Admiral Percy Nelles transforms RCN during Second World War

Admiral Percy Nelles

DND

Admiral Percy Nelles

In 1939, Admiral Percy Nelles faced the greatest challenge of his career in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

With the Second World War just beginning, the RCN consisted of only six destroyers, five minesweepers and a handful of auxiliary vessels. It’s total strength, permanent and reserve, was just over 3,600.

A tiny navy by any comparison, it was to grow in remarkably short time to a size beyond all recognition.

This was largely accomplished by the foresight of Admiral Nelles.

In the pre-war years, he never lost sight of what he believed to be the RCN’s destiny. When war came, the plans he had carefully laid and nurtured were transformed into reality.

By the end of the Second World War, Canada had one of the largest navies in the world with 95,000 men and women in uniform, and 434 commissioned vessels including cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and auxiliaries.

Admiral Nelles came from a proud military family. The son of the late Brigadier-General Charles M. Nelles, one of Canada’s most distinguished soldiers, he was born in Brantford, Ont., in 1892. 

He enlisted as a cadet in the Fishery Protection Service in 1909, the second of the first seven junior officers to start training for the anticipated Canadian Navy. In 1910, when the RCN was established, six of these seven cadets transferred to His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe, one of the first two warships in the RCN. 

From 1911 to 1917 he served in ships and establishments of the Royal Navy (RN), then returned to Canada to become Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, then Chief of Staff of the RCN.

In 1920, Admiral Nelles went to the United Kingdom for a course at the Royal Naval College. Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander in 1922, he served for the next two years in ships and establishments of the RN. He returned to Canada in 1925 and later that year was promoted Commander and appointed Senior Naval Officer in Esquimalt, B.C.

Moving back to the United Kingdom in 1929, Admiral Nelles served in various appointments until March of the following year, when he took command of the cruiser HMS Dragon, becoming the first RCN officer to command a major British warship. He received the acting rank of Captain while in this appointment.

On his return to Canada in 1931, he reverted to Commander but in 1933, while in command of HMCS Stadacona, Admiral Nelles became the first Canadian to achieve the rank of Captain in the RCN.

The next year he was promoted Commodore and appointed Chief of the Naval Staff.

He was responsible for ensuring that the RCN would withstand the economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. But he also faced an even greater challenge in 1939: planning and driving the RCN’s rapid development, under pressure from the Canadian government and from Allied nations as well.

In January 1944, Admiral Nelles, now a Vice-Admiral, moved overseas to assume the leadership of the RCN in the coming invasion of Europe.

With the RCN’s share of invasion operations successfully completed in 1945, Admiral Nelles retired, closing out a naval career that spanned more than 35 years. He was promoted to full Admiral on his retirement, in recognition of his service.

In His Majesty’s New Year’s Honours List of 1943, Admiral Nelles was appointed a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. In 1946, the United States honoured him with membership in the Legion of Merit, degree of Commander.

Admiral Nelles retired to Victoria, where he passed away in 1951. Surviving him were his wife Helen and two sons, Charles and William.

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