The Canadian Navy in the 1960s

Years of crisis

Nine days after he had become chief of the naval staff on 1 August 1960, Vice- Admiral Herbert Sharples Rayner suggested to his Naval Board that little was going to change on his watch. Since his predecessor, Vice-Admiral Harry DeWolf, was “turning over the ‘ship’ in good shape and on the proper course,” Rayner told his officers that they merely had to press on and the navy would continue to weather relatively fair seas.1 Those reassuring words were short lived. Soon after Rayner took over, the navy would be flooded by technical, strategic, tactical, financial, political, and organizational changes that would leave it sailing rudderless into an uncertain future. These events made the 1960s one of the most tumultuous periods in the Canadian Navy’s history.

Painting depicts four ships travelling the waters.

David Landry, HMCS Chaudière — 1962 Fisheries Patrol, investigating Soviet trawlers on the Grand Banks.

If the navy truly experienced a “Halcyon Age” in the 1950s, as a number of scholars have claimed, it was the product of Harry DeWolf ’s firm leadership. His political masters were offering limited funding for future construction, and as a result DeWolf realized that the RCN had no other choice but to specialize in anti-submarine warfare. Yet the root causes that would trigger so much uncertainty in the 1960s were starting to blossom in the final years of his tenure. A new American strategy, known as “flexible response,” placed greater emphasis on conventional rather than potential nuclear responses to deter aggression and crises in the Third World. This caused some Canadian naval officers to question whether DeWolf ’s decision to specialize in ASW was the right one. Without general-purpose ships the RCN could easily find itself in the embarrassing position where it would be unable to participate in important alliance missions involving the use of conventional forces in limited war situations. A crisis in the Congo quickly drove the point home to the new Vice-Admiral Rayner. Although there was no need for the RCN to assist in this particular mission, the government suggested that the likelihood of naval involvement in a future United Nations operations was high.

Technical developments and alliance commitments also served to suggest that the RCN needed to incorporate some flexibility into its force structure plans. With an explosion of innovative technologies changing the nature of naval warfare, the post-war naval revolution ushered in a new era in ship construction. Due to the emergence of Soviet supersonic aircraft, guided missiles, and fast nuclear-powered submarines, naval designers were left with few options but to build bigger and more expensive ships packed with highly technical detection, weapons and propulsion systems. To complicate matters further, another new NATO strategic doctrine, known as “MC 70,” told the alliance that in the event of war the supreme allied commander Atlantic (SACLANT) would take the fight to the Soviets by destroying submarines in the eastern Atlantic. This, however, would put allied naval forces well within the range of Soviet aircraft. The problem for the RCN, some argued, was that a specialized ASW fleet without medium range anti-aircraft missiles, or replacements for either the Banshee fighter or the aircraft carrier Bonaventure, would be left out of NATO’s advanced operations and instead would be relegated to secondary duties in the western Atlantic.

Seven ships follow two submarines in formation.

The fleet that wasn’t: this June 1961 view of a combined USN-RCN Task Force has much of the navy’s ambition on display, including in the right foreground a nuclear attack submarine (USS Triton) and, in the second line to left of Bonaventure, the carrier USS Essex.

The question of how much versatility the Canadian Navy should possess was not an easy one to answer. Rayner’s solution was to build “a balanced anti-submarine force” that would be “three-fifths anti-submarine surface vessels, one-fifth anti-submarine submarines and one-fifth general purpose ships.”2 Based on its NATO commitments, the RCN was expected to provide a fleet of 43 ships, and applying the formula to this total produced a force of nine submarines, eight general purpose frigates (GPFs), and six “heliporter” frigates, which would complement the seven St. Laurent-, seven Restigouche-, and six Mackenzie-class destroyer-escorts (DDE) that would still be in service by the early 1970s. While Rayner felt that this program was realistic, he nevertheless knew it would be a hard sell to a cost-conscious government. As a result, he turned to his vice-chief-in-waiting, Jeffrey “Brimstone” Brock, to help him make the pitch to the other service chiefs as well as the government.

