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Ready, Aye, Ready.

AN-AlexBOAThe first thing you have to understand about Canada’s navy: it began with an obsolete cruiser named Rainbow.

When the Royal Canadian Navy was first founded in 1910, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier found himself in a difficult position. At the time, Britain and Germany were engaged in a Mahanian naval race, building Dreadnoughts (and eventually Superdreadnoughts) in astounding numbers. That competition necessitated some changes to the Royal Navy’s global strategy; under First Lord Jackie Fisher, the fleet was concentrated at home. No longer would the White Ensign be omnipresent around the world, so certain parts of the Empire –– the responsibly-governed dominions in particular — were asked to pitch in.

Some, like Australia, took on this challenge with enthusiasm, but facing perpetual national unity issues, Prime Minister Laurier wasn’t keen on a massive expense that some perceived might draw Canadians into overseas colonial wars. Still, Sir Wilfrid was well known for his ‘sunny ways’ approach — he wanted to find a solution that pleased everyone (or pleased no one), so his government bought Rainbow, along with the protected cruiser Niobe.

Royal Canadian Navy
HMCS Rainbow, on her way to join the Royal Canadian Navy.

In 1910, these ships were basically relics. Rainbow had been picked up on her way to the breakers’ yards, and Niobe was rotting at anchor somewhere. Both were made of metal and had steam propulsion, so that was good, but neither was even close to capable of modern combat. Nevertheless, Laurier indicated that they’d serve as training ships, while he considered an Admiralty-proposed plan for Canada to build a squadron of one Invincible-class battlecruiser (quickly dialed back to just a Boadicea-class armored cruiser), three Bristol-Weymouth-type Town-class light cruisers, and six Acorn-class destroyers.

It was to be a modest fleet — basically, a formation that could help protect the Canadian coast, and provide local assistance if the Royal Navy ever needed to send a battle squadron. But, of course, it was never built.

Niobe ran aground almost as soon as she arrived, though Rainbow did end up serving a training function… until 1914. Then, in the early days of the Great War, she was ordered (along with all other allied cruisers in the Pacific) to seek out a German raiding force under Maximillian Von Spee. Good job she never came across the modern, fast, effective Spee squadron — it annihilated Kit Cradock’s British cruiser squadron off South America, and wasn’t sunk until Doveton Sturdee (with three battlecruisers secretly dispatched from Britain’s Grand Fleet) ambushed it at the Falklands.

All this while Rainbow was carrying sand bags instead of powder charges for her two 6-inch guns –– because, you know, training.

The point of me explaining this is not to slight the Royal Canadian Navy, but to set the context. Despite being an Atlantic and Pacific (and these days, Arctic) nation, Canada for years lacked the political will to invest money in its fleet. As such, our navy evolved in a culture where resources were slim, expectations were low, but actual requirements were high. Whether Ottawa understood it or not, Canada needed to be able to project power at sea. The navy just had to figure out how to do that with no support.

Hence the slogan: Ready, Aye, Ready.

Royal Canadian Navy
HMCS Skeena, one of the RCN’s fleet destroyers in 1939.

By the late 1930s, Canada’s fleet was in slightly better shape; we had a half-dozen fleet destroyers, and a seventh on the way. These were modern ships with specific modifications to help them survive in Canadian waters… but as soon as the Second World War broke out, we sent them to Britain. The Royal Navy had suffered heavy losses during the Norwegian Campaign (before the invasion of France), and was desperately short of escort hulls when unrestricted U-boat warfare began.

As you may know, this is where Canada came in. Once France had fallen, everyone understood that Churchill’s Britain was the last hope for stopping Hitler in Europe. Unfortunately, the island needed to be constantly supplied with everything from food to military equipment to keep up the fight, and German submarines were out in force to stop the flow. Someone needed to protect the convoys… and because the job was hard (seemingly impossible) and largely thankless, it suited the Royal Canadian Navy perfectly. A massive expansion effort began –– one that would leave Canada with the Allies’ third-largest fleet by the end of the war.

