Book Cover

The Admirals and Commodores of Canada

by John M. MacFarlane 2011

Canada has a rich naval heritage which tends to have a low public profile. To the detriment of the Navy and our awareness of our national culture and history, Canada's naval contribution in two World Wars, the Korean conflict and the many United Nations and NATO operations is hidden from public view. The great contribution of the navy is both interesting and important - but it is difficult for history lovers to access the information. In 1994 I published Canada's Admirals and Commodores (ISBN #0-09693001-2-3). Since that time I have been maintaining updates to the entries in that publication as well as tracking names of new appointments.

Evolution of the Ranks

The rank of admiral has ancient origins. In the 1600s the Royal Navy consisted of only one naval fleet which comprised all warships. This fleet was divided into three squadrons:

  • – the Van (flying the white ensign);
  • – the Centre (flying the red ensign);
  • – the Rear (flying the blue ensign);

Each squadron had three senior officers who had distinctive flags to designate their presence and relative authority - an Admiral, a Vice-Admiral and a Rear-Admiral. Overall command of the fleet was held by the Lord High Admiral or by an Admiral of the Fleet who would take the place of the Admiral of the Red Squadron.

All officers of flag rank had to be linked to squadrons for administrative purposes for their ranks. Admirals who served ashore were given command of notional squadrons from which their ranks were derived. This totalled ten grades of admiral in a hierarchy held by naval officers both ashore and afloat. In 1864 these notional squadrons ceased to exist and flag ranks were reduced from ten grades to four - with all naval ships flying the white ensign. The red and blue ensigns then came to denote ships in other classifications. From 1743 there was more than one flag officer of each rank on full pay but they took seniority from each other. In 1805 the rank of Admiral of the Red was created increasing flag ranks to 10. After 1862 there was more than one Admiral of the Fleet.

The rank of commodore was in use by the beginning of the eighteenth century to describe a captain in command of a squadron or division of a fleet. It was possibly derived from the Spanish ‘commendador’ – one having command over others or a company. In the Twentieth Century the rank has been held by Royal Navy captains when appointed to commands or posts carrying additional responsibility. A captain ordered to take command of a squadron of ships was considered to be a commodore. This was an appointment to a position with temporary rank. It conferred no permanent seniority and was not considered to be a step to promotion to Rear-Admiral. The ranks of Commodore First-Class and Commodore Second-Class were created in 1805. A Commodore Second-Class received no extra pay for his appointment and continued to command his own ship in the squadron. A Commodore First-Class was entitled to staff a Flag Captain who carried out the duties of command in the flagship and the Commodore was paid as a Rear-Admiral. Incumbents of both ranks would lose their seniority and their pay (as applicable) when they were ordered to haul down their pendant. 'Yellow Admirals' in the Royal Navy were senior Captains compulsorily retired who received the title and half-pay of a Rear-Admiral as a reward for long service on the understanding that they would not be called back to service and that their careers were at an end.

When the Royal Canadian Navy was expanding in 1940 some appointments of Acting Commodore were made to senior Captains holding posts of extra responsibility. Such appointments were not considered to have been essential steps in promotion to Rear-Admiral and Commodores sometimes reverted back to Captain when taking up a new appointment. In 1946 the substantive, rather than temporary, rank of Commodore was introduced into the RCN.

Through the first one hundred years of the Royal Canadian Navy four officers have held the rank of Admiral in the Canadian Navy, two while serving. Percy Nelles was promoted to Admiral on his retirement in 1945. Sir Charles Kingsmill was promoted from Vice-Admiral RCN in 1917 to Admiral on the Royal Navy retired list. Admiral Robert Falls served as Chief of the Defence Staff and then as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee as an Admiral. Admiral John Anderson was the second naval Chief of the Defence Staff.

At the time of the unification of the three armed services, army ranks were introduced - a measure that proved very unpopular and counter-productive. Today the rank structure again reflects traditional naval rank titles which are readily understood in an international naval environment.

These are now the definitive public lists of Canada's Admirals and Commodores – and the Admirals who settled in Canada, served in Canada and came from Canada - as well as Canadian naval personnel who went on to positions equivalent to Canadian flag rank.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) The Admirals and Commodores of Canada. 2012.