Royal Canadian Navy

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was the navy of Canada from 1911 until 1968 when the three branches of the Canadian military were merged into the Canadian Armed Forces. The modern Canadian navy has been known as Canadian Forces Maritime Command (MARCOM) since unification but still refers to itself as the "Navy" and maintains many of the traditions of the RCN.



Formation Years

During the early years of the 20th century, there was growing discussion within the British Empire as to the role the Dominions would play in defence and foreign affairs. A key part of this discussion focused around naval issues. In Canada, it came down to a choice between two options. Either the young country could provide funds, support and manpower to the Royal Navy, or it could form its own navy. Canada chose the latter.

On March 29 1909, a Member of Parliament, George Foster, introduced a resolution in the House of Commons calling for the establishment of a Canadian Naval Service. The resolution was not successful; however, on January 12 1910, the government of Prime Minster Sir Wilfrid Laurier took Foster's resolution and introduced it as the Naval Service Bill. After third reading, the bill received royal assent on May 4 1910, and became the Naval Service Act, administered by the Minister of Marine and Fisheries at the time. The official title of the navy was the Naval Service of Canada (also Canadian Naval Forces), and the first Director of the Naval Service of Canada was Rear-Admiral Charles Kingsmill (Royal Navy, retired), who was previously in charge of the Marine Service of the Department of Marine and Fisheries.

The act called for:

  • a permanent force
  • a reserve (to be called up in emergency)
  • a volunteer reserve (to be called up in emergency)
  • the establishment of a naval college

The used British cruiser HMCS Rainbow was the first ship commissioned into Canada's navy on August 4, 1910, at Portsmouth, England. She arrived at Esquimalt, British Columbia, on November 7, 1910, and carried out fishery patrols and training duties on Canada's west coast.

Another used British cruiser, HMCS Niobe, became the second ship commissioned into the Canadian navy on September 6, 1910, at Devonport in England and arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on October 21, 1910Trafalgar Day.

The Naval Service of Canada changed its name to Royal Canadian Navy on January 30, 1911, but it was not until August 29 that the use of "Royal" Canadian Navy was permitted by King George V.

Immediately prior to the onset of the First World War, the premier of British Columbia, in a fit of public spirit, purchased two submarines (CC1 and CC2) from a shipyard in Washington that had been built for the Chilean navy, but the purchase had fallen through. On August 7, 1914, the federal government purchased them from the B.C. provincial government and they were in turn commissioned into the RCN.

World War I

In May 1914 the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) was established and undertook a strength of 1200 men from three distinct geographic areas: (1) Atlantic, (2) Pacific, and (3) Lake (representing inland areas).

After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, London and Ottawa were planning to expand the RCN significantly, but it was decided that Canadian men would be permitted to enlist in either the Royal Navy or its Canadian counterpart, with many choosing the former.

During the fall of 1914, HMCS Rainbow patrolled the west coast of the North America, as far south as Panama, although these patrols became less important following the elimination of the German naval threat in the Pacific with the December 1914 defeat of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's German East Asiatic Squadron off the Falkland Islands. Much of Rainbow's crew were posted to the east coast for the remainder of the war and by 1917 Rainbow was withdrawn from service.

It was in Esquimalt and Victoria that the only active use of the RCNVR took place, with the reserve being tasked to help man the Rainbow, C1, and C2.

The early part of the war also saw HMCS Niobe actively patrolling off the coast of New York City but returned to Halifax permanently in July 1915 when she was declared no longer fit for service and was converted to a depot ship. She was heavily damaged in the December 1917 Halifax Explosion.

HMCS C1 and HMCS C2 spent the first three years of the war patrolling the Pacific; however, the lack of German threat saw them reposted to Halifax in 1917. With their tender, HMCS Shearwater, they became the first warships to transit the Panama Canal flying the White Ensign (the RCN's service flag). Arriving in Halifax on October 17, 1917, they were declared unfit for service and never patrolled again, being scrapped in 1920.

On September 5, 1918 the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS) was formed with a main function to carry out anti-submarine operations using flying boat patrol aircraft. The U.S. Navy's Naval Air Station Halifax, located on the eastern shores of the harbour at Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, was acquired but following the November 11, 1918 Armistice, the RCNAS was discontinued.

Canada's wartime naval shipbuilding policies were not considered a success, having only delivered a cruiser and two destroyers.

Inter-war Period

Following a draw-down in the RCN after the war, the RCN undertook to find a mission and found it in taking over many of the civilian responsibilities of the Marine Service of the Department of Transport, and during the 1920s the RCN was threatening to become a civilian service.

On January 31, 1923, the RNCVR was replaced by the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (also RCNVR) and formed with companies of 100 or half-companies of 50 in over 15 cities across the country.

On May 22, 1931, the RCN underwent a major facelift when the first custom-built RCN ships, destroyers HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Skeena, were commissioned at Portsmouth, England.

Still, by the 1930s, the RCN, along with its sister services, were starved of funding and equipment. However, this decade saw the RCN begin its rebuilding, as Ottawa joined London, Paris, and Washington in a growing apprehension of the ramifications of Nazi Germany's rearmament and the adventurism of Italy and Japan. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, the RCN still had only six destroyers and a handful of smaller ships.

