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When the First World War erupted, the Royal Canadian Navy was only four years old. Formed under the Naval Service Act as the Naval Service of Canada, Canada having a navy was a contentious issue. The establishment of a Canadian navy was heavily disliked by French-Canadians, and it would lead to the defeat of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals after 15 consecutive years in power.
The first two ships to join the new navy were Royal Navy vessels HMCS Niobe and the HMCS Rainbow, both of which had been built in the 1890s. In the case of the Rainbow, it was 21 years at the time.
The Royal Canadian Navy would officially be named on Aug. 29, 1911 when King George V granted permission for the name. Less than a month later, the navy matter had ousted Laurier and the Liberals and replaced them with Robert Borden and the Conservatives.
In 1912 and 1913, Borden and his government would try to pass a naval bill that would give $35 million for the construction of three dreadnoughts for the British Navy. Laurier, now serving as the Leader of the Official Opposition, argued that the bill threatened the autonomy of Canada. In the end, it failed in the Senate.
While other nations were far ahead when it came to navies, Canada lagged behind with its two ships. One, the Rainbow, was posted on the west coast and one, the Niobe, was posted on the east coast, when war was declared. Neither ship had a full crew and both lacked proper ammunitions.
On Aug. 1, 1914, the HMCS Rainbow was sent to sea under the command of the Royal Navy, to locate German ships and escort two lightly-armed Royal Navy ships back to Canadian waters. This was the first time that a Royal Canadian Navy ship was sent to sea in search of enemy warships. The Niobe would be out of commission in dry dock until early September.
Needless to say, Canada was unprepared for a sea war when the First World War began. With the amount of ships that had to send troops and supplies from North America to Europe during the war, an expansion was desperately needed.
Early on in the war, the Royal Canadian Navy took only mostly supervisory roles at the ports of Canada. This included blocking the eastern passage into Halifax Harbour, placing submarine net defences and conducting minesweeping.
On Aug. 7, the Rainbow arrived in San Francisco to get coal but the neutrality proclamation of the Americans only allowed the Rainbow to get 50 tonnes of coal. With far less coal than what was expected, the decision was made to have the ship patrol off San Francisco.
Commander Walter Hose would say quote:
“It appeared to me that it was my duty, being apparently so close to the enemy, to try and get in touch with him at once, consequently I got under way at midnight and proceeded in misty weather to a point on the three mile limit 15 miles to the southward of San Francisco, from there I steamed slowly to the southward all that forenoon, the weather being foggy and clear alternately.”
On Aug. 10, due to fuel concerns, the Rainbow was forced to return to Canada. One day after the Rainbow left San Francisco, the Leipzig appeared at San Francisco and remained in the area until Aug. 18. The Leipzig was far more powerful than the Rainbow, and that one day near-miss would be the closest the Rainbow would ever get to meeting the Germans on the ocean.
On the West Coast Naval Base, there was a worry over a German attack considering there was little in the way of defense to stop it. Sir Richard McBride, the premier of British Columbia attended a meeting with several of Victoria’s prominent citizens and they decided that they would purchase two complete submarines through J.V. Paterson, the president of the Seattle Construction and Drydock Company.
McBride was extremely in favour of the idea of submarines and he began holding meetings on the matter in his office. Even though he could not commit Sir Robert Borden to the idea, McBride decided to go it alone.
On Aug. 3, 1914, it was decided that the provincial government would advance money pending remittance for the submarines. The two submarines had actually been built for Chile and Chile had paid $714,000 of the $818,000 purchase price but this was now in arrears. Paterson was willing to declare the Chile contract void and sell the boats to the British Columbia government at a cost of $575,000 each.
British Columbia had to act fast because as soon as Britain went to war, the United States would pass legislation prohibiting the sale of armed submarines to any country involved in the war.
At dawn on Aug. 5, 1914, five miles off the coast of Vancouver Island, delivery of the funds was made, totaling $1.15 million. This would amount to about $28 million today. The two submarines were cast off only the night before and officially they never left their American harbour, filed no paperwork and had no clearance documents. Royal Canadian Navy personnel wore plain clothes to ensure that the Chilean government officials and naval personnel were ignorant of the operation. Once in international waters, the submarines were inspected and declared acceptable. The bank draft was handed over and the crew of retired and active Royal Navy personnel, including civilians, took over the submarines. Since the exchange had happened in international waters, no neutrality legislation had been broken.
