Royal Canadian Navy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Royal Canadian Navy

Canada's navy has defended Canadian interests in home waters and overseas since the early 20th century — despite often struggling for ships and resources under sometimes neglectful governments. The navy was a vital part of Canada's contribution to the Second World War, including the Battle of the Atlantic and the Allied invasions of Italy and Normandy. In the decades since, the navy has served consistently around the globe with the United Nations and NATO, while protecting sovereignty on Canada's three coasts.

Early Decades

"Royal" Canadian Navy

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was proclaimed as such by King George V on 16 August 1911. The anniversary is marked, however, on 4 May 1910, the date the Naval Service Act became law and established the Canadian Naval Service.

The RCN was dissolved with the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces on 1 February 1968, no longer a separate service but, instead, a branch of the Armed Forces known as “Maritime Command.” The historic name remained popular, however, and was revived by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011 to commemorate the centenary of the original proclamation of the RCN. The navy remains a subordinate command of the unified Armed Forces.

Fisheries Protection Service

No thought was given to establishing a national navy for more than three decades after Confederation in 1867. This was due both to Canada’s semi-colonial status, which left external relations to the British government, and to the fact that Britain’s Royal Navy remained the pre-eminent global naval power, ensuring a safeguard for Canada as part of the Empire. Increasingly, however, Britain’s desire to develop good relations with the United States meant that London was not always willing or able to intervene in Ottawa’s more narrow interest. In the early 1880s, fisheries disputes, including the intrusion of American whalers into the Arctic, led to the creation of a Fisheries Protection Service, which evolved into a small paramilitary fleet in the 1890s.

The experience of the Canadian contingents in the South African War of 1899–1902, resulted in calls for militia reform, including proposals to establish a naval militia. In 1908, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier appointed Rear Admiral Charles Kingsmill, a Canadian with Royal Navy experience, to oversee the process. Their proposal enjoyed wide political support until the dreadnought crisis of 1909 — a key point in the naval arms race between Britain and Germany — which prompted Britain's request for increased naval contributions from Canada and the other Dominions. This split the national consensus over how to assist Britain in meeting the rising German challenge, without becoming entangled in overseas imperial adventures.

Passage of the Naval Service Act allowed the purchase in 1910 of two ageing British cruisers for training purposes, one for each coast — His Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Niobe in Halifax and Rainbow in Esquimalt. A naval college was also established in Halifax. When Robert Borden 's Conservatives won the general election of September 1911, in large part by capitalizing on French Canadian unease over the navy, he slashed the RCN budget and a political stalemate over the future of the navy ensued.

First World War

Upon the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, both cruisers were quickly made ready for sea and became the first Canadian military assets to set out for action. Fortunately, neither encountered their more powerful German foes. After more than a year of blockade duty enforcing trade neutrality between the United States and Germany, they were tied up to act as barracks and depot ships on their respective coasts.

In response to the submarine threat in the North Atlantic, and with the Royal Navy unable to provide any forces, the RCN hastily commissioned the vessels and crews of the fisheries service, gradually acquired a collection of converted private yachts and built a number of anti-submarine trawlers. A pair of submarines purchased by the British Columbia government was transferred to Halifax but not employed operationally. In total, some 9,500 sailors manned more than 200 vessels, but they were mostly small coastal forces that never engaged the enemy. With the greater part of the national effort dedicated to the land battles of the European Western Front, the RCN is not remembered as having contributed materially to Canada’s Great War effort.

WWI Navy Recruitment poster
Recruitment poster for the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve, 1914-1918. Image: Library and Archives Canada/1983-28-839.

Interwar Years

An attempt to establish a viable postwar navy fizzled when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King used the 1923 Washington Naval Conference (which limited construction by the great powers) as the excuse to further reduce Canada's naval budget. In response, the director of the naval service cut the permanent force to 500 sailors, closed the naval college, kept only two destroyers and four trawlers in commission as training vessels, and diverted resources to fund the establishment of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR).

After his re-election in 1935, Mackenzie King came to appreciate that the growing threat of war between the United States and Japan required a modest expansion of the destroyer fleet so that the RCN could mount neutrality patrols off the Pacific Coast. With tensions also rising in Europe, politicians were attracted by the prospect that a Canadian fleet would not suffer casualties on the scale of a Western Front war of attrition and, at the same time, would be a focus for rearmament. By September 1939, the RCN boasted a small but efficient fleet of a half-dozen destroyers and four modern minesweepers. A trained core of 3,500 regular and reserve sailors of all ranks provided the basis for expansion.

