Darin MacDonald

In the late summer and early autumn of 2001, I was a recently commissioned Acting Sub-Lieutenant in the Canadian Navy conducting Officer Professional Development Program (OPDP), a residential JPME product taught over a three-month period. The course largely consisted of long days of ‘death by Powerpoint’ as we worked our way through a tedious curriculum of personnel administration, sustainment and logistic processes, security regulation and other trivia. The one section of the course I was genuinely looking forward to was the Canadian Naval History module. Having recently graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada at Kingston, Ontario, I had completed the only course offered on Naval History at that ‘tri-service’ institution, which dealt with the theory and development of Sea Power rather than any particular operational history of our naval service. My appetite for understanding the operational history of my service had yet to be satiated but I clung to the hope that this PME course would satisfy my curiosity. How disappointed I was when the course content turned out to be no more than a ‘wavetops’ overview of some of the key dates, personalities, and policies that had shaped the development of the Royal Canadian Navy rather than any proper historical analysis of the operations in which the RCN had taken part. What I didn’t at that time realise was the irony of the situation in which I found myself; that the sea-blindness of the Canadian public was so pervasive that the very institutions that ought to be holding a mirror up to this great national malady had been infected by the disease as well. And I was no different.

Nearly two decades later, now an Australian citizen and full-time officer of the RAN, I not only have a far greater understanding of the operational history of my former service, the Royal Canadian Navy, but also of the complex interplay of politics, culture and geography that have been the key factors behind Canada’s continued sea-blindness. Most recently for me, this enlightenment can be attributed to a book written 30 years ago. The Sea is at Our Gates: The History of the Canadian Navy by Commander Tony German, RCN (Ret’d) (which I picked up second hand for the princely sum of $4 at the 2018 Lifeline Book Fair – in Canberra!) is first and foremost a highly readable book. German traces the lifespan of the RCN from its earliest days of conception in the early 1900s, as Britain withdrew her naval forces from around the Empire to deal with events closer to home waters, through to the end of the Cold War. The narrative is jam-packed with highly entertaining anecdotal yarns, personal tragedies and triumphs, technical innovations and tactical realisations. Yet in between these enlightening and often humorous stories, German passes scathing criticism of the officers and statesmen to whom he attributes various portions of the blame for several periods of shameful decline in the history of the RCN. There has been no shortage of the latter.

The Policy Vacuum

The failure of the Canadian government to develop any coherent naval policy as the storm clouds of war gathered in the early part of the 20th century represents the first of these periods; the author thoroughly outlines the competing interests and opinions at play in Ottawa during this period that produced a political stasis on the subject of naval development. Despite its birth as a service in 1910, the RCN almost died in its infancy. Rejecting both the British proposals of either financing the construction of ships for use by the RN in return for security guarantees (as New Zealand chose to do) or the purchase of a balanced and realistically sized ‘Fleet Unit’ (as Australia chose to do), the RCN decided instead to follow an ill-advised policy and purchased two obsolescent light cruisers, which became HMC Ships Niobe and Rainbow, both of which were of little combat value when war came in 1914.1 As a result, the RCN was left scrambling to build minor war vessels and armed merchant ships for domestic patrols. The result was that the RCN saw little action through the Great War, which served only to fuel the arguments of the naval nay-sayers in the Canadian press and parliament.

The inter-war years were as spartan for the RCN as they were for most other services. Yet when developments in the late 1930s indicated the realistic possibility of another general European conflict on the horizon, Canadian naval policy was found wanting yet again, bereft of any clear strategic thought. Commander German pays high regard to the officer who deftly managed the RCN during this period of decline and applauds his ability to maintain what forces he could. Rear Admiral Walter Hose, as Chief of the Naval Staff from 1921-1934, managed to secure a small professional cadre of regulars, supported by enthusiastic reserves around the country, as highly trained and prepared as could be on a shoestring budget with only a handful of obsolescent ships to operate.2

The Atlantic Convoys and the U-Boats – The Mythology is Born

Only slightly better prepared in 1939 vis-a-vis 1914, Canada entered the Second World War with a total of six destroyers – two ‘A’ class and four ‘C’ class that had been purchased in the late 1930s from the United Kingdom when at last the Canadian government awoke to the threat of a remobilised Germany. These destroyers saw early action in the waters near Britain, but as the U-boat threat spread deeper into the Atlantic and the convoy system was once again enacted, the RCN adopted a niche role in convoy protection in the north-western Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic, more than any other action, shaped the course of RCN development through the rest of the war, and that legacy persists to this day. German recounts the many success stories of the RCN’s wartime experience such as the Theatre Command given to Rear Admiral Leonard Murray commanding the north-west Atlantic, the only non-RN or USN officer to be given such a high level of command in the war. Conversely, German does not pull punches in passing criticism. For every success, there was at least an equal number of tragedies and failures due largely to the rapid expansion of the RCN in the first years of the war.

