Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
The First BC Government Fleet
You’re excused if you think BC Ferries was the beginning of the BC government’s involvement with saltwater ships, courtesy of WAC Bennett in the 1960s. But it was actually Premier Sir Richard McBride who got the ball rolling – and with nothing so ordinary as ferryboats!
In the early days of the 20th century the world was full of conflicts. Japan and Russia were rattling sabres; Germany was building its army and navy with colonial ambitions (Germany had a major naval base at Tsingtao in China), the Balkan countries were escalating their traditional ethnic warfare, Britain and France were building up their military, and Argentina, Brazil and Chile were all gearing up to seek revenge for past insults.
Germany and Japan both had modern cruiser squadrons in the Pacific, and the Germans were well known on the west coast as regular callers during the Mexican civil war. The Germans were very familiar with BC, having sent the gunboat SMS Panther (photo) on a mission around 1904 to chart suitable hiding places and coaling stations for future use.
At the same time, Canada’s west coast defences consisted of HMCS Rainbow, an obsolete and lightly armed cruiser, supported by two unarmoured British sloops-of-war, HMS Algerine and HMS Shearwater. To the south, the Americans had not yet established much of a west coast fleet; believing that the focus of war would be in the Atlantic - this despite Japan’s expansionist policies in the Philippines and other Pacific Island groups.
It’s worth remembering that Hawaii was an independent Kingdom until 1893, when a small force from the USS Boston replaced Queen Liliuokalani’s regime with a new provisional government. This arrangement (supported by plantation owners and various ex-pats; bitterly protested by most native Hawaiians) lasted until 1898 when Hawaii was annexed as a US possession.
. For its part, British Columbia was still a remote outpost of Empire. The last spike of the CPR was driven in 1885 and travel across the frozen Dominion was still a week-long expedition.
By 1914, war was felt to be inevitable and tensions were growing fast. Victorians worried that a foreign fleet might show up and shell the City. The Admiralty reported at least one German cruiser operating off the west coast. Banks transferred any surplus cash to Winnipeg. British Columbia’s defences were still almost non-existent, with no hope of reinforcement in the foreseeable future. Much hand-wringing and editorializing took place without much effect, since the new Royal Canadian Navy didn’t have many resources to send.
The Americans, also without a real blue water fleet on the west coast, had been building a few submarines in Seattle and San Diego, following the latest naval doctrine that identified submarines as a useful defensive tool. The US Navy was not really keen on these sinkable boats probably, as John Holland pointed out, because they didn’t have a quarterdeck suitable for an Admiral! This was, after all, the age of frock coats, monocles and those great big fore-and-aft hats from Lord Nelson’s day! As a result, US shipyards were forced to market their skills to other Navies around the world.
By a fortunate turn of time and events, in early 1914 Seattle’s Moran Yard was building four H-class subs for the US Navy, as well as two for the Chilean Navy – the Iquique and the Antofagasta. In July, the Chilean government had decided to refuse delivery of their two new craft, then nearing completion.
The President of the Seattle yard was a shrewd Glaswegian by the name of James Venn Paterson, well known in Victoria and Vancouver business circles. Paterson arranged a meeting with Premier McBride - well aware of the growing anxiety about coastal defence - and pitched his idea of solving BC’s problem (and his own yard’s cash flow) in one master stroke. McBride was receptive, and wheels began to turn.
Tension reached a fever pitch in early August 1914 as ultimatums counted down and war was almost certain. At 6 pm Pacific time on August 4, 1914, Britain (including all the Dominions) declared war - Esquimalt was warned to expect an immediate attack from von Spee’s Pacific Squadron. Steam was raised in the old Rainbow, laid up for nearly two years and nearly aground on empty cans and beef bones.
In the meantime, Paterson had to get his surplus subs out of US waters before US neutrality laws came into force, and without tipping his hand either to the Chilean Navy (who were still present and waiting for negotiations to resume) or to German intelligence officers. In Victoria, final decisions and formal approvals had not yet come through, leaving him in a bind. Should he move the boats out of sight? Or give it up as a cause lost to Canadian dithering?
He decided to go for it.
In a great bit of theatrical skulduggery, Paterson got a small crew aboard both boats and quietly slipped away from the shipyard dock on electric motors only. At daybreak on August 5, he met up with the salvage tug SALVOR, five miles south of Trial Island. Lt Bertram Jones RN (ret’d) passed over the BC government’s cheque for $1,150,00 US, and led the little flotilla back to Esquimalt.
The Americans seem to have enjoyed the performance, too – waiting until the subs were safely in Esquimalt Harbour before sending a cruiser to chuff around possible US hiding places, then reporting that the wayward subs could not be found. The Germans and Chileans were not amused, but couldn’t do much about it.
The new BC government ships were named Paterson and Mcbride, while flags and glasses were hoisted.
Within a few days, the Dominion government reimbursed the Province and the subs were taken on strength in the Royal Canadian Navy - renamed HMCSs CC1 and CC2, much to the disgust of the locals.
As it turned out, the subs were rather toothless – rigged for different size torpedoes than were available at Esquimalt – and with almost no crews trained in the underwater arts, they weren’t really much of a threat to a modern cruiser squadron. But, no bombardments or invasions took place, and the civilian population probably slept easier for their presence.
Thus ended Premier McBride’s brave foray into nautical history. But the next time someone says “I remember when old WAC got BC into the boat business”, you can say “well just a minute now….”
Next month, not just Fast Cats and fishing boats… BC shipyards actually built submarines!!!
Beneath the Surface, Bill Lightfoot, Cordillera Books, 2005
The Sea is at Our Gates, Cdr Tony German, McClelland & Stewart, 1990
Tin Pots and Pirate Ships, Michael Hatley & Roger Sarty, McGill - Queens University Press, 1990