Second World War

When the Second World War broke out, the RCN was yet again the first Canadian military force into action, and it formed the mainstay of the Canadian effort for the first two years of the war. Convoy escort work in the North Atlantic commenced immediately. From the spring of 1940, RCN destroyers also participated in operations off the French coast, including the evacuation that year of British forces from the European continent.

Rapid Expansion

The “corvette navy” of the RCNVR and the Battle of the Atlantic against the German U-boats are remembered as the major contribution of the RCN, but that was not nearly the sum of the navy’s accomplishments. In 1941, with the fate of Britain uncertain and the US not yet committed to joining the war, the growing competence of the RCN and the possible requirement to defend home waters prompted the building of a strong national navy. Defeat of the U-boats remained a priority, but the government ordered the acquisition of cruisers and powerful Tribal-class destroyers in addition to scores of anti-submarine corvettes and other escorts.

The naval college was reopened to ensure the training of officers in Canada. The rapid thirtyfold expansion (to some 96,000 sailors of all ranks by war's end, as well as some 6,500 women), plus the effort to get large numbers of ships to sea — often before they were fully combat effective — led to an equipment and training crisis in the spring of 1943. This resulted in the dismissal of the chief of naval staff, Vice Admiral Percy Nelles.

This also meant the RCN itself was not a major element in the critical Atlantic convoy battles of May 1943. However, recognition of the RCN’s contribution to the war effort is better measured by the Allied decision in March 1943 to create the Canadian Northwest Atlantic as a separate area of joint RCN–Royal Canadian Air Force responsibility. Under the command of Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, this placed the RCN in charge of all northern Atlantic convoy operations through the end of the war. It remains the only major theatre of the war to have been commanded by a Canadian.

World's Fourth-Largest Fleet

The U-boats remained a potent enemy, and, during the last two years of the war, more than 100 escorts joined the fight in the Atlantic, most of them new, more capable frigates. Additionally, the Tribal-class destroyers were broken in on the Murmansk Run (the convoy voyage to northern Russia) and later patrolled the English Channel in support of the D-Day landings. Canadian minesweepers helped to clear the approaches to the Normandy beaches, and Canadian landing ships and anti-aircraft cruisers participated in the assaults on the Aleutian Islands, Sicily and Italy, Normandy, southern France, Greece, and in the liberation of Hong Kong.

Canadian sailors also manned two British escort carriers (the RCN’s own light aircraft carriers would not be ready until after Victory in Japan Day), and the first of the Canadian cruisers joined the British Pacific fleet to support operations against the Japanese home islands.

In total, Canadian warships destroyed 42 enemy surface ships and, either alone or with other ships and aircraft, sank 33 submarines. The RCN lost 33 ships and suffered 1,990 fatalities. At the end of the war, the RCN was the fourth largest fleet in the world — behind only those of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union — with more than 400 warships. Although the RCN had no battleships or submarines, Canadian sailors served with distinction on both types of vessels in the Royal Navy.

Cold War

Postwar Stresses

Planning for an orderly transition to a peacetime structure was thrown into disarray by postwar cuts that shrunk RCN ranks to fewer than 6,500 by April 1946. The navy’s near collapse was characterized by a series of “incidents” in the late winter of 1949 when sailors in the deployed destroyers Athabaskan and Crescent and the carrier Magnificent staged brief strikes. These actions, wrongly cast as “mutinies” and as the fault of an uncaring officer corps steeped in British values, were quickly resolved by ships' captains and are better understood as a reaction to the stresses of attempting radical reorganization within a stringent budget.

NATO and Korea

Indeed, in the midst of this, the RCN was proving its operational viability. The aircraft carrier Magnificent was earmarked as Canada’s military commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after its formation in 1949. Only a year later, when North Korea attacked the South, Canada quickly dispatched three destroyers to the region (HMCS Cayuga, Athabaskan and Sioux) and maintained that number on station and in rotation for the duration of the war, a major accomplishment for a destroyer force of only eight ships. (See Korean War and HMCS Haida.) The destroyers were an important part of the UN naval response, protecting aircraft carriers from attack by submarine and aircraft. They also bombarded enemy-held areas and rail lines along the coast as part of the “Trainbusters Club.” On 2 October 1952, HMCS Iroquois was engaged in such a mission when it was hit by an enemy shell, killing three and wounding 10. They were the only RCN casualties of the Korean War.