Brock’s report was the centrepiece of Rayner’s campaign to get final approval for the GPFs, submarines, and heliporters. On 31 July 1961, Brock and his committee delivered with a program of eight GPFs, 12 conventional and nuclear submarines, 12 heliporter frigates, two Arctic patrol vessels, and two tankers, as well as various upgrades and modernization programs that represented a totally unrealistic and impossibly expensive fleet. The Brock Report has often been interpreted as the most blatant manifestation of the RCN’s long-standing desire to acquire a large, multi-purpose navy. This represents a misreading of the report’s purpose: third-party opinions offered at the time actually suggest it was successful in achieving its primary aim. As Rayner would later explain, Brock’s paper fleet was simply a guide that was never meant to sail. Instead, by allowing it to identify the ideal force structure, Rayner would use Brock’s report as a tool to acquire the more realistic ASW fleet with a relatively small measure of versatility that he was really pursuing. Although Brock did not realize it, his report was, therefore, the “smoke and mirrors” that suddenly made Rayner’s preferred program (eight GPF, six ASW heliporter frigates, and six USN Barbel-class submarines) look much smaller, and earned it a ringing endorsement from the distinguished defence research scientist Dr. R.J. Sutherland, who applauded Rayner for his attempt to make “a slight alteration” to the navy’s “super-specialized” ASW nature.3

Rayner was willing to make considerable sacrifices to get what the Canadian Navy needed to be an effective force at sea. This was particularly true when it came to establishing a submarine service. When acquiring the American Barbel-class subs proved problematic, since Diefenbaker’s government was concerned about the high cost of these submarines, Rayner listened carefully to the suggestion by defence minister Douglas Harkness to take a close look at the British Oberon class instead. If accepting the less capable Oberon was the price for establishing a submarine service, it was one that Rayner was more than willing to pay.

The navy had good reason to focus on the acquisition of the Oberons and GPFs. A large portion of the existing fleet consisted of Tribal- and Crescent-class destroyers as well as Prestonian-class frigates, all Second World War era ships that would be coming to the end of their useful operational lives by the mid and late 1960s. Block obsolescence was one of the greatest problems facing the RCN at this time, which made it essential to get a replacement program in the shipyards as soon as possible. Indeed, the GPFs were intended to spend the majority of their career not only supporting the anti-submarine fleet, but also answering Rayner’s versatility requirement, with shore bombardment guns, guided missiles, and a small trooplift capability, should the RCN ever need it.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 went a long way toward showing that Rayner’s anti-submarine focus was the right one operationally. The American mid-month discovery of a Soviet attempt to establish ballistic missile bases on the Caribbean island sparked a political and military showdown that brought the world to the edge of nuclear annihilation until a naval “quarantine” (effectively a blockade) of the approaches to Cuba forced Moscow on October 28 to agree to dismantle the sites. Operations at sea as such were intense, and the RCN played a major role in the ASW aspects. It is generally accepted that the anti-submarine portion of the crisis began when a Zulu-class submarine was sighted alongside a Soviet fleet auxiliary ship on 22 October 1962. Although it cannot be confirmed without access to Soviet naval archives, this submarine was likely the one that RCAF Argus aircraft later detected and then tracked over the period of the 26 – 29 of October on its way to the northeastern seaboard. In any event, the probability that other Soviet submarines (nuclear- armed with either torpedoes “for self-defence” or offensive missiles) were off the coast of North America made the task of detecting them critical, the more so since by October 27 American and Canadian officers believed they had made contact on various occasions with seven submarines in the Atlantic (two of which were reported to be in the Canadian area of operations) as well as at least one in the Pacific.

To avoid public panic sailors were not recalled from leave and the fleet was sent to sea under the guise of national “exercises.” The reality, however, was that the RCN was doing as much as it could to prepare for war. The operational commander in Halifax, Rear-Admiral Kenneth Dyer, was not prepared to take any chances in the nuclear age, and the scope of the Canadian Navy’s actions capture the seriousness of the crisis: ships and aircraft were dispersed with wartime payloads and provisions; secondary headquarters and bases were prepared; vessels in maintenance were rushed to sea; and Bonaventure and its escorts were ordered home from a NATO exercise in the eastern Atlantic. Of the 136 “contact- events” made in or near Canada’s WESTLANT (western Atlantic) zone — without Soviet archival corroboration the number that were actual submarines remains a mystery— there is little doubt that HMCS Kootenay was firmly tracking a Foxtrot off Georges Bank in early November (though the crisis had passed, monitoring of Soviet activity continued, to ensure compliance with the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement). Despite close encounters with Soviet trawlers that steered aggressively toward the Canadian destroyer in an active attempt to break its contact with the submarine, Kootenay nevertheless stuck with the target until relieved by USN forces. In the end, it appeared that there were at least two Soviet submarines in the 160-kilometre deep Canadian patrol area straddling across the Atlantic from Cape Race to a point roughly 500 kilometres to the west of the Azores, and either RCN or RCAF forces detected both of them. It was an impressive display and an important contribution.

