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For the history of Canada's naval forces after 1968, see Canadian Forces Maritime Command

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was the navy of Canadamarker from 1911 until 1968 when the three Canadian services were unified to form the Canadian Forces.

The modern Canadian navy is officially known as Canadian Forces Maritime Command (MARCOM), however, unofficially MARCOM is represented as the "Canadian Navy" and maintains many traditions of its predecessor. It is not correct to use the name "Royal Canadian Navy" or its abbreviation "RCN" in references to Canada's naval forces after February 1, 1968.

As Command-in-Chief of the Canadian military is vested in the Canadian Monarch, naval ships use the prefix HMCS "Her/His Majesty's Canadian Ship," a tradition which began under the Royal Canadian Navy and is continued to this day under MARCOM.


Formation years

During the early years of the 20th century, there was growing discussion within the British Empire as to the role the Dominions would play in defence and foreign affairs. A key part of this discussion focused on naval issues. In Canada, it came down to a choice between two options. Either the young country could provide funds, support and manpower to the Royal Navy, or it could form its own navy. Canada chose the latter.

On March 29, 1909, George Foster introduced a resolution in the House of Commons calling for the establishment of a Canadian Naval Service. The resolution was not successful; however, on January 12, 1910, the government of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier took Foster's resolution and introduced it as the Naval Service Bill. After third reading, the bill received royal assent on May 4, 1910, and became the Naval Service Act, administered by the Minister of Marine and Fisheries at the time. The official title of the navy was the Naval Service of Canada (also Canadian Naval Forces), and the first Director of the Naval Service of Canada was Rear-Admiral Charles Kingsmill (Royal Navy, retired), who was previously in charge of the Marine Service of the Department of Marine and Fisheries.

Department of Naval Services (Canada) was the department responsible for the naval services in Canada during the transition from the Royal Navy to the Royal Canadian Navy.

The act called for:
  • a permanent force
  • a reserve (to be called up in emergency)
  • a volunteer reserve (to be called up in emergency)
  • the establishment of a naval college

The British cruiser Rainbow was the first ship commissioned into Canada's navy on August 4, 1910, at Portsmouth, Englandmarker. She arrived at Esquimalt, British Columbiamarker, on November 7, 1910, and carried out fishery patrols and training duties on Canada's west coast.

Another Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Niobe, became the second ship commissioned into the Canadian navy on September 6, 1910, at Devonportmarker in Englandmarker and arrived at Halifaxmarker Nova Scotiamarker, on October 21, 1910—Trafalgar Day.

A request to change The Naval Service of Canada to Royal Canadian Navy on January 30, 1911, brought a reply from King George V on August 29 of that year. "His Majesty having been graciously pleased to authorize that the Canadian Naval Forces shall be designated the "Royal Canadian Navy," this title is to be officially adopted, the abbreviation thereof being 'RCN' ".

Even after the term "Royal Canadian Navy" came into existence there was some doubt as to where it should be applied. The naval college established at Halifax in 1911 was call the "Royal Naval College of Canada" and continued to use that name until it closed in 1922. The volunteer reserve came into being in 1913-14 as the "Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve."

Immediately before the First World War, the premier of British Columbiamarker, in a fit of public spirit, purchased two submarines (CC1 and CC2) from a shipyard in Washingtonmarker. The submarines had been built for the Chilean Navy but the purchase had fallen through. On August 7, 1914, the Government of Canada purchased the boats from the Government of British Columbia, and they were consequently commissioned into the RCN.

First World War

In May 1914 the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) was established and undertook a strength of 1200 men from three distinct geographic areas: (1) Atlantic, (2) Pacific, and (3) Lake (representing inland areas).

At the outbreak of the First World War on 5 August 1914, two Coastguard vessels the CGS Canada (renamed HMCS Canada) and the CGS Margaret were immediately pressed into Naval Service, joining HMCS Niobe, HMCS Rainbow and the two submarines HMCS CC-1 and HMCS CC-2, to form a six-vessel naval force. At this point Londonmarker and Ottawamarker were planning to expand the RCN significantly, but it was decided that Canadian men would be permitted to enlist in either the Royal Navy or its Canadian counterpart, with many choosing the former.