By the time the armistice was signed on 27 July 1953, more than 3,600 Canadians had served in the waters off Korea. It was not until 1955, however, that the last Canadian destroyer left the region, as UN forces were still involved in patrols and evacuation missions after the armistice.

Did you know?
In December 1950, HMCS Cayuga, Athabaska and Sioux were part of a naval mission to evacuate 7,700 UN forces from the port city of Chinnampo on the Taedong River. Led by Cayuga, the ships sailed more than 35 km up the river by night, navigating shallow waters and mines. Two UN ships, including HMCS Sioux, touched bottom and had to return to sea. After the troops were embarked, the ships destroyed docks, railway lines, oil dumps and factories to avoid them falling into the hands of their enemies.

Antisubmarine Warfare

The nature of naval warfare changed significantly in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to the evolving threat of Soviet nuclear submarines and long-range aviation (see Canada and Antisubmarine Warfare during the Cold War). To counter the submarines, RCN naval architects designed the St. Laurent class of destroyer-escorts and spearheaded such major innovations as variable-depth sonar, the hydrofoil and the helicopter-carrying destroyer. (See also Canada and SOSUS.)

Ice Breaking and Air Cover

The icebreaker Labrador, laid down in 1948, made several voyages to the Arctic and established a visible military presence in this increasingly important region before being transferred to the Coast Guard. To provide air cover for the fleet, the British-built carrier Bonaventure, with an angled deck and jet fighters, was commissioned in 1957.

HMCS Bonaventure

As the first Canada-United States naval cooperation agreements were framed, senior naval staff reached the far-sighted decision that all ships, equipment and communications systems would be compatible with the US Navy. These measures were all in place when the Atlantic fleet embarked on patrols during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, in response to a direct and considerable challenge to continental security.

Maritime Command

This operational success at a critical moment proved in many ways to be the pinnacle of the RCN during the Cold War. The following year, Prime Minister Lester Pearson's Liberals came to power with a commitment to reorganize national defence. In 1964, integration of the navy with the air force and army did away with the separate service staffs, and unification in 1968 saw the controversial transition of the RCN into a subordinate Maritime Command, causing a number of admirals to resign in protest.

At the same time, a slashing of the defence budget made it no longer affordable to maintain a naval aviation branch, and the carrier Bonaventure was scrapped in 1970.

A decade earlier, in 1960, on its golden anniversary, the RCN had boasted a fleet of some 50 warships (the carrier, 14 St. Laurent–class destroyer-escorts with another six under construction, 23 converted wartime destroyers and frigates, and 10 minesweepers) crewed by 21,500 sailors. By 1970, other than the ageing St. Laurents, the navy had only an operational support ship and three Oberon-class training submarines acquired in the mid-1960s, plus the expectation of four new gas turbine–powered helicopter-carrying destroyers (the Iroquois class) and two more operational support ships (the Protecteur class) for fewer than 10,000 sailors. By the mid-1970s, Maritime Command had re-organized into the semblance of a naval staff. But with these reduced forces constituting the fleet for what would be the last two decades of the Cold War, it was to oversee a navy that actively exercised with its alliance partners, but as an increasingly marginal element, even within its anti-submarine specialty.

1990s and Beyond

New Ships, New Wars

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 coincided with the long-deferred fleet renewal that included 12 Halifax-class frigates in various stages of building, a major mid-life upgrade for the four Iroquois-class destroyers, and 12 maritime coastal-defence vessels planned to revive a mine-clearing capability for the naval reserve. However, the cancellation of a program for 10-12 nuclear-powered submarines signalled the probability of yet another period of retrenchment.

In a completely unexpected course of events, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and Canada found itself, yet again, at war and with a navy well placed to respond. The navy’s operational focus shifted from North Atlantic open-ocean anti-submarine warfare to maritime security operations in the hot, humid and confined waters of southwest Asia, where it maintained a presence for the ensuing quarter century.

The two years following the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 witnessed a particularly active pace of operations — greater than the Korean War — in which 17 Canadian warships (every major vessel except two in long refit) served off southwest Asia. A succession of Canadian commodores also held the prestigious command of the coalition fleet in the Arabian Sea in support of international forces in Afghanistan.

