Fred R. MacFarlane: A Canadian’s Experiences in the RNVR in the First World War

by John M. MacFarlane 2016

Fred R. MacFarlane

Fred MacFarlane as a young man before the outbreak of war. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)


HMCS Naden and the MacFarlane Brothers’ tug Wabash laid up in Wheelbarrow Cove at Mill Bay BC.(Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

At the start of the First World War, in 1914, Fred MacFarlane (28 years of age) already had more than six years serving as Chief Engineer and Master in coastal tugboats on the British Columbia coast. In business with his younger brother Arthur (Art)), Fred engaged in towing logs and barges as well as towing sail gillnetters for canneries on the Skeena River. The brothers owned their own boat, the Wabash, a small utilitarian vessel of no particular note. In the patriotic fever of the early days of the War, Fred determined to join the Royal Navy. His father, a retired cavalry Major wrote to old contacts to secure a path toward a commission for his eldest son.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Royal Hospital School Greenwich (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

In July 1916 Fred travelled to the UK in the Grampion with Peter Leslie, George Bunt and John H. Cates. He trained at the Royal Hospital School Greenwich with hundreds of others (mainly British but some from the Dominions and colonies) as officer candidates. They wore a sailor’s uniform and were rated as Ordinary Seamen. This was the way the Royal Navy proceeded through the commissioning process. Candidates who "washed out" were simply transferred, in grade, to an operational unit and they would be part of the lower deck until the end of the war. Those who succeeded would be commissioned at the end of the process as a Temporary Sub–Lieutenant RNVR.

He was commisioned as a Temporary Sub–Lieutenant RNVR with seniority dated 03/07/1916)serving as First Lieutenant in H.M. ML–28 in 11/1916. He was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant RNVR with seniority dated 03/07/1917 while serving (In command) in H.M. ML–28.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Postcard Home to his sister Eva announcing his commissioning. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

His sister Eva, later Mrs. Ralph Henderson of North Vancouver, took charge of her brothers’ tugboat Wabash which was left with H.M.C.S. Naden anchored in Wheelbarrow Cove at Mill Bay BC for the duration. Each day or so Eva rowed out to the tug and pumped the bilges to ensure that it did not sink. On one visit the plucky teenaged girl apprehended two thieves in the process of removing the tug’s propeller. With fierce determination she drove them off. Retrieving the propeller she took it home and kept it under her bed until her brothers returned home at the end of the War.

Fred R. MacFarlane

The "Typhoon Quartet" – Newly Commissioned Temporary Sub–Lieutenants RNVR. Front (l–r) Fred R. MacFarlane, John H. Cates. Back in Southampton on their way to H.M.S. Hermione. (l–r) Peter L. Leslie, G.D. Bunt. (Bunt was later lost at sea, the other three became well–known B.C. Masters after the War.(Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Fred described his experience this way:

" In 1915 I married the girl of my choice, which incidentally I have never regretted. She was nineteen at the time and I was very much in love with her. Some months later I joined the Imperial Navy and sailed for England to take a course at the Royal naval College, Greenwich, before getting my commission. During my three years Overseas I fretted a good deal for my young wife and berated myself for leaving her. This had the tendency to make me take a dislike to the country, the war and all concerned. All my associates were English naval officers and as time went on, and being young, I have no doubt but what I adopted some of their ideas and ways. Individually I liked the Englishman and get along very well with them although at times we did not see eye to eye. In those days they were top dog and naturally had an inflated opinion of themselves. On more than one occasion I walked into a hornet’s nest when it has been my misfortune to be present and have to listen to a tirade against the Irish. This always touched me off and brought forth a scathing reference to some of England's selfish and shameful behaviour in the past. I would advise them to wake up and read the political history of Ireland and learn of the oppression and cruelty suffered by that country at the hands of English statesmaen for hundreds of years.
Fred R. MacFarlane

Christmas Card from HMS Hermione. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

HMS Hermione at the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 became a guard ship at Southampton, later becoming the HQ Ship for motor launches and coastal motor boats from December 1916 until December 1919.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Christmas Card from "One of the Royal Navy" (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

There were hundreds of Motor Launches in the Royal Navy. ML–28 ordered 9 April 1915 in USA through Canadian Vickers as anti–submarine vessels, built by Elco, at Bayonne, New Jersey, USA. They were 75 feet, 341 tons displacement. They were powered by two Hall–Scott 440 hp petrol engines which enabled a top speed of 19 knots. The complement comprised two officers, two motor mechanics two leading seaman and four seamen. One of the seamen was detailed as the cook. The armament consisted of 1 × 13–pdr gun later replaced with 1 × 3–pdr gun and depth charges.

Fred R. MacFarlane

RN Motor Launches of the Dover Patrol (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

The Dover Patrol formed a discrete unit of the Royal Navy based at Dover and Dunkirk for the duration of the First World War. Its primary task was to prevent enemy German shipping – chiefly submarines – from entering the English Channel en route to the Atlantic Ocean. They performed several duties simultaneously in the Dover Straits: carrying out anti–submarine patrols; escorting merchantmen, hospital and troop ships; laying sea–mines and even constructing mine barrages; sweeping up German mines; bombarding German military positions on the Belgian coast and sinking U-boats.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Anti–Gas Exercise (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Fear of gas attack was countered by issuing gas masks which could effectively protect the wearer. Even the crews of Motor Launches were issued masks and trained in their use.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Skippers of Motor Launches posing with main armament. (Fred is on extreme right) Comraderie was strong among the crews of the Motor Launches. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Fred R. MacFarlane

Fred Aiming Deck Gun in H.M. ML-28. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Surface actions could occur at any time, particularly should a U–boat surface in the vicinity. The gun crew on either side getting into action first was often the victor in a surface gun duel.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Winter Snowfall (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Thre crew accommodation would have been very spartan and uncomfortable. Hot in summer sun, cold in winter blasts – life was probably unpleasant for both officers and men, but at least the ship’s routine could be relaxed from that experienced in the big ships.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Ship Sinking (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Torpedo attack and anti–ship mines caused most of the surface ship casualties during the First World War.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Hydrophones For Submarine Detection (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

The hydrophone was a passive listening device which could detect the sound of the engines and propellers of a submarine. The vessel had to be stopped in the water to use the hydrophone. It was lowered into the water. An experienced user could determine the type of engine and the direction in which the submarine was relative to the Motor Launch but not the distance. Each Motor Launch had two seamen trained in it’s use.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Temporary Lieutenant Fred MacFarlane RNVR. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Fred ended the war as a Lieutenant RNVR when he was demobilized.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Envelope Opened By Censor (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

All mail was reviewed by Censors who would remove information deemed to be useful to the enemy. The postmark of Cobble Hill BC on the back indicates it safe arrival in Canada.


The correspondence from the Canadian Department of the Naval Service arranging for his demobilization on 11/01/1919. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Demobilized, Fred travelled from HMS Lancaster to Victoria and home. In March 1919 the final ties were cut when he was paid off from HMCS Rainbow. He was given a cheque for $219.67 in back pay and gratuities.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Sidney Review Thursday July 31st, 1919. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Fred’s arrival home in British Columbia was considered newsworthy. He was anxious to re–establish his business connections and to get back into the towing business.

Fred R. MacFarlane

Captain Fred MacFarlane U.S.A.T.C. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Back in uniform for the Second World War, Fred joined the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, serving as a Captain.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) Fred R. MacFarlane: A Canadian’s Experiences in the RNVR in the First World War. 2016.

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