How Close Did They Get? (part 2) by Mike Creasy
Previously, we looked at threats to security during the first part of the 20th century, discovering some potential for (primarily German) naval action against a poorly defended west coast. We also discovered a distinct lack of interest in Ottawa and London, and an atmosphere of near panic in the streets of Victoria as banks moved money east in light of rumoured German surface raider actions. Fortunately, the friendly Japanese navy sent the modern cruiser Idzumo to our rescue, and the German Squadron was content to sink the British Pacific Squadron off Chile before withdrawing to the Atlantic once again.
The fuss died down, World War 1 came to an end in 1918, and Victoria returned to its frontier civility. The RCN was gutted and allowed to drift into near oblivion. Twenty years later, rising world tensions gave rise to some rebuilding, but at the start of the Second World War (in September 1939), Canada’s navy was lean indeed. Two of the four destroyers stationed at Esquimalt – the RN cast-offs HMCShips Fraser and St. Laurent – are immediately moved to Halifax to begin convoy escort duty. The remaining west coast destroyers Ottawa and Restigouche would soon follow, leaving a few small minesweepers and training vessels to defend the west coast. Not a bad short-term strategy, since the early war is clearly a European affair, although the German tactic of armed merchant raiders and “pocket battleships” soon give rise to all sorts of good rumours. Graf Spee would be intercepted by the fisherman’s reserve and sunk with buckets of herring! This Atlantic focus continued into 1940 and ’41, allowing west coasters to dismiss any idea of wartime threat to a low level – a bit of a lark, really.
And then came December 7, 1941…..” a day which will live in infamy..” The War is suddenly a two-ocean war, and Canada’s Pacific coast is now much closer to the action. Freshly equipped with two years worth of stories from abroad, the rumour mill springs to life once again. Ships are attacked and sunk by Japanese submarines off the California coast during December ’41 and January ’42. The RCAF patrol the coast with Stranraer aircraft, a bi-plane type flying boat noted for being both durable and slow. In March 1942, construction begins on the AlCan highway through northern BC and the Yukon to Alaska.
In one of Canada’s lesser moments, all people of Japanese ancestry are rounded up and shipped off to camps; their homes and property forfeited or destroyed. No doubt most of these are loyal citizens, born here and never having seen Japan.
In June 1942, Japanese troops land on the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. The submarine I-25 torpedoes the brand new cargo ship Fort Camosun off Cape Flattery. The I-26 sinks the American freighter Coast Trader off Cape Beale, and then shells the lighthouse at Estevan Point. In July 1942, I-26 torpedoes and sinks the submarine USS Grunion off the west coast of Vancouver Island. In September, I-25 uses its small floatplane to drop incendiary bombs on forest land near Brookings, Oregon with the idea of starting a forest fire. Good idea, bad timing; it had rained the night before and the coastal rainforest is dripping wet.
All this activity served to inflame the notion that a Japanese invasion was imminent on an almost undefended coastline. But how real was this threat?
It wasn’t. Japan had no plans to move beyond a forward base in the Hawaiian Islands, which they would attempt to hold while negotiating a peace treaty with the Americans. Their real aims were to gain control of the western Pacific and south Asia. The Aleutian landing was a poorly conceived tactical move to divert American resources from these other areas, but in fact, the landings diverted a far greater proportion of Japanese resources. The Japanese did not have the logistical support to expand beyond their target areas, lacking the merchant shipping capacity to move armies and materiel. Their submarine strategy was sound, but they entered the war with only 30 modern boats available, backed by 30 older boats.
From 1943 onwards, as the Americans fought their war across the south Pacific, the Japanese ability to threaten Canada’s west coast was almost nullified, with one very unique exception. The idea of starting forest fires had originated with Japanese Fleet Admiral Yamamoto, a man very near the top of the Japanese power structure, and so work continued on this unusual approach to warfare.
A sophisticated, high-altitude balloon system was developed, which would carry small incendiary bombs across the Pacific on the high altitude winds. (We now know the jet stream moves east to west at altitudes above 30,000 feet, moving at speeds of 100 knots or more.) These balloons were to release their payloads over North America, starting massive forest fires and destroying the enemy! Over ten thousand of the devices were built, and at least 9,000 were launched starting in November 1944. About 10% likely made it across, and they were found from Alaska to Mexico. The balloons were kept secret in the US and Canada, due to concerns about panic in the civilian population.
Gradually, the news from Europe and the Pacific began to overcome the perceived threat to life here on the west coast. With the end of the Pacific War in 1946, Canada’s navy was again allowed to slide into near oblivion, and life returned to normal in this last outpost of Empire. Tea, anyone?
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The RCN in Retrospect, James A. Boutilier, UBC Press, 1986
The Far Distant Ships, Joseph Schull, Queen’s Printer, 1961
The Pacific War Papers Japanese Documents of WW2, Goldstein & Dillon, Potomac Books, 2004
Jericho Beach and the West Coast Flying Boat Stations, Christopher Weicht, Pilot Press, 1997