Canadian navy centennial

Twenty-Five ‘moments’ to celebrate (or ponder)

To commemorate the Canadian Naval Centennial, and to provoke debate on our navy’s history, I have compiled a list of twenty-five significant moments that capture what I consider to be the major events and trends of the past 100 years. Some are facts, the importance of which can be disputed, while others are subjective observations, which may rankle; and, of course, there may be some items from both categories - and indeed the categories themselves – that you may think have been overlooked. So there is room for debate. Note, however, that I fully appreciate that people form the heart of any navy, and next month will submit a list of 25 significant individuals from the navy’s first 100 years. In the meantime, let’s have some fun, so ‘return fire’ with full or partial Broadsides!

Institutional Moments

  1. 1. The Naval Service Act: received Royal Assent on 4 May 1910.

  2. 2. The Naval Reserves: establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve [on 31 January 1923] and the RCN Reserve [also ‘on or about’ the same date in 1923].
    [Moderator’s Note: both were merged on 1 January 1946 to form the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve.]

  3. 3. Canadian Northwest Atlantic Command: created on 30 April 1943.

  4. 4. The Unification Quagmire: the first exercise in transformation
    [Moderator’s Note: Liberal Defence Minister Paul Hellyer introduced legislation to amalgamate the Navy, Army and Air Force as the Canadian Armed Forces on 4 November 1966. The bill became law on 1 February 1968.]

  5. 5. Battle of the Atlantic Sunday.

Operational Moments

  1. 6. Recognition long overdue: the steady, unspectacular work of the First World War anti-submarine trawler force. When the RN and USN turned their backs on agreements to help defend Canadian waters against German submarines, the RCN’s trawlers held the line in much the same way that corvettes did in the early 1940s.

  2. 7. Three wartime firsts:
    (1) - 11 June 1940, the destroyer HMCS St Laurent engages German artillery at St Valery-en-Caux, firing the first shots in anger by a Canadian warship;
    (2) - 16 November 1940, the navy claims its first enemy warship when the destroyer HMCS Ottawa helps to destroy the Italian submarine Faa di Bruno in the North Atlantic; and, finally,
    (3) - 19 September 1941, the corvette HMCS Levis becomes the first Canadian warship lost to enemy action torpedoed in the North Atlantic [ by U-74].

  3. 8. Establishing the ‘Away Game’; the Mackenzie King government dispatches three destroyers to British waters in May 1940 proclaiming the defence of Canada began at the English Channel, initiating a tradition of timely, effective deployments - not ‘grandstands’ - such as to Korea in 1950 and to the Arabian Gulf in 1990 and 2001.

  4. 9. Three time a ‘Sturdy Ally’:
    (1) - June 1944, some 126 Canadian warships and 10,000 sailors contribute to Operation NEPTUNE;
    (2) - October-November, 1962, the RCN’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis; and
    (3) - March 1968, HMCS Gatineau becomes the first Canadian warship to the Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT), initiating an enduring contribution to the NATO squadron.

  5. 10. Two under-appreciated wartime accomplishments:
    (1) - the work of RCN minesweepers in Operation NEPTUNE, who in a few months transformed themselves from rag-tag anti-submarine escort vessels into an effective mine-clearing force that led American forces across the English Channel into OMAHA Beach; and
    (2) - the contribution of the Operational Intelligence Centre in Ottawa to the Allied intelligence network that played a major role in sealing victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

  6. 11. The Korean War: the superb performance of RCN destroyers in a variety of missions shook the navy out its post-Second World War doldrums and emphasized the requirement of keeping a measure of general purpose capability in an anti-submarine warfare-focused navy.

  7. 12. The Navy and the North: during the summer of 1954, HMCS Labrador became the first warship and the first deep draft ship to transit the Northwest Passage, beginning three seasons of valuable activity in the Arctic.

  8. 13. The Navy and Peacekeeping: Responding to an international emergency in impressive time, the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent transports the Canadian field component of the United Nations Expeditionary Force (UNEF) to Suez (December 1955-January 1956), setting the standard for similar responses in the future.