The RCN’s response to the crisis nevertheless spawned a controversial legacy. It is generally accepted that Dyer placed the RCN on a war footing and kept its ships at sea — effectively mobilizing the RCN’s East Coast fleet — without explicit direction, because senior political and naval leaders in Ottawa were paralysed by the crisis. However, some analysts then and since have argued that the decision was not Dyer’s to make, and in consequence his behaviour constituted a serious breach of the democratic ideal that elected officials control the military. Other scholars, however, are quick to counter such claims by observing that Dyer simply did what the CANUS (Canada-United States) alliance for the defence of North America required him to do: long before the current crisis, Canada had promised under the Basic Security Agreement that it would send its ships to sea in the event of a sudden emergency, and according to historian Wilf Lund,“[Dyer] recalled that it was a very intense situation and remembers thinking to himself, ‘This could be the end’ and he acted accordingly within the authority that had been delegated to him.”4 When viewed through this prism, Dyer’s actions are much easier to justify. Indeed, no matter what one’s opinion about its mobilization, the seagoing fleet emerged from the crisis confident that it could protect North America. Not only did its ability to patrol an area ranging from the Grand Banks to the approaches of New York City free USN ships for the actual blockade of Cuba, but also Canadian naval forces had successfully tracked a number of Soviet submarines.

That confidence, however, was soon challenged by certain operational realities suggesting that, while the RCN was capable of tracking Soviet submarines, it did not have the equipment to destroy them. The combination of the hull-mounted AN/SQS-503 search, 502 attack, and 501 bottom search sonars, along with the eventual introduction of the variable depth AN/SQS-504 sonar, gave the RCN destroyer-escorts an effective detection range of approximately 6,400 metres. Relying on ship-launched torpedoes and Mk 10 Limbo mortars (a direct descendant of Second World War technology) with a range of a mere 900 metres, the gap between the detection and weapon ranges in the destroyer-escort was so great that enemy submarines could attack the Canadian warships with virtual impunity. The marriage of the Sea King helicopter (that could operate some nine to 18 kilometres from the parent ship) to the destroyer-escort was intended to close this gap.

While the mock-up flight decks on Buckingham and Ottawa helped to ascertain the idea of flying helicopters off destroyers was technically feasible, it was not until the first Sea King helicopter was delivered in May 1963 and trials began on Assiniboine in November that the Canadian Navy truly learned the “DDH” helicopter-carrying destroyer concept had its limitations. Although the vast majority of observers agreed the Sea King was one of the best ASW platforms, extensive study suggested that the RCN was placing too much faith in its ability to restore the destroyer’s tactical advantage over the nuclear submarine. The most serious of these issues was the important question of “dead time” — the period between the aircraft’s launch and the point it reached the target — as it was determined that the aircraft had to be airborne and within nine kilometres of the contact to be effective. To some extent the same logic applied to Bonaventure’s fixed-wing Tracker aircraft, and as a result the solution to dead time was to add the “ASROC” anti-submarine rocket-thrown torpedo system (that could deliver a torpedo out to a range of 11 kilometres in a matter of minutes) to the Restigouche-class destroyer-escorts (DDE).

Three aircraft fly over a naval ship.

The sea-based fighter air defence of the fleet, as provided by these Banshees flying over Bonaventure, would prove too costly to maintain, and both aircraft and carrier would be scrapped by the end of the decade.

Tactics within the RCN were also facing a larger revolution that would change the way officers thought about the concept of ASW operations. For much of the late 1950s and early 1960s the RCN had been leaning toward the idea that anti-submarine warfare could be left in the hands of friendly submarines working in concert with shore-based maritime patrol aircraft. Important operational exercises now identified a serious flaw in this concept: there were too many incidents where aircraft attacked friendly submarines in error. The best use of the anti-submarine submarine, therefore, was to treat it as a scout or lone hunter. New technologies and tactics were coming together to form a Canadian concept of operations based around destroyer groups of DDHs and DDEs protected by general purpose frigates. This would give each group the capability to defend itself from air threats, while combining the detection ranges of hull and variable depth sonars with the attack capability of the helicopter and ASROC. The fact that aircraft carriers were not included in this long term planning was no accident. In Rayner’s navy the aircraft carrier’s days were numbered, particularly since naval aviation was expensive, accounting for almost one-quarter of the navy’s annual budget. This was particularly relevant with the election in April 1963 of a Liberal government set upon introducing costly new social programs.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson and his Cabinet were out to reform government as well as Canadian society. In that spirit of change, the new defence minister Paul Hellyer was determined to leave his mark on the Canadian military by making it more fiscally efficient and operationally relevant. Pointing to the sweeping conclusions of the Glassco Royal Commission on Government Organization, Hellyer also wanted to achieve economies for new equipment through the integration and eventual unification of the navy, army, and air force into one service.