During the fall of 1914, HMCS Rainbow patrolled the west coast of North America, as far south as Panamamarker, although these patrols became less important following the elimination of the German naval threat in the Pacific with the December 1914 defeat of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's German East Asiatic Squadron off the Falkland Islandsmarker. Much of Rainbow's crew were posted to the east coast for the remainder of the war and by 1917 Rainbow was withdrawn from service.

It was in Esquimalt and Victoria that the only active use of the RNCVR took place, with the reserve being tasked to help man the HMCS Rainbow, C1, and C2.

The early part of the war also saw HMCS Niobe actively patrolling off the coast of New York Citymarker but returned to Halifax permanently in July 1915 when she was declared no longer fit for service and was converted to a depot ship. She was heavily damaged in the December 1917 Halifax Explosionmarker.

HMCS C1 and HMCS C2 spent the first three years of the war patrolling the Pacific; however, the lack of German threat saw them reposted to Halifax in 1917. With their tender, HMCS Shearwater, they became the first warships to transit the Panama Canalmarker flying the White Ensign (the RCN's service flag). Arriving in Halifax on October 17, 1917, they were declared unfit for service and never patrolled again, being scrapped in 1920.

On September 5, 1918, the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS) was formed with a main function to carry out anti-submarine operations using flying boat patrol aircraft. The U.S. Navy's Naval Air Station Halifaxmarker, located on the eastern shores of the harbour at Eastern Passage, Nova Scotiamarker, was acquired but following the November 11, 1918 Armistice, the RCNAS was discontinued.

Canada's wartime naval shipbuilding policies were not considered a success, having only delivered a cruiser and two destroyers.

Inter-war period

Following a draw-down in the RCN after the war, the RCN undertook to find a mission and found it in taking over many of the civilian responsibilities of the Marine Service of the Department of Transport, and during the 1920s the RCN was threatening to become a civilian service.

On January 31, 1923, the RNCVR was replaced by the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) The initial authorized strength of the RCNVR was 1,000 all ranks. Twelve Canadian cities (Calgary, Charlottetown, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Ottawa, Prince Rupert, Quebec City, Regina, Saint John, Saskatoon and Vancouver) were earmarked for divisions of “Half-Company” strength, i.e. 50 men, all ranks. Three larger cities (Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg) were ordered to man to a “Company” strength, which was 100, all ranks. The first commission was given, on 14 March 1923, to Lieutenant Frank Meade, who established a Company sized detachment in Montreal. By the end of 1923, twelve units had been formed.

On May 22, 1931, the RCN underwent a major facelift when the first custom-built RCN ships, destroyers HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Skeena, were commissioned at Portsmouth, Englandmarker.

In January 1932, the HMCS Skeena along with the HMCS Vancouver provided protection to British assets and civilians in El Salvador at the request of the British Consul in San Salvador. A landing party was sent ashore and the sailors saw no combat because the civil unrest in El Salvador was soon resolved hence and the Canadian presence was no longer necessary.

Still, by the 1930s, the RCN, along with its sister services, were starved of funding and equipment. However, this decade saw the RCN begin its rebuilding, as Ottawa joined Londonmarker, Parismarker, and Washingtonmarker in a growing apprehension of the ramifications of Nazi Germany's rearmament and the adventurism of Italymarker and Japanmarker. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, the RCN still had only six destroyers and a handful of smaller ships.