  9. 14. Naval Aviation: First arrested landings of Tracker and Banshee aircraft on HMCS Bonaventure (5-6 April 1957) marking the air branch’s maturity into a potent anti-submarine warfare force in a relatively short time. Unfortunately, the carrier’s small size made it difficult to operate both types of aircraft simultaneously in sufficient numbers.

  10. 15. The destroyer-helicopter marriage: The relationship is ‘consummated’ with the first deck and haul-down trials of a Sea King helicopter onboard HMCS Assiniboine in November-December 1963. In a case where bare necessity drove innovation, the navy found a way to get large, dual-purpose anti-submarine helicopters to sea.

  11. 16. The ‘One Stop Shopping’ concept: during trials in July 1964, the new Canadian replenishment ship Provider transfers oil, supplies and ammunition to the destroyer escort HMCS Yukon while making 20 knots.

  12. 17. The Silent Service (some would say ‘forgotten’): During the mid-1980s the three Oberon-class submarines conducted successful surveillance patrols against Soviet nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) transiting Canadian waters, and over the course of their history carried out many other missions still unheralded.

  13. 18. Two unique missions:
    (1) - the trawler Thiepval’s support to the 1924 ‘Round the World Flight’ (with an intelligence mission to snoop on American and Japanese activity in the Pacific), and
    (2) - the destroyer Iroquois’ guarding of the North Atlantic cable during the 1976 Olympic summer games.

Procurement Moments

  1. 19. Best procurement decision: hands-down the St Laurent-class destroyer escorts. The right type of ship, at the right price.

  2. 20. Most successful design: the jury of history will be out for some time but perhaps the Halifax-class Canadian Patrol Frigate will prove even more successful than the St Laurents in terms of utility over time.

  3. 21. Greatest opportunity missed: the 1959 nuclear submarine proposal. Expensive, yes; but affordable and workable with changes to the navy’s force structure. It would have put the navy on the ground floor of operating the most effective weapons system of the age.

  4. 22. Two ‘Best Roads’ NOT taken:
    (1) - the General Purpose Frigate program of the early 1960s (an attempt to cram too much into one hull); and
    (2) - the nuclear submarine project of the late 1980s (by then too expensive with little wriggle room in the force structure).

Miscellaneous Moments

  1. 23. Five technological game changers:
    (1) - Canadian anti-acoustic torpedo (CAT) gear [aka CAAT gear];
    (2) - Canadian Variable Depth Sonar (VDS);
    (3) - Canadian BEARTRAP helicopter haul-down system;
    (4) - Canadian towed array surveillance system (CANTASS); and
    (5) - Canadian Shipboard Integrated Naval Communications System (SHINCOM).

  2. 24. The role of mutiny in engendering change: In an ever-growing number of ‘incidents’ throughout the 1940s, the corvette Matapedia can now be added to the list. The sometimes premeditated, sometimes spur of the moment protests by Canadian sailors hastened the evolution of attitudes and personnel policies in the RCN. An engine of social change not replicated in any other navy.

  3. 25. Three Perplexing Descriptors:
    (1) - We had one ‘Golden Age’ - the mid-1950s into the 1960s, when the RCN boasted a premier ASW force - but now another - expanded from Operation APOLLO to refer to the current era in general - has been proclaimed. Isn’t one enough for a small, young navy? And should such pronunciations even be made before the period has been exposed to objective light? Interestingly, neither so-called ‘Golden Age’ involved combat.
    (2) - The use of the term ‘Sheep Dog Navy’ to describe the Battle of the Atlantic escort force, thus colouring one of the harshest theatres of the war with a peaceful, pastoral hue.
    (3) - Using “Rust Out” as a general description of the lean 1970s and 80s when the St Laurent-class were running down. Fair enough, but name a period in the navy’s history when that has not been an issue with a major class of Canadian warships?