So what did that look like? Here’s some astounding film shot by British Pathé, but never used for their news reels, which appears (to me, at least) to be from a Canadian River-class destroyer during an Atlantic convoy crossing.

Of course, the weather wasn’t always that good, the ships were rarely that big, and the enemy wasn’t usually that absent, so perhaps we should use some imagination…

Picture yourself as just having graduated high school. It’s the tail of the Great Depression, you’re pretty sure you won’t find a job, but the navy appears to be hiring. Doesn’t matter that you’re from central Canada and have never seen the sea; they’ll train you, and you’ll get to see the world. You sign up.

Six months later, you’re in the middle of a North Atlantic storm, doing your best not to throw your guts up while your twenty-something-year-old Captain (who’s actually a Lieutenant) is trying desperately to stop merchant ships blowing up. It’s the middle of the night, you’re one of the crew of the 4-inch deck gun, and word is the U-boats are attacking on the surface (that’s when they’re fastest). One is spotted racing in for the kill, so your skipper turns to intercept. When the firing commences, you realize the folly of not wearing your gloves: the shells are ice cold, so as you hand them to the loader, bits of your flesh are stuck to them. At least those pieces of your palms don’t jam the gun. No matter; you keep fighting because it’s your job — because someone has to stop the U-boats. You may not be a glorious sailor aboard Nelson’s Victory, but this work is important, and you’re here. Don’t bitch, just fight.

That’s basically how HMCS Moose Jaw fought U-501. The engagement might as well have been a reenactment of Salamis; at one point, the U-boat’s Captain jumped aboard the Canadian corvette (seemingly to lead a boarding attack), and in turn, Moose Jaw rammed the submarine. What worked for Themistocles in 480 BC worked for Lieutenant Frederick Ernest Grubb in September of 1941; U-501 was defeated. You can read Captain Grubb’s report here.

Royal Canadian Navy
HMCS Moose Jaw, one of Sackville’s many sisters.

Clearly, the Battle of the Atlantic wasn’t pretty, or glorious, but it was one of the most important Allied campaigns of the Second World War. If you doubt that, consider the Japanese experience in the Pacific. Despite their early carrier-derived successes, the Imperial Japanese Navy never organized protection for merchant shipping, so the American submarine force (despite being initially handicapped by malfunctioning torpedoes) annihilated Japanese supply lines. It’s often forgotten because of the Atomic aftermath, but Japan was starving by 1945. Had Britain been left to the same fate… well, that’s a different alternate history. The bottom line is this: if you have a thankless, complicated, and hugely important job to do at sea, you call the Royal Canadian Navy. Especially if you don’t have a budget.

And that brings me back to Outports. If someone is going to be assigned the dull and irritating job of chaperoning a Champion during her leisurely swims around coastal Newfoundland, it’s obviously going to be the Canadians. And because of my previously-declared crush, it’s definitely going to be HMCS Sackville.

In the real August of 1942, Sackville (skippered by Lieutenant Commander Alan Easton) fought three U-boats in thirty-six hours: she blew U-43 out of the water, ran down U-704 (scaring her out of the battle area), and did indeed face the real U-552. In that final fight, the submarine managed to escape, but not before being nearly crippled by Sackville’s deck gun and depth charges. Obviously, our fictional Sackville had an eventful August as well –– jousting, anyone? –– though I won’t spoil that here. I just hope she does justice to her real namesake.

One of my two biggest priorities with Outports was making sure Sackville –– and by extension, the entire RCN –– got a deserved moment in the spotlight. People need to know what Canadian ships and sailors did during the Second World War, and how they did it. So do yourself a favor: visit Halifax, and go aboard the real lady who accompanied our fictional Lady on her swim. Better yet, become a Trustee and help share her story.

We stray away from the sea in the Champions novellas ahead, though we’ll see Sackville again. Maybe she’ll even meet a dragon…

Royal Canadian Navy
Come see Sackville here, in Halifax harbor. Unfortunately, you can’t watch her jousting in an alley. Yet.