Confederation Marine Modellers

Nautical lore - Flower class corvettes, an extract from "The Corvette Navy" by James B. Lamb.

Canada had two navies in the Second World War. First, of course, was the Royal Canadian Navy, the big navy, the “real” navy, the “pusser” navy. It was, as its corps of public relations officers endlessly reiterated, a very big deal indeed. Thousands upon thousands of uniformed men and women filled teeming offices and training establishments, vast and ever-growing complexes of brick and concrete, representing the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars. Its organization, embracing dozens of commands, hundreds of departments, and thousands of experts and specialists, ranging from physicists to dietitians, from jurists to journalists, was a triumph of administrative genius which represented one of the nation’s major wartime accomplishments.

The little handful of professional naval officers - all that the nation possessed and the only Canadians trained over long peacetime years to fight a war at sea - were bustled ashore into offices. Their places afloat were taken by a handful of former merchant seamen, now officers of the Royal Canadian Reserve, and by young men in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, many of whom were culled from offices ashore, and most of whom had never been to sea before. It was a situation worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan: trained seamen were put in offices ashore and trained office managers were sent to sea. As a result, Canada’s professional naval officers were to play an ever-diminishing role in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Canada’s second navy was a much different force: a bunch of amateur sailors, recruited from every walk of civilian life, manning ships deemed too small for command by professional naval officers. The ships - Algerines, corvettes, frigates, Bangors - were as cheap as they could be built, and their officers and men were involved, not with admirals and captains, but with characters like Two-Gun Ryan, Harry the Horse, Death Ray, Foghorn Davis, and The Mad Spaniard. It was an amateur, improvised, cut-rate navy, but its purpose and accomplishment were clear: it fought, and won, the Battle of the Atlantic. This was the corvette navy, the little navy, Canada’s other navy, manned by amateurs like me.

This curious situation had been brought about by a miscalculation of the role the corvettes could play in the naval war. Originally they had been regarded as a stop-gap and, as such, unworthy as commands for Canada’s few, and precious, trained naval officers. Apart from those allowed afloat in the RCN’s handful of pre-war destroyers, permanent-force officers were hoarded ashore against the time when the new super-ships would appear to fight the glorious Armageddon against Germany's powerful surface fleet. Meanwhile, the little jerry-built corvettes were filled up with reservists and packed off to do what they could in the squalid brawls with U-boats around the herds of merchantmen. While waiting ashore, RCN officers accumulated experience in positions of responsibility, and the promotions that went with them; a few years ashore could do more for a fellow than a lifetime afloat.

But a funny thing happened to the regular navy while it waited for the Big Ships that were to fight the Big Battle. For as the years wore on, it became clear that the little battle, the U-boat thing, was in fact the Big Battle after all, and the little ships that were fighting it were all that were going to matter. From the very beginning, the men of the little navy were left largely on their own. A bewildered RCNR lieutenant, only a month or two away from his second mate’s berth in some merchant ship, his two interwoven curly stripes of gold lace still bright on each cuff, was dumped off at a shipbuilding yard to take over his new corvette command, with three or four officers as green to the navy as himself and sixty or seventy young men fresh from the prairies or city pavements who had never seen the sea before. If the new captain was lucky, one of his officers might have some practical experience of pilotage or navigation, if not too seasick to care. If his chief engineer had worked in a locomotive roundhouse and knew a little about steam engines, the captain felt himself to be fortunate indeed.