The First World War and the Threat to Canada, 1914-1918
On the outbreak of war in 1914, the Canadian navy comprised only two obsolescent cruisers that the Laurier government had purchased from the Royal Navy for training purposes in 1910 and a cadre of 350 personnel. The cruisers got to sea, with substantial British assistance, to join Royal Navy and allied cruisers in patrols of the focal areas of trade off the eastern and western coasts of North America.9 The Admiralty advised that these forces provided adequate protection, and that Canada should concentrate its war effort on providing troops for the battlefront in Belgium and France. 10 Canada ultimately raised over half a million troops for overseas service, but the underwater dimension of warfare continued to draw the country into naval action — now out of necessity rather than as a politically useful alternative to an expensive and controversial squadron of major warships.
British Columbians had been profoundly alarmed on the eve of the war over the reported presence of German cruisers in the north-east Pacific. The province’s remoteness from the Atlantic concentration of British seapower gave a persepective quite different from the complacency in the eastern part of the country. During the last hours of peace the premier, Sir Richard McBride, had boldly slid under the descending curtain of US neutrality laws and purchased two submarines from a Seattle shipbuilder and turned them over to the RCN. Manned by raw volunteers led by retired British officers (one with submarine experience) who demonstrated unusual skill in giving on-the-job training, these boats soon carried out coast defence patrols from Esquimalt. 11
Unknown to any Canadian authority, much larger submarine enterprises were in the making. The Admiralty, to circumvent American neutrality, was arranging for a US firm to assemble ten submarines for the Royal Navy at Canadian Vickers in Montreal. When Borden found out about the subterfuge in January 1915 he was livid: the incident made a mockery of his public declarations that Canada was a full partner with Britain in prosecution of the war. He tried to retrieve something by suggesting that the programme be extended into a co-operative undertaking that would supply submarines for the Canadian east coast, along the lines that Admiralty itself had suggested in 1912. Both the Canadian naval staff and, significantly, Rear-Admiral R.S. Phipps-Hornby, RN, who commanded the weak and thinly-stretched cruiser squadron based at Halifax and Bermuda, had strongly urged the measure. The Admiralty refused. These events kindled an awareness in Ottawa that during war, even moreso than in peacetime, British and Canadian maritime defence interests were by no means identical.12
Although doubting that a German warship would attempt a direct attack on the Canadian coast, the Admiralty warned in November 1914 that a disguised German merchant ship could well slip overseas to sew mines in harbour approaches. Just such a mission by the liner Berlin had recently resulted in the destruction of the British super-dreadnought Audacious off northern Ireland.13 In accordance with pre-war plans by the naval staff, the RCN was already operating a small force of civil government ships and chartered tugs on lookout and minesweeping patrols off Halifax and in the Bay of Fundy. Vice-Admiral Charles E. Kingsmill, director of the Canadian naval service, doubted the seriousness of the mine threat and did not want to pour additional resources into extemporized measures of dubious efficiency, but reluctantly undertook improvements in the little flotilla through the winter of 1914.14
The form of underwater warfare that did worry Kingsmill was a raid by U-boats. Germany’s successful campaign against merchant shipping in the western approaches to the British Isles in the spring of 1915 proved that the submarine was not only a coast defender but a powerful offensive weapon. Intelligence reports from the German community in the United States that as many as four U-boats would soon cross the Atlantic were all the more menacing in light of the Admiralty’s confirmation that U-boats did indeed have the range for a one-way trip, and could conceivably refuel from a disguised supply ship or secret depot ashore.15
The reaction of the Canadian government, Canadian naval authorities and senior British officers in the western Atlantic was something close to panic. In European waters, U-boats had had outstanding successes against older, slower cruisers of the type based at Halifax and Bermuda. That meant that the Gulf of St. Lawrence through which most shipping from Canada — including all troopships — sailed in summer was entirely exposed. If a submarine got loose in those confined waters, it could stalk and kill ships at will: there were hundreds of inlets along the isolated northern coastline where the boat could hide and refuel.16
By deploying the best ships from the Halifax flotilla, surreptitiously purchasing two large yachts in the United States, and chartering additional civilian ships, Kingsmill created the St. Lawrence Patrol, based on Sydney, Nova Scotia, in August 1915. The seven vessels of the patrol were armed only with single light guns, capable of no more than 10 to 15 knots, and several had limited sea-keeping qualities. They proved to be adequate, but just, for their modest assignment to stop and examine suspicious merchant ships and keep a watch on isolated shorelines. What was really needed, Kingsmill pleaded, were torpedo boat destroyers — these fast, manoeuvrable ships had proved to be the best anti-submarine vessels in European waters — to escort troopships through the whole of the St. Lawrence passage. The Admiralty, quite properly in view of the shortage of destroyers in the main combat theatre, refused requests for assistance in 1915 and again in 1916, but also criticized the RCN’s St Lawrence patrol as an excessive response to a threat that was ‘potential not actual. ‘17
Kingsmill did not place much stock in the carefully worded suggestion from London that destroyers would be sent to the St. Lawrence in the event U-boats actually began to sink vessels in the western Atlantic. He was dumbstruck by the Admiralty’s assumption that Canada had sufficient civilian marine resources quickly to extemporize anti-submarine patrols at the moment of crisis: in mounting the tiny St. Lawrence patrol he was already scraping the bottom of the barrel.
