VICE-ADMIRAL Percy W. Nelles is in supreme command of the Canadian Navy.
He is the first Canadian ever to attain the rank of vice-admiral. There are, indeed, only two rungs of navy rank above him— admiral and admiral of the fleet. In terms of the Army, he is the equivalent of a lieutenant-general.
When Vice-Admiral Nelles was promoted to rear admiral in 1938 (his last promotion was in November, 1941) he was then the youngest man in the British Navy to hold that rank. Few reach the dizzy pinnacle of vice-admiral at fifty, his present age.
There is an odd rightness about the fact that our Navy is commanded by a Canadian. Nelles has had two predecessors. In 1908, when Laurier launched the Canadian Navy, he brought home from Britain a Canadian who had grown up in the Royal Navy — Rear Admiral Kingsmill — and turned the job over to him. When Kingsmill retired in 1920, Commodore Hose took over—an Englishman who had retired from the Royal Navy and settled down in British Columbia, but who, when war broke out, joined the Canadian Navy. Hose commanded H.M.C.S. Rainbow in August, 1914, on the fruitless quest for the German cruiser Leipzigsurely one of the most gallant and ill-equipped expeditions in naval history. Commodore Hose retired with rear admiral rank in 1933 and Nelles took over Jan. 1, 1934.
In these twenty-five years the Canadian Navy had not amounted to much, although that was certainly not the fault of the men at the top. Parliament never supplied the money to do a decent navy job. At the outbreak of war in 1939, our Navy was pitifully weak in ships and numbered just over 1,800 personnel.
To Nelles has fallen the prize of creating Canada’s first real Navy. After two years, he finds himself fighting between 300 and Continued on page 69
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400 ships with a personnel of 27,000 and with more ships and more men constantly coming forward.
Vice-Admiral Nelles is rather on the short side, thickset but not overweight, with a chubby face surmounted by an unruly crest of greying hair. He wears tortoise shell glasses, is clean-shaven.
He is a Brantford boy—with Ontario stamped all over him. He was educated at Lakefield Preparatory school and Trinity College school, Port Hope. At sixteen he learned that a Canadian Navy was being formed and he volunteered. He was the second man in. Number one is still alive but transferred to the Air Force during the last war and later on was unable to pass the medical test to re-enter the Navy.
Nelles, therefore, is in every respect the senior man in our Navy. He is senior in service as well as in rank. He has served in all kinds of ships—bar subs which are a specialty —and done all kinds of navy work. He began, after his preliminary training, on H.M.S. Dreadnought, the first modern capital ship. Then he had a spell on cruisers.
If you get right down to it, you will learn that he was a junior aboard the Niobe in 1911 or thereabouts when she ran aground—half of the Canadian Navy stuck in the mud— under highly annoying circumstances. That was off the coast of Nova Scotia. Today, the vice-admiral laughs gleefully about that escapade but, just the same, the embarrassment of the Navy running into the mud still warms his cheeks.
There was a political picnic down Yarmouth way. The Nova Scotians, like the rest of Canadians, were not taking kindly to the Navy idea and it was thought wise to put on a demonstration. The citizens would gather for the picnic and the orators would harangue them on the need for a Navy and then at the opportune moment, a cloud of smoke would appear and H.M.C.S. Niobe would steam smartly into view, etc., etc. Only, she stuck in the mud.
Nelles served aboard cruisers in the Atlantic in the last war and knows convoy work from the bottom up. Toward the end of the war he was brought back to Ottawa to help Admiral Kingsmill. Further intensive training, however, followed 1918 and he was the first Canadiantrained officer to command a British cruiser—H.M.S. Dragon.
He is unusually popular, for one of his rank, with the men of the Navy and for rather obvious reasons. He is efficient and he has the knack of maintaining discipline and yet of being on the best of terms with his subordinates. There is no side or top-hat about him: no clearings of the throat and “shooting” of the gold-encased cuffs. He is just naturally a democrat—an Ontario kind of democrat which combines the free and easy style with a sense of humor
and rather a predisposition to the wisecrack. He never seems to think of the masses of gold braid and the strings of ribbons which radiantly obscure his navy blue coat. With him it is man to man and no snobbery.
Navy Grows Up
THIS IS the man who is building our first real Navy. The Navy has outgrown the cradle. Until recently, as chief of the naval staff, he was responsible for every aspect of training, item of equipment, detail of operations. There was no system such as obtains in the British Admiralty, or in the Canadian Army, for that matter.
Single control was possible where you were dealing with a few hundred men and a dozen ships. But with hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men the burden became unbearable. Reorganization has now been accomplished and the British system has been adopted. A Naval Board has been set up, comprising the chief of the naval staff (Nelles) as head and several other members, each of whom has a definite field of responsibility—like the adjutant-general and the quartermaster-general in the Army.
Most people, if they could meet and chat with Vice-Admiral Nelles, would have one or two questions to ask.
Is he satisfied with the rate and type of naval expansion?
Emphatically, yes. We are expanding just as speedily as we can launch the ships and train the personnel— the two are running neck and neck. There is just a hint of a pucker in the lips when you wonder which are needed most—warships or cargo ships. He sums up: Cargo ships are no good without the warships to protect them. But warships are no good to carry the cargoes to Britain. His answer is that both are urgently required.
How about cruisers for our Navy? Some day, certainly. Right now we have our job to do and we are getting exactly the type of warship we need for that job.
How will we win the war?
Bang goes the fist on the table top. “We will win this war by winning the battle of the Atlantic. Yes, and we will win the battle of the Atlantic
by beating the subs,--them!
There are some of them off our coast right now. And the way to beat the subs is to turn out more and more ships and more and more men to man them.”
Vice-Admiral Nelles hasn’t the faintest shadow of a doubt as to who is going to get licked in this war - and it’s not us. And he tells you, belligerently, that subs or no subs, our ships are constantly doing their job. The cargoes are going forward and are being delivered.
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