A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CANADIAN SUBMARINE SERVICE
By Hal Zerbin
Early in 1961, when the
former United States submarine USS BURRFISH was
commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS GRILSE, there were those who
said “The RCN now has its first submarine.”
They were wrong by six submarines and 46 years.
Submarine service in the
RCN goes back to 1914. The RCN’s first submarines were CC 1 and CC 2, which were
purchased on the dubious authority of the Premier of British Columbia when his
province, at the outset of the First World War, was in a state of alarm.
The two boats were built in
Seattle for the Chilean Navy. The Chilean government had ordered them from
the Electric Boat Company of New Jersey, which had arranged for the Seattle
Construction and Drydock Company to build them. A price of $818,000 had been agreed upon and Chile had paid $714,000 but the remainder
was in arrears.
At this stage the builders
were anxious and willing to sell the submarines to Canada.
They asked $1,150,000.00, which was $332,000.00 more than the agreed
price to Chile.
The company undertook
delivery of the submarines on August 5, 1914, to a rendezvous point five miles
south of Trial Island, just outside Canadian territorial
waters. Precautions were taken to
prevent news of the event leaking out to others, including American officials,
the local Germans, and certain Chileans in Seattle waiting for the release of the
submarines to them.
Without clearance papers
and manned by company crews, the boats cast off by night on August 4. In darkness and fog, and running on electric
motors, they came safely to the harbour entrance
where, in spite of the exhaust noise, they started the diesels and worked the
boats up to full speed.
Meanwhile the Canadian
officials arranged to receive the two vessels.
LCdr Bertram Jones, RN (Ret) had reported to
the Navy when war seemed imminent, and his services were accepted. He was ordered to meet the submarines and
inspect them as carefully as possible.
If they appeared satisfactory he was to pay for them with a cheque for $1,150,000 drawn by the Province of British Columbia on the Canadian Bank of
Commerce. Accompanied by Lt R.H. Wood,
Chief Engineer at Esquimalt, Jones met the submarines and spent
four hours inspecting them. The cheque was then given to the impatient builders, British colours were hoisted, and no time was lost in making for Esquimalt.
A good job had been done in
maintaining the secrecy of the transaction– even the Army shore batteries had
not been notified. A tug, spotting two
submarines churning toward Esquimalt in the early morning dawn, raced
for harbour with her siren cord lashed to the rail to
give the alarm. The shore batteries
trained their guns on the two but fortunately held fire while they checked with
the Dockyard by telephone to see whether any known submarines were in the
vicinity. The Dockyard gave an
affirmative and the panic was over, but it had been close.
CC 1 and CC 2 patrolled the
West Coast for three years. Their
well-advertised presence may well have deterred the Germans from conducting
raids in British Columbia waters where, otherwise, there was little to prevent
them from shelling the seaports of Vancouver and Victoria.
the First World War, Canadian Vickers, Ltd., of Montreal, under contract from
the Electric Boat Company of Groton, Conn., commenced
building ten submarines for the Royal Navy.
Some of the fitting of the
boats was done at Quebec City, where they had been moved to avoid
the freeze-up, and after work-ups at Murray Bay they sailed for Halifax.
Allocated to the “H” class in the Admiralty classification system, six
were sailed for Britain on July 22,
were the first submarines to cross the Atlantic under their own power. The remaining four sailed later for the Dardanelles.
An additional ten
submarines were ordered by Britain from the US, and were built there. Of these, two were given to Canada after the war, and became CH 14 and
CH 15. Actually CH 14 and CH 15, (then
H14 and H15) were on their way to England when hostilities ceased and they
were ordered to Bermuda where they remained for a year.
In January 1919 Sir Robert
Borden, in Paris at the time, was asked if Canada would accept a gift of two
submarines. They were accepted and
commissioned into the RCN. However,
following their acquisition, the Royal Canadian Navy began a period of
retrenchment and in 1927 both submarines were disposed of.
Meanwhile back on the West
Coast, by order of the Admiralty, the two CC’s had sailed for the East Coast,
destined for the European war. Sailing
on June 21, 1917, in company with HMCS SHEARWATER, they endured a two-month
voyage full of breakdowns, poor food and general discomfort for the entire
crew. They became the first warships
under the white ensign to transit the Panama Canal, arriving in Halifax on October
14, 1917. Their planned departure for England was cancelled and, after numerous
refit periods and surviving Halifax’s ‘great explosion’, the two boats
ended their life acting as ‘clockwork mice’ on the Bras d’Or
lakes of Cape Breton.
