A century of standing on guard below the waves

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Crowsnest - Spring 2014 / April 23, 2014

By Lieutenant-Commander Al Blondin

In commemoration of a colourful history of challenges, controversy and triumphs, submariners will celebrate 100 years of service on board submarines on behalf of Canada on August 5, 2014.

In order to understand the members of this distinct community within the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), it is essential to examine their history, the nature of the vessels they operate, and the kind of missions they are charged with.

The boats

Silent, sneaky, invisible and deadly, submarines have been a source of debate and controversy as a strategic military asset since the Turtle’s attack on HMS Eagle in New York Harbor during the American War of Independence on September 7, 1776. As technology evolved over the years, many of the challenges intrinsic to the operation of this new type of war vessel were overcome, but the controversy over their acquisition and use continued.

Many, especially in the Royal Navy (RN), decried the military use of submarines as “ungentlemanly” and contrary to the best traditions of naval warfare. But it could be argued that the insidious and seemingly unfair advantage attributed to these vessels was the very reason their development continued. On the brink of the First World War, 138 years later, Canada’s own submarine story began amidst intrigue and controversy.

Surreptitious beginnings

Canada bought its first submarines following a series of clandestine negotiations between an American shipbuilder and Richard McBride, the Premier of British Columbia, on August 5, 1914. Known simply as Her Majesty’s Canadian (HMC) Submarines CC-1 and CC-2, the boats were sneaked out silently on their electric motors in the dead of night from a Seattle shipyard without U.S. government approval. While still at sea in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the submarines were covertly inspected and purchased cash-on-delivery using a B.C. government cheque of $1.15 million, just as the First World War started.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Esquimalt Harbour shore batteries almost shelled the first Canadian submarines as they made their approach to their new home. Esquimalt was one of the very harbours they were purchased to protect.

Premier McBride is said to have acquired the boats in order to alleviate his constituents’ fears of an imminent attack by a squadron of German Navy warships that had been reported in the Pacific. Although the threat never materialized, the mere presence of the new submarines served as a deterrent for enemy forces and reassurance to the population. It was an early example of the strategic advantage of having Canadian submarines. 

Keeping the dream alive without boats

In the 50 intervening years until the Oberon-class submarines were built, the RCN only commissioned four boats: two British H-class and two captured U-boats. However, RCN submarine expertise survived as Canadian submariners maintained and honed their skills by serving in RN boats throughout the world. During both world wars, the RN accepted a total of 34 Canadians into its submarine service. Canadian submariners commanded 15 RN submarines, the same number of boats as the total inventory of commissioned RCN submarines in the last 100 years. 

1945-1966: An exercise in partnership and collaboration

Following the end of the Second World War, the significant drawdown of RCN assets did not bode well for Canada’s submarine service. The RCN was only able to maintain its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability by renting RN boats through formal agreements. Eventually, as a result of a much simpler, less formal relationship with the U.S. Navy (USN), various American submarines were also made available for a limited but precious amount of anti-submarine training for RCN ships. Until 1955, RCN ASW training needs were therefore met by rotating two RN submarines per year in Halifax and taking advantage of training opportunities afforded by the USN.

Following the end of the Second World War, because of their newly acquired access to advanced German submarine technologies, the build-up of the Soviet submarine fleet was expected to become a significant new threat. The Soviets quickly took the lead in submarine development and construction, competing with the U.S. and its allies for military dominance of the subsurface world for the next 30 years.

In light of this emerging threat, the needs of a Canadian-based submarine service were re-evaluated and the RCN finally came to an agreement with the RN for the creation of the Sixth Submarine Squadron (SM6) in March 1955. Based out of Halifax, SM6 was made up of mostly RN A-class submarines, commanded by RN officers with no more than half the crews being Canadian.

Canadian boats at last!

In the early years of the Cold War, ASW became a critical element of NATO defence strategy. There was much deliberation about the value of including submarines in the RCN fleet. The new St. Laurent-class of ships were built with excellent ASW capabilities for the period, but it was clear to naval planners that submarines were the best vessels to detect other submarines because they could operate in three dimensions and use the sound-bending properties of the ocean to maximum tactical advantage.

While surface ships can eliminate most of the noise interference caused by surface activity by towing a submerged sonar array cable, unlike submarines operating at depth they cannot completely eliminate the noise they produce themselves. In a deadly, unforgiving game where the prize normally goes to the most silent platform, submarines are clearly the ASW vessels of choice.

Canada acquired its first Cold War submarine in 1961. Based on the West Coast, HMCS Grilse was a USN Balao-class fleet boat obtained on a five-year lease agreement. Used as a training boat, Grilse was operated extensively during its first 16 months of service, traveling a distance equivalent to more than twice the earth’s circumference and spending 374 days at sea. After seven years of service, Grilse was replaced by another USN fleet boat. USS Argonaut, a Tench-class submarine purchased in 1968, was commissioned in the RCN as HMCS Rainbow and served in the West Coast fleet until 1974.

In March 1962, approval was finally received for the purchase of a fleet of three British Oberon-class submarines. These would be the first new submarines the RCN would acquire since the unconventional purchase of CC-1 and CC-2 in 1914. The submarines, HMCS Ojibwa, Okanagan and Onondaga, became the heart of the Halifax-based First Canadian Submarine Squadron.

At the time of their acquisition in the mid-1960s, the Oberons were considered to be among the quietest submarines in the world. After being refitted with upgraded sonar suites, fire-control systems and Mark 48 torpedoes in the early 1980s, their quietness continued to pay dividends that kept them relevant as an ASW weapon platform until the last, HMCS Onondaga, was decommissioned in 2000.

