Dread Nought     by Mike creasy


Why do we have a navy? ​​ After all, Ottawa is a long way from salt water, and navies are expensive! ​​ In the early days of British North America and the Dominion of Canada, the Royal Navy had ships at Esquimalt and Halifax to protect us and they did fairly well until the latter part of the 19th century when the Americans again began pushing north. ​​ The American Civil War had ended in 1865, British trade interests were stagnating and Canadians were just beginning the long, hard job of nation-building. ​​ Britain had growing interests in South Africa and Asia, and the cost of maintaining the Royal Navy’s position as the pre-eminent naval force in the world was rising steadily.

Disputes over the boundaries of western Canada had simmered on for years. ​​ The Alaska purchase in 1867 added yet another element, with Teddy Roosevelt threatening to send in the Marines unless things went his way.  ​​​​ Politicians everywhere soon realized that Canada could not be defended – in a military sense - from the United States. ​​ Britain saw the advantages of friendly relations with our southern neighbour, and began to toe the American line (Canada’s new Dominion status meant that Great Britain retained authority for foreign relations. ​​ This situation was still in effect in the early 1900s, meaning that Canada needed British permission to start a Canadian Navy).

Canadian politicians had been wringing their hands over the idea of a Canadian Navy for years, with some opposed (just send money to Britain to help with costs) and some in support (time to cut the apron-strings). ​​ 

Then, in 1904, the Royal Navy announced that it would abandon its colonial bases and concentrate its forces at home. ​​ Hand-wringing reached a fever pitch – who would protect us against those dastardly Americans, imperialist Russians or rapidly expanding Germans with their new colonial ideas? ​​ 

One reason why the Royal Navy decided to go home was the introduction of some radical new technologies in a completely new package. ​​ HMS Dreadnought was

so advanced that she made previous battleship design obsolete. ​​ Not surprisingly, The Royal Navy now had to replace its entire fleet of large capital ships – and quickly – since the Germans and the Americans were both planning to build some of the new dreadnought – type battleships. ​​ In order to do this, Fleet Admiral Jacky Fisher had to reorganize the entire Navy, closing unneeded overseas bases and focusing on the British Isles. ​​ Fisher’s vision was that the Dominions and Colonies would send money to the RN, who would respond – kind of like a worldwide fire service – when troubles arose.

When the British Pacific Squadron sailed out of Esquimalt Harbour for the last time in 1905, it left behind some shore facilities and two small sloops, Shearwater and Algerine. ​​ Both were lightly armed, 204 ft steamers capable of 12 knots. ​​ Canadians now had to decide if this was, in fact, a country or merely a doormat for whomever wanted to use the land and its vast resources. ​​ The answer was unclear: a few guns were mounted on some east coast Fishery Protection cruisers while discussions with the mother country continued. ​​ Plans were made to develop the Fishery Service into a prototype navy but then, in true Canadian fashion, a scandal erupted over high-level corruption within the Department of Fisheries and Marine. ​​ A federal inquiry was

called, dragging things out for years. ​​ Conferences and policy sessions continued as Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals struggled to find a politically acceptable solution. ​​ Finally, on March 10, 1910 federal legislation to establish a naval service was passed and Canada had the beginnings of a navy. ​​ Two old training cruisers (Niobe and Rainbow) were offered on loan from the Royal Navy and a modest budget was established. ​​ Then, an election…. ​​ the new Conservative government of Robert Borden soon slashed the new Navy’s budget and for the first four years of its existence, the Canadian Naval Service swung at anchor.

With the start of World War 1 in July 1914, Rainbow, Shearwater and Algerine were all that stood between the west coast and Germany’s modern Asia-Pacific Squadron under Admiral Graf von Spee, known to be on the loose somewhere in the Pacific. ​​ Captain Walter Hose took Rainbow to sea with an untrained crew and training ammunition to seek a fight with the German Squadron – any of which could have blown the little cruiser out of the water before getting in range of her small guns. ​​ Fortunately, he never made contact but the point was made emphatically that Canada needed to be able to look after itself. ​​ While Rainbow was away, the powerful Japanese cruiser Idzumo arrived in Esquimalt as backup, followed a few days later by Jacky Fisher’s fire service - the British cruiser Newcastle. ​​ Newcastle and Idzumo headed south to chase von Spee once Rainbow returned, and Idzumo soon returned as a regular (and welcome) visitor to Esquimalt.

Today, the need for naval capability is stronger than ever. ​​ Coastal resource protection, environmental enforcement and deterrence against well equipped terrorists are just some of our Navy’s domestic duties. ​​ Overseas activities with NATO and the UN give Canada the political capital we need to encourage other governments to do things differently and all these things require resources and support from Canadians. ​​ So the next time you see an Ottawa politician wringing hands over the cost of having a Navy, remind him/her of the lessons of our not-so-distant past.

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Dreadnought, Robert K. Massie, Ballantine Books, 1991

Canada’s Navy: The First Century, Marc Milner, University of Toronto Press, 1999