Coastal Defence and Wider Ambitions, 1919-1939
Short-lived as the expansion of the RCN begun in 1918 proved to be, the experience of anti-submarine warfare had secured and influenced the future of the service to a much greater degree than was appreciated at that time or subsequently. Any lingering doubts in the prime minister’s office and among senior RCN officers that the service was a national force, necessarily distinct from the Royal Navy, were extinguished. The nationalism among members of the naval staff was notable because all had transferred from the Royal Navy after careers in that service, and none except Admiral Kingsmill, a Canadian by birth, had had previous significant ties with Canada. The practical result of the changed attitude was agreements with the British reached in the early 1920s that strengthened the authority of NSHQ in Ottawa over activities in Canadian waters and gave the Canadian headquarters a substantial role in arrangements throughout the RN’s North American command, now enlarged to include the eastern part of the Pacific and renamed the America and West Indies station. 21
That being said, there were few outside the department of the Naval Service and the prime minister’s office who believed the navy was an essential national institution, or at least one meritting much effort. Even among cabinet ministers the view continued to prevail that the wartime service was nothing more than the product of British and American pressure to do what their fleets should have done with the meagre scraps they chose to provide; Canada had already taken on more than its share in the land war in Europe. Certainly there was little outside of raw recruits that was Canadian about the wartime navy. Halifax, the principal base, had in 1914 immediately and naturally slipped back into its historic role as the northern headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies station, while the Canadian service struggled mightily to makes its presence felt in its own dockyard. The situation was no different at Esquimalt on the west coast. Most of the officers in the RCN were RN officers on loan, many of them older gentlemen who had previously retired and come back for special war service. Most of the patrol vessels, although built in Canada, had been constructed under Admiralty contracts and were allocated to the RCN only when it suited British authorities. Complaints of unfair, severe treatment of inexperienced Canadian boys at the hands of British martinets circulated. So did charges of incompetence in the senior leadership. Perhaps allied seamen sailing from Canadian ports in big steamships had been adequately protected, but Canadian fishermen had most assuredly not been; little did it matter that the same had been true in US waters and for the same reason that European waters had absolute priority. The minister for the naval service, C.C. Ballantyne, endured a tirade of these and other accusations during the first post-war session of Parliament in 1919. Within cabinet, his efforts to rebuild the navy on a more substantial and enduring basis were came under similar fire from his colleagues. 22
Everyone, not least the small cadre of permanent force naval personnel, was pleased to see the half-trained reservists and small vessels of the wartime fleet quickly dispersed. For the future, the naval staff proposed to start again with something much like the light cruiser and destroyer fleet planned by Laurier, together with the air service. These forces, the staff argued, were needed to protect the Pacific coast in light of Japan’s continuing naval expansion. Admiral-of-the-Fleet Earl Jellicoe, formerly commander-in-chief of the British Grand Fleet and First Sea Lord, lent his support when he visited Canada at the end of 1919 as part of his empire-wide tour to advise the dominions on naval policy. Although nothing of the scale proposed was possible in the bitterly negative political climate, Borden and Ballantyne’s support and Jellicoe’s helpful representations to the Admiralty were worth something. Already, in 1919, the RCN had received two RN submarines as a gift from the Admiralty as it disposed of vessels surplus to post-war requirements. The Canadian service was allowed to retain these and in 1920 also received, free of charge, the light cruiser Aurora and two destroyers, all of which had been built late in the war. The RCNAS had been lost because of the lack of political and public support; the government chose to follow the British model by creating a third service, the Canadian Air Force, in 1920 (from 1924, the Royal Canadian Air Force). The new service operated the seaplanes the US Navy air squadrons had left in Nova Scotia at the end of the war, but largely on civil duties. No RCAF fighting units were organized until the 1930s. 23
Acquisition of the Aurora held out hopes for the RCN’s dream of becoming a major warship force, but anti-submarine warfare continued to be a priority. In an ambitious series of exercises off Halifax in the fall of 1921, the destroyers worked closely with the CAF seaplanes in protecting the cruiser against the ‘enemy’ submarines. This was in fact much like the training program the navy had intended to develop in 1918 with the newly arrived US air units when the war ended. 24
The bottom fell out of the promising renewal almost immediately. One of the first initiatives by William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government that came to power in December 1921 was to slash defence spending. The strength of the RCN regular force was cut in half to 400 all ranks; the cruiser and the submarines were paid off leaving a single destroyer and a couple of war-construction trawlers on each coast. For the second time in a single decade the RCN’s ambitions had been devastated.
