Monday, May 24, 2010

A significant anniversary in Canadian Naval history

While this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Navy as a national institution in this country, today, 24 May, marks the 60th 70th anniversary of an event which changed the RCN and gave that service a permanent set of legs.

In the spring of 1940 Hitler's Germany began the now famous blitzkrieg through the Ardennes and into Flanders, invading the low countries of Europe. Belgium, The Netherlands and France were overrun and Allied forces, including the British Expeditionary Force were either defeated or being driven towards the sea. The British Isles were under a very real threat of invasion by the apparently unstoppable German forces.

On 23 May, 1940, Britain sent out a plea to Canada to send all available RCN destroyers to aid in the defence of Britain. No one had ever asked Canada for such assistance before and given that Canada only possessed seven such ships, it was a tall and potentially expensive order.

HMC ships Ottawa and Assiniboine were in refit and unavailable. HMCS Fraser was conducting operations in the Caribbean (considered "Home Waters") and was operating at a furious tempo. That left the destroyers HMC ships St. Laurent, Restigouche, Saguenay and Skeena available.

The cabinet of Mackenzie King approved the overseas deployment of four destroyers. Fraser would be released from the Caribbean and sent directly to Britain. Restigouche, St. Laurent and Skeena would be dispatched from Halifax. HMCS Saguenay would remain in Canadian waters as the sole defender of the Canadian gate.

The next day, HMC ships Restigouche, St. Laurent and Skeena departed Halifax on the first ever long range deployment of a Canadian naval force in response to an emergency. A fear existed in both Canadian Naval Headquarters and among the government that the situation was so desperate that those ships might never return.

And some didn't.

The deployment, however, changed Canada's navy forever. No longer a local defence force and a home waters navy, the RCN was asked to find her legs. However small, and regardless of what the future might hold, the Royal Canadian Navy was now a blue-water force and would remain so to this day.


HMCS Fraser - Lost in a collision with HMS Calcutta 25 June 1940

HMCS Skeena - Lost in a storm of Reykjavik, Iceland 25 October 1944

HMC ships Restigouche and St. Laurent served throughout the 2nd World War with distinction and honour. They were decommissioned in October of 1945 and eventually scrapped.

Correction: Clearly I have spent too much time behind that ugly green scope. Apparently, I lost a decade. It is the 70th anniversary of Canada's first naval overseas deployment; not the 60th. Thanks to CC for pointing it out.

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