Other globe-girdling operations included deployments to East Timor, a circumnavigation of the continent of Africa, seemingly annual forays to various points in the Caribbean, and a deployment to the south Atlantic for an RCMP drug bust off Angola. Closer to home, the navy has been at the forefront of the annual Armed Forces operations in the Arctic.

21st-Century Shipbuilding

In the 21st century, the RCN embarked on another postwar period of fleet renewal. In 2011, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Halifax’s Irving Shipbuilding Inc. had been awarded a $25-billion contract to build 21 Canadian combat ships. This included six Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships and 15 Canadian Surface Combatant warships, which would replace the navy’s aging fleet of Halifax-class frigates and Iroquois-class destroyers. Vancouver’s Seaspan ULC was awarded an $8-billion contract for seven non-combat vessels, including two supply ships. Since then, the costs of this shipbuilding project have increased significantly.

Although the support ships were originally anticipated by 2020, the first is now expected to be delivered in 2025. Construction of the new warships is expected to begin in 2024. The flotilla of six Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships was originally scheduled for delivery by 2020. However, production was delayed. The lead ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf, was delivered in July 2020. By September 2023, three more ships had been delivered: HMCS Margaret Brooke, HMCS Max Bernays and HMCS William Hall. Both Harry DeWolf and Margaret Brooke have been commissioned into service.

The RCN also has four problem-plagued Victoria-class submarines acquired from Britain in 1998. According to the Liberal government’s 2017 defence policy, the submarines will not be replaced until the late 2030s.

Women and Gender in the Navy

In July 1942, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) was established as a separate service from the RCN. (The Canadian Women’s Army Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division were also formed during the Second World War.) Most “Wrens” filled administrative positions at naval bases and training establishments and at naval headquarters in Ottawa, while others staffed operational map plots in command headquarters and worked on naval signals intelligence sites on both coasts. In 1946, the service was disbanded. A women’s division was re-formed in 1951 during the Korean War as part of the RCN Reserve. In 1955, naval command authorized a women’s component of the regular navy. Unlike the WRCNS, this was not a separate service. (See also Canadian Women in the Cold War Navy.)

Women in the naval reserve began serving on ships in the 1970s. In 1980, HMCS Cormorant became the first naval ship manned by regular force personnel to carry a mixed-gender crew. This initiative was part of the Service Women in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles (SWINTER) trials. In 1989, the Canadian Armed Forces opened all military occupations to women, except submarine service. The Gulf War of 1990–91 was the first conflict in which female members of the Canadian Armed Forces served in combat roles. When the supply ship HMCS Protecteur was deployed to the Gulf, it had a mixed-gender crew. In 2001, the navy opened submarine service to women.

Since then, women have commanded ships and held senior posts in the Canadian navy. In 2003, Marta Mulkins became the first woman to serve as captain of a Canadian minor warship. Josée Kurtz became the first female commander of a major warship in 2009. Two years later, Jennifer Bennett became the first female promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral in the RCN. In 2019, Kurtz assumed command of the Standing NATO Maritime Group Two. She was the first woman to lead such a command in NATO history. In 2023, Kurtz was appointed commander Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT) in Halifax, the first woman to command an RCN coastal formation.

Did you know?
Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer of British Columbia (2018 to present), was a medical officer in the Royal Canadian Navy in the 1990s. During her service, Henry sailed with HMCS Annapolis, HMCS Provider and HMCS Regina; she also completed specialist training as a medical diver, ship’s diver and flight surgeon. Henry is best known for leading British Columbia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July 2020, the navy announced that it would replace the term “seaman” with something more inclusive (e.g., sailor). Navies around the world have long referred to junior sailors as “seamen.” In the Canadian navy, non-commissioned ranks included “ordinary seaman,” “able seaman,” “leading seaman” and “master seaman.” In September 2020, these terms were replaced with sailor third class, sailor second class, sailor first class and master sailor, respectively.

As of May 2023, approximately 22 percent of officers and 20 percent of non-commissioned members in the regular force and primary reserve navy were women. Overall, 20.7 percent of roles in the Canadian navy are filled by women. This is higher than both the air force (20.3 percent) and the army (13.9 percent).

Further Reading

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