The author points out that having gone to war with a permanent force of 1800 and about 1700 reserves in 1939, by 1945 the RCN had increased in size by a factor of 50, reaching over 100,000 personnel and over 400 warships. Notwithstanding this remarkable feat, German is quick to highlight a maxim that navies should know all too well in the modern age: "[n]umbers alone […] don’t spell effectiveness. The dramatic rise itself brought huge problems and revealed serious shortcomings".3 Years of naval policy vacuum meant that the RCN lacked other ingredients required to be an effective force: "…experienced staff, technical expertise, scientific liaison, training facilities and organization, shipbuilding and repair capacity, dockyard facilities and logistic support".4 Today we would call these the ‘Fundamental Inputs to Capability’ or ‘FIC’. While the war would very quickly transform the Canadian shipbuilding industry to support large volumes of warship construction, RCN convoy escorts consistently lagged their Royal Navy counterparts in training, personnel and equipment. Against the increasing numbers and capability of Germany’s wolf packs by late 1942, the RCN escorts were at a serious disadvantage. Whether it was asdic, Hedgehog, gyrocompasses, HF/DF or the Type 271 centimetric radar for spotting surfaced U-boats, "…[t]he RCN was always at the rear of the queue, and thus the Canadian ships were the obsolete ones in the battle. Their officers and men knew it, and they saw ships and friends die because of it."5

Following a series of convoy disasters between September 1941 and December 1942 in which the side effects of the RCN’s rapid expansion were all too evident, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to his Canadian counterpart,  William Lyon Mackenzie-King: "…the expansion of the RCN has created a training problem which must take time to resolve".6 The author points out the fact that "…80% of all ships torpedoed in transatlantic convoys in the last two months of 1942 were hit while being escorted by Canadian groups".7 As if to emphasise Churchill’s point, the disaster that befell convoy ONS154 sealed the RCN’s fate; only days after the letter from Churchill, 14 ships of the RCN-led convoy were sunk in exchange for the destruction of just one enemy submarine. The RCN was relieved of its duties for mid-ocean escort and given the relatively benign Gibraltar-UK run instead, under a constant umbrella of air cover, until they could improve from both a technical and tactical perspective. As a result, the RCN was not present in the mid-ocean convoys of April and May 1943 when the climactic decisive victories of the Allies over the wolf packs occurred.

The WWII Record - Beyond the Myths

German argues that the failures of preparedness by the Canadian government in both world wars were indicative of a lack of understanding of the unique characteristics of navies; the myth of the citizen-soldier had been pervasive in Canada since the days of colonial warfare, yet modern navies were unable to be built, equipped and trained overnight in the same manner as land forces. The RCN would return to the mid-ocean convoys from June of 1943 and enjoy much better success for the remainder of the war, but the failure of Canadian inter-war naval policy was a direct factor in the RCN missing out on the crucial climax of the Battle of the Atlantic.

These are not the kind of stories that make for rousing nationalist narratives about one’s wartime record. The education I received, both as a student and later as a professional full-time naval officer, greatly overstated the RCN’s wartime effectiveness, largely glossing over the problems of recruiting, equipment and training that plagued the RCN’s efforts in the North Atlantic from 1939-43. The reality, told in histories such as German’s, juxtapose quite starkly with the soothing rhetoric I was fed of a distinctly Canadian navy, free from the rigid class-based system of promotion and discipline of the RN, learning on the fly, innovating and maturing against the U-boat threat to turn the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic. Exactly why there has been a failure of the naval, historical and technological communities in Canada after 1945 to thoroughly examine the operational failings of the RCN between 1939-43 remains unclear, but it is a fact that the first two volumes of the RCN’s ‘Official History’ of the wartime service of WWII have only been published since 2004. The result was that nationalist mythmaking and good-news propaganda have largely persisted in the mainstream Canadian media and historical circles to this day.

