Reviewed by Todd Jerry
Published on H-Canada (September, 2010)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth (King's University College, UWO)
One Hundred Years at Sea: Growth and Development of the Canadian Navy
When the first edition of Canada’s Navy was published in 1999, a second edition was immediately necessary; first, to address the final years of the first century, and second, to discuss the naval renaissance that occurred during the 1990s. It is these final years--the post 9/11 years--that are the focus of Marc Milner’s additional sections. As Milner affirms, the core of his work remains unchanged--and for good reason. His updates consist largely of corrections and new interviews with past and present members of Canada’s navy.
To recap, Milner chronicles the burgeoning service’s beginnings with the 1910 naval debates and the subsequent evolution from a simple Fisheries Protection Service. Milner goes on to depict the critical political maneuvering that threatened the navy’s existence continuously until 1935. Throughout this period, while Ottawa was making a concerted effort to ignore the navy, its North Atlantic neighbors, Britain and the United States, were taking part in a global naval race. By 1939, as outright conflict began to loom on the horizon, Canada’s prime minister, W. L. Mackenzie King, found a purpose for the navy. The Second World War provided an impetus for the creation of the navy as a national institution; the navy was intended to provide a venue for Canadian participation in the war, but also as a way to avoid the casualties--and resulting social upheaval--of the Great War’s western front. Milner asserts that the navy was not truly Canadian until this national self-interest outweighed the organizational and financial convenience of leaning on the British Royal Navy. As a result, King’s government embraced its naval role protecting convoys, acting as a staging ground for transatlantic convoys and constructing fleets of minesweepers, and the corvette-type whaler for both Canadian and British use. By 1945, the result was a Canadian Navy that was the world’s third largest. While the Second World War had succeeded in cementing the navy in the nation’s consciousness, the decades after 1945 were a return to the to-ing and fro-ing of political debate and resultant naval fluctuations. This period was also marked by the death of the Royal Canadian Navy via integration with the other armed services, and the retirement of the Red Ensign. Operationally, the Soviets provided a troubling--if inconsistent--opponent, threatening Canadian littorals until the late 1980s. The product of more than forty years of joint North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercises and operations, however, had laid the groundwork for one of Milner’s significantly identified trends: Canadian interoperability with the United States Navy.
The two decades following the conclusion of the Cold War are the true focus of this second edition. It is during this period Milner cites the greatest shift in naval strategy since the creation of the navy: a decreased focus on the Atlantic theater. Milner explains this migration away from the Atlantic through a linkage between the navy and national foreign policy. “The Canadian Navy’s principle operational task,” Milner explains, is “support of Canadian foreign policy and the international community on a worldwide scale” (p. 304). After 1990, this meant a lessening Atlantic-centric vision of international affairs in favor of developing regions of the world. The navy as a whole adapted admirably to this changing vision, aided in no small part by the forces’ revitalization. By the year 2000, the entire fleet had either been replaced or drastically modernized; the Canadian Patrol Frigates (CPFs), Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs), and newly acquired Upholder-class submarines provided a reliable and adaptable foundation for the fleet to meet new challenges.
The appalling attacks of 9/11 and resulting invasion of Afghanistan provided a new look for the Canadian Navy, with an opportunity to display its excellence in a new theater of operations. Milner reveals that by the end of 2001, one-third of the fleet was on station in the Persian Gulf, providing “fully capable, self-contained combat forces that could also exercise command over larger forces” (p. 316). This represented the culmination of Canada’s goal for its navy; it was succeeding in new operational theaters, operating seamlessly with the United States Navy, and excelling because of their modern ships, equipment, and training.
Despite heavy, protracted service in the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Somalia, as well as in home waters, Milner notes a distressing trend of marginalizing the navy. Canadian foreign policy has focused largely on what Milner has dubbed “army-centric” missions (Balkans, Afghanistan, etc.) and has thus once again restarted a cycle of naval decline (p. 308). The modernizations of the 1990s have been put in danger as the necessary funds, upkeep, and replacement programs have not been forthcoming. Milner concludes by cautioning that a continuation of this trend might well prevent the navy from rejuvenating itself for continued exemplary service.
If a complaint can be found with Milner’s Canada’s Navy, it might well be in the citations. Following a footnote frequently results in picking up another work by Milner. But is this a critique of Milner’s research or a reflection of the scarcity of works in this arena? A brief glance at any university library’s “Canada--Navy” shelf should reveal that the latter is more likely the case. Overall, Milner’s work provides a critical linkage, connecting the various disparate narratives of the navy’s first century. By producing a focused and consolidated history of the service, Milner has achieved a great accomplishment with this much-needed addition and upgrade to the history of the Canadian Navy.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Todd Jerry. Review of Milner, Marc, Canada's Navy: The First Century.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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