Through A Canadian Periscope.
Julie J. Ferguson.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Two small vessels crept slowly into Canadian waters in the pre-dawn of a summer's morning. It was 0445 on 5 August 1914 - warm, calm and hazy. The vessels were submarines, arriving, secretly after an escape under cover of darkness from their American shipyard.There are only a few years of service left in Canada's aged submarines: HMCS Ojibwa, HMCS Okanagan, and HMCS Onondaga. Julie Ferguson is afraid that her story of the Canadian Submarine Service, which is a celebration of the submariners' commitment to excellence, might also be its eulogy. The death knell may have sounded when Defense Minister Perrin Beatty's plan to purchase twelve nuclear submarines (SSNs), in 1988, collapsed. Since then no Liberal or Conservative Defense Ministers have advocated purchasing any type of new boats to modernize the fleet. However, as Ferguson describes, the submarine service has risen from the dark depths many times.
At that moment the Canadian Submarine Service was born.
Its conception had not been planned by the Royal Canadian Navy . . . Like all unexpected events, the acquisition of the submarines was surrounded by urgency and confusion.
As she tells the story, Canadian governments have always had an on-again-off-again relationship with the service. While neither the defense department nor the chiefs of naval staff have ever had a true commitment to maintain the service as a fully functioning part of the naval forces, they have been equally unwilling to disband it and commit all monetary resources to surface ships.
Even though she tries to explain the origins of our submarine service in the best possible light, it began as low comedy. In 1914, Sir Richard McBride, the Premier of British Columbia and friend of Britain's First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, bought two submarines to protect Vancouver and Victoria from German warships, without bothering to inform the Canadian government or navy, neither of which had never expressed interest in submarines.
The boats were available because the Chilean government, which had originally contracted for the boats from a Seattle based ship builder, refused to honour the contract. It seemed they had a tendency to lose buoyancy and go into uncontrollable dives - not a good thing for a submarine. Everyone seemed to know this except McBride, and he willingly paid $200,000 more for the boats than Chile had originally agreed to pay.
Luckily, there was no real German threat because the submarines did not come with torpedoes and they had no trained crew. McBride donated them to Canada, and the submarine service was born, unannounced and unwanted.
During the First World War, Canada purchased other submarines from Britain. Canadian naval officers trained at the Royal Navy's (RN) submarine school and captained the boats with some distinction under the authority of the British Admiralty. After the war, all the boats were de-commissioned and sold. Canada did not have any submarines in the Second World War, but 26 Royal Canadian Naval Reserve officers and sailors (RCNVR) trained at the RN submarine school and served ably in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Far-East theatres of war. The navy rented submarines in the 1950s and 1960s for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training. No boats were purchased until 1968-1969 when the three submarines now in service were commissioned. They are also used for ASW training. The navy hoped for six new diesel-electric boats in the 1980s, but Beatty scuttled those plans with the overly ambitious nuclear option. However, public opinion and Treasury Board opposition quickly torpedoed the Defense Minister. He soon moved on to run Canada Post and later the CBC.
Ferguson has combed naval archives for the diaries, memoirs and oral histories of Canadians who served from the Great War to the modern era. She has interviewed men who are still living and the relatives of those who have passed on. Naturally, there are great stories of adventure, hardships and the boredom that was part of an early submariner's life. There are many stories of brave and honourable sailors, and the author has not shirked her responsibilities as an historian. The tales of incompetent scoundrels are also included.
The Canadian Submarine Service owes Ferguson a debt of gratitude for the effort she has put into a fine book. Students will enjoy experiencing this little known part of Canada's naval history.
Ian Stewart is a member of the Winnipeg Public Library Board. He thinks sea stories are great and likes dark rum with lime.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR THIS ISSUE - JUNE 20, 1997.
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