RCN’s first warship celebrated on Niobe Day

Navy News / October 21, 2020

On October 21, 1910, His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe sailed into Halifax Harbour, making it the first warship of our fledgling navy to arrive in Canada.

The passage of the Naval Service Act in May 1910 formally established the Naval Service of Canada, but the arrival of Niobe in October, and HMCS Rainbow in November, mark the true birth of Canada’s Navy.

To this day sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) still celebrate the occasion as a landmark event in the genesis of our navy.

Niobe Day is celebrated by the RCN on October 21 every year and gives personnel a chance to reflect on their collective accomplishments since 1910, what it means to be members of the profession of arms, and what is required of them to ensure the RCN’s continued excellence, both at sea and ashore, in the years to come.

Acquired from the Royal Navy (RN), Niobe was a Diadem-class protected cruiser that launched in 1897, serving around the world, in particular during the Second Boer War.

The date of arrival of Niobe in Canada was carefully timed to coincide with the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in order to symbolize the transfer to the Naval Service of Canada the intangible and priceless winning tradition of the parent RN. It was natural for the new navy to model itself after the preeminent fighting service of the day.

Then Minister of the Naval Service, Louis-Philippe Brodeur (father and grandfather of two future admirals of the RCN), welcomed Niobe and its crew with the following proclamation:

“This event tells the story of a dawning epoch of self-confidence. It proclaims to the whole world that Canada is willing and proud to provide as rapidly as circumstances permit for her local naval defence, and to safeguard her share in the commerce and trade of the empire in whose world-girding belt Canada is the bright and precious buckle.”

Upon transfer to the Naval Service of Canada, Niobe, along with HMCS Rainbow, became the first two in a long and illustrious line of ships and submarines that have served, and continue to serve, Canada with excellence at home and abroad.

During the early months of the First World War, Niobe patrolled the St. Lawrence approaches and eastern coast of America, chasing and intercepting German ships. In July 1915 it returned to Halifax and served as a docked depot ship, hosting enlisted sailors, trainees and the Canadian naval headquarters.

Crew members of Niobe also played a rescue role in the devastating Halifax Explosion.

On December 6, 1917, Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel Imo in Halifax Harbour. When a fire broke out on Mont Blanc, Niobe’s Acting Boatswain Albert Charles Mattison led a rescue attempt of seven men in the ship’s pinnace, a small steamboat. As the men approached the Mont Blanc, it exploded, killing them instantly, destroying the pinnace, damaging Niobe and devastating much of Halifax.

For their rescue efforts during the explosion, Acting Boatswain Mattison and Stoker Petty Officer Ernest Edmund Beard were posthumously awarded Albert Medals, both of which are kept at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Repaired after the explosion, Niobe continued its role as a depot ship until being sold off as surplus in 1920 and eventually scrapped.

But the story of Niobe was not yet finished.

On October 17, 2014, a 900-kilogram anchor believed to be one of Niobe’s was discovered in Halifax Harbour during the renovation of a jetty warehouse.

“The discovery of one of HMCS Niobe’s anchors in Halifax Harbour just a week before proclaiming October 21 to be known and celebrated in the RCN as Niobe Day is astonishing,” said Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, Commander of the RCN at the time.

“This is a true blessing and a rare opportunity to connect the dots between our forefathers and the next generations of sailors of the RCN.”

Two years later, the ship’s wheel of Niobe was returned to Canada after 100 years.

The Canadian War Museum purchased the wheel from the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum in New Jersey with the support of the National Collection Fund, which was created to acquire and conserve ships’ artifacts of significance to Canada’s heritage.

“This was the largest remaining artifact from Niobe,” said Jeff Noakes, historian at the Canadian War Museum. “We had a rare opportunity to acquire something of importance to Canada’s naval history. We were in a position to take advantage of the opportunity and are thrilled that we will be able to preserve the wheel for present and future generations.”

These artifacts, representative of the RCN’s very beginnings, are beyond price and treasured by the sailors who, like their forebears who sailed in Niobe, valiantly put to sea in defence of Canada.