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The Canadian Navy

HMCS Shearwater and HMCS Rainbow, Esquimalt, 1910,
Library and Archives Canada photo.

In the early part of the 20th Century, Canada, like most members of the British Commonwealth, did not have a navy to call her own.  From England to Canada, and from India to Australia, the dominions enjoyed maritime protection from the world's finest sea power, Britain's Royal Navy.  Things began to change, however, when Germany emerged as an industrial power, beginning a ship building program of their own, and challenging British dominance of the world's oceans.  With rumours of war in Europe brewing, the British realized their mightly fleet may be needed in home waters, and began recalling the Royal Navy from its many colonies and dominions.  Canada, along with the other commonwealth nations were given two options... provide funding and manpower to the Royal Navy, or construct a navy of their own.

The decision was made to form a Canadian navy, and the first ship commissioned for the Canadians was built in England in 1904.  Christened CGS (Canadian Government Ship) Canada, she was placed into the care of the Fishery Protection Service of Canada, where she began patrolling the Nova Scotia coastline, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  The Royal Navy also relinquished control of the two major naval bases they had established in Canada, one on each coast.  The British also provided a small steam torpedo boat, some auxiliary craft, and a Condor-class sloop, HMS Shearwater.

Canadian born Admiral Charles Kingsmill,
Director of the Canadian Naval Service,
Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Six years of political debate ensued, but in May of 1910, the Naval Services Act was passed, and the new Canadian Navy was formed.  Rear Admiral Charles Kingsmill, a former Royal Navy officer from Guelph, Ontario, was appointed the first director of the new service, and two cruisers, Niobe and Rainbow, were purchased from Britain.  One of these vessels was stationed on Canada's east coast, and the other on the Pacific, and another veteran Royal Navy officer, Commander Walter Hose, was recruited into the Canadian Navy.  Like Admiral Kingsmill, Commander Hose was an experienced British sailor, and was immediately placed in command of Rainbow.   That same year, a training school was constructed in Halifax.  At the Royal Naval College of Canada, officer cadets would be trained in the arts of seamanship, navigation and engineering, often under the guidance of experienced British officers.

On August 29, 1911, more than a year after it was formed, the Naval Service of Canada was given the blessing of King George V, and re-named the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

The First World War

HMCS Canada,
Canadian War Museum, Ottawa,
Photo by J. Gray

When the First World War erupted in 1914, Canada's coasts were lightly defended.  Only Rainbow and Niobe were considered "warships", and naval strength numbered only 350 officers and men.  Britain declined Canadian offers of naval assistance, asking instead that Canada provide an army contribution to assist in the trenches of Europe. The Fishery Service transferred CGS Canada to the navy, adding another warship to the small fleet, and Britain's allies, including Japan and Australia, were asked to assist in the defence of Canada's west coast.  Rainbow continued to patrol the Pacific coast, while Niobe, supported by the Royal Navy, patrolled the east.  Commander Hose transferred to Halifax, and was appointed head of the East Coast patrol, overeseeing the convoy escorts operating in the shipping lanes near New York City.

During the war, the Canadian navy continued to grow.  The United States were still neutral, and international law prohibited the export of vessels which could be used in a military capacity.  To circumvent these regulations, many Canadians purchased American made yachts and other pleasure craft, which were then "gifted" to the Canadian government and converted into torpedo or patrol boats.

British Columbia's "Navy"

CC1 and CC2 alongside HMCS Shearwater,
Painted by John Meeks

At the outbreak of the war, British Columbia's Premier, Sir Richard McBride, was concerned about German attacks on the west coast province.  Reports of German warships harassing traffic and commerce near Mexico led to fears of assaults against British Columbia's fishing fleets, as well as the cities of Vancouver and Victoria becoming potential targets.  Not waiting for Ottawa to take action, McBride's government took the iniative of providing their own maritime security.

A Seattle shipbuilding company had constructed two submarines for the Chilean navy, but a dispute over payment arose, and the vessels were not delivered to South America.  The builder indicated a willingness to sell the submarines, but the asking price was $1.1 million, more than double the operating budget of the entire Canadian navy.  In addition, the builder demanded that payment be received, in full, upon delivery.  Telegrams between McBride's government and Ottawa went back and forth, with much debate, until the B.C. premier finally grew tired of waiting for action from the capital.  Using provincial funds, rather than money from the federal government, the submarines were purchased.  Both the Chilean and German governments protested the sale, citing U.S. neutrality laws being violated.  A day after the transaction, the U.S. Navy dispatched the warship USS Milwaukee to patrol the area, but the submarines had safely sailed to Canadian waters.  The transaction had been conducted with such secrecy that even the army batteries defending Esquimalt's harbour were not informed, and almost opened fire on the two new submarines as they arrived.

