Richard O. Mayne. Betrayed: Scandal, Politics, and Canadian Naval Leadership (Studies in Canadian Military History). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. 296 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1296-2.
Reviewed by Marc Milner (Department of History, University of New Brunswick)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2008)
Restoring the Navy in Canadian History
The relationship between the army and the government of prime minister Mackenzie King has been a central part of the Canadian historiography of the Second World War for generations. The army's "demands" for more men, for conscription--on two occasions causing major political problems for the government--and the dismissal of General Andy McNaughton in 1943 are stories embedded in the literature of Canada's war effort from 1939 to 1945. Remarkably, the links between the navy and the government have been largely ignored. Just about the only naval event which has garnered any interest outside of the Canadian naval history field itself is the "defeat" of the navy in the Gulf and River St. Lawrence in 1942, which led to the closure of the St. Lawrence system to oceanic shipping late in the year. Attacks by German submariners along the coast occasioned much panic locally, in the media and in Parliament. The fall-out from this was well described by Michael Hadley years ago in U-Boats against Canada (1985), and historians of Canada during the war years who have read Hansard and the press of the era have been aware of this crisis and its important role in Canada's Second World War story for some time.
But for a number of reasons, the story of the Silent Service and its relationship with Mackenzie King's government has been absent from the general history of Canada's war experience. Some have written about it, including C. P. Stacey in Arms, Men and Government (the official history of defense policy during the Second World War, published in 1970), this reviewer, and others. But as a rule, "Canadianists" do not read Canadian military history, and the subject has never been thoroughly explored nor has an attempt been made to integrate that story into the larger national one. Richard Mayne's Betrayed takes us a long way towards filling that void.
The significance of Mayne's new book lies not simply in a complex and intriguing story well told, but in the fact that the wartime navy was very much a creature of King's government. Mayne plumbs the depths of that linkage. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) expanded enormously between 1939 and 1945, becoming the third largest navy in the world by the end of the war. Much of the fleet was built in Canada and sustained by Canadian industry. This large expansion program, begun even before the fall of France in June 1940, fulfilled two crucial objectives of King's war effort: the industrialization of Canada, and a contribution to the fighting that would not produce a huge casualty bill. For these two reasons the navy was given a virtual blank check from the start of the war to expand to the limits of Canada's industrial base, its wealth, and its manpower. It was not until late 1943, as the navy schemed to acquire the final elements of a postwar fleet--especially aircraft carriers--that King began to balk at naval expansion. Although historians have not probed this theme extensively, it is clear that King and his cabinet hoped that Canadians would identify with the navy's efforts and that its role in crucial allied operations would mitigate the urge to deploy the army in combat. In this, King proved sadly mistaken and the navy was unable to save him from embarrassment in 1942 and political crisis in 1943. Mayne's exhaustively researched and crisply written Betrayed is the sorry tale of tensions within the navy and between the RCN and its government during those two crucial years. This struggle culminated in the dismissal of the chief of the naval staff, Rear Admiral Percy Walkers Nelles, at the end of 1943.
Mayne's story begins with a discontented reservist named Andrew Maclean. The son of publishing magnate Hugh Maclean and nephew of the founder of Maclean's magazine, Maclean had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserves (RCNVR) in 1927, and commanded the naval reserve division in Toronto, HMCS York, until 1931. As Mayne describes it, Maclean ran York as his own personal "elite gentlemen's club where the sons of Toronto's rich and powerful would go for their military service" (p. 14). Maclean left the RCNVR to serve in prime minister R. B. Bennett's personal staff, and tried to join the air force in 1939 on the outbreak of war. It is clear that he felt a certain sense of entitlement based on his experience in the Great War and his social standing. When the navy recalled him to active service, Maclean tried to negotiate his status, demanding the rank of commander (the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel), and had his father intervene on his behalf at the highest level.
Maclean's ambition might have worked in 1914, but by 1939 the career professionals who ran the RCN had little time for the amateurs of the RCNVR, Maclean included. The regular navy found reservists who were not simply "playing" at being sailors, to be "undisciplined, free thinkers" (p. 17)--descriptions that fit Maclean to a T. The difference between the average RCNVR and Maclean, however, was that Maclean had powerful political connections and was prepared to use them. Therein lay the rub. Unwanted by the British, which considered him "unsuited for naval service," Maclean proved to be an unruly subordinate in the RCN. He snubbed senior British officials during a brief while posted to a liaison position in the United Kingdom, and when sent back to Canada assumed responsibilities that were not his. Eventually the RCN assigned him duty as "Senior Officer, Fairmiles," in charge of the preparation and oversight of Canada's burgeoning fleet of modest, 112-foot patrol vessels. By the winter of 1942 Maclean was frustrated with having to work under regular force officers who, it seems, knew less about the navy than he did. And so Maclean decided to use both his family and media connections to claw his way out from under the smothering embrace of the naval hierarchy.
