For a while there, it didn’t look like they’d make it, but our cousins to the north celebrate in August 2014 the centennial of the Canadian Submarine Force (which has had different names over the years; but what all the organizations and reorganizations have in common is Canadian crews and subsurface combat vessels). During the period Canadian naval officers call the “Decade of Darkness,” when political hostility to the sub force (and the Navy, really) combined with the budgetary realities of a nation of small population and vast coastlines, it really looked like there would be an end date to set against August, 1914. An ambitious plan to buy SSNs — nuclear boats, giving Canadians a sub-ice capability their Navy has never had — was torpedoed by budgetary realities and political opposition, either of which, alone, might have sunk it. The elderly Oberon-class subs would have been the end of the line, with submarines joining bombers, aircraft carriers, and cruisers as weapons systems the Canadian armed forces used to operate.
Instead, Canada lucked into a British policy decision that the Royal Navy would, for reasons of logistical and operational philosophy, take its sub fleet all-nuclear. And four spanking-new Upholder class modern diesel boats were being retired. The Royal Canadian Navy didn’t by any chance…? The hell they didn’t.
Of course, an immediate answer wouldn’t have been in keeping with Canadian politics, so there ensued nearly a decade of dithering (with enough drama that it actually makes an engaging book, Julie H. Ferguson’s Deeply Canadian: Subs for a New Millenium (note: the Google book link is to the 1st edition, the current Kindle edition is an improved 2nd), an excellent companion to her Canadian sub history, Through a Canadian Periscope, which even covers Canadian proto-frogmen in the Royal Navy in WWII), but in the end, Canada said yes in 1998. They worked an incredibly clever lease-to-own deal that put the subs in Canadian hands for next to nothing: the price came in adapting the British boats to Canadian weapons and systems, which the Canadian submariners preferred. The Canadian-specific modifications have been more involved than initially appreciated, and one boat was a casualty almost immediately, spending a decade out of service after an onboard fire during its delivery voyage.
Canada’s submarine missions are familiar to any sub operator worldwide: anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare, minelaying, and covert operations (including surveillance and intelligence collection, and SOF insertions, extractions and support). ASW has long been a specialty of the RCN, and her frigates and destroyers (and the large helicopters they embark) are among NATO’s best at that art. Stealthy diesel subs take that mission to another level, and their utility in special operations goes without saying.
The Royal Canadian Navy had barely stood up when the First World War forced it to dive into submarines. On 5 August 1914, the government, not of the Dominion of Canada, but of the province of British Columbia, purchased two submarines from a Seattle shipyard. The subs were given the utilitarian names: His Majesty’s Canadian Ships, CC 1 and CC 2. Since then, Canada has commissioned 13 more submarines, and Canadian officers and men served in British submarines from 1914 to 1965, as well as in the Canadian boats.
The story of the first Canadian boats is a remarkable tale. CC 1 and CC 2 were built in Seattle for the government of Chile, but the Chileans, whose government had changed since the order was placed, was reluctant to pay for them. JV Paterson, of the Seattle Construction and Drydock company, mentioned this to Canadian members when he was a guest at the establishment’s watering hole in Victoria, BC, the Union Club. The Canadians perked up: the British Commonwealth had only one elderly cruiser, HMCS Rainbow, and two armed sloops, HMS Shearwater and HMS Algerine, on the West Coast when war broke out. With the US still neutral, the German Far Eastern fleet had the Allies outgunned. Would Canada be interested…? The Canadians were, but the government in Ottawa couldn’t move quickly.
BC’s premier Sir Richard McBride was soon informed. An avalanche of telegrams ensued, involving Victoria, Ottawa, and London, but little could be accomplished in the few days remaining before the imminent outbreak of war and a resulting American embargo on the provision of war materials to combatants. In this crisis, McBride took a courageous decision to use provincial funds to get possession of the much-needed submarines before it was too late. On his own initiative he decided to advance the purchase price demanded, just over $1.1 million. This was an enormous sum, twice the annual budget for the entire RCN for 1913-1914.
There was still one more problem: the deal McBride cut with Patterson was illegal in the USA, under the terms of the American Neutrality Act. The Canadians met Paterson’s terms – twice the Chilean price, cash in advance – and spirited the boats out of Seattle in the dead of night. Paterson was good to his (expensive, it’s true) word, and traveled out on one of the boats for a hasty offshore inspection and acceptance by Canadian naval officers. The White Ensign went up, and despite the risks taken by all, the results came out well: Sir Richard McBride was reimbursed for his off-the-books expenditure of provincial cash (and a subsequent enquiry by a Royal Commission (.pdf) into “[t]erritorially widespread and voluminous accusations of wrongdoing” cleared him of any wrongdoing and commended his “patriotism, and conduct.” For his part, Paterson turned two white-elephant subs commissioned by a deadbeat buyer into a windfall for his shipyard and a $40,000 commission, a staggering sum in 1914. And the Canadian sub force, created in a special operation of sorts, was underway. With two modern subs, there was something to guard that long west coast.
