The Naval Service of Canada 1910-2010

This history chronicles the first full century, 1910-2010, of Canada’s Navy as a proud national institution. Known officially until 1968 as the Royal Canadian Navy and then as the Maritime Command of the Canadian Forces before restoration of the “Royal” prefix in 2011, the naval service of Canada has played an important role in the development and security of our nation. The contributors’ comprehensive coverage, drawing upon a multitude of primary archival sources and secondary volumes by other authors, includes the origins of the Canadian Navy back to 1867, both world wars, the Korean conflict, the Cold War period, to the present day and a look at the navy of the future. There is also a section on naval war art. The result is a sweeping survey history that will appeal to a broad cross-section of readers, including those who love all things naval, navy veterans and their families, historians, and librarians.

Produced as a commemorative volume published by Dundurn Press of Toronto for the Navy Centennial in 2010, it remains available for purchase as an e-book:


At the end of the Second World War, the principal task of Douglas Abbott—who had replaced Angus L. Macdonald as minister of national defence for naval services in April 1945, and then replaced General Andrew McNaughton as minister of national defence in August—was the demobilization of the largest army, navy and air force in Canada’s history. He approached the task with the caution and perception for which he was famous. In proposing “a good, workable little fleet” he was reflecting the admittedly modest ambition the navy had been striving for since its inception, yet for various reasons had never been able to attain. Canadian naval planners in 1945 finally were able to argue convincingly for a navy that served national purposes, rather than—as circumstances had tended to dictate in pre-war days—simply being a fleet unit of the British Commonwealth. It was a natural outcome of the great national contribution to victory, and henceforth this is what would shape the form of the navy to this day.

A Canadian navy serving Canadian interests has in fact very deep roots. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, improvised local naval forces and privateers in North America made up for the inadequate protection of trade and territory provided by the imperial navies responsible for their protection, which were stretched too thin. They complemented those navies in operations against mutual foes, and sometimes, like state navies in the American colonies during the war of the American revolution, they challenged imperial navies. In the process, they gave an outlet to seafarers wedded to local as much as, or more than, imperial interests. It was such activities in the years leading up to the First World War that led to a permanent Canadian naval service.

John Horton, The Two Ottawas (courtesy John Gardam).

After the Treaty of Washington of 1871 Canada formed fisheries protection forces, when the Royal Navy declined to do so, to ensure United States adherence to the treaty. In 1903 the Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral “Jacky” Fisher, made it policy to withdraw British naval forces from distant stations in order to centralize and increase naval strength close to home. This was of course the most cost-effective answer to the threat posed by German naval expansion. But for Canadians, with their growing sense of national self-sufficiency, it created a dilemma: Should they contribute to assured British naval supremacy by direct assistance to Britain, or look to their own naval defence? Britain turned over the naval dockyards at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Esquimalt (in Victoria, British Columbia) to Canada in 1907. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (who predicted in 1904 that the twentieth century would belong to Canada), and his minister of marine and fisheries, Louis-Philippe Brodeur, with their acute sense of national pride, decided to fill the vacuum with Canadian government ships. When the Prince of Wales visited Quebec in 1908 for the tercentenary celebrations there was a fleet review with ships of the Royal Navy (RN) and United States Navies, and along with them the Canadian Government Ship Canada, carrying a number of young men under training who would form the nucleus of the future Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

This did not sit well with many of Laurier’s political opponents, but in 1909 there was sufficient agreement in Conservative as well as Liberal ranks for a member of the Conservative opposition to table the resolution for a naval service bill. His language—repeated in the motion that came before the House on 29 March 1909—reflected the times. Canada’s “great and varied resources,… her geographical position and national environment, and …that spirit of self-help and self-respect which alone befits a strong and growing people” struck the right note for Parliament, after much subsequent discussion, to pass the Naval Service Act on 4 May 1910. To be sure, as will be seen, the very Canadian attributes described by George Foster in 1909 expressed themselves in passionate political debate, and by 19 August 1911, when the Naval Service of Canada was permitted to designate itself the “Royal Canadian Navy,” Robert Borden’s Conservatives had defeated the Laurier government, in part over the matter of naval policy.

Borden had promised to repeal the Naval Service Act, but after talking to the new first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, he decided also to put through a Naval Aid Bill for direct assistance to the Royal Navy. When this was defeated in the Senate in 1913 he adopted a classic Canadian compromise: do nothing. By the outbreak of war in 1914 the RCN consisted principally of small ships capable of coastal defence and the protection of trade. This was more or less in line with the initial recommendations made in 1909 by the future director of the naval service (the Canadian-born Rear-Admiral, later Admiral, Sir Charles Edmund Kingsmill, RN), based particularly on his experience commanding ships on the Australian station.