By the time Andrew Maclean began his petulant assault on the RCN the Germans were attacking Canada's coast for the first time since 1917. Angus L. Macdonald, the naval minister, found himself answering pointed questions in the House about very specific issues of naval planning, command, and operations put to him by the MP from Maclean's home riding in Toronto. Many of these mirrored complaints already raised by Maclean inside the service. Meanwhile, Boating magazine ran an anonymous editorial criticizing the RCN's handling of the Fairmiles. As the battle intensified, Maclean tried to raise other RCNVR in rebellion as well, eventually shaping the struggle as one between gifted amateurs whose contributions were being stifled by uninspired professional naval officers who ran the RCN as their own preserve to the exclusion of men like Maclean. On several occasions Maclean--still a serving officer--threatened the naval minister that he would go public with the tensions between the RCN and its reservists, and bring a plague down on all their houses. Maclean persisted in this campaign during the German attacks in the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence, when the navy's response was so visibly feeble and when the country clamored for answers as to why Canada's major artery could not be defended. Eventually in October 1942 Maclean was persuaded to retire from the RCN, although that did not mean that this thorn in the navy's side went away.
Mayne's recounting of the Maclean episode places the navy and its conduct of the war fully inside Canada's domestic politics during that dreadful year of 1942, but more revelations follow. For Canadian naval historians the greatest of these was the news that other reservists in the fleet who were also part of Canada's social elite joined in the chorus of discontent. In particular, RCNVR officers deeply engaged in battling the wolf packs in the middle of the Atlantic in 1942 provided direct evidence about the state of the war, their ships, and equipment to J. J. Connolly, Macdonald's executive assistant, behind the backs of their naval superiors. At issue was the modernization of the fleet's ships, especially the fitting of the latest radar which could detect U-boats attacking on the surface. Connolly ran a network of these informants, mostly his personal friends from the Montreal establishment, and, presumably, channelled the information in some form to his minister.
The irony of this revelation by Mayne is that one of Connolly's key informants in 1942, Louis Audette, a Montreal lawyer and a childhood friend of Connolly, was a friend and confidante of a whole generation of Canadian naval historians and never once let it slip that he was one of Connolly's key snitches. It turns out that Audette and several others in command of corvettes in the Atlantic were in routine correspondence with Connolly. By the fall of 1942 they had much to discuss. Audette commanded the corvette HMCS Amherst operating between Newfoundland and Ireland against the heaviest concentrations of German submarines. It is, then, perhaps understandable that when Connolly asked about Audette's "wife," Audette replied that her eyesight was poor and she did not get much work done during her last visit to the doctor. What is remarkable is that Audette took the story of his secret correspondence with Connolly to his grave, leaving the trail in his personal papers. The reason for this--unknown to Mayne--may have been Audette's well-developed sense of propriety, often in evidence to those who dined at his home on Besserer Street in Ottawa: Audette would have talked had Connolly done so. Indeed, this reviewer was prodded frequently by Audette to go see Connolly, or to allow Audette to invite him to a dinner meeting. I always put him off, saying I was not ready and did not know what to ask; I had to see the Macdonald papers first. The day I wrote Audette in July 1982 saying I was ready to meet Connolly was the day that Connolly died (there is a lesson here!). So the revelation about Audette and others had to await Mayne's examination of the Audette papers in the Library and Archives Canada. The discontent in the mid-ocean fleet which Audette represented found resonance among British officers in the United Kingdom, who were prepared to accept the RCNVR officer's views of the mismanagement of the RCN by the regular navy and by the government.
Perhaps none of this would have matter had it not been for several other key developments. In late 1942 the British asked the Canadian government to withdraw its embattled escorts from the main theatre of the North Atlantic war: the mid-ocean stretch between Newfoundland and Ireland, where Audette was serving. This was where the Battle of the Atlantic was to be decided, and it was the operational role which gave the King government's naval effort a high profile. However, while 35 percent of the Allied escorts involved in that key zone were Canadian by late 1942, their convoys suffered some 80 percent of Allied shipping losses in the last six months of that year and the British wanted them out. By the end of 1942 it looked like the Canada's naval war effort was falling apart on all fronts: first the St Lawrence, then the mid-ocean. This had important implications for the federal government which had invested heavily in expense and rhetoric in the navy. With the air force barely engaged in the fighting, the army stilling sitting in garrison in the United Kingdom following disasters at Dieppe and Hong Kong, and everyone else in the fight--even the tardy Americans--the mood in the cabinet in late December 1942 was despondent. It was no wonder that Col. J. L. Ralston, the minister of national defence, opined at the meeting convened to discuss the British request to withdraw the RCN from the mid-ocean, that "if the war ended now we would have to hang our heads in shame."
