The Canadian Naval Reserve – From War to War

by Stephen Rybak 2011

Commodore E.R. Brock

Commodore E.R. Brock RCNVR

   " ... then went down to the great waters, 
   to the cold and boredom, 
   the laughter and the fight, 
   Grocer’s clerks, they are and brokers
   Turned Quartermasters, signalmen and stokers, 
   Salesmen swift of the tongue and glib,
   With a new cut to their jib;
   Yachtsmen and farmers, garage men and tailors,
   Men from factories and offices and stores, now turned to sailors"

Most Canadians expected few future benefits when the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve was founded January 31, 1923. It took nearly 20 years to realize the value of the organization.

More derisive comments than positive statements greeted the formation of the RCNVR. It was a stop-gap measure promoted by Admiral Walter Hose, then Chief of the Naval Service. As the head of the RCN, Hose saw $1 million arbitrarily cut from the $2.5 million 1923 naval appropriations. To keep the fledgling Royal Canadian Navy alive, Hose proposed that a Reserve force of 1500 be created; dockyard facilities be maintained; and that five RCN ships be retained to train Reservists and offer some form of coastal defence.

It was a hard thing for Hose to do, but it was the RCNVR or virtually nothing. The comments about the "five trawler navy" stung, and more public derision would have been heaped upon the proposal had critics known that the RCNVR would be born over a Chinese laundry, in a radio shop repair room, a fire hall, store basements, stock brokers officers and a lumber yard warehouse. In 1923, the future of the Naval Reserve looked dim. When RCN officers were given the choice of civilian life or the RCNVR, they chose civvy street.

Hose was one of the few optimists:

"We have to go through an anxious time as Regard the Canadian Navy, but although I deplore the arbitrary cut of one million in our appropriation, still I have by no means lost hope as regards the future, and I hope within the next couple of years to have an efficient reserve of at least 1500 men organized and trained by the nucleus of the permanent force, and I still believe from that we shall expand into a seagoing Service again ..."

The next 15 years were going to be trying ones for Hose, the RCN and the RCNVR. It took time to build the Navy far from the sea in Canada’s interior; training was a problem, recruiting even more so and attitudes were hard to change. But the Naval Reserve had a precedent and a tradition to live up to – the example of the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve during the Great War.

A branch of the Royal Navy Reserve, the RNCVR saw service in Canadian waters and overseas. The Canadians, most of them professional seamen, had an uphill battle in winning recognition from the Royal Navy, but they did it.

"Those RNCVR boys won Canada a good name." wrote Lt. Gordon B Jackson, the first RNCVR officer to be commissioned from the ranks. Their record was a good one. We won the respect of the Royal Navy and that takes some doing."

It would take some doing in Canada too. The RCNVR was built around people like Jackson, but for the first two decades the Naval Reserve was administered by a Regular Force officer, who seldom had anything but a passing interest in reservists.

Once, almost the entire Winnipeg Half-Company resigned in disgust when they were left standing on the station platform as their train pulled out for two weeks of eagerly anticipated training in Esquimalt. Time off from work had been arranged; food had been purchased for the trip to the coast. But someone in Ottawa suddenly cancelled the training without informing the Winnipeg volunteers until they were ready to entrain. No explanation was given. Fortunately, the Half-Company was resurrected by still enthusiastic volunteer officers.

It happened in Quebec City as well. Despite Quebecois’ deep-seated aversion to fighting "Imperial" wars, enough men and officers were recruited to form a Half-Company. HMCS Patriot visited Quebec City on a training cruise a few months later and the new Reservists were invited on board. The Volunteer Reserves were entertained, given a working tour of the ship and were given a short speech on naval matters. They were exhorted to drill faithfully to prepare themselves to go to war alongside the comrades in the RCN. The mere mention of war was enough – the next day only two officers and three ratings of the 40–strong unit were all that remained. It took time and effort, but another Half-Company was soon back up to strength.

Every Half-Company had its ups and downs, but they gradually grew out of their very un-naval like beginnings and found suitable training facilities. After all, it would not do to have Montreal’s English Half-Company, which was located above a laundry, mocked as "HMS Hong Kong" for too long. Within two years, RCNVR Half–Companies were thriving in Halifax, Charlottetown, St. John, Quebec City, Montreal Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Prince Rupert.

Oddly enough a unit could not be raised in Victoria, a city which had an unofficial volunteer naval company as early as 1913 and which was the Pacific headquarters of the RCN. When no training facilities could be secured, the Half–Company was re–located to Prince Rupert. (Victoria finally got a RCNVR Division, but not until 1944 and for recruiting only – Malahat was commissioned only in 1947.) It took a year of internal wrangling before a Half–Company was established in Vancouver and it wasn’t until 1925 that a unit was finally raised in Halifax. Landlocked cities seemed more ready to accept the RCNVR than many coastal cities.

