Why Navies

In a country as vast as Canada, where the majority of the population lives far from the sea, it is difficult for a navy to make a tangible impression upon the people it serves and protects. While Canadians can understand the land, and witness and experience aviation on a regular basis, relatively few know the sea. Moreover, in terms of Canada's military heritage, while the triumphs and tragedies of armies are linked to specific landmarks, sailors have usually toiled on the open expanses of the world's seas and oceans. Canadians can visualize, study and even walk upon battlefields like Vimy Ridge and Dieppe, and thus gain an understanding of the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought there. It is far more challenging to appreciate the impact and efforts of those who served and fought on the broad, anonymous expanses of the world's oceans. The adage "out of sight; out of mind" applies. The Centennial of the Navy being celebrated in 2010 presents an opportunity for Canadians to learn about the contribution that service has made to their history, security, prosperity and international reputation.

That contribution is most easily measured by the navy's role in the various conflicts that have challenged the country, where, no less than soldiers and aviators, sailors defended Canada, made important contributions to victory and increased Canada's international stature. When German submarines threatened the east coast fishing fleet in the final year of the First World War, Canada's small fleet of anti-submarine trawlers helped protect the livelihood of many coastal communities. During the Korean War, the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, and in the current war against terrorism, the navy formed Canada's first response to the crises, and the rapid deployment of Canadian ships was a clear indication of the nation's support for international law and institutions like the United Nations, as well as its determination to stand up against aggression. Canadian sailors were thus symbolic of the principles that lie at the very core of the values Canada wants to represent to the world.

Canada's navy played an important role in the conflicts listed above, but during the Second World War, the navy, like the country's contribution in general, was indispensable to the Allied victory. In the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of the war, Canada's navy defended the valuable merchant convoys carrying food and supplies to beleaguered Great Britain; then, when the tide of war began to turn, it ensured that the personnel and materiel required for the invasion of Northwest Europe made it safely across the North Atlantic. The navy then made a critical contribution to that invasion, participating in virtually all the tasks that ultimately made the D-Day landings a success. Canadian ships also fought in the Mediterranean and Pacific theatres, and hundreds of Canadian sailors served in British ships in every theatre of the war. No matter where or in which nation's ships they served, Canadian sailors made an essential contribution to the final victory and added an important chapter to Canada's rich military heritage.

This legacy carried over into the Cold War, when the navy became an important partner in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although Canadian ships, aircraft and submarines evolved into an elite anti-submarine force that earned universal respect from its allies, the navy's influence extended much further. The fleet included a number of research ships that increased scientific exploration of the maritime environment, including in the Arctic where they also promoted Canadian sovereignty. Moreover, for the first time in its history the navy utilized ships designed and built by Canadians, in Canada-a trend that has continued over of the past 50 years of its history. This not only sustained a burgeoning shipbuilding industry, but also advanced the development of technical expertise in Canadian industry. Warships and their systems became increasingly sophisticated during the Cold War era, and Canadian firms developed cutting-edge weapon, sensor, communication and digital systems that proved second to none. Beyond promoting development and expertise in new industries and technologies, the design of advanced ships and systems demonstrated yet another venue where Canada could be a world leader.

So, at various times during the first century of its existence, the Canadian Navy has enhanced Canada's international reputation, helped to spark economic development, fought with courage and tenacity, and reflected the qualities that Canadians want to promote and see from their military. At 100 years of age, the Navy remains comparatively young, but it will remain an important ingredient of our national fabric so long as the seas meet our shores. "Out of sight?"; perhaps, but a justifiable source of national pride nonetheless.

By Michael Whitby,
Senior Naval Historian
Directorate of History and Heritage,
Department of National Defence

Anti-Aircraft Gun and Crew in Action
Anti-Aircraft Gun and Crew in Action

Canadian war artist Donald Cameron Mackay's painting depicts a gun crew firing on enemy aircraft using a 20mm Oerlikon cannon.

The Swiss-designed Oerlikon, widely used by both Allied and Axis forces during the Second World War, had a higher rate of fire than the 2-pounder pom-poms and had more stopping power than the lighter machine-guns fitted to Royal Canadian Navy's ships. While used as anti-aircraft weapons, as seen here, on a wide range of ships, Oerlikons also proved effective in engagements against surfaced German submarines, keeping enemy crews below decks and away from their own guns.

Anti-Aircraft Gun and Crew in Action
Painted by Donald C. Mackay
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
CWM 19710261-4197