History

A POLITICAL FOOTBALL

Canada’s naval fleet was once the third largest on the high seas

NATHAN GREENFIELD January 10 2005
History

A POLITICAL FOOTBALL

Canada’s naval fleet was once the third largest on the high seas

NATHAN GREENFIELD January 10 2005

A POLITICAL FOOTBALL

History

Canada’s naval fleet was once the third largest on the high seas

NATHAN GREENFIELD

BY JAN. 10, 1910, when Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier tabled his Naval Service Bill, the parliamentary consensus that a year earlier had supported the “speedy organization of a Canadian naval service” no longer existed. Conservative opposition leader Robert Borden, worried by the growth of Germany’s navy, criticized Laurier’s legislation for retaining the right to decide when Canadian warships would serve with the Royal Navy and called, instead, for Canada to fund a British battleship. Meanwhile, others from both parties dismissed the German threat and believed that anything larger than the Fisheries Protection Service would enmesh Canada in England’s wars. Still, Laurier had enough votes on May 4 to establish the Royal Canadian Navy, and for the rest of the century it would achieve great things— especially during the Second World War—but never escape being a political football.

During the First World War, the RCN went from a handful of ships to more than 100, including 12 Canadian-built, anti-submarine trawlers that swept the seas at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, where convoys began the Atlantic crossing. The most audacious Canadian naval operation came when B.C. Premier Sir Richard McBride sent an official to Seattle on the day war was declared to purchase two Lí.S.-built submarines that Chile had not yet paid for. Once turned over to the RCN, they patrolled the West Coast for German vessels then operating out of neutral U.S. ports. Later, they became the first British Empire submarines to transit the Panama Canal. En route, fire broke out on one of the subs, overcoming most of the crew.

The immediate post-war years saw ambitious plans to further bolster our forces at sea. But in the 1920s, Prime Minister Mackenzie King slashed the naval estimates 40 per cent to $1.5 million, necessitating the scrapping of a cruiser and two subs. Writing half a century later, Rear Admiral Leonard Murray summed up Ottawa’s attitude at the time: “They would be pleased if someone made up his mind to take the whole navy out into the

middle of the ocean and sink it without a trace.” But as international tensions rose during the mid-1930s, King—who saw an effective navy as a way to avoid having to raise a large army—increased the estimates to $6.6 million by 1938, enough to enter the war the next year with six relatively modern Britishbuilt destroyers and seven smaller ships.

The almost 100,000 men who joined the RCN during the Second World War may have dreamed of great battles like the sink-

WITHIN two years

of VE Day, the navy had mothballed nearly all of its ships, leaving only seven vessels

ing of the Bismarck, but their main wartime mission—convoy escort duty—was more prosaic, if no less dangerous. Between 1939 and 1945, Canada lost 22 ships and nearly 1,000 men to enemy action while escorting some 25,000 merchant ships across the Atlantic. By 1945, Canada’s navy was the world’s third largest.

But within two years of VE Day, the RCN had mothballed nearly all its ships, leaving only four destroyers, two tribal cruisers and a single fleet carrier. In 1950, despite lacking ships to adequately defend our coasts, Ottawa sent

three destroyers to the UN “police action” in Korea. That December, a Canadian-led task force won decorations after steaming 30 km up the shallow Daido-ko River to extricate trapped UN units.

By 1958, to fulfill Canada’s NATO commitment, the government boosted the navy from a handful to 47 ships, including two aircraft carriers. But in the 1960s, political support for the RCN waned again, and 25 ships, including the carrier HMCS Bonaventure, were sold for scrap. “By the 1970s, the fleet was rusting out,” says naval historian Marc Milner. “Trudeau finally authorized its rebuilding in the late 1970s, but that was simply another iteration of the boom and bust cycle that characterizes Canadian defence spending.” And now, in the wake of the latest submarine tragedy when a sailor died last October in another submarine fire, Paul Martin must grapple with the perennial issue of whether to spend or scrap.