Canadian Naval Reserve Early History

Canada's Naval Reserve can proudly claim many significant  achievements over the course of its seventy-five-year history in peace and war.  One of them, and among the first,  is the continued existence of the navy.  The colourful story revolves around people, egos, power plays,  and politics.  The single most important person, and very properly called a "hero," was Walter Hose.

No city can claim Hose as a native son for the simple reason that he was born at sea on board a passenger liner.  In 1890, at the age of 14, he joined the Royal Navy (RN).  In 1902 Lieutenant Hose was appointed to HMS Charybdis, a cruiser on the North America and West Indies Station.  He was responsible for the training of Newfoundland fishermen as sailors in the Royal  Old pictures Naval Reserve.  This was his first experience with North America and naval reserves.  In 1911 Commander Hose was on loan to the Canadian Naval Service, barely one year old, to be the captain of HMCS Rainbow, based at Esquimalt.  In February 1912 he transferred from the RN to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).  By then, the navy had become, in his own words, "a political football."  The Liberal government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, responsible for the Naval Service Act of 1910, had been defeated in the 1911 election, partly because of its naval policy.  However, the new Conservative government under Robert Borden had been unable to get approval for its new naval policy in the Liberal-dominated Senate.  The recent grounding of HMCS Niobe on the East Coast had become a "bad PR" event, and public support for the Navy was falling.  It was while all this was happening that Hose decided to show his confidence in the RCN and transfer to it from the RN.  Shortly after Hose joined the RCN, Rear Admiral Kingsmill, the Director of the Naval Service, came to the west coast on a visit.  Let Hose describe what happened next: "In my conversation during a walk with the D.N.S.  I told him I thought, from all I had read, that it would be difficult to get popular support for a Navy across this continental country, and I suggested taking a leaf out of the militia handbook and creating a citizen Navy – a naval volunteer reserve with units across the country.  The reply I got from him was "My dear Hose, you don't understand – it can't be done." Notwithstanding that comment, it was done.

In 1913 some local Victoria citizens expressed an interest in forming a naval reserve.  Hose's support was guaranteed.  The cabinet minister of the day responsible for the navy promised "sympathetic consideration." However, as time passed everyone learned first hand the difference between that promise and "sympathetic action." Indeed the existence of a volunteer reserve organization began to cause embarrassment in Ottawa, and Kingsmill wrote to Hose complaining about his unauthorized action, and giving firm direction to initiate nothing more without positive direction from Headquarters in Ottawa.  Hose ignored the letter and carried on.  The government was forced to take approving action after the Governor General visited the west coast.  He  reviewed the naval volunteers, and expressed his support.  Their existence was authorized by an Order-in-Council on 14 May 1914.  They became the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR).

Soldier writting letters At the outbreak of the First World War the RCN and its months-old reserve were in no position to offer any significant help to Britain.  Canada was confidently assured that the RN  would not need any help but that Canadians might want to volunteer for the Army.  So Canada's major war contribution was the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Their achievements in Europe were very important, but cannot be described here.  When Germany began to conduct submarine warfare against merchant ships, the inability of the RN to meet the challenge, or to provide effective defence off Canadian shores quickly became apparent, and the RNCVR underwent a rapid expansion.  By the end of the war 6,000 men had served in the RNCVR manning 136 small patrol vessels used for anti-submarine work, minesweeping, and convoy escort duties.  The patrol service was commanded by Hose, by then promoted to Captain.  However, it was not to last.  Following the general demobilization at the end of the war, the RNCVR was disbanded on 15 June 1920.

The need for national economy and war weariness after "the war to end all wars," coupled with no apparent enemy or threat led to even more drastic defence reductions.  An election in November 1921 returned the Liberals, now led by Mackenzie King,  to power.  But it was a minority government dependent for support on a western protest party called the Progressives.  Cutting defence spending was a popular platform, and the government proposed to reduce the Navy's budget from $2.5 million to $1.5 million.  Walter Hose, since January 1921 Director of the Naval Service, had to respond.  He realized first that "it would be impossible to maintain the navy we possessed" of a cruiser, two destroyers, auxiliary craft, and a naval college.  Second, "the lack of interest shown in the Navy, both in government circles and by the country at large, for the past twelve years, made it plain that it would be rash to expect any increase in appropriations for the Navy until there was a far greater sea-consciousness, a far greater realization throughout the Dominion of the necessity for a Navy in the scheme of national defence." Therefore Hose proposed that the Navy be reduced to a single destroyer on each coast, and that the dockyards be reduced to the barest minimum necessary for maintenance and a small training base.  To create national naval awareness, he suggested that the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, the RCNVR, known popularly as the "Wavy Navy", be established in major cities across the country.  On 1 March 1922, the day after Hose submitted his memorandum, it was initialled by the minister.  On 31 January 1923 the Order-in-Council establishing the RCNVR was signed, and the first commission was given on 14 March to Lieutenant Frank Meade to establish a half-company in Montreal.  By the end of that year twelve units had been established, and by the time Canada declared war on 10 September 1939 the number had increased to sixteen active units.

