AN ADDRESS BY
VICE-ADMIRAL A. E. EVANS, C.B., O.B.E.
Head of the British Admiralty Technical Mission.
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, November 27, 1941
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen: Our Guest Speaker's topic today is The Navy. The beginnings of the British Navy go right back to the times of the Tudors, when the effectiveness of the Navy depended substantially on the effectiveness of the fishing fleet. Queen Elizabeth issued a proclamation providing for two fish days per week, and she did this deliberately in order to encourage the fishing industry so that the fishing fleet could feed the navy,-feeding the navy of course with personnel, and not with the fish as we ourselves have been fed today.
But, Gentlemen, since that time the British Navy has built up for itself a great tradition and an unequalled efficiency which are the pride of the Empire and which are the envy of the rest of the world.
Today The Empire Club of Canada is particularly proud that Vice-Admiral Evans should come to talk to us. For the benefit of those who are listening to us over the air, may I say that Vice-Admiral Evans has served all over the world, in the waters of Australia, Africa, South America, and the Mediterranean. For two years he commanded at Gibraltar. He was present at the landing and evacuation of the troops at Narvik. Today he is head of the British Admiralty Technical Mission in this country. Vice-Admiral Evans.
VICE-ADMIRAL EVANS: Mr. President and Gentlemen: In thanking you for the honour which you have done to the Royal Navy in allowing me to speak today, I must point out that my job out here is to procure armaments rather than to use them-it is administrative and not operational. Indeed, from my office window in Ottawa, the Sea, at times, seems to be distressingly far off. In fact, apart from what I can gather from the very excellent press, I know no more than you do about what is going on at Sea or what the ships are doing or where they are--and so I am going to do what is absolutely unnecessary, and that is to blow the Navy's trumpet. I say unnecessary, because two far greater than I, Winston Churchill and John Masefield, have already proclaimed the Navy with their own brief inimitable choice of phrase--they refer to that great occasion when, through the Mercy of Providence, and by that strange coincidence which seems to produce the ships of the Royal and Merchant Navies in the right spot at the appropriate moment, our glorious soldiers, beaten but unconquered, were brought back to England out of such an inferno at Dunkirk as never blazed before.
It will be recalled that the Army, through unpredictable mischance, which is a euphemism for French defection, had lost all its equipment-tanks, guns, transport, and even rifles had gone. The Royal Air Force was battling with unprecedented valour and success against seemingly overwhelming odds. And, though country folk and townsfolk in England got out their sporting guns and rifles, ready to fight to the last ditch, or it may be the last shop window, England was almost disarmed and the gates seemed to be wide open to an invader-then Mr. Winston Churchill, though as ever undismayed, warned us all of the grave peril in which the Empire stood. He gave us a fearful picture and told us plainly and simply of the grim times that lay ahead.
But he spoke with confidence in his countrymen and of the Empire, and in one speech he paid such a compliment to the men at Sea that any further reference to their prowess, gallantry, and devotion to duty is almost an impertinence. At the end of a very black picture he switched on a light. He said, "But after all, we have got a Navy". And then that great writer and poet, Masefield, who himself has served much in the Merchant Navy, wrote his story of the evacuation in his book called "The Nine Days Wonder". Few, if any, could have written quite so lucidly and so proudly of the stoical conduct of the Army and of the dauntless courage of our tiny Air Force. Very properly he has a great deal to say of the Merchant ships that, often without charts, battled their way through shoals and through shellfire, and, with the aid of countless small craft from the seaside towns and coves of Southern England, lifted the army to safety.
Masefield, the seaman poet, disposes of the King's ships in a veiled, almost shy, commendation which is worthy of the Silent Service. He just says, "And the Navy was there, but that is a service apart".
Those two sayings seem to me to contain a sort of sublime faith in the Senior Service, and though we have been woefully short of ships, and especially the small ships, it may be fairly claimed that the dash and initiative displayed in this war by officers and men, has already earned for them a meed of praise, and that the confidence of our Prime Minister, who is not too easily satisfied, has not been misplaced.