Second World War

The RCN expanded greatly during the Second World War and following the end of the war was the third-largest navy in the world, behind the United Statesmarker and the United Kingdommarker. Although it showed its inexperience at times during the early part of the war, a navy made up of men from all across the country, including many who had never before seen a large body of water, proved capable of exceeding the expectations of its allies. By the end of the Battle of the Atlantic , the RCN was the primary navy in the northwest sector of the Atlantic Oceanmarker and was responsible for the safe escort of innumerable convoys and the destruction of many U-boats — an anti-submarine capability that the RCN would build upon during the post-war. Similarly, a massive building program (for a nation of only 11 million) saw corvettes, frigates, and other escort vessels built in shipyards on both coasts and on the Great Lakesmarker. Added to this were aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and various auxiliary ships. In addition, the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was reborn with the use of anti-submarine patrols on both coasts conducted with PBY Catalina flying boats.

As the end of the war against Germany approached, attention focused on Japan. At the end of 1944, some RCN ships were deployed with the British Pacific Fleet, joining the many Canadian personnel already serving with the Royal Navy in the Pacific War. Ottawa was also laying plans to expand the RCN's capabilities beyond its anti-submarine orientation. The war in the Pacific was expected to culminate with a massive invasion of Japan itself, and this would need a different navy than that required in the Atlantic.

Britain was nearly bankrupt after five and a half years of war and was looking to shrink its military somewhat, especially since the United States was now the dominant power in the Pacific. With this in mind, the RCN and the Royal Australian Navy were to receive many ships considered surplus to the RN's needs, with the end goal being a powerful Commonwealth fleet of Australian, British, Canadian, and New Zealandmarker ships alongside the United States Navy. As in World War I, the war ended before these plans came to fruition. With the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's will to fight evaporated.

With the end of the war, the RCN stopped expanding. A planned transfer of two light aircraft carriers from the Royal Navy, HMCS Warrior and HMCS Magnificent was slowed, and when Warrior was found to be unsuitable for a North Atlanticmarker winter, she was sent to the west coast and the next year was replaced by Magnificent, with Warrior being given back to the RN. Canada still had two light cruisers, HMCS Ontario and HMCS Uganda (later HMCS Quebec), a number of Tribal-class and other destroyers, and a mass of frigates, corvettes, and other ships, the majority of which were mothballed by 1947.

1949 'mutinies'

In the late winter of 1949, the RCN was shaken by three almost simultaneous cases of mass insubordination variously described as "Incidents" or "Mutinies":

  • On February 26, when the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan was on a fuelling stop at Manzanillo, Colimamarker, Mexicomarker, ninety Leading Seamen and below — constituting more than half the ship's company — locked themselves in their messdecks, and refused to come out until getting the captain to hear their grievances.
  • On March 15, in another destroyer — HMCS Crescent, at Nanjingmarker, Chinamarker — eighty-three junior ratings held a similar protest.
  • On March 20, thirty-two aircraft handlers on the carrier HMCS Magnificent, then on fleet manoeuvres in the Caribbeanmarker, briefly refused an order to turn to morning cleaning stations.

As noted by Dr Richard Gimblett, researcher and himself a retired naval officer the respective captains in all three cases acted with great sensitivity, entering the messes for an informal discussion of the sailors' grievances and carefully avoided using the term "mutiny," which could have had severe legal consequences for the sailors involved. Specifically, the captain of the Athabaskan, while talking with the disgruntled crew members, is known to have placed his cap over a written list of demands, which could have been used as legal evidence of a mutiny, and pretended not to notice it.

Still, the Canadian government of the time — the early years of the Cold War — felt apprehensive of "The Red Menace," especially since the naval sailors' discontent coincided with a Communist-inspired strike in the Canadian merchant marine (also, one of the incidents occurred in a country — China — where the local Communists were in the fast process of winning a civil war and gaining power).

Defence Minister Brooke Claxton appointed Rear-Admiral Rollo Mainguy, Flag Officer Atlantic Coast, to head a commission of inquiry. The Mainguy Report — described by Dr Gimblett as "a watershed in the Navy's history, whose findings, recommendations and conclusions remain a potent legacy" — concluded that no evidence was found of Communist influence or of collusion between the three crews.