In October 1916 U-53 disproved the Admiralty’s assessment that German submarines could only make a one-way trip across the Altantic. The U-boat put into the neutral US port of Providence, Rhode Island, where the crew cheerfully showed off the superb engineering of their warship to inspecting American officers, and put out to sea again, making no request for additional fuel. After destroying five Allied merchant ships off Nantucket Island, the boat turned for home. U-53 faced no opposition in its successful hunting on the New England coast. The British admiral in the north-west Atlantic — for whom the old title commander-in-chief, North America and West Indies had now been revived — had withdrawn his cruisers behind the anti-submarine net in Halifax harbour and called for protection from the RCN’s flotilla. The Admiralty, forgetting its earlier criticism of the RCN’s alarmism, urged the service rapidly to multiply the strength of its anti-submarine patrol. After taking up the few additional civilian ships that were suitable, the RCN had to order the construction of twelve steel trawlers to meet the most basic requirements. Meanwhile, in the face of enormous shipping losses to the renewed ‘unrestricted’ German submarine offensive in European waters, British authorities placed their own orders in Canada in early 1917 for merchant ships and for 160 anti-submarine trawlers and drifters. Although most of the anti-submarine craft were ultimately turned over to the RCN, the inundation of Canada’s undeveloped shipbuilding industry meant that a large proportion of the ships from both the Canadian and British orders could not be completed until the spring and summer of 1918.18
By then the RCN had become exclusively a small ship anti-submarine navy. In 1915 officers at the Admiralty had shaken their heads in wonder when the Canadians had refused the offer of a cruiser to replace the worn out Niobe so that her crew could be employed on the St. Lawrence patrol. By contrast, in 1917 the Admiralty quickly agreed to the Canadian proposal that Rainbow should also be decommissioned so her people could stiffen the raw recruits for the expanded east coast flotilla.
Meanwhile, in European waters, hunting patrols by thousands of anti-submarine craft were singularly failing to reduce merchant ship losses. The supremely elusive maritime weapon, U-boats had no difficulty in avoiding patrols (whose sole means of underwater detection was primitive hydrophones) and finding targets on the heavily travelled sea lanes. Desperation persuaded the Admiralty in the spring and summer of 1917 to attempt the ancient method of sailing ships in defended convoys. This proved to be decisive. U-boats had much greater difficulty in locating shipping — now in periodic groups rather than a steady stream of independent sailings — and once they did make contact could not strike without risking counter attack by the escorting warships.
Expansion of the RCN flotilla, ultimately to some 130 vessels with the delivery of the new construction in 1918, centred on the defence of convoys that sailed from Halifax and Sydney. The small Canadian vessels formed a screen around the merchantmen as they emerged single file from port and lumbered into formation during the first hours of passage:it was at this time that the merchant vessels were especially vulnerable to submarine attack. However, as the convoy gathered speed, most of the Canadian warships fell behind. What was needed were destroyers to extend the escort through the whole 300 mile coastal approach area. Mercifully, no U-boats struck in the western Atlantic in 1917.