It was not the fleet unit that enthusiasts had envisioned, but in four years of war it would demonstrate that Canada needed a navy capable of complementing the navies of its more powerful allies. More important, as would be the case with the short-lived Royal Canadian Naval Air Service in 1918, it had to ensure that Canada would never depend completely on its allies for its own defence. Thanks largely to the few seasoned British sailors who were available in Canada, and who understood the needs of the RCN, the infant navy not only survived the severe test of war but was effective in preventing serious shipping losses in the face of the German submarine threat off the East Coast. It must be said, however, that in comparison with the Canadian Corps, and with Canadian airmen on the Western Front, the RCN gained no great fighting reputation from its First World War record.

Large ships travel across the water against a city backdrop.

The Canadian Government Ship Canada (foreground), with the Prince of Wales (future King George V) and Governor General Lord Grey embarked, receives a salute from the British, French, and American fleets anchored in the St. Lawrence River for the Quebec Tercentenary review in July 1908.

None of Canada’s armed forces fared well between the two world wars. The navy nearly disappeared. In 1919 the naval minister, C. C. Ballantyne, told Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe (who agreed) that unless a serious start was made in establishing the peacetime navy he intended “to wipe out completely the present Canadian naval service as being a pure waste of money.” In 1922 Ottawa closed the Royal Naval College of Canada, formed in 1910, which had provided an excellent grounding for the young men who would devote their lives to naval service, but whose hopes were disappointed by the dismal prospects they could now expect. In the face of post-war recession the government rejected most of the recommendations made in 1919 by Lord Jellicoe, and paid off (decommissioned) all but two destroyers. In 1932, Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton, who was pushing for expanded air defence in Canada, told Sir Maurice Hankey (Clerk of the Privy Council in London) that “The Canadian navy as presently constituted is not an answer to any problem of Canadian defence.” The next year, when the depression forced severe cuts in defence expenditure, he recommended sacrificing the navy as the least necessary of the three services, leaving coastal defence to the army and air force.

In such adversity, without the kind of fighting reputation built up by the army and by Canadian airmen during the First World War, extraordinary measures were necessary to safeguard the Canadian Navy. Kingsmill’s replacement, Walter Hose, refused to accept subordination to the generals, won recognition in 1928 as the chief of the naval staff rather than simply the director of the naval service, and established volunteer reserve divisions across the country. At the same time, largely because policy-makers threw the navy back on its own resources, the RCN became in some respects more British than Canadian, a close-knit family dependent on the Royal Navy for guidance and support, relying on Britain for training, and on Admiralty regulations for its governance. And that compounded the problem. Brooke Claxton, when he was minister of national defence a generation later, said of senior RCN officers: “They had all joined about the year 1914, had been trained largely with the RN, and served together through every rank and course, had English accents and fixed ideas.”

Poster for the Canadian Navy’s 75th anniversary, 1985.

Poster for the Canadian Navy’s 75th anniversary, 1985.

There was some truth in this slander, but it was a superficial judgement. The British writer James Morris observed in 1973 that, “ … in the era of British climax, whose last years the middle-aged can remember,” the Royal Navy was “ … the supreme symbol of patriotism. The Royal Navy was ‘British and Best.’ The Royal Navy always travelled first class….The service itself assumed an anthropomorphic character—hard drinking but always alert, eccentric but superbly professional, breezy, naughty, posh, kindly, Nelsonically ready to disobey an order in a good cause, or blow any number of undeserving foreigners out of the water.…”1 Those who had joined between the wars usually had this vision of a navy, and some may have hoped to use the RCN as a jumping off point to the RN. Or as Commander L.B. Jenson said, when asked in 1938 by Lieutenant-Commander E. Rollo Mainguy why he wanted to join, “My uncle is a captain in the Royal Navy and has had a very interesting life. I do not want to stay in Calgary and see the grain elevators every day. I love the water and want to see the world.”2