The creation of the Sauvé Committee mandated to conduct a general review of Canada’s defence policy was seen in many circles as a means to use a bipartisan parliamentary committee to justify heavy cuts to the department. Whether or not there was any truth to this claim can be questioned, but there was no doubt that the Canadian Navy was facing severe cutbacks. Not long after he had taken over as minister of defence, Hellyer instructed all the services that they would have to operate on a fixed budget of $282 million each year for three years. The sacrifices the navy had to make to meet these targets were considerable. Stations were closed, equipment upgrades were slashed, and plans were made to decommission the remaining Tribals earlier than intended, but it was the potentially deep cuts to the ship replacement program that hurt most of all.

Rayner had an almost fanatical devotion to the RCN’s alliance obligations. Consequently, he was concerned that the minister’s budgetary exercise, euphemistically known as “Operation CUTBACK,” would, by 1970, leave the navy well short of its 43-ship commitment to NATO. In fairness to the minister, the force goals so firmly obsessing Rayner were arbitrary figures negotiated between Canadian naval officers and their alliance counterparts. In consequence, the final decision as to what naval forces Canada would contribute indeed rested with the nation’s elected officials and not the Naval Board or SACLANT.

Force goals aside, the fact the General Purpose Frigate program was a Conservative initiative that was well over its estimated cost (having soared from $264 million in 1962 to just over $428 million within the year) made it a ripe target for a minister who was looking for savings and was about to reorganize the military in fundamental ways. Yet Rayner’s desire for the RCN to meet its alliance force goal commitment placed a strain on the navy even before Hellyer had become minister. Essential training often was sacrificed just to keep ships at sea, and by the end of 1962 there were signs that morale was starting to suffer. While many sailors complained about excessive sea time and the obvious over-extension of the Navy, a series of reports also suggested that the RCN was failing to satisfy the expectations of new recruits. The feeling that men were being employed in menial tasks and sent on dull cruises did little to convince individuals to re-engage. There was more. A lack of standardized on-the-job training and dissatisfaction with housing and the high cost of living did little to arrest the Canadian Navy’s low re-engagement rates. In the end, most of these reports came to the same conclusion that “there is no evidence to say that morale is dangerously low. There is evidence that it is not as it could be.”5

Excessive commitments and decreasing morale may not have had a direct impact on the fleet’s efficiency, but the navy’s declining re-engagement rate in conjunction with an inability to attract new recruits was creating a serious manning problem. In fact, while serving as Flag Officer Atlantic Coast in July 1963, Rear-Admiral Brock had warned that the personnel situation in his command was deteriorating so badly that the only safe way he could send Bonaventure and its escorts on an exercise was to pilfer sailors from ships in refit and maintenance periods. For Brock this was a real and worsening crisis, and he grew increasingly frustrated that naval headquarters was not taking decisive action. As serious as this growing manpower crisis was, however, naval headquarters was preoccupied with its own problems.

Reducing alliance force goal commitments would have allowed the navy to free up crews by paying off ships (taking them out of service) without the need to replace them. The problem, however, was that such a move would undercut Rayner’s key argument that the navy needed its balanced ASW fleet replacement program to maintain its current alliance commitments. Adding to the confusion was the new vision that Hellyer had for the Canadian military, which he called “Mobile Force.” As the minister later would explain, Mobile Force basically involved “an air transportable fighting unit which could be airlifted with its equipment for quick deployment anywhere in the world.”6 This concept, however, being rather amorphous, offered encouragement to certain naval officers to press the case for their preferred ship class over other types. For example, giving Mobile Force a sealift capability would require aircraft carriers, and as a result the minister’s vision could be used as a means to give naval aviation a second chance. While this challenged Rayner’s notion of working a small measure of versatility into a specialized anti-submarine force, the idea of giving the Canadian Navy an increased capability to respond to United Nations and limited war situations was something that Hellyer was willing to explore. According to one observer, however, the internal debate over versatility left the navy’s senior staff “seething” and “dangerously fragmented” throughout 1963 and early 1964.7

The GPF was the first casualty of this growing internal debate over force structure. Although Hellyer was moving toward cancellation, it appears he had been considering a proposal from Rayner that would see the RCN acquire a smaller program of four GPFs. This moment of pause from the minister was the product of advice from one of his key advisers (defence scientist R.J. Sutherland) who suggested that the GPF was the ideal ship- type to meet the RCN’s current needs. Whether or not the minister would have actually followed this advice is uncertain; however, Hellyer certainly was not going to advance a program that a number of senior officers were quietly hoping would get axed and thereby clear the way for their desired platform. On 10 October 1963 he announced the cancellation of the General Purpose Frigate.