The wider context for all this--poorly handled, unfortunately, in Mayne's account--is the impatience of the Canadian electorate with Mackenzie King's war effort. Clearly, Canadians identified "war effort" with fighting, and as Ralston observed at that cabinet meeting, the British, Russians, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians, and the Americans were in ground combat. By early 1943 the Liberal government desperately needed evidence that Canada, too, was in the fight, taking the war to the enemy. Unfortunately, the navy was reeling from its troubles from 1942 and, as Mayne describes better than any other source yet published, was busy tearing itself apart even as it struggled to improve its operational efficiency and deliver the government from an angry electorate. The drafts of King's speeches for the spring of 1943 reveal his attempts to use the navy to salvage the prestige of his government by illustrating how the RCN was taking the war to the enemy by sinking submarines. By the spring the British were destroying U-boats by the score, and it was reasonable to assume the RCN was doing the same. King's government needed international recognition for its naval war effort in the spring of 1943 and it needed Canadians to believe that the RCN was fighting the enemy. He tried repeatedly to talk about Canadian naval victories over the enemy in his speeches early in that year, only to find that there were none. Each time King's speech had to be amended to innocuous platitudes about the navy doing important work. Nonetheless, King expected the Allies to acknowledge Canada's contribution to victory in the Atlantic in the spring of 1943, when the communiqué was issued by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in June. After all, fully half of the Allied escort vessels in the decisive theatre of the Atlantic war in early 1943 were Canadian; they made Allied victory over the U-boats possible. But there was no acknowledgement in the Allied communiqué announcing that victory. King complained bitterly to Churchill about the oversight. In the end, King had to send the army to Sicily in July to demonstrate his will to fight, and he complained bitterly, too, when the first communiqués about the Allied landings in Sicily in July failed to mention the Canadians. Mayne drives a very narrow route through this part of the story, telling us what he has discovered. But his account, unfortunately, is contextually weak and the implications of his findings are poorly developed.
The staging of the Allied summit in Quebec in August 1943 came too late to placate an angry electorate. By then four federal by-elections and the Ontario general election had gone against the Liberals, and the spectre of a Tory-led pro-war government loomed. Should King's government fall Canada might once again descend into apprehended civil war and--if you believe King's wilder visions--the Allies might lose the war as a result. Not surprisingly, the naval minister now went looking for a scapegoat at Naval Service Headquarters.
Macdonald was not the only one looking for someone upon which to pin the navy's "failures." As Mayne recounts better than anyone yet, the new vice chief of the naval staff, Rear Admiral G. C. Jones, arrived in Ottawa in late 1942 with an agenda: he wanted to be chief. Jones immediately started a whispering campaign behind Nelles's back, undermining his chief's stature with Macdonald and eventually encouraging Macdonald to send Connolly off on a secret fact-finding mission to see why the RCN had been so apparently incompetent. Connolly already knew where to go, but he also travelled to Britain to interview senior British officers to whom the reservists in the fleet had unburdened themselves. Mayne adds new context and detail to this familiar story, especially concerning the role of Connolly and machinations of Jones. Connolly's report in early November was a condemnation of the RCN's handling of its expansion. Macdonald, perhaps driven by political panic and recrimination in the cabinet over the failure of the RCN to deliver the government from its problems in 1943, used Connolly's report to attack the navy's senior management, and Nelles in particular. His charges were preposterous and clear evidence of a minister out of his depth and in trouble. He accused Nelles of lying, of deliberately keeping him misinformed, and claimed at one point that had he known about equipment problems in the fleet in 1942 he would have withdrawn it from service until it could be refitted--a fatuous idea given the state of the war in that year.
Mayne is cautious in his judgements of everyone's actions in the final act of this sordid tale, as perhaps he ought to be. The details of the confrontation between Macdonald and Nelles are recounted in greater detail in this reviewer's North Atlantic Run (1985), and Mayne does not repeat them here. Unfortunately, he also does not reflect on the implications of his revelations for our understanding of that final struggle between an exhausted chief of the naval staff and a minister in trouble with his cabinet colleagues. The whole affair, from the battle with Maclean through to the unceremonious sacking of the chief of the naval staff in December 1943, reflects badly on most who were involved and on Macdonald in particular. Mayne might have been more forthright and direct in assessments had he taken more care to set this story firmly into both the domestic and naval operational contexts.
It remains for some enterprising graduate student or scholar to take this to the next level, to fully expose the role of King, Macdonald, and Ralston in building up the navy, and to fully integrate the story of the navy's war into the literature on the domestic politics of Mackenzie King's government. King had invested a great deal in the growth of the RCN. It allowed Canada to fight in ways which contributed to industrialization, in a theater which was crucial to the Allied war effort, without getting a large number of Canadians killed in the process. It was reasonable to expect more political return for that effort, had the capriciousness of war not undermined the navy's operational efficiency in 1942 and its ability to participate in the great carnage of U-boats that followed in early 1943.
Those familiar with the existing naval literature know full well the scope and difficulties of 1942, and the limits within which the RCN was forced to act as Allied fortunes collapsed globally. That literature provides a deep and necessary context for understanding how the navy actually ran its war, and for understanding Mayne's book. The cognoscenti will see Mayne's book for the wonderful revelation it is. He has exposed the rich texture of the navy's internal politics and shed light on the machinations of some the RCN's key officers during the most difficult years of the war. We can only hope that the uninitiated, those unfamiliar with the wider context of Mayne's story, will not see Betrayal as simply evidence of the general ineptness and bungling of the military in time of war.
. Marc Milner, The U-Boat Hunters: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Offensive Against Germany's Submarines, 1943-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 19.
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Marc Milner. Review of Mayne, Richard O., Betrayed: Scandal, Politics, and Canadian Naval Leadership (Studies in Canadian Military History).
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