Torpedo Weapons and the Origins of the Canadian Navy, 1886-1914
The rapid progress of torpedo weapons systems during the two decades before the First World War — of which the emergence of the submarine was only the most dramatic development — played some part in the founding of the RCN. The British Admiralty maintained from the late 1880s that the only useful role the self-governing colonies could play in naval defence was to contribute money to help sustain the Royal Navy’s new squadrons of large, steam-powered, steel-built and enormously expensive battleships and cruisers. Such Imperial ‘tribute’ was anathema in Canada. Aside from the constitutional principle of no taxation without representation, military spending was unpopular, and isolationist opinion was especially strong in Quebec, which held the balance of power in federal politics. Progress with torpedo craft offered an alternative that was appealing on all three counts. They were cheap, and they were capable of only local action, which meant they would operate under Canadian control with no potentially open-ended entanglements in British policy. Yet they promised to be effective against fast enemy cruisers that seemed more likely than ever to hunt in Canadian waters in the event of war now that Britain’s increasingly powerful adversaries in Europe were tying the bulk of the Royal Navy to home waters. The idea was first put forward in a developed form in the late 1880s by Andrew R. Gordon, a former Royal Navy officer who served in the Canadian Fisheries Protection Service,3 and periodically re-emerged among the admittedly few advocates of Canadian naval undertakings during the next 20 years. The Admiralty, focussed on the development of centrally controlled Imperial forces, never encouraged these proposals until 1907-1908 and then as a last ditch defence against the centrifugal force of dominions’ ambitions.
Australia, unhappy with the withdrawal of British warships from the Pacific to European waters after 1900, wanted to end the subsidy it had been paying for the Royal Navy’s Australia squadron and embark on the creation of an Australian navy. The Admiralty recommended that such a service should be limited to torpedo-boat destroyers (in effect, large torpedo boats) and submarines, types suited at this stage in their technical development largely for the protection of harbour approaches.4 Such a force would not complicate central British control in the way a seagoing dominion squadron might. Indeed a local torpedo flotilla would actually help sustain the mobility of the principal British squadrons by ensuring secure bases would be available in the dominion should a crisis require the dispatch of a substantial fleet to the region.
The advice given to the Australians strongly reflected the views of Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord in 1904-1910. As one of the pioneers of underwater weapons in the Royal Navy, he understood that torpedo craft, and particularly submarines, were transforming naval warfare in coastal waters. With these small and elusive but potent vessels lurking about, an enemy would not dare risk his major warships in a determined attack on the shores of Britain or the empire.Torpedo craft gave Fisher the answer he needed to politicians and army officers who wanted to tie the British fleet to anti-invasion duties rather than freeing it for its proper role in finding and destroying the enemy’s seagoing squadrons. 5
Australia’s initiative, and the Admiralty’s evident support for dominions torpedo flotillas, energized advocates of naval development in Canada. The scheme seemed especially suitable for Canada because it provided a path for action that was entirely consistent with the limited initiatives the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had undertaken since 1903 to ‘navalize’ the Fisheries Protection Service. Laurier was not much interested until March 1909, when the panic in Britain over reports that the German fleet was rapidly gaining on the Royal Navy in numbers of dreadnought battleships transformed the politics of naval defence. With strong support in English Canada for direct assistance to Britain, local action to procure torpedo flotillas now looked like a moderate course, and Laurier opted for the Australian scheme. 6 He was, however, soon drawn into a more ambitious undertaking that included substantial, seagoing cruisers in addition to torpedo-boat destroyers by the Admiralty’s reversal of its earlier opposition to high seas dominions fleets at the Imperial Defence Conference of August 1909.Worries about escalating German and Japanese competition in the naval race, at a time when a strong faction in the British Liberal government was opposed to increased defence spending, had brought the unheralded change.7
The Laurier government’s quick action in founding the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910 with the intention of procuring the cruisers and destroyers was a compromise that satisfied few. The fact that Laurier had rejected the Admiralty’s advice that Canada should also procure a capital ship, and took pains to ensure that the new navy was under national control alienated pro-empire opinion, while anti-imperialists were horrified that so much was being done.
Robert Borden, whose Conservative government came to power in 1911, tried to find consensus by returning to the torpedo flotilla idea. He responded positively to the Admiralty’s appeal in 1912 for a direct subsidy for battleship construction, but at the same time asked their lordships for a local Canadian defence scheme built around torpedo craft. The Admiralty, although warning that larger seagoing vessels would be much more useful from an imperial point of view, obliged by recommending a small flotilla for the west coast, and a substantial force of a dozen submarines and 18 torpedo boats for the east coast. Interestingly, their lordships advised that most of the east coast craft should be concentrated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the defence of which would in fact cause great difficulties for the Canadian services in both World Wars.8 Borden’s intention was to replace Laurier’s unpopular design for a cruiser squadron with much more modest vessels whose purpose was palpably nothing more than home defence. He hoped in this way to quiet the ire of anti-imperialists, while persuading the Liberals that the embryo national navy they had created would not be entirely abandoned. This political balancing act failed when in May 1913 the Liberals used their majority in the Senate to kill the battleship subsidy for Britain. The small Canadian naval staff , with the support of the army, tried to persuade the government to continue with the torpedo flotilla in view of the evidently increasing danger of German raids on the coast. German warships, the Admiralty responded when asked for its view, would not need to risk coming within reach of torpedo craft: the rich transatlantic shipping that sailed well offshore would be a better and much safer target. The only answer to that threat was to acquire seagoing cruisers.