It was actually a bitter former senior officer named James Plomer who helped Hellyer justify his decision to cancel the GPF. Having taken early retirement because he had been passed over for a promotion, Commodore Plomer was anxious to settle the score from his self-imposed exile. In a highly critical article in Maclean’s, Plomer charged that the navy had morale, maintenance, and readiness problems, all due to the navy’s senior staff being a “self- perpetuating, self-selecting group of admirals.” Raking the Canadian Navy over the coals for a general purpose ship that was too slow and costly, Plomer told Canadians that the GPF was trying to do so many tasks that it could not perform any one of them particularly well. The notion that the RCN’s senior leadership was filled with officers who were holding onto the outdated and class-based traditions of the Royal Navy resonated with Hellyer. In time Hellyer would tackle the issue of naval traditions with his plan to unify the three services into a single “Canadian Armed Forces,” but at the time of Plomer’s charges it was his conclusions on the navy’s force structure that garnered the most attention.

A helicopter lands on a ship travelling through the water.

The RCN’s revolutionary ability to land a big helicopter onto a small heaving deck is demonstrated by this Sea King approaching Assiniboine.

Plomer had claimed that Rayner’s force structure was a grave mistake and the cancellation of the GPF only served to reinforce that perception. Left without a cohesive procurement strategy, the RCN’s fleet planning was thrown into a state of chaos and confusion for well over a year, with various groups within the navy divided between a destroyer force specializing in anti-submarine warfare, an amphibious fleet centred on the Iwo Jima and Essex-class carriers, or one that could accommodate both. It was a fruitless debate. Shopping for expensive carriers or nuclear submarines did not make sense given that Hellyer was slashing the military’s budget. Put another way, the navy should have realized that there was only enough money to build either a fleet for anti-submarine warfare or one for limited war situations, but not both.

Firm direction was required to help the navy navigate these troubled waters and that was something the beleaguered Rayner could no longer provide. He had little strength left, going so far as to tell the minister in November 1963 that he would only stay on as chief of naval staff for another eight months, at which time it was his intention to retire. This effectively left the navy with a lame duck at a time when it needed a tiger. In fairness to Rayner, Mobile Force had put him in a difficult situation. Ignoring the minister’s sudden interest in limited wars risked the possibility that the navy would be left behind if Canadian defence policy somehow shifted in this direction. The same was true for the minister’s interest in the possible acquisition of nuclear submarines — a development that was predicated by evidence that two Soviet nuclear submarines had recently violated Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. There was no crystal ball at naval headquarters to say that the current incarnation of Mobile Force would stall at the planning phase or that nuclear submarines would prove too rich for the government’s blood (as we now know happened in both cases), and therefore Rayner had little choice but to hedge his bets. Moreover, challenging ministerial directives at a time when the government was in the process of cutting budgets was not smart politics. From that perspective, therefore, Rayner did the right thing by forming yet another ad hoc study group to look into force structure, with Commodore H.G. Burchell as chair.

Tasked with studying alternative naval programs, Burchell was fair and understood the dangers that the building factionalism in the RCN posed, but his report did little to bring any stability. Advancing a three-module concept built around Bonaventure and two Iwo Jima- class amphibious assault ships, Burchell’s committee designed a flexible force that — while keeping anti-submarine warfare as its primary function — placed the greatest emphasis yet on multi-role operations. The Burchell Report claimed that the three-module force could be sustained with a yearly budget of $252 million, but this was just the annual operating cost — questionable in its own right — and the fact that a price tag on building this fleet was not being properly debated at the staff level led to much circumspection.

Part of the problem for the Canadian Navy was that the minister was not providing clear direction on where the government was planning to take Canadian defence policy. The Liberals were uncertain how to deal with the growing instability in the Third World and, wanting to keep their defence options open for as long as possible, they were keen to avoid binding “the government to a particular formula which might prove an embarrassment in the future.”8 When the White Paper on Defence appeared in March 1964, it was vague on the subject of naval force structure. Other than recognizing that the RCN’s primary role was to make an effective “Alliance contribution” through a modest anti- submarine warfare fleet, the white paper’s only clear message for the navy was that it was to deliver “the maximum intensity of surveillance and maximum defence potential for the least cost.”9

The white paper’s message on cost had other important implications for the service. Economies would also be made through the integration and eventual unification of the Canadian military, and rather than having chiefs and individual staffs representing the navy, army, and air force, the new Canadian Forces headquarters would be organized along functional lines under the authority of a single chief of the defence staff. Integration meant that the Naval Board and Staff would cease to exist on 1 August 1964.