The submarines were designated as CC1 and CC2. Along with the HMCS Rainbow, these were the only naval vessels protecting Canadian waters on the west coast. In 1917, CC1 was transferred to the east coast. Passing through the Panama Canal, the submarine became the first Canadian warship to traverse the canal under the White Ensign. Deemed unsafe for transatlantic crossings, CC1 stayed at Halifax for coastal defence. In 1920, the ship was laid up and five years later, broken up, having never seen any action. As for CC2, it too would be transferred to the east coast in 1917 and be put on coastal defense. It would finish the war as a training vessel, and would be put up for sale in 1920 and scrapped in 1925.
A year after the purchase of the submarines, McBride was before a Royal Commission to defend his purchase. He would state that he felt estranged by the decisions by Ottawa and quote:
“Because of the existence in local waters of two German warships, and the defenceless nature of our coast cities, there was a great deal of tension among our people. It appeared to me that something should be done to afford home protection for our coast cities. We are 3,000 miles from Ottawa and it is not always easy to get immediate connection. I therefore took upon my own responsibility to purchase these vessels and I intend to have the province of British Columbia foot the bill.”
On Sept. 1, the Niobe was ready for service and work began to crew it. A total of 16 Royal Navy officers and 194 ratings, or junior enlisted crew, were assigned to the ship. Another 28 Royal Navy officers and 360 ratings were also assigned. The government of Newfoundland also assigned one officer and 106 ratings from the Newfoundland Division of the Royal Navy Reserve to the ship.
While Canada now had two submarines and two ships, it was still unprepared for a German attack if it were to come. Two government vessels, the CGS Canada and CGS Margaret were pushed into service
Many patriotic citizens would try to shore up the Royal Canadian Navy by offering up their personal yachts to the navy.
By the fall of 1914, Prime Minister Robert Borden asked First Sea Lord Winston Churchill what naval aid Canada could provide to help England. He was told quote:
“Admiralty inform don’t think anything effectual can now be done as ships take too long to build and advise Canadian assistance be concentrated on army.”
Borden would ask for new destroyers that could be built in Canada, and to borrow ships from the Royal Navy, but he was told that Britain had no ships that it could lend.
On Nov. 1, 1914, the Battle of Coronel occurred off the coast of Chile, with two British armoured cruisers sinking in the battle. On one of the ships were four Royal Canadian Navy midshipmen, who became the first Royal Canadian Navy casualties of the war. These men were also the first Canadian casualties of the war that would see 50,000 Canadian men dead.
By September 1915, after only one year in service, the Niobe would be recommissioned as a depot ship in Halifax, where it would spend the rest of the war. When the Halifax Explosion occurred in December 1917, the Niobe was severely damaged and would be scrapped by 1920.
German U-boats continued to cause havoc for the Allies on the ocean and within the first seven months of the war, U-boats had sank 470 ships. There was a worry that German agents would attempt to establish supply bases for submarines along the remote parts of Newfoundland and Canada on the east coast.
Commander R.M. Stephens, the Royal Canadian Navy chief of staff, would propose to put into place 10 patrol vessels to watch the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the coast of Nova Scotia. Five Royal Canadian Navy ships would be put into this group, the HMCS Canada, HMCS Margaret, HMCS Sable I, HMCS Premier and the HMCS Tuna. The Canada and Margaret were fishery patrol vessels, the Premier and Sable I were civilian vessels given to the navy, and the Tuna was an American yacht that had been bought by Montreal millionaire J.K.L. Ross, who gave it to the Royal Canadian Navy as a gift. Other American yachts would be used in the Gulf patrol, as well as two new ships the HMCS Stadacona and HMCS Hochelaga.
The Gulf Patrol began operating in July 1915.
