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286 letters in canada 2002 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 THEOBALD) John Griffith Armstrong. The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy University of British Columbia Press. x, 248. $39.95 This book explores a hitherto neglected topic, namely the impact of the Halifax disaster of 6 December 1917 on the Royal Canadian Navy. Drawing upon source material held at the National Archives of Canada, the author provides a gripping account of the devastation wrought in the navy=s facilities by the shock wave released when the munitions-laden Mont Blanc exploded after being rammed by the Imo in the =narrows= of Halifax harbour. Then came a second crisis, when a muckraking local newspaper, backed by paranoid public opinion, claimed that massive death and destruction in the Nova Scotian capital had derived largely from blundering by the Canadian naval officers. Denunciation focused on Commander Frederick Wyatt, the man nominally in charge of vessel movement in Halifax harbour. At the inquiry ordered to probe the causes of the disaster, Wyatt, flustered by aggressive cross-examination, lashed out with accusations which suggested that Canada=s naval high command had condoned inefficiency and confusion within the local pilotage authority such as to make vessel collisions a virtual inevitability. That revelation culminated in Wyatt=s being charged with manslaughter, and, as Armstrong sees it, led to the RCN=s being saddled with an enduring image of >incompetence and poor leadership,= one that possibly contributed to the V-E Day riots in 1945, when naval ratings trashed much of downtown Halifax in retaliation for what they saw as civilian disrespect and exploitation of >Jack Tar.= Despite serious personality flaws, Wyatt ultimately was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing. The disaster of 1917 essentially had derived from a complex array of tragic miscalculations brought about by the escalating pressures of war. But the scandal ended his naval career, in large measure because his superiors opted to make him a scapegoat for their own transgressions. Armstrong effectively demonstrates that Ottawa officials, both civilian and military, were often out of touch with conditions in Halifax, displayed a chronic reluctance to challenge the patronage game down east, and when challenged accused their critics of being unpatriotic. In a revealing anecdote, the author describes a flying visit paid to Halifax shortly after the explosion by Admiral Charles Kingsmill. Far from providing inspirational leadership, this director of the naval service kept a low profile and concentrated his efforts on relocating of the Naval College from Halifax to Kingston (it later moved to Esquimalt). Clearly then, the top brass of the RCN emerge with tarnished reputations in this book. And yet one has to question whether their poor performance at humanities 287 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 a time of crisis really was the defining moment for the navy that Armstrong claims. His analysis pays too little attention to the larger picture coming from works such as Marc Milner=s Canada=s Navy, the First Century. There we learn that Canada=s >tin-pot= fleet, created in 1910 and then isolated a year later when the anti-navy Conservatives came to power, remained marginalized through most of the war. Only in 1918, when the Royal Navy reneged on its promise to defend Canadian waters against German submarines, did the Borden government become convinced of the need for a >made-in Canada= navy. At that point and despite negative reverberations emerging from the Halifax disaster, the RCN began to overcome its orphan status. But then came peace, an isolationist government under Mackenzie King, chronic hostility from French Canada over the persistently unilingual state of the service, plus economic hard times during the 1930s. The net effect was neglect of a military role at sea for Canada until another war loomed in Europe. Amid this litany of adversity, while bitter memories of the Halifax disaster of 1917 persisted in the minds of individuals (including the author=s battle-scarred grandfather), they likely had little impact on the larger pattern of events. Overall then, while this book is not entirely convincing, it=s a good read, with haunting photographs, and adds important detail to our...


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