The story of Canada’s navy during and immediately after the Second World War has been enriched in the last decade with a spate of notable histories, particularly several ‘official histories’ produced by a large team of researchers engaged by the Directorate of History and Heritage, of the Department of National Defence. Richard Mayne, a naval reserve officer, is a current member of that team. His book focuses on a particularly curious turn of events found in the official history but not explored to the same depth. In January 1944, Chief of the Naval Staff Percy Nelles found himself subject to what another Canadian would later term the Peter Principle and moved out of the country to a post impressive in title but with little practical role. Some reward for the man who had been in the job for a decade and who was instrumental in building the navy almost from scratch to the fourth largest navy in the world. No other navy grew as much proportionally as the rcn. No other navy bore as much actual responsibility, except the Royal Navy, for the protection of the vital North Atlantic convoys. Histories and historians have differed in the explanation of why Nelles was treated so unceremoniously by his political masters. Mayne’s account will be considered the definitive account of this particular episode of betrayal, scandal, and politics.
That Nelles was removed after a prolonged run-in with the naval minister, former Nova Scotia premier Angus L. Macdonald, has been well known. The argument concerned the state of the Canadian escort fleet, primarily Flower Class corvettes. Built to plans hastily provided by the Admiralty in London, these little ships became the workhorses of the Canadian and Royal Navy. However, while the Royal Navy continually [End Page 386] modernized and refitted its fleet of corvettes, the Canadian navy had a more difficult time doing so. Nelles and the naval staff were seized with this problem from at least mid-1942; however, Nelles gained the minister’s ire apparently for the inability of the Canadian navy to keep up. This has been referred to as the Equipment Crisis of 1943.
Mayne adds much to this basic story to demonstrate that Nelles was working all out to solve these problems but fell subject to backbiting from a group of naval reservists, some of whom had connections in the press and others who used a circle of friends that included the minister’s personal assistant, John Joseph Connolly. It is the Connolly connection, revealed through his personal correspondence found at the National Archives, with naval reserve officers such as Commander Louis Audette, that takes this account much deeper than ever before possible. Connolly’s drafts of most of the damning correspondence of the minister with Nelles and personal letters to his close group of friends illustrating his desire to see Nelles off are fascinating.
Those less concerned with the details will find this an intriguing account of how Ottawa can work, where groups of friends, the media, and political survival instincts merge, diverge, and merge again to yield policy decisions. Mayne’s account is a major case study suggestive of such broad themes, and for that alone is worthy of a wide audience.
But I have two minor quibbles. The Equipment Crisis was unique to the navy, but there are historical parallels. Perhaps the most striking is the First World War Ross Rifle controversy where equipment, ministerial competence, and the imperial connection were similarly involved, but Mayne does not make the connection. The second is the author’s occasional comments on the loyalty of the naval reservists who agitated for change in Ottawa. What could be described as disloyalty could also be portrayed as forthrightness unbeholding to rank or careerism. The reserves bore the operational brunt of the campaign. That in their frustrations and eagerness they could grow impatient with the rational bureaucratic staff processes of Ottawa and agitate for reform with powerful friends should be seen as rather normal in a mass democracy that relies on reservists to fill the...