Back on the west coast, the Rainbow was performing reconnaissance work at this time, monitoring German shipping activity along the coast of Mexico and Central America. Throughout the spring of 1916, it patrolled the area and even captured two German-owned ships. The ship was joined by the HMCS Galiano and the HMCS Malaspina, both fishery patrol vessel. The Malaspina was assigned to servicing radio stations and lighthouses and would be severely damaged on one of those runs, putting her out of service. The Galiano arrived into service from the Queen Charlotte Islands but was put out into action despite needing servicing. On Oct. 29, 1917, the ship was unloading supplies at Triangle Island when she was hit by a huge storm that had sunk the Princess Sophia, something I covered on another episode. The ship went down with all 38 of its crew and only three bodies were ever recovered.
The HMCHS Prince George had been a Canadian National Railway cruise ship and it was put into service on the west coast as a hospital ship with 200 beds and a Red Cross painted on its funnel. On board were six nursing sisters who were the first women recruits of the Royal Canadian Navy. After heading to Prince Rupert, the ship was supposed to go to Hong Kong but was then given orders to return to the nearest British port, which happened to be Prince Rupert. The ship then went to its west coast base for an inspection and never left. It had only spent 45 days in service during the war.
Enlistment into the Royal Canadian Navy was slow compared to the Canadian Expeditionary Force. One reason for this was that the Royal Canadian Navy paid 70 cents for able-bodied seamen, while the Expeditionary Force paid $1.10 per day for similar men. When war was declared, 9,000 Canadians did enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy, with only 1,000 being recruited while the rest were put into the British Royal Navy as reserves. While that was an increase in the number of men in the navy, it paled in comparison to the number of men enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
By November 1916, the Royal Canadian Navy was told by the Admiralty to increase its anti-submarine patrol to 36 vessels, along with 12 minesweepers. Captain Walter Hose was put in charge of the east coast patrols. Unfortunately for Hose, both Britain and Canada provided chains of command, and often conflicting reports, which made his task very difficult.
Due to Allied merchant shipping taking heavy losses by early 1918, the Canadian government created the Canadian Government Merchant Marine. These ships were intended to co-operate with the British shipping to supply war needs.
On June 27, 1918, the RMS Llandovery Castle, which was one of five Canadian hospital ships to serve during the war, was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. In the sinking, 234 doctors, nurses, soldiers and sailors lost their lives. Only 24 people, a single life-raft, survived. The sinking was the deadliest sea disaster for Canada during the war.
By the end of July, German U-boats were sinking American ships and there was a worry they would begin to move into Canadian waters. That worry became a reality on Aug. 2 when a U-Boat sank the Canadian ship, the Dornfontein, just off the coast of New Brunswick. The U-boat then travelled towards Nova Scotia where it sank three Canadian fishing vessels between Aug. 3 and Aug. 5.
On Aug. 20, U-156 captured the Canadian fishing trawler Triumph, followed by four more fishing vessels later that day. The Triumph was then fitted with a three-pounder gun and was then used by the Germans.
On Aug. 25, U-156 was in the process of boarding four fishing schooners when the HMCS Hochelaga, part of a four-ship Canadian patrol, saw the ship. Lt. R.D. Legate, the captain of the ship, urged caution and suggested waiting for reinforcements. The flotilla leader, HMCS Cartier, instead steamed towards the submarine location. The submarine soon disappeared after sinking the schooners. This was the only direct action that the ships would have during the war. Legate, for what was seen as a loss of nerve in front of the enemy, was court martialed and dismissed from the navy. U-156 would sink one more Canadian fishing schooner before going back to Europe. It would be lost by a British mine barrage on Sept. 25.
While Canadians were outraged by U-156, as well as U-155, there was little the Royal Canadian Navy could do to stop the boats in Canadian waters. The Royal Canadian Navy only had 11 vessels capable of handling the submarine on the east coast and only five of those could actually venture beyond coastal waters.
On Sept. 5, 1918, the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was formed to carry out anti-submarine operations using aircraft but the service would only last until the end of the war.
By the end of the war, Canada’s navy had expanded from 350 sailors to 5,000, with another 3,000 Canadians serving with the Royal Navy. There were also 100 small vessels that had been pressed into service, most of which were stationed at Halifax.
Canadians also gave their lives on the seas with about 150 – 190 Royal Canadian Navy sailors dying by the end of the war. No records state how many civilian sailors lost their lives during the war.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada.ca, Canadian War Museum, Wikipedia, Canadian Military Magazine, Government of Canada,