They were eventually sold for scrap in 1920.
The RCN did not again have
a submarine until after the fall of Germany in 1945 when two enemy submarines,
U889 and U190 surrendered to Canadian ships at sea.
U889 became the first U-boat in the Western Atlantic to surrender when she gave herself
up off Shelburne, N.S., to HMC Ships OSHAWA and ROCKCLIFFE
(Algerines) and DUNVEGAN and SASKATOON (corvettes). In January 1946 she was turned over to the
United States Navy.
U190 surrendered to the
frigate VICTORIAVILLE and the corvette THORLOCK on May
was brought into Bay of Bulls, Nfld., and later taken to Halifax.
She was kept for over two years and, along with U889, visited Montreal and other East Coast ports.
In July 1947, U190 was
taken out into the North Western Atlantic, scene of some of her depredations
during wartime, ignominiously shelled by HMCS HAIDA, NOOTKA and NEW LISKEARD,
and bombed and rocketed by Seafires and Fireflies of
983 and 826 Squadrons. She wasn’t long
in going. After the aircraft dropped
their bombs, NOOTKA and HAIDA scarcely had time to get away their first salvos
before she upended and sank.
The USS BURRFISH, taking
the historic RCN name of HMCS GRILSE, was the first submarine since U190 to
become part of the RCN Fleet.
The first HMCS GRILSE was a
225-ton torpedo boat converted from a yacht during the First World War. A freak of fate, which had its beginnings on December
brought her worldwide notice. Sailing
from Halifax to Bermuda she was caught in a storm and reported herself
sinking. She then lost contact with the
world, causing a major search to be initiated.
She survived and limped into Shelborne with
rigging, mast, boats and deckhouse gone, leaking, down by the head, and with a
severe list. Six of her crew had been
Although GRILSE was the
first submarine since 1947, the Sixth Submarine Squadron of the Royal Navy,
partly manned by Canadians, had been based in Halifax since 1954 with two or three boats
operational at all times. But the
acquisition of GRILSE did not affect the Sixth Submarine Squadron, since GRILSE
was based on the West Coast for the use of the Pacific Command’s squadrons and
During the Second World War
many Canadian sailors trained and served in submarines of the Royal Navy. In 1954, when the Sixth Submarine Squadron
was to be based on Halifax, the training of Canadians in RN
submarines was re-instituted in order to provide the squadron with a partly
Canadian complement. It was intended,
too that these submariners would form a nucleus for the RCN’s
own submarines when she acquired them.
In command of the new
GRILSE was LCdr Edmund Gigg,
a veteran of wartime submarine service with the RN. GRILSE served for 8 years with the Pacific
Fleet then, being on loan from the USN, was returned. The first return attempt, by tow from Esquimalt, had to be aborted when the tug’s
engines broke down. A hastily assembled
skeleton crew then took over and delivered GRILSE to the US Naval Yard, Mare Island, in Vallejo.
She arrived there with five engines running, was officially
decommissioned and returned on October 2, 1969.
She was later torpedoed and sunk by the USN.
Meanwhile USS ARGONAUT had
been purchased by the RCN and commissioned as HMCS RAINBOW, on December
2, 1968. She served until December
when she was sold for scrap to Ziddet Inc., of Portland, Oregon.
After much ‘politicking’
and to the intense frustration of a few caring naval officers, in November of
1963, the Canadian Navy purchased three “Oberon” class submarines from
Britain. HMCS OJIBWA was commissioned
into the Navy on September 23, 1965.
OKANAGAN followed on June 22, 1967.
The commissioning of ONONDAGA, the last of the fleet, took place on June
22, 1968. A fourth boat, OLYMPUS, was purchased as a training vessel
and spare parts depot. In 1998, the
boats, all either approaching or over the age of 30, were decommissioned to
make room for the four “Upholder” class diesel submarines that Canada purchased from the Royal Navy on April
The four submarines have
all been renamed and are now known as the VICTORIA-class. The first, HMCS VICTORIA, made her arrival in Halifax on October
23, 2000. The others, WINDSOR, CHICOUTIMI and CORNERBROOK, are scheduled to
arrive in six-month intervals. They will
join the Atlantic Fleet while VICTORIA
will join the Pacific Fleet in early 2002.
The submarines compliment our modern fleet of surface vessels and ensure
that Canada will continue to have the ability
to monitor our waters without being detected.