“Sailors are sailors the world over,” an eloquent Gunnery Instructor by the name of Chief Petty Officer Harry Catley, once observed. Canadian sailors certainly would not have denied possessing the virtues listed by James Morris, virtues that cried out for emulation.3 Men who kept the Canadian Navy going between the wars were very much in that tradition, but no less Canadian for it. The story is told of a young officer returning to a Canadian ship after two years with the Royal Navy, hearing his captain respond to what a defaulter had to say for himself with the simple comment “bullshit,” and realizing with pleasure that he was back in the RCN. It was these few sailors, all of them—officers and men of the lower deck—professional to the core, very close to their British counterparts, and still conscious of their Canadian identity, around which the wartime navy was built.4

In the Second World War the Canadian Navy grew from six destroyers, three minesweepers, and less than 3,000 men to a peak in June 1944 of over 90,000 men and women, and 385 fighting ships. In six years, serving in every theatre and in virtually every type of naval operation, the RCN made itself particularly indispensable to allied victory by its greatest strategic achievement—the safe escort of tens of thousands of merchant vessels carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic to northwest Europe, through the Mediterranean to North Africa, and by way of the Arctic seas to northern Russia. As a result, from a small, tight-knit force that was so evidently an offshoot of the RN, the RCN would become a major national institution.

It was a painful transition. Post-war retrenchment and difficulties in adjusting to the changed circumstances of a peacetime navy hurt morale. Shrinkage from a force of nearly 100,000 to a mere 7,500, and the desire by a number of old school sailors to return to prewar customs, promised prospects little better than the Navy had offered between the wars. Certain “incidents” in RCN ships led to a famous inquiry chaired by Rear-Admiral Rollo Mainguy (now vice-chief of naval staff), producing a report that emphasized the “Canadianization” of the RCN. It was in many respects the Canadian Navy’s Magna Carta, but a good many of the measures recommended did not take immediate effect, whether because of foot dragging by the naval establishment, or the slow workings of the bureaucracy under considerable budget limitation. And it was not until recent decades that there was sufficient encouragement for francophones to join the navy. Those who took part in an international exercise in the Mediterranean in 1958 will recall the embarrassment of the Canadian debriefing team when—none of them being sufficiently fluent in French to understand the proceedings—a captain in the Royal Navy had to act as translator.

The naval assembly in Halifax for Canada’s Centennial in 1967.

The naval assembly in Halifax for Canada’s Centennial in 1967.

Nevertheless, the navy has been a useful instrument of both diplomatic and military policy, serving Canadian interests, since the Second World War. The Korean War and the Cold War again forced Canada to increase the size and capability of the RCN. A fleet review in 1960, the fiftieth anniversary of the RCN, revealed the largest peacetime naval force in its history. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the Canadian Navy earned praise for its ability to respond rapidly and effectively to an international crisis. It was a Canadian naval icebreaker, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Labrador, that achieved the first deep draft ship transit of the Northwest Passage (an achievement that was somewhat dampened by the subsequent transfer of Labrador to the Canadian Coast Guard). Since then it has had to weather more cutbacks, overcome the traumatic effects of unification of the armed forces, and suffer a severe gap between its capability and the commitments it is expected to meet, but it has demonstrated Canadian scientific and engineering skill in technical developments. During the Second World War Halifax scientists invented the Canadian Anti-acoustic Torpedo (CAAT) gear. In post-war years, the RCN’s championing of the first successful helicopter haul-down systems for naval ships, laying the foundation for inter-ship computer-to-computer “datalinks,” and advances in active and passive sonar technology deserve special mention. Indeed, Canadian naval success in developing the ship as an integrated system was achieved in ways that the navies of Britain and United States were unable to do because of the sheer size of their design teams.

Since the end of the Cold War, following what historian Marc Milner has called a “renaissance” of a significant buildup of modern and well-equipped ships, our naval forces have distinguished themselves in their response to various international crises, particularly the so-called war on terror, as will be seen in this book. Canadians have often been slow to acknowledge how well their navy has served them—possibly because so many live so far from the sea—but that navy in all its ups and downs, in its ability to survive its first century in spite of so many obstacles to survival, has shown itself to be a remarkable expression of the Canadian spirit.

Author: Alec Douglas

1 Brook Claxton Papers, cited by James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada: Peacemaking and Deterrence Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 59.

2 James Morris, Encounter (1973).

3 L.B. Jenson, Tin Hats, Oilskins and Seaboots: A Naval Journey, 1938-1945 (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000), 25.

4 Chief Petty Officer Harry Catley, Gunner’s Mate, Gate and Gaiters .A Book of Naval Humour and Anecdotes. Including a glossary of naval language for the uninformed (Toronto: Thorn Press, 1949), 28.

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