From that day to this, the story of the Canadian sub fleet has been one of close scrapes, desperate straits, and challenges, and all have been met by pluck and imagination. And that’s just the budgetary and parliamentary end of it!
VADM Mark Norman, Commander of the RCN, made the following statement on the occasion of the anniversary:
For 100 years Canada has benefited from the stealth and lethality that only a submarine capability can contribute to the maritime security of a nation such as ours. As the most decisive capability in any naval fleet, submarines not only dominate the seas but provide unrivalled deterrence. The dedicated members of Canada’s ‘silent service’ operate in the most demanding and unforgiving conditions. They truly represent some of the very best of our fighting service. As we look ahead to the challenges of the coming decades, we do so in confidence, knowing that Canada has submarines. I wish all of our submariners, past, present, and future, my deepest appreciation and a heartfelt BRAVO ZULU!
The Oberons, which Canada operated from 1965-2000, were British-designed and -built boats; state of the art for 1960, they were a major British export success, with Australia, Brazil, and Chile also operating them. The Oberon has a distinct silhouette with a prow seemingly designed for surface operations, and a sonar dome or blister on top of the nose; none of the 27 is still in operation (only one was a casualty, sort of: Brazil’s Tonelero, which sank at its dock after retirement, worldwide, all are retired). Canada operated three Oberons, and received two additonal ex-RN boats, Olympus as a non-commissioned training aid, and Osiris, which was parted out to keep the three Canadian boats, HMCSes Onondaga, Okanagan, and Osiris, sailing. HMCS Ojibwa is a museum exhibit in Ontario, and Onondaga in Quebec. All Oberon operators, except now-all-nuclear Britain, now operate new classes of diesel boats.
Diesel boats are not the “obsolete technology” that Hyman Rickover would have you believe. For one thing, because they lack the nuc’s constant cooling-water requirement, they can be far more silent and stealthy. The Victorias, like the Oberons before them, were state of the art in silent running. Their stealth is also enhanced by their small size. Naturally, better stealth is better in almost all of the missions of a submarine.
The Victoria class (ex-Upholder) has had, as mentioned, seen some heavy sledding on its way to operational status. The four ships, now named after Canadian cities, are HMCS Victoria SSK 876, whose motto is “Expect no Warning,” HMCS Windsor SSK 877, “Silent Pride,” HMCS Corner Brook SSK 878, “We Rule the Sea,” and HMCS Chicoutimi SSK 879, “Maître du Domaine.” They were formerly the HMS Unseen, HMS Unicorn, HMS Ursula, and HMS Upholder, and were paid off by the Royal Navy mere years after their completion. Their Canadianization has actually taken as long or longer than their original construction; Canada insists on locally available equipment, some Canadian electronics which were developed in the Oberon-class boats, and prefers American-designed Mk48 torpedoes, also something they used in Oberon days.
Corner Brook was damaged in an underwater grounding in 2011, and entered a drydock period this summer. Chicoutimi, the hard luck boat of the set, has not yet been commissioned in the RCN. The boat suffered an underway fire en route to Canada in 2004; an officer was killed and nine other submariners injured, and the boat was disabled and had to be towed back to England, making the journey to Canada as deck cargo on a heavy-lift ship. She was, however, repaired at the Canadian Sub Maintenance Group facility from 2010-2013, and is preparing for commissioning this year. The Canadian objective is to have three subs in commission and one in refit going forward, with bases on both Canadian coasts.
The Canadian subs and their crews have demonstrated remarkable capabilities; Windsor, the first to patrol, recently completed a very remarkable 174 days at sea. (Remember, these are diesel, not nuclear, boats). Windsor, in fact, only docked to repair a generator that could not be fixed at sea, or it might have accomplished the half-year. While the ships and crews have managed feats of endurance reminiscent of their allies’ nuclear boats, the diesel-electric sub, other things being equal, will always have the edge in stealth. Windsor, again, has demonstrated this by tracking an American fast-attack sub. During RIMPAC 2012, Victoria slammed a Mk 48 torpedo into a drifting target ship, the former USNS Concord, off Oahu, sending the target beneath the waves in 17 minutes. (The video below is only 2 minutes long, and silent).
Did you even know that Canada has a sub fleet? (As Ferguson writes, “Mention the Snowbirds… and they immediately know that you are talking about the Canadian air force. Mention HMCS Onondaga and you are met with a blank stare.”)
The sailors who fly Canada’s Maple Leaf (on those rare occasions they put up a flagstaff and make port) have come a long way from the sailors who raised the Dominion’s White Ensign on CC 1 a century ago, but they’re doing the tradition proud.