The "General Causes Contributing to [the] Breakdown of Discipline" noted by the commission included:

  • Collapse of the Divisional System of personnel management;
  • Failure to provide Welfare Committees for the airing of petty grievances, which led to sailors informally adopting a kind of equivalent to a sit down strike;
  • Frequent changes in ships' manning and routines with inadequate explanation;
  • A deterioration in the traditional relationship between officers and petty officers;
  • The absence of a distinguishing Canadian identity in the Navy.

The last issue — an assertion of "an uncaring officer corps harbouring aristocratic British attitudes inappropriate to Canadian democratic sensitivities" — went beyond the question of sailors' morale and touched on the basic identity of the Canadian Navy and indeed, on the national identity of Canada as a whole.

It was to have ramifications in the process undertaken in later decades, painful to many of the officers concerned, of deliberately cutting off many of the British traditions in such areas as ensigns and uniforms.

Cold War

The Cold War and the formation of NATOmarker saw the RCN halt its contraction and begin expanding again. Several World War II vintage ships saw action in the Korean War, including "exciting but dangerous" shore bombardment and North Korean train destruction missions. The growing Sovietmarker submarine threat in the 1950s saw a new class of anti-submarine destroyer escorts (DDEs), the St. Laurent class, designed. The RCN also pioneered several innovative ship designs, one of the more notable being the "rounded" upper part of the hull which helps drain seawater from the upper decks during the extremely rough conditions of the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans — it has also been said that this rounded upper hull would assist in cleaning radiation from a ship in the event of coming in contact with fallout from a nuclear explosion.

Following the seven St. Laurent DDEs, the Restigouche and Mackenzie DDE classes were built with seven and four vessels respectively. In the early 1960s the St. Laurent DDEs were upgraded to destroyer-helicopter (DDH) vessels to accommodate the new CH-124 Sea King anti-submarine helicopters. The RCN was the first navy in the world to pioneer the use of ship-borne helicopters on small surface ships, such as destroyers and frigates, in the rough waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific. Recovery of helicopters to a wildly pitching flight deck was aided with the RCN invention of the "Bear Trap" — a cable-assisted winching system which hauled a helicopter, while operating at full power, to the deck in all manner of conditions. RCN also was an early pioneer in various forms of ship-borne sonar, both passive and active. These innovations resulted in their NATO allies giving RCN an expanded anti-submarine role throughout the North Atlantic.

Following the construction of these vessels throughout the 1950s, RCN was able to retire all remaining World War II-era vessels. HMCS Magnificent stopped being used as an active carrier by the mid-1950s and was used as a vehicle transport during Canada's peacekeeping response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, before being paid off and replaced by HMCS Bonaventure, a more modern aircraft carrier which was subsequently updated with an angled flight deck. The RCNAS used stations at HMCS Shearwatermarker and HMCS Patricia Bay to operate carrier-based fighter aircraft (including the British propeller-driven Seafire (a naval derivative of the famous Spitfire) and Sea Fury and the American F2H Banshee, the RCN's only jet fighter) as well as coastal patrol aircraft.

The RCN also conducted experiments with the fastest warship ever built, the maximum speed HMCS Bras d'Or.


On February 1, 1968, the Royal Canadian Navy was merged with the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army to form the unified Canadian Forces. The naval forces were restructured as Canadian Forces Maritime Command (MARCOM).

For many of the serving naval personnel, the transition - giving up the old ensigns, and even more the adoption of army-type ranks and green uniforms instead of the distinctive naval ones - was a very painful process. Researcher Alan Filewood recalls:

I grew up in a navy family; my father was a regular force officer who had risen from the lower deck, and he was himself the son of a petty officer who had come to Canada as one of the British Royal Navy crews that brought Canada's first warships to this country in 1911 and elected to stay to build the RCN.
Growing up in a naval family, I was imbued with the traditions of a service that prided itself on its British roots.