Behind the numbers of expanding units is a story of tremendous commitment and dedication.  The word "volunteer" in the title RCNVR will always be inadequately stressed.  To be eligible for a paid two week summer training period at a coast, a member of the RCNVR had to be rated "efficient."  That was achieved by attending a minimum of thirty drill nights over the course of a winter.  Those nights were unpaid.  Officers were expected to provide their own uniforms, and in some divisions they also contributed their summer pay to unit funds.  What could be done on any given drill night was severely limited by the available facilities and training aids.  During the depression there was virtually no money from Ottawa for such things.  In 1937, as defence spending was beginning to increase,  it was announced that "the issue of Range and Deflection transmitters and receivers [for gunnery training] is in abeyance owing to the high cost of these instruments."  Even the most basic materials were strictly rationed.  For example, in 1933 when the Toronto division asked for some equipment for navigation instruction, Naval Service Headquarters refused.  After all, "It is understood," they wrote, "that you have one pair of dividers and parallel rulers available locally."  The monthly news letter,  distributed to all units, shared information on self-help projects and provided blueprints that units could make their own equipment to a standardized pattern.  Reading between the lines, it is evident that for many people in an age before television, the widespread ownership of cars, and hard economic times, the attraction of the RCNVR was largely social.  Military Parade Indeed,the Commanding Officer of the Winnipeg division candidly reported that the RCNVR Girls' Social Club "has come to be of valuable assistance to the Division."  Yet through all this, the Navy, with its volunteer reserve, was able to survive.  In the 1920s the Army Chief of Staff complained to the minister that Hose appeared to be having difficulty following the orders issued by the Army.  Commodore Hose hotly replied that he had no difficulty at all in not following army orders.  The Navy was a separate service.  A second army attempt to kill the Navy also backfired.  In 1934 General McNaughton thought he had convinced the Treasury Board that the Navy estimates should be reduced by $2 million, and that some of the money should go towards improving the army.  Hose was invited to defend his service before the Board.  When he emerged, the Navy was cut by only $200,000.  The navy had survived.  Hose had convincingly demonstrated that the RCN was an essential instrument of government policy.  Months after this victory Hose retired.  He remained a close friend of the Naval Reserve until his death in 1965.  The torch he passed on would be carried by many hands, and particularly by the RCNVR.

In the next battle the enemy was neither political nor financial, but German U-boats and the weather.  Many memoirs and sound histories of the Battle of the Atlantic are now available, so the record of the RCN and its reserves in the war at sea will not be recounted here.  Rather, a few points will be emphasized.  First, when one speaks of "Canada's Navy" or the RCN of the Second World War, it must be remembered that in reality it was the RCNVR.  The "Naval Service" had three branches: the regular force RCN; the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve formed exclusively by men whose civilian life and training had been in merchant marine, and the citizen volunteers of the RCNVR.  The total prewar strength of all three combined had been less than 5,000.  By April 1941 more than half of our mobilized naval strength was RCNVR.  By the end of the war more than 100,000 had worn Canada's naval uniform.  The prewar RCN cadre alone was incapable of managing the many demands of that expansion, without parallel in any other naval service.  By the end of 1942, fully 48% of the North Atlantic convoy escorts were provided by HMC Ships.  At the end of the war, that had risen to 98%.  When newly commissioned corvettes, the backbone of the escorts, first went to sea as much as three quarters of the ship's company had never before been to sea.  And of them, only the RCNVR officers had as much as twelve weeks training.  People had to learn their jobs at sea not only with the ever present threat of enemy attack, but in face of some of the worst winter weather yet recorded.  And they and the Navy triumphed.  In 1941 the first RCNVR officer was appointed in command of a ship.  Many more followed.  The RCN has been credited with the destruction, or shared destruction of 33 enemy submarines.  The only serving member of Canada's Navy to win a Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, was Hampton Gray, an RCNVR officer.  The total effort is a record of achievement worthy of pride.

With peace once again came change.  The first was the amalgamation of the two reserves.  On 1 January 1946 the RCNR and RCNVR became the Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve).  By the end of 1947 the Soviet Union was identified as a threat, and the Cold War began.  The preservation of peace came to depend on deterrence, and that in turn rested on atomic or nuclear weapons.  In the 1950s the strategic doctrine of Massive Retaliation was first adopted and then criticized.  However,  a convincing non nuclear strategy was never developed.  People began to talk of a "come as you are" war; a war that would have to be fought without time to mobilize reserves.  The lack of a role, the receding memory of the last war, and budget cuts all had their effect on the RCN(R).  Numbers dwindled and equipment grew old without replacement.  With unification in 1968 the RCN(R) disappeared along with the distinct services, and became a part of the Canadian Forces.  Yet the naval reserve divisions and their personnel persisted.  Descending from a varied lineage, the naval reserve has survived to today as the Naval Reserve Formation of Maritime Command.  And it has another unique challenge – the manning of the MCDVs.  No other reserve organization has a comparable full time peacetime operational commitment.  In keeping with our past, a future historian will record this too as another "victory."

Note: The above article was originally placed on the WWW at
but it is no longer available there.  In the interest of making this significant item of Canadian history again available to interested citizens, it is reproduced above.  The text and illustrations that appear here are the same as in the original article.