Operational experience at sea was certainly showing why it was so important that the navy get an immediate replacement program for more anti-submarine destroyers. In particular, operational commanders were happy that the DDH was making tremendous strides to becoming a reality. The completion of helicopter trials on the converted destroyer Assiniboine, the anticipated commissioning of the purpose-built Nipigon in May 1964 and Annapolis in December, along with the completion of two of Assiniboine’s converted sisters — St. Laurent (4 October 1963) and Ottawa (21 October 1964) — would give the Canadian Navy a total of five DDHs by the end of the year. There were other reasons to celebrate. The original four Sea King trial helicopters had given the RCN much-needed experience with the type but the arrival of the first Canadian-built aircraft in September 1964 meant there would be a steady supply until the production line was complete. Moreover, the impending trials between the fleet’s first operational support ship, HMCS Provider, and the destroyer Yukon in May would give the navy a considerable logistical support capability to operate well beyond Canada’s littoral waters. And finally, the navy could also rejoice from the fact that the first of the Oberon submarines (Ojibwa) was launched in February.

These additions, however, did not make up for the RCN’s losses. Getting rid of three of the last four Tribal class destroyers (Nootka, Cayuga, and Micmac), as well as placing the escort maintenance ship Cape Breton and all 10 RCN minesweepers into reserve helped generate funds for new equipment. Although the Tribals were far too old to make any real contribution to the RCN’s anti-submarine warfare effectiveness, their early decommissioning had an impact on East Coast force structure: without replacements, the Third Destroyer Squadron was disbanded, while the First was below strength, making it difficult for it to carry out its mission.

The real issue to the operational commanders was not that the Tribals were being decom- missioned; rather, it was the fact that these destroyers were being taken out of service without replacement, meaning that the navy would soon fall short of its 43-ship alliance commitment. Reducing the number of ships assigned to SACLANT brought further disruption to both coasts, as it necessitated a reorganization that saw three Atlantic destroyers head west while five Pacific destroyers went to the East Coast command. Such reorganization and consolidation made it next to impossible to maintain cohesion, with ships constantly joining or leaving the commands. In the words of one squadron commander, the situation made “it difficult to advance the overall efficiency of the Squadron as a unit.”

By the time these transfers were complete in 1965, the five West Coast St. Laurents would join their Atlantic sisters in exchange for two Mackenzies and a Restigouche. Every single DDH was going to serve on the East Coast, leaving the West with a mixture of destroyer- escorts and frigates. While the Flag Officer Pacific Coast observed that the net loss of two destroyers “was a serious blow to our effectiveness,” he was further disappointed when the RCAF reduced its Neptune patrol aircraft strength by four 10. The lack of air support to the Pacific command was a particularly thorny issue. Earlier pleas to reassign either RCN Tracker aircraft or RCAF Argus to help deal with the Soviet cruise missile submarine threat were met with sympathy, but resulted in little action because the East Coast barely had enough aircraft to meet its own requirements.

As disturbing as these sacrifices were, however, an important exercise off the East Coast of North America forced the Canadian Navy to become even more introspective regarding its anti-submarine warfare commitment. SLAMEX 2/64, conducted between 16 and 23 September 1964, was billed as one of the most realistic attempts to test the “Atlantic system” by simulating a Soviet submarine missile attack on North America. Only the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had come closer to the real thing, and the findings from SLAMEX were staggering. Ten of the 14 submarines — the vast majority — made it to their launch points, and the damage to North America had they been real Soviet submarines would have been catastrophic. For the previous two years the Canadian Navy had been obsessing over Soviet nuclear-powered submarines, only to have SLAMEX prove that the alliance could not even deal with the much slower diesel ones. There was only one conclusion: the Canadian Navy needed to take whatever it could get from the limited resources being offered by the government to invest in anti-submarine platforms.

Even before SLAMEX, however, senior officers were finally starting to accept the fact that the government would never provide the funds to build either multiple-purpose aircraft carriers for limited war operations or expensive nuclear submarines. Vice-Admiral Dyer, who had taken over from Rayner as chief of the naval staff and was now the chief of personnel in the newly integrated Canadian Forces headquarters, gathered the remnants of the old Naval Board together and began a process that would finally develop a coherent force structure. Dyer had come to see the paradox that Rayner could never reconcile: how the navy was expected to acquire expensive platforms for an improved anti-submarine capability as well as an expanded limited war function, at the same time that the government was drastically slashing the defence budget. Reluctantly, Dyer came to accept the fact that only the destroyer could give the navy the widest range of capabilities with the funds being made available for new equipment.

A Naval officers hands a flag over to a priest. Members of the church and Navy stand as witnesses.

Rear-Admiral W.M. Landymore, Flag Officer Pacific Coast, presents the White Ensign for safekeeping to the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, British Columbia.

