A city and its navy

Halifax & the Royal Canadian Navy
John Boileau
Nimbus Publishing Co., 224 pages, $21.95

John Boileau’s Halifax & the Royal Canadian Navy is a fitting tribute to the centennial of the Canadian Navy that shows the complex and sometimes testy relationship between Canada’s east coast Navy and its host community. This very readable selection of essays, stories and articles looks at the development of the bond between Halifax and her Navy.

Naval forces, beginning with the Royal Navy and, in 1910, the Royal Canadian Navy, have been a permanent fixture in Halifax since the city’s birth. When the Royal Navy departed just as the 20th century began, Sir Wilfred Laurier and his Liberal government created a Canadian Navy.

Boileau describes the growing pains between Halifax and the navy, and includes the warts and the infrequent spats that inevitably happen between close neighbours: the massive, and yet-unequalled, conventional explosion of 6 December 1917 that levelled the city was blamed on the navy; the first riot in May 1918, attributed to a sailor caught shoplifting in a Barrington Street store when he called to his buddies to save him from arrest; and the famous riots of 7 and 8 May 1945 that involved 2,000 Canadian sailors, and required large quantities of beer, wine and spirits to quell, and landed 211 rioters in the magistrate’s dock.

He also tells of the many sacrifices and achievements and the many acts of personal courage by the sailors as the navy came of age. His examples show a navy that was born late, grew up fast and accepted its maritime responsibilities early. Boileau writes proudly of Canadian destroyers and corvettes that challenged German U-boats, and their victories and tragedies that resulted, and the “Trainbuster’s Club,” comprised of the ships that shelled the North Korean trains that ran along the coastal railway.

When a U.S. Navy vessel blew up two trains in one day, Boileau writes, the RCN “entered into the spirit of this game with the greatest of enthusiasm, and before the end of hostilities had destroyed proportionally far and away more trains than had the ships of any other nation.”

He introduces Rear-Admiral Bill Landymore as a junior officer in HMCS Fraser. Having survived the collision with a British cruiser off the coast of France in 1940, he became one of Canada’s famously efficient battle-ready naval leaders. On 2 October 1952, Landymore, now Commander and captain of HMCS Iroquois in the Korean War, exacted terrible retribution from North Korean shore gun batteries that damaged his ship and killed several of his crew. With “a gaping hole just aft of the gun housing,” Landymore reminded his crew of the ship’s Second World War record and her motto, “relentless in chase.” The next day she raced toward the shoreline batteries with her guns blazing and quickly put the main guns out of action and then destroyed the smaller batteries.

Along the way, Boileau touches on numerous issues in Canadian naval operations, acquisition and policy, including Canada’s entry into naval aviation; hydrofoil technology with HMCS Bras d’Or; the icebreaker HMCS Labrador and her 1954 transit of the Northwest Passage; and the Persian Excursion of HMCS Athabaskan, Terra Nova and Protecteur to the Persian Gulf in response to Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Halifax & the Royal Canadian Navy is not a traditional history of Canada’s East Coast Navy, but it is a rich tapestry that weaves together incidents and events with people and situations into a colourful timeline that takes the reader from the navy’s inception to the 2009 appointment of Commander Josée Kurtz as captain of HMCS Halifax, the first woman to command a major Canadian warship.

– Reviewed by Tim Dunne, a Halifax-based military affairs analyst and writer

Observed Secretly: Northern Window
Philip Chaplin and Daniel G. Harris
Helmsman Publications, 2006, 194 pages, $21.00

Derived from Jan Smut’s observation early in the Second World War that “Sweden is a window onto occupied Europe,” Observed Secretly: Northern Window offers an illuminating account of a fascinating period in naval history.

Daniel G. Harris served as an Assistant Naval Attaché in the British Legation in Sweden from 1940 to war’s end. More memories than memoir, the book shares the information he gathered through chapters – “windows” – which opened up numerous avenues of research for me.

One such “window” was a reference to his orientation with a Norwegian crew on the submarine Ula. My further research revealed that Norwegians manned this boat because the intended Dutch crew, survivors of submarine ops in the Pacific, were sunk themselves by a German U-boat in October 1942. Of relevance to Canadian naval operations in the Atlantic was the fact that the Ula went on to sink U-974 in transit.

Though a number of Harris’s chapters prompted further research, most tell their own tale. Sweden’s continued commerce with the Axis powers resulted in the British obtaining much information of value to our navy’s war in the Atlantic.

A Swedish ship owner, perhaps biased by his World War I British army service, ceased deliveries to U-boats and German surface raiders by his fleet of small tankers; a Swedish firm reported work on torpedoes by its subsidiary in Italy; and Dutch ships conducting coastal trade in the Baltic – the latter attacked by Coastal Command’s strike force, including Canada’s RCAF 407 “Demon” Squadron then based at Bircham Newton – provided a great deal of information on U-boats.

The information gleaned through such “windows” had a direct impact on the Battle of the Atlantic as well as on the more immediate environment.

The book offers further insight on the heroic efforts of Norwegian and Danish resisters throughout the conflict; the nuances of Soviet and Finnish relations; and the transit of Italian torpedo boats crews across Sweden destined for Eastern Front service on Lake Ladoga. Sweden, like Switzerland, protected its neutral stance with force as the sinking of three German naval vessels in the Oland proved.

Harris also recounts the bizarre aspects of the attaché role, including an attempt in 1940 to “buy” the Italian navy when proffered by sympathetic officers after their navy lost three battleships in Taranto harbour, and a later attempt by Skoda Works in what is now the Czech Republic to buy off bombing raids on their equipment manufacturing facilities.

In good military fashion, Harris sets out his “terms of reference” in a chapter on naval attaché duties (circa 1940) and provides us with “situational awareness” before diving into the body of his work. His bibliography includes useful references to books by his immediate boss, Captain (N) Denham and the Legation’s press department head, Peter Tennant.

On coming to postwar Canada, Harris served in our naval reserve. Philip Chaplin, his co-author, after wartime RCN service, compiled the original manuscript while working at the Directorate of Military History in National Defence headquarters.

The publisher’s revenue from Canadian book sales is purportedly being directed to the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust for HMCS Sackville Restoration. If so, it gives this book on naval attaches in Sweden an added connection to our navy’s Battle of the Atlantic legacy.

— Reviewed by Major (Ret’d) Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC)

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