's battle honour board, Kisby (life-saving) ring, and notice board. The badge may also be displayed at various locations on and throughout the ship, such as the fore of the ship's bridge, the head of companionways and the quarterdeck near the brow.


Mottoes are connected with heraldry and have the same origins as coats of arms. While a knight painted his arms on his shield and other items to identify himself, mottoes were used as a battle cry to rally his men. At first the word was usually the leader's name preceded by "A", as in "Ahoy" but over time mottoes came to be used to express more complicated thoughts, ideals and expressions. Modern ships' mottoes normally express an aspiration such as DON DE DIEU FERAY VALOIR (I will be worthy), the motto for HMCS Ville de Québec.

Livery colours

Every ship with an authorized badge also has official "livery" colours, normally those of the principal heraldic metal and colour in her badge. A ship's colours are also connected with heraldry in much the same way as mottoes. A knight's men wore his "colours" to show what leader they served and to have a readily identifiable mark on the battlefield should they need to rally. This ancient custom is carried on in the navy through the name plate on each ships' badge. The reader will note that the first colour identified is that used for the lettering and the second colour that of the background of the name plate.


An affiliation is an official link between two Canadian units approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff. In general, requests to forge these links are approved when: close ties and personal relationships have developed between units through combined participation in operations or training, regular exchange of personnel on exercises, special meets, parades, competitions, etc.; there is an historical or geographical link between the units; or there is commonality of history, traditions and customs.

Battle honours

All battle honours are considered equal and are therefore listed in the following charts in the chronological order in which they were won by the ships concerned. The battle honours shown are those won by previous and existing "ships of the same name." These honours serve as a record of a ship's participation in campaigns, and it is not considered necessary to repeat this detail in each chart's operational history note.

Battle honours won by Canadian ships may be perpetuated. However, when official battle honours were first allocated in the 1950s, the Royal Canadian Navy subscribed to a shared Commonwealth Battle Honours List based on common perpetuation of previous ships' names. For example, although HMCS Unicorn, the naval reserve division in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was named for a Danish warship sent to explore Hudson Bay in 1619, her name allowed her to retroactively inherit battle honours, for previous Unicorns in British service stretching from "Armada 1588" to "Korea 1950‑53" (this last won by a Royal Navy aircraft carrier which existed simultaneously with the reserve division). Only serving ships commissioned before Unification retain these Commonwealth honours by right of continuous unbroken service from the Royal Canadian Navy. As such, the following charts do not list non-Canadian battle honours for ships which have been paid off. British heritage continues to form a proud part of our tradition, but, in common with all other units of the Canadian Forces, new construction now perpetuates only the deeds and honours won by Canadians on the Canadian order of battle.


Physical hull life is limited, and it is inevitable that ships will eventually be paid off for disposal. Thus, except for naval reserve divisions, which are shore establishments, there can be no continuous family life‑line such as exists for army regiments. Ships' names, however, provide a means of perpetuating the history and honours of those Canadian ships which have gone before.

A ship which does not have the exact name (not including the grammatical use of accents) of a former vessel is not considered a "ship of the same name" and therefore cannot perpetuate the history of the former. For example, HMC Ships Saint John and St. John, and HMC Ships Quebec and Ville de Québec are not considered to be of the same lineage. It is possible to have ships with the same name based on different historical events, personages or geographical features, or homonymous words. A case in point would be the current HMCS Ottawa which was named for the city while the Ottawa commissioned in the Second World War was named for the river. In these cases there is no effect upon the right of perpetuation. Although naval reserve divisions by their very nature have longer standing lineages, these lineages cease if the reserve division is redesignated. An example of this would be when HMCS Montréal was redesignated HMCS Donnacona in 1943.

The subsequent fates of Canada's commissioned ships are multitudinous, ranging from being sold for scrap metal, sold for mercantile service, transferred or sold to navies of friendly nations, sunk as breakwaters or diving sites or taken into auxiliary service with the Royal Canadian Navy or Canadian Forces. For readers interested in the fate of ships, The Ships of Canada's Naval Forces 1910-1993 by Ken Macpherson and John Burgess, Ships of the Royal Navy by J.J. Colledge or Jane's Fighting Ships are excellent sources of information.

Operational history

The notes in the lineage charts give only a brief overview of the operational history of each ship. For this purpose, "operational" is considered to apply to activity during war. Peacetime service is not summarized, including overseas service with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or continental defence as part of the North American Aerospace Defence Command. For further information on the history of a ship, consult the relevant volume of the official Canadian naval history.

The battle honours noted on the charts serve as a record of a ship's participation in campaigns, and it is not considered necessary to repeat this detail in each chart's operational history note.


Within the footnotes of the lineage charts the following abbreviations are used:

  1. AHR – Annual Historical Report;
  2. CFOO – Canadian Forces Organization Order;
  3. CNO – Canadian Naval Order;
  4. MOO – Ministerial Organization Order;
  5. NAC – National Archives of Canada;
  6. NDHQ – National Defence Headquarters;
  7. NHS – Naval Historical Section;
  8. PRF – Permanent Reference File;
  9. RG – Record Group; and
  10. SMC – Ship Movement Card

All unpublished documentation has been taken from the collection of the Directorate of History and Heritage or the National Archives of Canada. The latter documentation is cited as being taken from a particular section of the National Archives of Canada. All Directorate of History and Heritage documentation taken from Document Collection, Kardex or Permanent Reference files is cited as such. All other documentation is from the Heritage Section's own files. Where the name of a ship is followed by a Roman numeral, the numeral denotes that the vessel is the first, second, etc. of name, and is not meant to denote the authorized name of the vessel.

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