Early in 1918, the Admiralty had promised to provide destroyers for the coming season, but had to renege, suggesting that the Canadians should seek help from the US.When the commander-in-chief, North America and West Indies, made this appeal in Washington, the Admiralty endorsed the Americans’ complaint that the request contradicted the priority for European waters! The commander-in-chief and the Canadians were incensed, but salvaged an agreement under which the US Navy patrolled around the southern tip of Nova Scotia, and provided six small but useful ‘submarine chasers’ for escort duty under RCN control.
Through decryption of German wireless traffic, the Admiralty was usually able to supply warning as to when U-boats would arrive in North America waters and the general area where they would operate. However, U-156, the first boat to operate in the Canadian area, acted on its own initiative — the boat had been assigned to the United States coast — and achieved complete surprise when it destroyed a tanker close off Halifax on 5 August.So weak was the Halifax flotilla, that the Admiralty transferred the Halifax convoys to Quebec City and the St. Lawrence route; radio intelligence confirmed that the two boats following U-156 – U-117 and U-155 — would operate off Nova Scotia and not in the Gulf. The RCN immediately redeployed its ships to strengthen the St. Lawrence defences, and organized a comprehensive system of coastal convoys to protect ships that had to sail through the danger area off Nova Scotia and south of Newfoundland.
These measures succeeded. Although the U-boats sank 26 fishing schooners off Nova Scotia and south of Newfoundland, they were unable to locate their intended targets, the large steamers that carried troops and supplies to Europe.All of these strategically vital vessels were being routed clear of danger, most of them in local or ocean convoys. The Germans might have achieved their object by other means if the rerouting of strategic shipping had caused significant delays in the shipment of supplies to the combat theatres, but thanks to the efficiency of the naval control of shipping organization, in which Canadian staffs and the Canadian coastal radio system played a prominent part, this was not the case.
Still, shepherding of merchantmen was small consolation for a fighting service steeped in the traditions of Nelson. On the two occasions when Canadian patrol vessels had been in a position to close with U-boats they had fumbled badly. The slightly trained, short-handed crews had no confidence in their slow, ill-armed, hurriedly-built and defect-ridden vessels.
What the RCN had been compelled to do, in fact, was nothing less than mobilize an almost entirely new navy within the space of a few months under impossible circumstances. Senior officers regarded the measures taken in 1918 as an emergency stopgap. They prayed the patchwork effort would hold off disaster until the service could be fundamentally reorganized for 1919 when, they had no doubt, the U-boats would return, but this time with the knowledge needed to strike more aggressively.
Nineteen-eighteen marked a new beginning in another respect: for the first time the navy had the full support of the prime minister. After virtually abandoning the service for political reasons in 1911-1914, Sir Robert Borden had since the outbreak of war been ruled by caution. He took the advice of the Admiralty when it suggested that meaures proposed by Canada seemed excessive, and accepted the views of his cabinet colleagues when they found naval projects too costly. Borden’s actions changed during the last months of the war, most markedly when the U-boats began destroying the fishing fleet of his home province. He stepped up efforts he had already begun earlier in the year to reform the ponderous administration of the navy department, and put his weight behind demands for more assistance from the Admiralty (one result was quick arrangements by British authorities for the USN to mount patrols in Canadian waters in the wake of the first sinkings there by U-boats).19
The most striking evidence of the prime minister’s new attitude was the manner in which he forced through the organization of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service. In European waters exprience had shown that the appearance of aircraft paralyzed U-boats by making it impossible for them to run on the surface to locate and chase ships. Early in 1917 both the naval and militia staffs had strongly supported the organization of an air service in Nova Scotia as a means of compensating for the weakness of the naval forces, but Borden’s colleagues had rejected the idea because it was too expensive. A year later, the Admiralty recommended air patrols, and the US Navy agreed to operate air units from Halifax and Sydney until the Canadians could organize their own service. When, in the summer of 1918, it became clear that the extensive preparations required were bogged down, Borden intervened decisively. The American air units arrived at the end of August, construction of air base facilities was rushed ahead with costly ‘forced’ contracts, cabinet quickly authorized the creation of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service, and the recruiting and training of its personnel was soon well in hand. 20