The 1920s and 30s saw the Volunteer Reserve organization overcome a chronic shortage of instructors and training materials to slowly increase in strength and consolidate its position, but it never quite reached its compliment of 1000 officers and men. Terms of service for the RNCVR were quite straight forward. An applicant had to be a physically fit British subject between 18 and 32 years of age; willing to sign up for a three–year term; ready to serve whenever needed; able to attend 30 drill nights a year; and free to go away on two weeks naval training yearly. The pay was 25 cents a drill night and standard RCN pay while on naval training. An officer in the Wavy Navy found it even less rewarding. He did not get the 25 cent drill bonus and had to provide his own uniform.

Enthusiasm for the sea, which many Volunteer Reserves had never seen, was necessary to overcome the limited and often very poor training in the Half–Companies. Equipment was virtually non-existent and training was not very serious until the Volunteer Reserve did his two weeks naval training with the RCN. What equipment was available was generally limited to rifles, naval whalers or cutters, field pieces and home-made signal flags. Training consisted of rudimentary instruction in seamanship, gunnery and signalling with plenty of drill, lectures on naval customs and traditions and numerous social and sporting events.

In a 1927 note to the Naval Secretary, Pay Commander J.A.E. Woodhouse, RN, wrote:

"The RCNVR has fulfilled all of the hopes that were placed in it. The Company Commanders and other officers are very keen ... The men are very keen and many of them have re–enrolled ... Most Companies have a waiting list of 40 to 50 men ... the great present difficulty is to give officers and men sea training, which is regarded by them as the greatest pleasure of their service ... During the three years which have passed, the Companies have established high reputations in the various cities by their work and the manner in which they do it and have acquired a definite place in the reserve defence organization of Canada."

The RCNVR was providing a pool of partially–trained personnel for use in an emergency, but they were strictly amateurs.

Gradually the units were supplied with more technical gunnery equipment and in 1937 a Wireless Telegraphy training net was organized. Still a good deal of the equipment was purchased by officers and many men donated their drill bonus to unit funds. It was the calibre of the officers and their instruction which often determined the turnover of personnel in the units and the strength of the Half–Companies. What served to hold many of the units together was the call of the sea, the uniform, mess and social functions and sports.

The RCNVR existed on a hand–to–mouth basis. Naval appropriations did not allow for the procurement of proper training aids and facilities. There simply wasn’t enough money to go around for any service, much less a reserve. Even when Canada’s defence budget was increased for the first time in nearly 15 years in 1935, the RCN got the largest increase, which was devoted to cautious and selective re–armament. Destroyers and minesweepers were added to the RCN fleet in the years prior to World War II and shore establishments were refurbished. As part of the program, the RCNVR was reorganized. In 1936 the term Half-Company was superseded by ‘Division’ and with the reorganization came a flurry of promotions to have Commanders and not mere Lieutenants as Divisional Commanding Officers.

The strength of the RCNVR was increased as well with Port Arthur (1937), London (1938) and Windsor (1939) added to bring the Volunteer Reserve to 18 Divisions and nearly 1000 officers and men. In 1937, the Supplementary Reserve, consisting largely of yachtsmen, was attached to the RCNVR and a West Coast Fishermen’s Reserve was created. This was in addition to a Seaman’s Reserve, for men who followed sea-going careers, which eventually evolved into the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve with units in port cities.

With the declaration of war only nine days in the future, the Wavy Navy was called to active duty in September 1939 and joined Canada’s fleet of six destroyers, four minesweepers and a schooner and the 2000 officers and men of the RCN. On September 10, 1939 the RCNVR went to war.

The foresight of Admiral Walter Hose was paying off. With the establishment of HMCS Malahat (1940) in Victoria, an organization of 19 recruiting and basic training centres was providing the Canadian Navy with all of the necessary man power. It reached inland, further than the RCN could ever have reached for recruits. Overnight the RCNVR almost doubled the size of Canada’s Navy and by January 1941 more than 8,000 of the 15,000–strong Canadian Navy were Volunteer Reserves. At the peak of the war, nearly 96,000 Officers, WRCNS and Men wore Navy Blue and of those, more than 77,000 were proud members of the Wavy Navy and another 5,300 belonged to the RCNR.

Almost every one of the 77,000 Volunteer Reserves was introduced to the Navy when he or she crossed the quarterdeck of the Stone Frigates, which were commissioned as HMC Ships in 1941. Volunteers were placed on Divisional strength and preformed part-time evening drills, then, as required, they were called to active service and carried out their initial training full-time at the Division. After the basic eight-week and then six-week introductory trades training, they were drafted to the coast for more intensive training in a fleet posting.

Lack of accommodation and training continued to plague the units throughout the War as most quarters were never substantially improved until 1944 or 1945. Messing was at time dreadful – the 125 men of the Montreal Division were once fed from a single four-burner stove. But it did reduce the shock of living aboard a North Atlantic escort vessel – not much mind you, but just a little.

