Tuesday, May 4 is an important milestone for the Canadian Navy, marking its official centennial. It was on this date in 1910 that the Naval Service Act was enacted into law and Canada began to assume an active military role on the waters that are such a defining part of our nation’s character. It’s often forgotten that Canada has the longest coastline of any nation on the planet, and except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, every province and territory here touches upon salt water. In the hundred years since a domestic maritime force was created, the navy has undergone great changes in carrying out its duties, so it’s worth remembering some of its history.
The first attempt at founding a Canadian Navy happened in 1881, when a stream-powered vessel, HMS Charybdis, was purchased from the British. But any hopes this would foster the creation of an effective force were short-lived, and the Charybdis soon fell into disrepair. By 1910, though, enough political momentum had developed and the nascent Naval Service of Canada was founded in May of 1910, though there was no fleet to speak of. The first warship to be commissioned into the Naval Service was the cruiser HMCS Rainbow, entering Canadian service on August 4, 1910 after serving with Britain’s Royal Navy since 1893. The fleet was added to less than a month later, when another former RN cruiser, HMCS Niobe, joined the navy on September 16.
It wasn’t until 1911 that King George V granted permission for the prefix “Royal” to be added to the service’s name, begetting the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) moniker that would remain until 1968, when the three branches of the navy, army and air force were amalgamated into the Canadian Armed Forces. Today’s navy is properly called Maritime Command, to the enduring annoyance of many. However, all Canadian naval vessels still retain the HMCS prefix.
By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Royal Canadian Navy was still under-funded, poorly equipped and struggling. Rainbow was based on the west coast of Canada, operating out of Esquimalt, British Columbia, while Niobe was based on the opposite coast in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Niobe actually spent the early part of the war on patrol off the eastern seaboard of the United States, part of the British fleet enforcing a blockade of ports like New York from German shipping. In August of 1914, Canada also acquired two American-built CC-class submarines in a strange manner: The subs had been built in Seattle for Chile’s navy, but the deal fell through. So the provincial premier of British Columbia brokered a deal to purchase them, and they were eventually commissioned into the RCN.
CC-1 and CC-2
Throughout the First World War and the post-war period, the RCN remained the junior service in Canada, failing to attract the public support that ground troops had acquired fighting in France and Belgium. (Canada’s aerial forces would not be officially constituted as the Royal Canadian Air Force until 1924.) But with the onset of the Second World War and the need for Canada’s growing economic base to support the allied war efforts abroad, the RCN experienced a phenomenal growth. When war was declared by Canada on September 10, 1939, the RCN consisted of just 13 vessels (6 destroyers, 4 minesweepers and 3 auxiliaries) and about 3500 personnel in both regular and reserve roles. By war’s end, the fleet would grow to becoming the third largest navy on the planet after the U.S. and Great Britain, with the RCN then boasting 434 commissioned vessels and some 100,000 uniformed personnel.
The years after World War Two saw a dramatic reduction in the size of the RCN, but the navy also saw the addition of aircraft carriers into the fleet (five carriers would eventually fly the Canadian naval ensign, perhaps most famously HMCS Bonaventure). And the RCN actively participated in the Korean War as part of United Nations’ efforts.
The Cold War period saw the RCN’s role adapt to fit with international demands through NATO and other alliances, including the loss of aircraft carriers and a greater reliance on anti-submarine operations. Also, the White Ensign which had been flown since 1911 (shown at the top left of this post) was replaced by the current naval jack in 1965 (shown at the top right). And while the fleet aged, plans were made to build a new class of warships – the Canadian Patrol Frigates – that would form the backbone of the navy. The first, HMCS Halifax, was commissioned into service in June of 1992.
Since the Halifax entered service, the Canadian Navy has participated in the war on terror, numerous humanitarian missions and, of course, counter-piracy operations. In honour of the century of service that members of the Navy have provided to Canada, the government has just announced the re-introduction of the executive curl, a part of the rank insignia that had been dropped when the Canadian Forces were unified in 1968.
To all those men and women who have served in the Navy over the years, and to those who continue to do so today, let fair winds, a following sea and a healthy toast be the order of the day, and may the memories of comrades past never be forgotten. Ready Aye Ready to one and all.
For more on the centennial, check out the Canadian Department of National Defence's website, which can be viewed by clicking here.
UPDATE: The navy's centennial anniversary was sadly marred by the news of the first Canadian sailor to die in Afghanistan. Petty Officer 2nd Class Douglas Blake was a member of the Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic, based in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, who had been deployed to Afghanistan last month as an explosive ordnance disposal operator. On Monday afternoon (Kandahar-time), PO2 Blake and his team had been called out to dispose of an IED in the Panjwaii District. After successfully disposing of the device, they were returning on foot to their vehicles when a second bomb exploded, killing Blake. He is the 143rd member of the Canadian Forces to die in Afghanistan and leaves a wife and two young boys.