On August 4, 1913, the two submarines were delivered to Canada, the builder compensated, and the white naval ensign raised.  Ottawa eventually reimbursed the British Columbia government for the boats, and they were commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy as CC1 and CC2.  HMCS Shearwater, the ancient ship left by the British when they abandoned the base at Esquimalt, was converted into a tender for the two submarines, and they remained on the west coast for the duration of the war, seeing no action.

The Battle of Coronel

"HMS Good Hope",
painted by Marii Chernev


Although the RCN was in its infancy during the First World War, a number of Canadians served with the Royal Navy.  Canada's first naval casualties, four young midshipmen who were training aboard the British Drake-class cruiser HMS Good Hope, came in 1914. A fleet of  German warships, under the command of Vice Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, was harassing British and French shipping in the south Pacific.  A Royal Navy squadron, under Rear Admiral Christopher Craddock, was dispatched to the west coast of South America to stop von Spee.  The two fleets met on November 1st, off the coast of the Chilean city of Coronel, where the older and slower British vessels found themselves outmatched.  HMS Good Hope, Craddock's flagship, and the cruiser HMS Monmouth, were both lost. The cruiser HMS Glasgow and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Otranto managed to escape. It was the Royal Navy's first defeat in over one hundred years, with 1,654 hands lost, including Admiral Craddock and the four Canadian midshipmen.  Von Spee's casualties numbered only three wounded.

Between the Wars

Admiral Walter Hose,
Naval and Military Museum,
Esquimalt, B.C.


Following the First World War, the Royal Canadian Navy was overhauled.  The submarines CC1 and CC2 suffered extensive damage during their voyage from British Columbia to Halifax, and were both de-commissioned in 1918, and scrapped two years later.  Their tender, HMCS Shearwater, was sold to a civilian operator in 1919.

HMCS Canada was returned to the Fisheries Service after the war, eventually being sold to a civilian corporation where she continued as a ferry, commuting between Florida and the Bahamas under the name Queen of Nassau.

HMCS Niobe, heavily damaged in the Halifax Explosion, was not repaired.  Instead, she remained in drydock until 1920, when she was also sold for scrap.  That same year, HMCS Rainbow was also scrapped.

With the pre-war fleet in need of replacement, the RCN began a major shipbuilding program.  In Massachusetts, two submarines had been constructed for the British, but were instead acquired by the RCN. Christened HMCS CH14 and CH15, the two vessels were stationed in Halifax, where they saw little service. 

Admiral Kingsmill had retired by 1920, and Walter Hose replaced him as head of Canada's Navy.  One of Hose's first orders of business was to contact the British Admiralty, where he began negotions for modern warships.  He was able to secure a trio of former British vessels, the cruiser, HMCS Aurora, and two torpedo boats, HMCS Patriot and HMCS Patrician. All were delivered to Canada, arriving on Christmas Day, 1920. 

Just as Hose was reforming and modernizing the navy, an election was called, and the former Prime Minister Borden was voted out of power.  A new Liberal government, under Mackenzie King, took the reins in 1921, and one of King's first orders of business was slashing the naval budget, which he cut nearly in half.  The financial cuts were so severe that HMCS Aurora was disarmed, placed in drydock, and eventually scrapped.  Submarines CH14 and CH15 met a similar fate, leaving the RCN with only the Naval College, HMCS Patrician and HMCS Patriot, and a strength of approximately 500 officers and men. Some politicians, and civilians, questioned the need for a Canadian navy at all, with many calling for the RCN to be completely disbanded.

Admiral Hose believed that in order to save Canada's navy, he would have to bring the service to the people of Canada.  This was accomplished by building a naval reserve, which would be constructed on a two-tiered system.  The first part, the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR) recruited experienced merchant seamen, who would occassionally serve in uniform, bringing their maritime skills to the navy.  The second half, the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), would be centered in Canada's major cities, many of them miles from the coasts, where civilians with little or no seagoing experience could enlist on a part time basis.  A member of the RCNVR, or "citizen sailors", would be expected to complete thirty evenings of unpaid training throughout the winter months, in order to be rated "efficient".  Once this was accomplished, the member was eligible to travel to one of the coasts for two weeks of paid summer training.  In addition, RCNVR officers were expected to provide their own uniforms.

In 1923, the first RCNVR company was established in Montreal, and by the end of the year, a dozen more had been established across the country.  With more and more new recruits, the number of RCNVR companies rose, with units soon being established in sixteen Canadian cities.