The Canadian Navy’s manpower problem was another key factor making Dyer’s decision to build new destroyers a relatively easy one. Personnel shortages were having a terrible impact on the fleet’s cohesion, operational effectiveness, training, and maintenance, as it was not uncommon for ships to experience a full crew turnover within any given year. The solution to this instability, according to a pivotal report written by  Rear-Admiral W.M. Landymore, was to create a “cyclic system” in which ships were manned in such a way that a crew’s training and individual needs would be “in phase” with the ship’s operational and maintenance requirements. Although a clever idea, it did require an unusual and disruptive reorganization in which “on the designated day, a myriad of sailors with kit bags over their shoulders changing ships was the prevailing sight in the dockyards at Halifax and Esquimalt.”11

While the cyclic system did eventually bring stability to the personnel situation, it was not designed to deal with the basic problem that the navy needed more recruits. And without sufficient personnel the system finally crashed on the East Coast in October 1964. Just as Brock had warned during the manning crisis of July 1963, the navy now found itself in a position where a lack of manpower resources was preventing it from sending ships to sea. The simple reality for the officers who wanted a construction program based around larger aircraft carriers, therefore, was that there were not even sufficient personnel to man the navy’s current ASW fleet let alone a future one designed for multiple roles. Realizing that Hellyer was now anxious to give Canadian shipbuilders some naval contracts, Dyer and his ad hoc staff put their differences aside. The fleet that emerged was a realistic and specialized program consisting of a new class of four DDHs (the DDH-280s, which were also called “Tribals,” because they were named after Native tribes, like their Second World War-vintage predecessors, or “Iroquois class,” [which will be used henceforth] because Iroquois was the name given to the first one built), two additional fleet replenishment (“auxiliary oil replenishment” or AOR) ships, and two more Oberons, as well as an upgrade for Bonaventure and the conversion of the seven ships of the Restigouche class into ASROC carriers.

Unfortunately, the announcement of a new naval program did little to solve the navy’s larger problems. The integration of Canadian Forces headquarters, supposedly designed to bring efficiency and economy, instead was producing much confusion, at least in the short term. So, too, did the creation of the minister’s seven new functional commands — one of them being Maritime Command (MARCOM) — that effectively carved up the many functions formerly handled by the Canadian Navy. It led to some strange arrangements, and the subsequent chaos made it difficult for the navy to resolve many of its key issues.

This was certainly true for MARCOM’s attempt to deal with its manning crisis. There was continued difficulty in producing enough sailors to keep ships at sea. A shortfall of over 500 men on the East Coast meant that the navy was lacking crews for three destroyers and one frigate, and to make matters worse it was clear that further reductions would be required once Bonaventure was recommissioned after its refit. Things were not much better on the Pacific coast where a predicted shortage of over 300 tradesmen in early 1966 resulted in a call to place three frigates into “hot reserve.” The easiest solution, of course, would have been to reduce MARCOM’s NATO force goals, but even Hellyer seemed to disagree, telling his officers “that a more judicious use of manpower would permit continued operations of ships.”12 If this was sending MARCOM a strange message, it certainly was not the first time nor would it be the last, as Hellyer’s pattern of cutting the navy’s budget while getting his senior naval leadership to explore ways to maintain or even expand operational commitments would continue.

In late 1966 Hellyer announced that even though MARCOM’s primary role would remain ASW he wanted once again to investigate the possibility of giving the Canadian Navy some general-purpose capabilities. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General J.V. Allard, wanting to avoid being caught in the “ring of ‘Ad Hockery’” that had existed in 1963–64, gave MARCOM explicit instructions to conduct a study on the navy’s current effectiveness as well as the type of flexibility that would be required in the future. Led by Captain R.H. Falls, the Maritime Systems Flexibility Report found that the ballistic missile-firing submarine (SSBN) threat was by far the greatest to North America. This conclusion, of course, was not new. What had changed was that the Soviets were developing the Yankee and Delta classes that would finally give them SSBNs with a comparable degree of firepower to the Americans. As bad as that was the estimate that 40 percent of the Soviet submarine force would be nuclear by 1977 (including 45 SSBNs) only made things worse. And that led Falls and his group to the sobering conclusion that the U.S. would feel compelled for its own protection to patrol Canadian areas if MARCOM was unable to do so. A strong Canadian ASW force was the only way to prevent such a scenario, making “our contribution to this defence a relatively easy, and at the same time essential, way of maintaining our sovereignty as a nation with pride and dignity.”13 As far as flexibility was concerned, Falls felt not only that the current maritime forces possessed a significant sealift capability, but also that any increase in flexibility would come at the expense of the ASW force unless more money was forthcoming.