The challenges of a new submarine fleet for Canada

A testimony to the challenges of acquiring submarines in Canada is the fact that preparations for replacing Canada’s ageing Oberon-class submarines began in the early 1980s and was finally resolved when HMCS Victoria was commissioned in 2000 following a long and complex process.

Canada’s newest submarines were originally known as the British Type 2400 submarines. During the early 1980s, none had been built yet. They were only one among the various candidates being considered during preliminary discussions for acquiring as many as 16 new diesel-electric submarines. This original project was displaced however, when 1987’s White Paper on Defence called for 12 nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines instead.

The end of the Cold War resulted in a whole re-evaluation of Canada’s defence requirements. Significant cuts to the Defence budget during the 1990s added additional pressures that caused many in Canada’s naval community to predict the imminent demise of a Canadian submarine capability.

Then, like a Phoenix rising from its ashes, the submarine force was re-energized with the announcement that Canada would purchase four submarines from the United Kingdom in 1998. These boats were the only four Upholder-class (Type 2400) the RN managed to build before their own conventional submarine program was cancelled in favour of maintaining a nuclear-only submarine fleet. The four former Upholders became the Victoria-class as they adopted the names HMC Submarines Victoria, Windsor, Chicoutimi and Corner Brook.

Before the new submarines could be added to the fleet, significant challenges still laid ahead. The British boats required many upgrades and repairs. Then, tragedy struck when a fatal fire erupted aboard HMS Upholder (HMCS Chicoutimi) at the beginning of its voyage to Halifax in 2004.

Other priorities exasperated the submarine program setbacks in the following years as the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) struggled to meet with the increasing demands of the conflict in Afghanistan. As the death toll rose, army and air force procurement was at the forefront, while Canadians clamoured for better armour, vehicles and helicopters for their troops.

Success marked by determined incremental progress

Despite significant challenges that continued to plague the Victoria-class over the next years, the Canadian submarine force persisted in its efforts and incremental progress was made to bring the new class of boats towards full operational readiness.

The ranks of Canadian submariners continued to fill as training progressed and HMCS Victoria finally fired its first Mark 48 torpedo in 2012, becoming the first submarine of its class to reach high readiness. Victoria spent most of 2013 at sea, culminating with its successful deployment on Operation Caribbe in the fall when the submarine excelled in its covert role.

HMCS Windsor followed suit until a defect was discovered in one of its two generators. The submarine remained operational with certain restrictions that did not prevent it from accumulating 119 days at sea in 2013, ending with its participation in Exercise Atlantic Shield in early 2014. Windsor’s generator is expected to be replaced during a planned docking period from March to October 2014. The boat is scheduled to return to sea in November.

HMCS Chicoutimi reached a significant benchmark in November 2013. After an extensive overhaul, Chicoutimi finally came off the floating dock to undergo a series of final preparations and trials. It is expected to return to sea in late 2014.

On the eve of its centenary, the future of Canadian submarines looks promising. Despite setbacks, Victoria-class submarines spent over 250 days at sea during the last fiscal year. The RCN continues steady progress towards its objective of having three of four Victoria-class submarines at sea by the end of 2014.

Canadian submarines have evolved tremendously in the last 100 years; however, it is interesting to note that the fundamental requirements and characters of submariners have not changed that much.

A Canadian submariner portrait

Canada’s submariners are often described as a breed apart. Like other specialist occupations in the CAF, they are a relatively small community with a subculture of their own. The precarious three-dimensional environment they work in shapes their distinctive and often colourful character. Their lives depend on it.

Operating complex vessels in an inherently unforgiving environment, submariners are motivated and trained to know their boats intimately and perform as a cohesive team beyond the already high level expected of surface sailors.

In his preface to Julie H. Ferguson’s book, Deeply Canadian, retired Captain (Navy) Keith Nesbit noted, “Canadians make ideal submariners. They have an ability to tolerate their fellow men, often under trying conditions. They have a dedicated, no-nonsense approach to their work. And they have a refreshingly irreverent (and somewhat less than 100 per cent politically correct) sense of humour. Our submarine service may well be, in fact, the most Canadian part of the Canadian Forces.”

Last words

The persistence and quality of the service performed by Canadian submariners over the last century is a tribute to the tenacity of these sailors who, despite adversity, never gave up their dream of standing on guard for Canada while serving beneath the waves. These proud individuals come from all walks of life but have in common the unique and intimate experience of sharing a challenging, covert undersea environment on board capable, complex and versatile machines that still cause the uninitiated to shudder. Submariners accomplish this while displaying the best of Canadian values: innovation, quiet competence, determination, excellence and, above all, that unrelenting and irreverent sense of humour.

Lieutenant-Commander Alain Blondin is a public affairs officer currently serving with the Royal Canadian Navy in Ottawa. He also served in HMCS Ojibwa from 1982-1985.


HMCS Windsor sails into Halifax after training exercises in 2006. Photo: DND

HMCS Chicoutimi comes off the floating dock to undergo sea trials in November 2013. Photo: DND

HMS Astute arrives alongside HMS Auriga at Sixth Submarine Squadron in Halifax on August 19, 1961, with HMCS Bonaventure in the background.

HMCS Ojibwa conducts submerged submarine rescue vehicle trials at the Royal Navy submarine base in Faslane, Scotland on September 1, 1975.

CC-1 and CC-2 arrive in Halifax on October 14, 1917 after their transit from Esquimalt, B.C., through the Panama Canal.

Photos courtesy of the Perkins Collection