Importantly, the organisations that have the most at stake by losing sight of these crucial lessons have largely failed to correct the record in any critical way in their own publications, websites, and JPME curriculum. This is a potentially grave mistake. Crucial historical lessons about the dangers of unpreparedness and rapid expansion that are revealed in histories like German’s are necessary for the intellectual integrity and resilience of the RCN, and other navies, into the future. The Cold War years to follow would demonstrate plainly how failure to critically examine and debate the RCN’s WWII record allowed misguided naval policy to slowly undo the organisational effectiveness that had been hard won, paid for in ships sunk and lives lost during the period from 1939-43.

The NATO Years

As an enduring legacy of the Battle of the Atlantic, the advent of NATO was the proverbial ‘manna from heaven’ for naval policymakers for the next 20 years. Collective security requirements under the treaty drove Canadian defence and naval policy down a clear path with clearly defined force structure and preparedness requirements. It is safe to say that due to strong leadership and clear-sighted policy that flowed from the alliance commitments, the RCN entered the Korean War in a greater state of readiness than any other conflict in its history. The subsequent record of success testifies to this fact. Much like the experience of the RAN in Korea, Canada’s Navy provided fire support against the North Korean forces, interdicting vital rail lines of communication, troop transport (and evacuation) when required, and mine countermeasure efforts; all achieved valuable results for the war effort.

By the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the RCN was able to deploy a carrier task group, 25 major surface units in total, and over 70 carrier-based aircraft, to provide world-leading Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) screening forces in the northwest Atlantic.8 This force provided necessary initial detection and tracking of Soviet submarines en route to Cuba to counter the USN forces blockading the island nation. Providing what we would call today ‘Theatre ASW effects’ across the north-west Atlantic was no small feat given the record of unpreparedness in both 1914 and 1939. The fine work of the RCN during this hour of crisis, contesting sea control in the approaches to Boston and New York against Soviet SSNs and SSBNs, allowed the USN to reposition forces further south closer to Cuba.9

The rapid deployment of the RCN during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the record of success it was to deliver, was nonetheless never able to be formally recognised because, officially, it never happened. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker refused to provide a clear position for Canada in this hour of crisis and so the Commander of the RCN’s Atlantic Fleet was forced to sail the entire force under the guise of conducting a training exercise. Historical accounts then and now generally make only passing mention of RCN participation. Commander Tony German, the author of The Sea is at our Gates, was the Commanding Officer of the newly commissioned HMCS Mackenzie deployed as part of the RCN task force. To him, the failure of Diefenbaker’s government to provide unambiguous support to the Americans as an extension of Canada’s NATO collective security requirements was an unacceptable betrayal.

"No newspaper or commentator, then or later, even speculated on the navy’s actions in the crisis. […] What the navy and maritime air did should have stirred the hearts of their countrymen in a time of national shame. […] But no one spoke. […] And the rest of the country didn’t know enough to ask."10

Having seemingly learned the lessons of 1914 and 1939, the sea-blindness of earlier generations of Canadians had resurfaced at a critical time of the Cold War when NATO maritime commitment and resolve should have been at its peak.

German argues the RCN enjoyed its zenith during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was not to last. By the mid-1960s, a generation after the cessation of hostilities against the U-boats in the North Atlantic, those who had lived through the war years and learned the hard lessons of preparedness, maintenance and training were retired and gone. They took with them the organisational memory of the RCN’s wartime experience. Without the written histories and influential institutions to argue the case for better naval policy and preparedness, Canada’s statesmen wilfully oversaw the decline of her naval strength. Only two years after the RCN performed so superbly when called upon to fulfil its role of defending the North Atlantic against Soviet submarines, a new prime minister and a new defence minister set about the most destructive public policy experiment in Canadian defence history. While GDP continued to grow at healthy rates, the new government nonetheless sought to slash spending and reduce perceived redundancy and waste across the Canadian forces. Without ever fully articulating his plan, Defence Minister Paul Hellyer set about integrating the three services into one headquarters headed by a single Chief of Defence Staff and followed up only a few short years later by completely unifying the three services. The RCN became Maritime Command of the new singular Canadian Armed Forces wearing green uniforms and forced to adopt the Army rank structure. The escort carrier HMCS Bonaventure and her vital air wings were done away with despite having only recently completed a lengthy and expensive upgrade. The fleet strength was drastically reduced despite the increasing threat from Soviet submarine forces. The next 25 years of the RCN’s history is a sad account of neglect, decay and demoralisation.