Fall’s instincts proved correct. Discussion around a Defence Planning Guidance document, intended to produce a five-year program out to 1972, revealed how unanticipated inflation rates would lead to a reduced DND budget of $1.725 billion. Although this meant that the Canadian Forces would not be maintaining the force levels approved in 1964, MARCOM was nevertheless given a hefty list of roles to perform. Rather than preparing for the coming cuts, the commander of MARCOM, now Rear-Admiral J.C. O’Brien, did as he was told and observed that he would need “a balance of forces” to create the type of flexibility that Hellyer wanted. It was a large fleet that would cost a considerable sum. For instance, part one of his plan (1967–77) called for the immediate acquisition of two amphibious fleet support vessels and two large destroyer command ships, the conversion of the Fundy-class minesweepers into mine hunters and the four Mackenzies into general purpose destroyers; and the eventual acquisition of 30 maritime patrol aircraft and a new training sub. The options for part two (1977–87) were even more costly and included calls for various mixtures of large attack carriers, helicopter carriers, general-purpose destroyers, and nuclear submarines. This fleet never stood a chance. Instead, the new defence minister, Leo Cadieux, told MARCOM what it should have already known: that the reduced budget would require major cuts (in the order of $234 million). Rather than exploring new acquisitions, MARCOM spent much of 1968 looking for ways to reduce its current program. Even such painful reductions as the prized DDH-280 (Iroquois class) and Operational Support Ship programs were investigated, but in the end MARCOM settled on cutting the Improved Restigouche program from seven to four ships.

As difficult as this debate over force structure was for MARCOM’s senior leadership, the changes brought on by the follow-on to integration — full-blown “unification” — were worse. A significant number of flag officers elected early retirement rather than face the prospect of having to put on the new green tri-service uniforms to serve in the “Sea Element of the Canadian Forces.” Only Rear-Admiral Landymore fought a spirited defence against unification. It achieved little and only a short time passed before Hellyer more-or-less showed him the door. Most accounts of this emotional time focus on Hellyer’s reasons for unifying the forces (to produce a 25-percent saving in administrative costs that could be applied to capital equipment purchases), and the impact that the loss of the naval uniform and the demise of traditions had on the navy. But it is the question of morale that remains to be properly explored. While it is clear that unification had a demoralizing effect on many senior officers and non-commissioned officers when it came into effect on 1 February 1968, there is some doubt about its impact on junior officers and ranks. Indeed, reports from this period suggest that the morale of newer members was more likely to be affected by issues that impacted their home life. The key to preventing a mass exodus of personnel from the navy was not the fight against unification, but rather a series of initiatives designed to increase incomes, reduce sea-time, and improve shore conditions. The average sailor’s ability to provide for his family’s well-being was what truly mattered, and as a result most would wear the new uniform as long as it came with improved naval housing, better pay that eased the pain of being at sea, and an increased marriage allowance.

The 1960s were clearly a turbulent decade for the Canadian Navy. Key changes — ranging from technical to organizational — resulted in an unstable operating environment and the navy did not respond well to them. Calls to explore a potential limited war capability led to unnecessary friction among the senior staff as budget cutbacks and operational factors both conspired to ensure that the navy had little choice but to focus all its resources on ASW. But even in this regard the navy was over-committed, as was evident by its ongoing manning crisis and decreasing morale. Perhaps the only way the navy could have avoided this hardship would have been to admit its limitations, prepare for reductions and consolidate around its strengths. In some measure that is what occurred, but as with other times in its history such actions were more the product of happenstance rather than careful planning.

Author: Richard Oliver Mayne

1 DHH, 81/520/1000–100/2, Box 25, File 5, Naval Board Meeting, 10 August 1960.

2 DHH, 79/246, File 100, Rayner to Minister of National Defence (Douglas Harkness), 8 May 1961.

3 LAC, RG 24, acc 1983–84/167, Box 151, File 1279–162, R.J. Sutherland, “Comments on Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Naval Objectives,” 16 November 1961.

4 W.G.D. Lund, “The Rise and Fall of the Royal Canadian Navy, 1945–1964” (doctoral dissertation, University of Victoria, 1999), 489.

5 DHH, 122.069 D1,“Morale in the fleet” [no date, 1963].

6 LAC, RG 24,Vol. 21811, Minister to Chiefs of Staff Committee, 27 August 1963, and “Mobile Force Study of Composition and Cost, Terms of Reference.”

7 DHH, 99/36, Box 84, File 2,W.A.B. Douglas to S. Mathwyn Davis, 28 August 1986.

8 LAC, RG 2,Vol. 6264, Cabinet Minutes, 25 March 1964.

9 DHH, 80/225, Folder 11, White Paper on Defence, March 1964.

10 DHH, 76/51, Folder 4C, Aide memoir, CANUS North Atlantic Strategy, June 1966.

11 Lund, 518.

12 DHH, CDS to Minister, 18 August 1965.

13 Maritime Systems Flexibility [Falls] Report, 31 January 1967.

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