I recall vividly the day the armed forces paraded in Ottawa to witness the lowering of the old service ensigns and the raising of the new.
My mother was a naval vet, a former WREN, and at this transformative moment of national symbolism, she wept; with the lowering of the White Ensign something disappeared from her history.
Sometime later my father came home demoralized in his new army-style uniform with an army rank.
Like many other naval officers, he retired soon thereafter.

The controversy included the dismissal of Rear-Admiral William Landymore, senior officer in the Atlantic, who tried to secure commitments that naval traditions would be maintained, but was later fired by Defence Minister Paul Hellyer for his opposition to the changes.

Ensigns and jacks

The White Ensign, worn as an ensign by the Royal Canadian Navy 1921–65.
The Blue Ensign, worn as a jack by the Royal Canadian Navy 1921–57.
Final version of the Blue Ensign, worn as a jack by the Royal Canadian Navy 1957–65.
On March 3, 1911, the RCN was authorized the use of the White Ensign, which remained the main identifying flag of the navy for the next 54 years. At the same time, the Canadian Blue Ensign was designated the jack of the RCN. However, because naval tradition dictates that the jack is worn at the ship's bow only when moored or on "dress ship" occasions, HMC ships normally had no distinctly Canadian flags when under way, the White Ensign being identical to the Royal Navy's ensign. Because of this, a tradition developed of painting a green maple leaf on ships' funnels to mark the ship as Canadian.

When British and Canadian foreign policies began to diverge in the 1950s (highlighted by the two countries' different roles in the Suez Crisis), having an ensign identical to the Royal Navy's became less satisfactory. In 1961, a policy of wearing the Canadian Red Ensign from the masthead (in addition to the Canadian Blue Ensign at the jack staff when appropriate, and the White Ensign at the ensign staff) was established. On February 15, 1965, the White, Blue, and Red ensigns were all replaced by the new National Flag of Canada, the Maple Leaf flag.

Directors of the Naval Service

  1. Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill 1910–1920
  2. Commodore Walter Hose 1921-1928

Chiefs of the Naval Staff

  1. Rear-Admiral Walter Hose 1928–1934
  2. Vice-Admiral Percy W. Nelles 1934–1944
  3. Vice-Admiral George C. Jones 1944–1946
  4. Vice-Admiral Howard E. Reid 1946–1947
  5. Vice-Admiral Harold Grant 1947–1951
  6. Vice-Admiral Rollo Mainguy 1951–1956
  7. Vice-Admiral Harry DeWolf 1956–1960
  8. Vice-Admiral Herbert S. Rayner 1960–1964

Pre-unification senior officers of the RCN

Between the time the RCN was integrated with the RCAF and the Canadian Army in 1966, and unification in 1968, there was no Chief of the Naval Staff, and responsibility for the RCN often overlapped between Ottawa and Halifax.

Flag Officer, Atlantic Coast
  1. Rear Admiral J.V. Brock, 1964
  2. Rear Admiral William Landymore, 1964-1966

Flag Officer, Pacific Coast
  1. Rear Admiral M.G. Stirling, 1964-1966
  2. Rear Admiral J.A. Charles, 1966-1969

Principal Naval Adviser, CFHQ
  1. Vice Admiral K.L Dyer, 1964-1966
  2. Vice Admiral R.L. Hennessy, 1966-1968

Commander, Maritime Command
  1. Rear Admiral William Landymore, 1964-1966
  2. Rear Admiral J.C. O'Brien, 1966-1968

Film and books

See also

External links


  1. Constitution Act, 1867
  2. World War - Willmott, H.P. et al.; Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, 2004, Page 168
  3. Dr Richard Gimblett, Research Fellow with Dalhousie University's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, "Dissension in the Ranks, 'Mutinies' in the Royal Canadian Navy" [1]
  4. Alan Filewood, "Theatre, Navy and The Narrative of 'True Canadianism'", in "Theatre Research in Canada", Vol. 13 No. 1&2 (Spring/Fall 1992) [2].
  5. Whitby, et al., eds. "The Admirals", p. 357. Dundurn Press, 2006.

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