Fortunately, Commodore Walter Hose, Kingsmill’s highly experienced successor as director of the Naval Service, was able to craft a blueprint for survival. Hose had two related priorities: to firm up the government’s commitment to destroyers, and to put the reserves on a solid footing. Destroyers, he knew from his frustration at trying to make do with lesser vessels on the Altantic coast in 1917-1918, were the smallest major warship that had the seakeeping qualities and armament needed to operate in all weathers in Canadian waters against surface or submarine raiders. They were also the smallest warship that could give permament force personnel the opportunity to develop and hone a broad range of skills. Without this qualified cadre, there would be little chance of improving standards among the reserves who, as the events of the war had shown, would be needed in large numbers to man converted civil and other auxiliary vessels to maintain the most most basic level of surveillance along the vast coasts. At the same time, as events in 1914-1918 had shown, the auxiliary vessels could not adequately carry out their day to day tasks of coastal protection without a fast striking group, such as a destroyer force, being readily available to provide cover and support. Perhaps most importantly from the perspective of senior officers, destroyers would keep the regular navy in the major-warship league so that the service would be as prepared as possible should changes in the political or strategic situation open the opportunity to make the step up to cruisers. 25
The organization of reserve units in cities across the country in 1923, an inexpensive policy that the politicans liked, was the easier part of Hose’s challenge. His unexpected success was in selling the destroyer type to the government. Mackenzie King was convinced by the commodore’s case that declining British naval strength relative to the United States was making Canada dangerously dependent upon the Americans for the security of the coasts. In 1929 the government ordered the construction of two large fleet destroyers of the latest type, HMCSs Saguenay and Skeena, and in 1937 and 1938 purchased a total of four similar destroyers from the Royal Navy. 26 These last purchases were priority items in the limited rearmament program the King government undertook on the eve of the Second World War. The prime minister, endeavouring to appease strong isolationist opinion and avoid a repetition of the bitter divisions between English and French Canada that had been caused by large-scale participation in the land war in Europe during the First World War, emphasized that rearmament was intended primarily to defend Canada’s own coasts. He was able to cite the panics caused on both seaboards by their vulnerability to attack by long-range German raiders in 1914-1918, and the need to uphold sovereignty in the face of American might. 27 The political success of King’s strategy was evidence of the manner in which the navy had been transformed since the early 1920s from a source of acrimony and a target for contempt into a national institution whose necessity was widely accepted.
Greatly as U-boat warfare during the First World War had influenced the development of the RCN, there had been virtually no anti-submarine training or equipment procurement since 1921. The immediate reason was the loss of the submarines in the big cut of 1922: it was no longer possible to do realistic training. Hose periodically urged the procurement of submarines for both this purpose and coast defence, but in vain.28 When in the late 1920s the government evinced its willingness to make substantial expenditures for modern destroyers, Hose focussed his efforts on realizing this, the navy’s fundamental goal. Pressed by the government to economize in the construction of Saguenay and Skeena, he elected not to have asdic, as sonar was known in the Commonwealth navies, installed in the ships.29 Only two RCN officers became anti-submarine specialists prior to the Second World War, and neither of them was a leading light of the service.
The low priority for underwater warfare reflected both the advice of the Admiralty and the general attitude within the Royal Navy. Given the servere financial contraints the British government imposed on the armed services through most of the 1920s-1930s, the navy focussed on preserving strength among the main surface warship types. There seemed every reason to do so because Japan, the most likely enemy through most of this period, emphasized capital ships (as did the renascent German navy). There were, moreover, contraints in international law against the ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare that Germany had waged against allied merchant shipping, and these had proved powerful enough to swing the United States to the Allied side in 1917, sealing Germany’s defeat. In any case anti-submarine weaponry had been improved since 1918, particularly in the development of asdic, and that gave exaggerated confidence that an all-out submarine campaign could be deterred or contained. 30 As it was, Canadian destroyers exercised primarily in torpedo and gun actions against a surface raider, which seemed to be the most likely threat. The climax of each training season was fleet manoeuvres in the West Indies with British cruiser and, on two occasions, battleship squadrons. 31
Only in 1938 did the picture change. Hitler was on the march in Europe and in December he announced that the navy was building to parity with the Royal Navy in submarine strength. The danger of war on the Atlantic was now at least as great as on the Pacific, and it seemed althogether possible that there might be a new U-boat offensive. Commodore Percy W. Nelles, who had succeded Hose in 1934, repeatedly urged an immediate start in an all-out construction program to build both anti-submarine escort vessels and the new British Tribal-class ‘super-destroyers.’ The latter ships were needed, Nelles argued, to reinforce the existing destroyers for the defence of home waters against both submarines and surface raiders. It is also clear that the naval staff also saw these large, heavily gunned vessels as a stepping stone to the balanced, high-seas fleet that the politicians and an unsympathetic public had always denied them.32
The government rejected Nelles’s costly proposals, unwilling so greatly to expand the limited rearmament program in the face of divided public opinion. Nevertheless, and despite his pledges to isolationists that Canada was bound by no military commitments to Great Britain, the prime minister allowed the naval staff to co-operate closely with the British in perfecting arrangements for mobilization of shipping control and intelligence services. Included were provisions for the organization of transatlantic convoys at Canadian ports should Germany defy the lessons of history and again launch an unrestricted U-boat offensive against trade.33
Canadian military authorities and the government recognized that much more than in 1918 maritime patrol must be a joint air force and navy undertaking. The Royal Canadian Air Force received a larger share of funds for rearmament than the navy, and the development of maritime capabilities was the leading priority. That undertaking, however, had to begin virtually from scratch in the late 1930s:the air force had been almost entirely relegated to civil operations in the 1920s and the great depression had then severely curtailed all activities. At Halifax, Eastern Air Command, the regional headquarters for Atlantic coast defence, was still in the earliest stages of organization when war broke out in 1939.34