Soviet Submarines and the Establishment of Large Peacetime Maritime Forces, 1945-1950
Mackenzie King was distinctly unenthusiastic about the RCN’s ambitions. Small ships to assist Britain when her very survival was at stake were one thing, big ships to operate in Pacific regions remote from Canada’s historical ties to help Britain reconquer her dependent empire quite another. This evoked unpleasant memories of the pre-1914 naval controversy. Major warships would serve only to soak up large quantities of money, embroil Canada in distant conflicts and stir up bitter discord at home. 73 Within weeks of the end of the war, cabinet cut the establishment of 20,000 regular personnel recommended by the naval staff in half. After a good deal of hand wringing by the prime minister, the RCN was able to take delivery of one light fleet carrier, HMCS Warrior, from the RN in 1946, but cuts in the naval estimates ended any possibility of taking over a second carrier, and limited the planned transfer of eight additional modern fleet destroyers to two. 74 While government policy restricted the scope of the balanced fleet, strategic developments threw the need for such a force into question. Allied navies had achieved a crushing victory over the Axis surface fleets, but there had not been a similar sense of triumph among the anti-submarine commands. Schnorkel-equipped conventional boats had stretched anti-submarine defences to their technological limits, and had been contained only because the boats’ slow submerged speed of eight knots made it impossible for them to pursue shipping. During the last months of the war, the Germans had been endeavouring to mass produce the new Type XXI, a long-range boat that could achieve underwater speeds of up to 15 knots, enough to outrun most existing escorts. Allied assessments were that a fleet of Type XXIs could revive mass attacks on convoys with even more devastating results than the mid-ocean campaign of 1942-1943. In the end, the Type XXI’s teething problems and Allied bombing of production facilities prevented this disaster, 75 but the anti-submarine commands were on tenterhooks till the very end.76 In September 1945 the Admiralty confirmed Naval Service Headquarters’ appreciation that all of the RCN’s anti-submarine craft were now obsolete. 77
A future threat, it became clear as tensions grew with the Soviet Union, would come from beneath the surface of the ocean. The Soviets had no modern capital ships, and only about forty modern cruisers and destroyers. ‘On the other hand, ‘ as a secret RCN publication summarized the latest intelligence, ‘Russia’s submarine arm now consists of over 200 units. Approximately half of these are considered to be excellent modern ocean-going submarines fitted with all the latest equipment.’ Nor was that all. The Soviets had captured eight completed Type XXI boats, and were recruiting key German technical personnel. 78 In May 1946, the inaugural meeting of the Canada-US Military Co-operation Committee identified long-range aircraft and the submarine as the principal threats to North America. 79 In subsequent meetings, the committee emphasized the need for modernized anti-submarine forces that could counter fast underwater craft.80
An early indication of changed thinking in the Canadian naval staff was a paper written by Commander A.H.G. Storrs, assistant director of naval plans and intelligence, in January 1947. He reacted to further cuts in the estimates and the imposition of a manning ceiling of only 7500 personnel by calling for the service to concentrate on the essential: defence against the fast submarine. Storrs urged the development of a new generation of fast escorts which he believed might be an improved version of the small wartime escort destroyers.81
In fact, the requirement for high speed in all weathers dictated a large hull. Following the lead of the RN and the USN, in 1947-1948 the RCN embarked on a programme to convert most of its fleet destroyers to escort configurations: the heavy guns that had commended destroyers to the Canadian navy were removed to make way for outfits of anti-submarine mortars and increased anti-aircraft armament.82 Because American and British development of new purpose-built escorts were still in the preliminary stage, the RCN initiated its own design. This emerged as the St Laurent class of the 1950s; these vessels were about the same size as the Tribal ‘super destroyers.’ 83
The air squadrons for the carrier were similarly converted to specialized anti-submarine equipment beginning in 1947-1948. 84 Meanwhile, HMCS Quebec and Ontario — the state-of-the-art cruisers whose acquisition in 1944-1945 had fulfilled the navy’s 35-year struggle for the type — were relegated to training cruises for new entry personnel. In short, the balanced, surface warfare task force envisioned in 1943-1946 and earlier had become an updated version of the American escort carrier-destroyer hunting groups that had so effectively despatched U-boats in the Canadian zone and elsewhere.
Despite the RCAF’s increasing focus on the defence of North America against long-range Soviet bombers, the need for maritime air reconnaissance continued to be recognized. One consistent thread in the development plans the air force put before the government in 1946-1950 was the requirement for a regular, full strength squadron of four-engine bombers on each coast. 85 Already in 1948, before the organization of permanent peacetime squadrons, Lancaster bombers of the RCAF’s interim organization responded to the RCN’s request for joint exercises with American submarines off Nova Scotia. When in 1949-1950 RCAF Maritime Group was created (out of the skeleton of Eastern Air Command), the air force and the navy immediately established a joint maritime warfare school at Halifax. 86 In a sense this was atonement for earlier failures of inter-service cooperation in anti-submarine warfare. A similar school had briefly existed at the end of the war, but it had been established too late and without adequate resources.
The push of 1949-1950 to organize the air group and realize plans for a modern anti-submarine fleet were the direct result of the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. This sudden aggression had put paid to western intelligence estimates that the economically prostrate eastern bloc lacked the means and will to launch a surprise offensive; that assumption had been particularly rigorously applied in Canada to reduce defence spending. Given western Europe’s utter dependence upon reinforcements from North America, the need to counter the menace of the fast submarine to the Atlantic trade routes and to Canadian and US ports now became urgent. It was these circumstances that finally enabled the Canadian services to create and maintain large-scale maritime forces in peacetime. 87
The Soviet submarine fleet had in fact bridged the long-standing gulf between the Canadian government and its naval advisors. Although the German U-boat offensives of 1915-1918 and 1939-1945 had demonstrated that Canada needed maritime forces, the naval staff had seen that justification as a mixed blessing. The course of those two campaigns had to some extent vindicated governments’ financially and politically motivated preference for small, coastal types of vessels and reservist forces, while lending a modicum of credence to the faith that improvisation after war had actually broken out would be sufficient to stave off disaster.
The navy had always embraced minor vessels out of necessity rather than enthusiasm. Energetically as the RCN responded to the U-boat offensives in both world wars, its senior officers saw small, specialized craft as stepping stones to larger and more capable ships. Only in the late 1940s, when it became apparent that there was slight strategic justification and even less chance of political support for a traditional balanced fleet, did the navy turn whole-heartedly to anti-submarine and particularly to the challenges of 1944-1945 that it had never really met. By that time as well technological development of the submarine had demolished the prejudice that the underwater threat was one that could safely be relegated to auxiliary flotillas. Here at last was a compelling case for the substantial, sea-going fleet to which the RCN had aspired since 1910.