World War II

The RCN expanded greatly during World War II and following the end of the war was the third-largest navy in the world, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. Although it showed its inexperience at times during the early part of the war, a navy made up of men from all across the country, including many who had never before seen a large body of water, proved capable of exceeding the expectations of its allies. By the end of the Second Battle of the Atlantic, the RCN was the primary navy in the northwest sector of the Atlantic Ocean and was responsible for the safe escort of innumerable convoys and the destruction of many U-boats—an anti-submarine capability that the RCN would build upon during the post-war. Similarly, a massive building program (for a nation of only 11 million) saw corvettes, frigates, and other escort vessels built in shipyards on both coasts and on the Great Lakes. Added to this were aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and various auxiliary ships. In addition, the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was reborn with the use of anti-submarine patrols on both coasts conducted with PBY Canso flying boats.

As the end of the war against Germany approached, attention focused on Japan. At the end of 1944, some RCN ships were deployed with the British Pacific Fleet, joining the many Canadian personnel already serving with the Royal Navy in the Pacific War. Ottawa was also laying plans to expand the RCN's capabilities beyond its anti-submarine orientation. The war in the Pacific was expected to culminate with a massive invasion of Japan itself, and this would need a different navy than that required in the Atlantic. Britain was nearly bankrupt after five and a half years of war and was looking to shrink its military somewhat, especially since the United States was now the dominant power in the Pacific. With this in mind, the RCN and the Royal Australian Navy were to receive many ships considered surplus to the RN's needs, with the end goal being a powerful Commonwealth fleet of Australian, British, Canadian, and New Zealand ships alongside the United States Navy. As in World War I, the war ended before these plans came to fruition. With the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's will to fight evaporated.

With the end of the war, the RCN stopped expanding. A planned transfer of two light aircraft carriers from the Royal Navy, HMCS Warrior and HMCS Magnificent was slowed, and when Warrior was found to be unsuitable for a North Atlantic winter, she was sent to the west coast and the next year was replaced by Magnificent, with Warrior being given back to the RN. Canada still had two light cruisers, HMCS Ontario and HMCS Uganda (later HMCS Quebec), a number of Tribal-class and other destroyers, and a mass of frigates, corvettes, and other ships, the majority of which were mothballed by 1947.

Cold War

The Cold War and the formation of NATO saw the RCN halt its contraction and begin expanding again. Several World War II vintage ships saw action in the Korean War, including exciting but dangerous shore bombardment and North Korean train destruction missions. The growing Soviet submarine threat in the 1950s saw a new class of anti-submarine destroyer escorts (DDEs), the St. Laurent class, designed. The RCN also pioneered several innovative ship designs, one of the more notable being the "rounded" upper part of the hull which helps drain seawater from the upper decks during the extremely rough conditions of the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans—it has also been said that this rounded upper hull would assist in cleaning radiation from a ship in the event of coming in contact with fallout from a nuclear explosion.

Following the seven St. Laurent DDEs, the Restigouche and Mackenzie DDE classes were built with seven and four vessels respectively. In the early 1960s the St. Laurent DDEs were upgraded to destroyer-helicopter (DDH) vessels to accommodate the new CH-124 Sea King anti-submarine helicopters. The RCN was the first navy in the world to pioneer the use of ship-borne helicopters on small surface ships such as destroyers and frigates in the rough waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific. Recovery of helicopters to a wildly pitching flight deck was aided with the RCN invention of the "Bear Trap"—a cable-assisted winching system which hauled a helicopter, while operating at full power, to the deck in all manner of conditions. RCN also was an early pioneer in various forms of ship-borne sonar, both passive and active. These innovations resulted in their NATO allies giving RCN an expanded anti-submarine role throughout the North Atlantic.

Following the construction of these vessels throughout the 1950s, RCN was able to retire all remaining World War II-era vessels. HMCS Magnificent stopped being used as an active carrier by the mid-1950s and was used as a vehicle transport during Canada's peacekeeping response to the 1958 Suez Crisis before being paid off and replaced by HMCS Bonaventure, a more modern aircraft carrier which was subsequently updated with an angled flight deck. The RCNAS used stations at HMCS Shearwater and HMCS Patricia Bay to operate carrier-based fighter aircraft as well as coastal patrol aircraft.

The RCN also conducted experiments with the fastest warship ever built, the 60-knot maximum speed HMCS Bras d'Or.


On February 1, 1968, the Royal Canadian Navy was merged with the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army to form the Canadian Armed Forces. The naval forces were restructured as Canadian Forces Maritime Command (MARCOM).

Ensigns and jacks

Final version of the Blue Ensign worn as a jack by the Royal Canadian Navy until 1965.
Final version of the Blue Ensign worn as a jack by the Royal Canadian Navy until 1965.

On March 3, 1911, the RCN was authorized the use of the White Ensign, which remained the main identifying flag of the navy for the next 54 years. At the same time, the Canadian Blue Ensign was designated the jack of the RCN. However, because naval tradition dictates that the jack is worn at the ship's bow only when docked or on "dress ship" occasions, HMC ships normally had no distinctly Canadian flags when under way, the White Ensign being identical to the Royal Navy's ensign. Because of this, a tradition developed of painting a green maple leaf on ships' funnels to mark the ship as Canadian.

When British and Canadian foreign policies began to diverge in the 1950s (highlighted by the two countries' different roles in the Suez Crisis), having an ensign identical to the Royal Navy's became less satisfactory. In 1961, a policy of wearing the Canadian Red Ensign from the masthead (in addition to the Canadian Blue Ensign at the jack staff when appropriate and the White Ensign at the ensign staff) was established. On February 15, 1965, the White, Blue, and Red ensigns were all replaced by the new National Flag of Canada, the Maple Leaf flag.


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