From One World War to Another (1919-43)

The Navy to 1942

Naval Expansion and the Submarine Threat

Ordinary Rating, Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, 1942-1946

Caption: Ordinary Rating, Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, 1942-1946

The navy was the smallest of Canada's armed forces but certainly not the least significant in terms of services rendered. During the First World War submarines had threatened Canadian coasts and maritime trade, and the British navy, stationed in European waters, could do nothing about it. On 11 November 1916 the Admiralty made it clear that Canada would have to increase its own coastal naval patrols; it could no longer rely on the British for its sea defence.

The First World War had brought some points of view closer together. For French Canadians, a completely Canadian navy held more attraction than the purely financial contributions sought by the pre-1914 Conservatives. English Canadians had developed their identity and the idea of a national navy had become a necessity. The small Canadian navy of the 1920s recalled Laurier's navy of 1910 and the many earlier plans we have discussed. In 1939 the Canadian navy had four operational destroyers that went to Britain. With the Anglo-American agreement of 1940, which gave the British 50 old U.S. destroyers in exchange for bases to be built in Newfoundland and the West Indies, six more destroyers came into Canadian hands. These dated from the First World War and were more or less reliable. One of them, re-christened HMCS St Croix, had to return to Halifax from its initial sortie in British waters: The sea was too rough for St Croix, which was extremely heavy above the water line.

In June 1941 the 10 destroyers returned to Canada and joined the corvettes built domestically to escort supply convoys between North America and England. The navy, which is to this day undoubtedly the most British of Canada's three military arms, is also the only one - in spite of its vicissitudes - to obtain an independent command during the war. Ill-equipped and lacking experienced crews, the navy was thrown into an anti-submarine war in which it would initially find little success.

The Germans had begun to increase their submarine fleet a year before the outbreak of war. When hostilities began, neither Britain nor Canada was ready to deal with this threat. In fact the day after Britain declared war, the liner Athenia, out of Liverpool bound for Montreal, was sunk without warning by a German submarine 400 kilometres west of Ireland, recalling the sad fate of Lusitania in the First World War. It seemed obvious, especially after June 1940, that the reconquest of the European continent would largely depend on the vital transatlantic connection through which Britain would amass the men and equipment needed for eventual landings.

Although preparations had been made for a surface war, the convoy experience acquired some 25 years earlier had not been lost. In the meantime the Germans had improved their submarines, and with the conquest of France's Atlantic coast they became very dangerous. These submarines had a long range (over 10,000 kilometres even for the less sophisticated ones), had a surface speed of 17 to 19 knots (when convoys would do eight to 12 knots), could submerge for as long as 24 hours and had good communications with their European headquarters. Bit by bit the Germans developed their pack approach: One submarine located a convoy and rounded up his neighbouring wolves before moving to the attack, generally in a sector of the North Atlantic that no air patrol could cover in the early years of the war. The build-up of strategic stocks in Britain was in jeopardy.

Things were not going well for Canadian seamen. On 25 June 1940, HMCS Fraser was cut in half by the British ship Calcutta in the Gironde estuary, resulting in 47 dead. Later, HMCS Margaree, on patrol west of Ireland, suffered the same fate at the hands of a merchant ship, with 142 dead. On 6 November 1940, however, HMCS Ottawa helped to destroy an Italian submarine.

Additional Images

Officer, Royal Canadian Navy, 1940-1945
Short Sunderland Mk. I flying boat, Royal Air Force, 1940