German ends his book on a positive note, however, highlighting that the tide of Canadian apathy towards its naval service appeared to end with a long-awaited re-capitalisation underway by the late 1980s which did, in fact, deliver some promise during the period spanning the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. By a stroke of good fortune, those were the years in which I served in the RCN; years in which operational effectiveness was high, morale was good and there was no shortage of work to do around the globe. Yet by the time I transitioned out of the RCN in 2007, it was evident to me that the high watermark of this period had begun to fade and the more normalised Canadian sea-blindness and political apathy towards maritime affairs had resumed its natural place. The Canadian experiences in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and later in Afghanistan convinced decision-makers that a force structure designed to support a small, mobile, land-based peacekeeping force would suffice in this new world order. What need would there be in this setting for a maritime force adequately equipped to sail into harm’s way against a peer adversary and execute sea and air control missions? The writing was on the proverbial wall that spoke of sad days to come.

The Post-Cold War RCN: The Next Decline

In 2007, as I was finishing my service in the Canadian Navy, replacement ships for the ageing Iroquois-class Destroyers and Preserver-class replenishment ships still seemed to be a far-distant dream. Despite being the subjects of capital acquisition projects that predated my enrolment in 1995, these ships had yet to materialise by the time I departed 12 years later. Sadly, to this day they have yet to appear. Today the RCN still has not replaced its area air defence capability from the Iroquois-class and the temporary gap-filler of leasing and converting a merchant ship - MV Asterix, crewed by a mixed RCN and civilian marine complement - to provide a logistic support and refuelling capability was so politically charged that it led to the sacking of the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, VADM Mark Norman.11 The Sea King helicopters, which for many decades provided such a potent ASW capability in the RCN’s specialised anti-submarine fleet, had been due for replacement in the mid-’90s until a newly-elected Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1993 came to power promising to have the replacement Merlin helicopter project cancelled; a promise he followed through on in short order. Several more years of unfulfilled projects and declining capability were to pass before the last of the Sea Kings was finally retired from service in 2018, after an incredible 55 years of airborne ASW service,12 and replaced by a prototype aircraft, the Sikorsky CH148 Cyclone, which has had its fair share of teething issues.

Another example of failed Canadian policy due to the lack of coherent naval strategy in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union involved the replacement of the Canadian Navy’s three Oberon-class submarines. Delay, apathy and indecision led to a multi-year gap in the RCN’s submarine capability following the decommissioning of Canada’s last Oberon in 2000.  Originally offered to the Canadian government in 1993, it took the Chretien government another five years to commit to the lease of four ex-RN Upholder-class boats. The delayed decision to acquire these heavily discounted submarines meant the boats sat empty for five years before being reactivated with significant difficulty. It took the first boat, HMCS Victoria (ex-HMS Unseen), another two years to get back to Canada, after which she would only spend 115 days at sea between 2000 and 2010 due to upgrades and refits required.13

A major fire in another Victoria-class submarine, HMCS Chicoutimi, in 2004 on her return voyage to Canada, led to the death of Lieutenant Chris Saunders and serious injury to two other crew members.14 Technical difficulties notwithstanding, the long delay in replacing the Oberons created a crippling ‘brain drain’ of qualified submariners who were simply tired of the political games, which exacerbated the problems surrounding the reactivation of the Upholders. Reducing numbers of experienced personnel, as well as the normal morale and respite issues that are a corollary of personnel shortfalls, accompanied the long delays. All of these issues could have been avoided if clear strategy and policy had been in place when the Upholders were first offered up in 1993. In short, the lessons of 1914 and 1939 had been forgotten once again by a subsequent generation of Canadian policymakers and politicians who went all-in on the new ‘peace dividend’ of the post-Cold War era. As a result of its JPME and official history failures, the Canadian Navy had no strong, influential voice to remind the public and their government of the perils of such bungling and under preparedness.

Personal and Collective Accountability – The JPME Failure

In retrospect, I find this hardly surprising. When I reflect on the deficient manner of how the history of the Canadian Navy was instructed to my generation of warfare officers in the early 2000s, I can’t help but think that the RCN is culpable for the waxing and waning of its fortunes. A professional enterprise like the RCN needs to build its ‘brand’ in the consciousness of the public whom it serves. One vital ingredient in that task is for the RCN itself to understand and effectively communicate its history and the strategic role it plays in the security of the state. Officers and sailors must be encouraged to embrace an educated understanding of its role and history such that the organisation can in turn be prepared to educate others, both in the public and private domains. To achieve this requires history to be studied in the manner extolled by the pre-eminent military historian, Sir Michael Howard; in width, in depth, and in context.15 Nationalist myth-making, and superficial overviews of history that ignore painful failures of the past are the antithesis of what Sir Michael would consider appropriate analysis.