Divisions were thrown into the War effort totally unprepared – there was no policy, no supply system, no pay system, constant moves to temporary quarters, no administrative policies, no training equipment and no instructors. (All of the instructors had been called up in the initial 1939 draft). The burden fell on those few left behind and civilian volunteers. The Commanding Officer of the Montreal Division covered the expenses and pay for his unit for the first months of the War. He never recovered his out–of–pocket expenditures.

Gradually some order appeared in the chaos – the red tape of routine slowly settled in. In 1941, a Volunteer Reserve, Commodore E.R. Brock was appointed the first Commanding Officer Reserve Divisions; the first common training syllabus was introduced and instructors obtained; administrative routines were formalized; and by 1941 barracks were being constructed for some Divisions. With manpower shortages appearing, WRENS began to be recruited into the Volunteer Reserve in 1942. By this time, the Navy began to assist Sea Cadet Corps through RCNVR Divisions and in 1943 the first of 23 University Naval Training Divisons were organized. That summer 554 officers and men of the UNTD went on naval training during their summer vacations.

The real force of the RCNVR was felt in recruiting. HMCS York, Toronto, alone brought nearly 17,000 Officers, WRCNS and Men into the Navy. The weak organization created in 1923 grew into a giant, national organization providing partially trained manpower to man a fleet of more than 400 ships. These ships helped escort nearly 25,000 merchantmen across the Atlantic, on the Murmansk run, to the Caribbean, in the Mediterranean, guarded our coasts, mineswept the approaches to the beaches of Normandy, prepared the way for landings with shore bombardments and were in on the kill of 27 U–boats. Wherever a ship with a red maple leaf on the funnel was to be found, the majority of the men onboard were RCNVR.

The only naval Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian was won by Lt. Hampton Gray, DSC, RCNVR, who crashed his damaged aircraft into a Japanese destroyer and sank her August 9, 1945. Gray was serving aboard the RN aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. On the other side of the world, four RCNVR minesweeping officers won themselves a place in history as members of the Rats of Tobruk during the siege of the North African outpost. Back home, the Volunteer Reserves attached to Unicorn (Saskatoon) took time off from their naval training to help bring in the bumper wheat crop during the labour–short fall of 1944; they then went to sea.

Volunteer Reservists commanded HMC Ships Annapolis, Columbia, Gatineau, Saguenay, St.Laurent, Niagara and St. Clair. RCNR officers commanded HMC Ships Annapolis, Chaudiere, Columbia, Ottawa, Restigouche, Saguenay, St. Croix, St. Laurent, Saskatchewan, Hamilton, Niagara, St. Clair and St. Francis during the War.

Just as the Volunteer Reserves were welcomed into the Navy by the Stone Frigates, the Reserve Divisions also bid the citizen sailors a farewell and happy return to civvy street. The RCNVR ships were designated as demobilization centres and were kept busy at this task until late 1946. The conversion to a peace time role for the RCNVR as almost as unsettling as it was to ramp up to war-time status. But it was much less chaotic.

It was sad, too, for the Wavy Navy disappeared. On January 1, 1946 the RCNR and the RCNVR were merged to form the RCN(R). With the merger, the distinctive Volunteer Reserve Officers’ wavy lace was exchanged for the regular force braid. The song "Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along" was seldom sung in HMCS establishments anymore. It was relegated to reunions of Volunteer Reserve veterans and in service clubs and passed from active use in the new Reserve.

Almost as quickly and seamlessly, a Reservist addressed the void. That summer by Lieutenant Martin Shubik, RCN(R), composed new lyrics to the old tune:

Look away, Wavy Navy, look away
At the phantom fleets we sailed in yesterday
Which were manned from near and far by the RCNVR 
Look away, Wavy Navy, look away

Spin your dip, civvy sailor, spin your dip
On the men and the soul that made your ship
On the Newfie–Derry run and your fight against the Hun
Spin your dip, Wavy Navy, spin your dip

Changed our lace, civvy sailor, changed our name
But our soul and our spirit stay the same
In the service that we serve as the RCN (Reserve)
Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along

Based ashore, Wavy Navy, based ashore
Many hundred miles from where the breakers roar
Though we may be on the street, were still the North Atlantic Fleet
Roll along, civvy sailor, roll along

Set the course, Brackets "R" – Men set the course
When danger comes we greet it with our force
From a Brackets "R" to "V" makes no difference when at sea
Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along

Author’s Note: I am indebted to the staff at the Directorate of History for their assistance in my research for the 50th anniversary of the Naval Reserve in 1972–73. Contributions from the 16 "Stone Frigates" in existence at the time helped illuminate the efforts to take the idea of a navy to the people of Canada and nurture it far from coastal waters. That historical material, which included the above, formed the basis of Commander Fraser McKee’s 1973 "Volunteers For Sea Service, A brief history of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve". A more complete organizational history of the Naval Reserve is to be found in the recently published "Citizen Sailors, Chronicles of Canada’s Naval Reserve, 1910-2010".


To quote from this article please cite:

Rybak, Stephen (2011) The Canadian Naval Reserve From War to War. Nauticapedia.ca 2011. http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Rybak3_From War to War.php

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