Although some politicians still called for the disbanding of the navy, Admiral Hose had saved the sea going service. The RCN continued to grow throughout the 1920's, and in March of 1928, two British built S-class destroyers were added to the Canadian fleet.  HMCS Vancouver (ex HMS Toreador) and HMCS Champlain (ex HMS Torbay) replaced the aging Patriot and Patrician.  Hose established a long range plan for the navy, which would include the building of a fleet adequate for the defence of Canada.  Although his plan got off to a good start, the Great Depression hit, and the government again slashed the military budget.

Compounding the budget problems, Major-General Andrew McNaughton, a Canadian army veteran of the First World War, suggested that the Treasury Board again consider disbanding the navy.  He argued that the cost of three military branches was excessive, and that any threats to Canadian security could be handled by the army and the air force.  Admiral Hose disagreed, and made his own appeal to the Treasury Board, arguing that war between the United States and Japan was inevitable. A naval force must be in place to protect Canada's interests during this coming conflict, where Canada's west coast would be vulnerable.  Hose also pointed to the fact that the new aircraft were unable to fly at night, or during inclement weather.  Admiral Hose had again saved the Royal Canadian Navy for disbandment.

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, the small RCN continued to slowly grow.  An order was placed for two new destroyers, based on the British Acasta class, but modernized for Canadian service.  These newest vessels, HMCS Skeena and HMCS Saguenay, were delivered to Canada in 1931.  Despite his successes, the navy faced a further round of spending cuts, and in 1934, Admiral Hose, tired of fighting with the government, made the decision to retire.  Commander Percy Nelles, a career naval officer from Brantford, Ontario,  was appointed as his successor.

Fundy-class minesweeper,
Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Although Vancouver and Champlain were scrapped in 1937, the RCN added four British-built destroyers to the fleet, four Fundy class minesweepers, and a training schooner, HMCS Venture.  By the time the Second World War had began in 1939, the RCN had a strength of thirteen ships, 312 officers, and 3,292 men.  Despite the war clouds forming over Europe, the 1939 defence budget provided only $8 million to the navy. By contrast, the army was awarded $21 million, and the air force $30 million.

The Second World War

Canadian sailors training on a Lewis gun, Esquimalt, B.C.
credit: Library and Archives Canada

Constructing the Corvette Navy

With the world on the brink of war, Britain and Germany were in a race to build up their armed forces, including naval power. Plans had been drawn up to develope small escort vessels, for use in coastal waters, but British shipyards were filled to capacity completing orders for larger warships.  Plans had been drawn up by William Reed of Smith's Dock Company for an escort based on the plans of a whaling ship called Southern Pride.  Smith and his company had experience building patrol vessels during the First World War, as well as constructing whaling ships, and a modification of his plans were accepted by the British Admiralty in January, 1939.  Contracts to begin building the vessels were signed in February, but the world's situation was rapidly deteriorating. 

In Canada, it had been proposed that the shipyards could build destroyers, but the idea was discarded when it was learned none of them had ever constructed anything larger than a minesweeper.  Despite the lack of shipbuilding experience, the Admiralty took a gamble that Canadian yards could construct the new escort vessels.  Initialy, it was envisioned that the small warships would be used in only coastal waters, protecting the western terminal of the convoy route, as well as defending the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Shortening the name from 'patrol vessel, whaling type', to 'corvette', Canada was soon committed to building them.  Shipyards on both coasts, along the St. Lawrence River, and the Great Lakes were all awarded contracts to build the boats, with a construction cost of between $500-600,000.  The corvette would soon become Canada's signature ship, and 113 of them were named after cities, towns and villages across the country.

Canada was soon caught up in an industrial revolution, committed to build sixty-four corvettes, along with ten minesweepers, in a two year period.  In addition to a shortage of raw materials, Canada suffered from a lack of shipyards, a lack of workers, and a lack of knowledge.  Also, the new design was un-tested, and should the vessels fail, materials, manpower and a years worth of work would be lost.  Despite the odds, the Canadian shipbuilding industry began building.  Yards were rapidly constructed or expanded, workers hired and trained, and production moved forward.  By the end of 1940, the first batch of fourteen corvettes had been completed and sailed for England in January, 1941.  Manned with a skeleton crew, many of the first corvettes crossed the Atlantic armed with wooden guns, due to a shortage of real 4-inch guns.  These fourteen were the forerunner of an eventual 122 corvettes eventually constructed in Canada. One of these original fourteen, HMCS Collingwood, was the first Canadian-built corvette to enter service with the Royal Navy. Over time, modifications were made, crews expanded and weapons improved.  The small Canadian ships, intended only for coastal defence, would end up going head to head with the German's powerful submarine fleet, and helping to win the war for the Allies.



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