Nor am I surprised by the lack of think-tanks or institutions in Canada focused on educating the population on naval matters, exploring new ideas, and holding governments to account. Throughout the numerous nadirs in the RCN’s history, there has been a distinct lack of such commentary highlighting the lack of operational effectiveness and preparedness. Without such institutions initiating policy debates and reminding the government of the cost of unpreparedness, the nationalist mythological narratives of past ‘success’ seemed to indicate that the manner in which the Canadian government dealt with naval policy in the prelude to 1914 and 1939 was adequate. There remains an enduring need for the institutions and think-tanks of interested citizens, free from the restraints of political commentary with which serving members must comply, to ensure adequate debate of current events and current policy are correctly situated on a foundation of critical historical analysis.

Only when the history of an organisation’s successes and failures are treated to this kind of academic rigour can a member of the profession of arms fully appreciate the lessons presented. If we in the services fail to take this responsibility seriously, how can we expect the policymakers of the day to grasp the magnitude of poor policy and ambiguous strategy? My experience in the early 2000s resonates with the assertions Commander German makes in his book that the failure of the RCN to have a critical, objective understanding of its own history has meant that senior leaders have too often failed to hold influence in Ottawa, and allowed the sea-blindness of the average Canadian to perpetuate. My experience since migrating to Australia in 2009 has been very different. The institutions we have in Australia, such as the Australian Naval Institute and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, must never be taken for granted; they speak with authority and purpose on naval matters. The role of academia and JPME must be seen as providing the rigorous academic foundation for future analysts, both in uniform and in the public service, but it is often these groups who then go on to be the voices of our think-tanks. A healthy dose of critical historical analysis and education in naval policy within our JPME systems will help ensure that there are adequate numbers of learned naval thinkers to replenish the ranks of the institutions that act as a voice of the services to government - and the public - and to ensure that this voice remains relevant and influential for the future wellbeing of our navy and our nation.

Personal Accountability

It was this rigour and richness of analysis that I now recognise I was yearning for both in my days at RMC Kingston, and later through my PME experience. Upon further reflection, however, I realise that I must accept accountability for my ignorance. Sitting and waiting for the RCN to deliver to me a critical education about naval policy matters and the RCN’s historical record was lazy on my part. German’s book had been written over a decade earlier and was available to me if I had pursued it. Similar historical accounts had emerged in the 1980s by authors such as Marc Milner and James Boutilier that I have subsequently delved into. But the lack of exposure or even mention of these fine works by the RCN training institutions to its future leaders must also be recognised as a failure of the JPME system.

The difficult lesson I have learned through this journey is that our professional military education must be primarily self-driven. It is up to us in the profession of arms to ask uncomfortable questions. We must continually search for the elements of truth in the historical experience of our services and the experiences of others. Equally, there must be a realisation that the true responsibility of the JPME system is not to provide templated answers, but to whet the appetite of an engaged group seeking enlightenment, and encourage intellectual debate that is unafraid and unashamed to examine our failures. We all must take ownership of our academic pursuits, encourage others around us to do likewise, and support the external institutions that provide the  forums for informed debate. The reward will be well-informed and well-educated senior decision-makers and policy developers in the future, and surely that is an investment worth making.


1 Commander Tony German, RCN (Ret'd), The Sea Is at Our Gates: The History of the Canadian Navy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1990). p. 23-26

2 Ibid. p. 60

3 Ibid. p. 71

4 Ibid. p. 71

5 Ibid. p. 124

6 Ibid. p. 129

7 Ibid. p. 131

8 Ibid. p. 272

9 Between 23 Oct-15 Nov 1962 the RCN task group recorded 136 contacts detected by various underwater RCN organic sensors. Subsequent investigation confirmed 29 valid submarine prosecutions. Ibid. p. 271-2

10 Ibid. p. 273

11 "What You Need to Know About the Vice-Admiral Mark Norman Case

12 "Canadian Sea King Replacement," Wikipedia,

13 "Hmcs Victoria (Ssk 876)," Wikipedia,

14 "Hmcs Chicoutimi (Ssk879)," Wikipedia,

15 Michael Howard, "The Use and Abuse of Military History," Royal United Services Institution. Journal 107, no. 625 (1962). p. 10