Canada’s navy turned 100 years old in 2010, in a birthday celebration that included a visit by Queen Elizabeth II herself, special commemorative coins, and the unveiling of a new naval construction program by the federal government. Canada’s navy is tasked with the patrol and defense of 3 oceans, as well as operational commitments to NATO, the UN, NORAD and North-American Joint Defense. Canada’s navy participates in anti-pirate sweeps off the coast of Somalia, and helps interdict drug traffickers from South America and Asia.
Canada’s naval force is a fairly young navy among the western democracies, only really coming of age during the Second World War. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is one of the three components of the unified Canadian Armed Forces. There are currently 33 warships in operation, including 4 submarines, and 51 aircraft including helicopters and AWACS. 13,600 members of the RCN are supported by 5,300 contracted civilians.
The RCN was officially born in 1910 as a sovereign Dominion naval force that could be placed under the control of the British Admiralty in times of war. The Royal Navy donated two aging steam-powered cruisers to the new RCN, the HMCS Niobe and the HMCS Rainbow. Construction on three destroyers and a frigate began in Halifax in 1911.
The RCN’s first actions took part in the opening months of the First World War, when the small fleet was used to patrol North America’s coasts to protect from German warships. During the war several more vessels were added to the navy’s compliment, and RCN destroyers were used extensively to protect convoys heading across the Atlantic to Europe.
Only one RCN destroyer was sunk during the war, and at the end of hostilities most of the RCN fleet was disbanded and sold for scrap metal. During the hard-pressed thirties, budget cuts saw the RCN reduced to a fleet of a dozen small coastal patrol boats, but by 1933 the first truly modern destoyers began to be commissioned and built.
In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the RCN suddenly underwent a massive growth program. The federal government commissioned the construction of dozens of warships and also actively purchased warships from the UK, USA, Soviet Union and France. The RCN came of age during the great global conflict, patrolling sea lanes in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific. The RCN played one of the strategic key roles in the Battle of the Atlantic, sinking 27 U-boats, 4 Japanese submarines, 2 destroyers and a German battlecruiser. They also capture 42 enemy surface vessels and completed 25,434 merchant crossings. The toll on the RCN was great, losing 42 warships and over 2,000 men. Nevertheless, by war’s end the Royal Canadian Navy had the third largest navy in the world, after the USN and the Royal Navy, and was in operational command of the entire north-west Atlantic.
HMCS Rainbow, Canada’s first warship.
A Canadian frigate during the First World War.
A convoy leaves Halifax, 1917.
The RCN escorted convoys from New York and Halifax to Southampton.
The start of the Cold War in 1945 meant that the government maintained the strength and budget of the RCN, so that when the Korean War broke out in 1950 the RCN was able and ready to contribute. Four Canadian destroyers took part in the Incheon landings and several more warships helped patrol Korean and Chinese waters.
In 1965 the RCN began to retire most of it’s World War 2 fleet and modernize with the most up-to-date vessels in a joint defence scheme between the USN and the RCN. By 1968 the RCN was a modern and highly efficient navy in the world, and had pioneered the use of using helicopters on small surface ships with the purchase of 50 Sikorsky H-124 Sea Kings.
Britain-bound convoys leaving Halifax and St John’s were under attack by U-boats for most of the 2000 km journey.
German U-boats, like this one here, were operating in large, organized “wolf packs” by 1940.
The U-boats used powerful torpedoes with magnetic warheads to split Allied merchant ships in half.
The HMCS Georgetown was donated by Britain to help beef up the RCN in 1940.
HMCS Algonquin was built in Montreal in 1940, and was the first of a new class of anti-submarine destroyers to join the war.
A Canadian corvette fires a depth charge during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Despite shortages of men and ships, and crippling losses, the RCN continued to fight the U-boats and protect the convoys while stretched to their operational limits.
Ships continued to go down, and 1940-1942 are years the Germans called the “Happy Time”. By 1941 Canada had lost more than 1000 men at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic.
During the 1980s the RCN again upgraded to the most modern ships, designing and building the Iroquois class destroyers in Halifax and Vancouver. The USN and the Royal Navy purchased 80 Iroquois destroyers between 1979 and 1988. In keeping with a tradition of high-tech shipbuilding, during the 1990s the RCN constructed the Halifax-class anti-submarine frigates, several of which were again purchased by the USN.
Canadian warships were used extensively in the Gulf War, the NATO intervention in Kosovo and in several peace-keeping and anti-piracy operations. The RCN has also been heavily involved in the conflict in Afghanistan, firing cruise missiles and providing coastal patrolling, and recently sent a small flottilla of warships to support the NATO operation in Lybia.
Unfortunately, in 2010, the 100th birthday of the Royal Canadian Navy, government cutbacks saw the reduction of 50% of the fleet, bringing the compliment from 66 warships to 33, and retiring 7 submarines. The role of the Sea King helicopter continues to cause debate, as they are now the oldest components of an otherwise highly modern navy, but their replacement would cost too much in an age of tightened purse strings.
Today the RCN, despite its reduction in size, remains a highly capable and professional modern navy which operates in perfect synchronicity with the US Navy. Canada’s navy employs the most up-to-date technical equipment and has been praised by other navies, including the USN and RN, for having some of the most highly-trained technicians and officers in the world. In a world of smaller budgets, the RCN has chosen to go for quality over quantity.
HMCS Bonaventure, Canada’s last aircraft carrier, was built in 1956 and scrapped in 1986.
HMCS Windsor, one of navy’s operational submarines, was built in the 1980’s by Britain.
HMCS Olympus, a non-nuclear submarine, sits in docks at Halifax where it used primarily for making movies.
HMCS Athabascan, one of the new Halifax-class frigates designed to hunt modern submarines.
HMCS Algonquin, one of the newer Iroquois class destroyers designed and built in Canada and in use in every western navy.
Canada’s naval air arm uses helicopters as its primary force.
Today, in the post-Cold War world, Canada’s navy is undergoing yet more changes. Prime-Minister Stephen Harper has announced new shipbuilding contracts to bring the navy into the 21st Century. The plans call for fifteen new warships and twelve specialized arctic warships to be designed and built over the next fifteen years. This would make Canada the first-ever nation to have purpose-built ships designed specifically for Arctic operations, and sends a clear signal to Russian authorities that Canada will defend its Arctic sovereignity.
RCN personnel train to rapidly board other vessels. Here Somalian pirates are captured in 2009.
HMCS Algonquin visits Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The RCN is heavily integrated with the US Navy, and train together throughout the year.
Frigate HMCS Fredericton in Florida.
The RCN is in the process of replacing its old “Sea King” helicopters with modern “Cyclone 2” choppers from Germany.
CP-140 Aurora’s provide the RCN with long-range electronic warning and warfare capabilities.
On-board ship and during operations, RCN uniforms are functional.
For formal occasions, such as parades and meeting the Queen, RCN dress uniforms are classy and professional.
Special-edition dollar commemorating the RCN’s centennial in 2010.
Official postage stamps for the 2010 centennial.
The emblem of the Royal Canadian Navy