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An Overview of the Royal Canadian Navy Fishermen’s Reserve
by John M. MacFarlane 2012
Edgar Joseph Arnett, Chief Skipper (Fishermen’s Reserve Section RCNR)
This group was formed in 1938 to meet the particular needs for a naval force on the Pacific coast. In anticipation of the expected hostilities in Europe plans to transfer west coast destroyers to the Atlantic would have left the Pacific vulnerable. A source of ships and trained personnel had to be found and a potential pool of officers and men who knew the west coast seemed obvious in the fishing fleet.
The makeup of the long coastline, with many inlets and islands would have been ideal hiding places for enemy forces and vessels. It was obvious that regular naval forces on the coast at the time were wholly inadequate for surveillance of the coast at the outbreak of hostilities. By October 1940 the Fishermen’s Reserve comprised 17 vessels and 150 officers and men. The officers had a separate rank structure, wore uniforms without rank insignia (a Chief Petty Officer’s uniform with an Officer’s cap and badge) and acted in a most nonmilitary manner. Their nickname was "the gumboot navy" after the fishermen’s gumboot they continued to wear while in uniform.
The members of the Fishermen’s Reserve tended to maintain an existence separate from the rest of the navy. They had a separate training organization and the vessels were mostly privately owned chartered vessels. As Norman Tucker described them, "they were practically a navy within a navy."
In 1939 members of the Fishermen’s Reserve were mobilized for duty on the Pacific coast. In 1939 HMCS Skidegate assumed harbour duties at Esquimalt. Then Fishermen’s Reserve vessels were assigned to patrol duties (four around Esquimalt; four around the Queen Charlotte Islands and two on the west coast of Vancouver Island). The small fishing vessels were intended to assume a defensive role only and were armed with .303 inch Lewis guns. Wireless sets were operated by ratings from the RCNVR.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War the rank title of Skipper was changed to that of Coxswain and Skipper-Coxswain since most of the officers did not hold the necessary marine certifications. The members of the Fishermen’s Reserve resented the rank of Coxswain as this was also a term used for lower deck ranks and they felt that they were equally competent with RCNR officers who held coasting tickets.
Proper training began in August 1941 and a month long course was given to the full strength of 275. By December there were 22 vessels manned by their personnel. Early in 1942 the fear of a Japanese attack on the west coast was heightened. It was proposed that the Fishermen’s Reserve personnel should be trained in commando tactics and to man fishing vessels that had been seized from owners of Japanese ethnic–origin. There was so much discontent in the Fishermen’s Reserve by this time that the whole force was reorganized.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour the number of vessels was increased to 48 with a complement of 475 officers and ratings. After 1942 all officers were created from the lower deck and all personnel took an 8–week course in squad drill, practical gunnery, signals and seamanship. Officers also studied pilotage. In June 1942 the Canadian army provided landing craft and the Commanding Officer Pacific Coast was authorized to recruit 400 men for the Fishermen’s Reserve to man 100 of these vessels as mechanics, seamen and stokers.
In June 1942 a three month advanced course was given in Combined Operations with the army. Beach landings under the direction of RCNVR Beach Masters were practiced at Courtenay BC. Participation by the Fishermen’s Reserve in Combined Operations activities was ended in October 1943. In April 1943 thirty–five of the original 400 members volunteered to be sent overseas for duty. The remainder were offered the choice of joining the RCNVR or the RCNR or being discharged. About 100 personnel transferred to general service and proceeded overseas, or returned to west coast patrols. The rest were discharged.
In 1944 the work of the Fishermen’s Reserve was considered to be concluded. In February the dissolution began and the majority of the officers who intended to transfer were assigned to the RCNVR as they did not have the necessary certifications to join the RCNR. Most of the Fishermen’s Reserve vessels were paid off.
Tucker, Norman Gilbert (1952) The Naval Service of Canada: Its Official History. Volume II. Activities on Shore During the Second World War. Ottawa: King’s Printer
Macpherson, Ken and John Burgess (1981) The Ships of Canada’s Naval Forces 1910–1981: A complete pictorial history of Canadian warships. Toronto: Collins.
A list of the personnel who served in the Royal Naval Canadian Naval Reserve (Fishermen’s Reserve Section).
Author’s Note (Readers should note that there has been a lot of inaccurate or misleading speculation on this branch of the Navy which is frequently repeated by casual writers. It is poorly documented in the public sector.)
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Royal Canadian Navy Fishermen’s Reserve. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/RCN_Fishermens_Reserve.php
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