Now, confidence and sublime faith may be very useful stimulants in adverse times, but they are not alone sufficient to guarantee success in war. One needs something more substantial, and hard experience, which is a reliable teacher, has shown us plainly and not for the first time, that the provision of an adequate first lire of defence cannot be hastily improvised in regard to either ships or men. It takes about a year to build even a small ship and it takes nearly four years to train an able seaman-and during these long intervals, it may be, if we are not careful, the so-called luck of the Navy and the physical endurance of the personnel may become overstrained.
And so, when this contest is over, when this war, which, presumably like the last one, is intended to end all wars, is won, it will yet be wise to ensure that the Naval forces of the Empire are neither whittled down nor starved as they have been in the past. (Applause.)
I speak of the Navy. There are now and have been for some years, The Royal Australian Navy, The Royal Canadian Navy, The Royal Indian Navy,--the New Zealand force has now become The Royal New Zealand Navy,--five Royal Navies,--but our methods of training, our ideals, and our objects are one. We are all bound together by one unbreakable bond, and that is Naval Tradition. And finally, we serve together, sharing alike the glories and hazards of war, under one Flag and one King, united though untied, as one Great Service at Sea. (Applause.)
Now, what actually is the role of that Service? I think it can all be summed up in that much worn phrase, "Trade Routes and Command of the Sea".
Let me put it to you in this way. The war has already produced some astonishing feats of arms and endurance in Belgium, Greece, Crete, and North Africa. Nothing can ever detract from the valiance of our soldiers or from the daring of our airmen; but without the ships, the fighting ships and the Merchant Navy, not a man alive could have mustered for the ancient Roman games in what was once Mussolini's African Empire; but for the ships, there would not have been one drop of gasoline or petrol to enable our airmen to write their pages of glorious history across the sky. Without control of the Sea, the armies of Canada might yet be straining at the leash in some Eastern Canadian Port instead of standing at arms in defence of the heart of this Empire. That, broadly speaking, is the Navy's job--just policemen at sea and their beat is very big.
Only a few weeks ago two Cruisers, the Aurora under Captain Agnew--I don't see why we should not note the names of these distinguished gentlemen-and the Penelope under Captain Nicholl, and two Destroyers, Lance and Lively, with Lieutenant Commanders R. Northcott and Hussey in command, utterly destroyed an Italian convoy of ten ships, which was under the close protection of several Destroyers and two powerful Cruisers. Apart from the convoy, at least three enemy Destroyers were sunk, and, though it sounds incredible, our small forces, which were also attacked by aircraft, came away unscathed. It may be that according to plan, the two big Italian Cruisers, far more powerful ships than we had in the arena, found the ground unfit for play and retired to their dugouts, ready to run away another day.
Now this adventure, this escapade, which in its effrontery and daring was positively boyish, took place at night. It was indeed a form of dogfight in the dark, and, though one can see the officers and men of those four ships exulting in the fray, yet one knows that the young officers in command, on whom a great responsibility lay, moving at high speed, with no lights, in what must have been a traffic jam at Sea, could not have achieved a success so notable, unless they had devoted their lives to the study of their men and their vocations, and so, with balanced agility of mind, have been able to apply their knowledge to every emergency. And this equally applies to the yet younger officers and men in their ships.
In order to ensure a success of that sort every soul in every department has got to know his job down to the last letter-the handling of a fast-moving ship, the quick recognition of friend from foe, gun and torpedo and engine-room drill perfect at night as by day-those things can only come with much practice; and it is well if one knows the other man's job in addition to his own, as the other man may be dead. It will be remembered that it was a badly wounded young paymaster, unversed in seamanship, that brought the Hardy out of Narvik harbour and so saved many of his shipmates to fight again.
The skill and efficiency shown in this Mediterranean action are not acquired by officers and men in a matter of days. In almost the whole period between the last war and this, the Navy suffered from what was called the urgent need for economy-oil fuel was stringently rationed--and so whenever a ship or squadron was at Sea, every possible moment was seized upon for carrying out exercises and drills in preparation for the war, which we all hoped would never come.
Then, in July, 1935, when Italy started her brutal attack on Abyssinia and when our Empire alone, of all in the League of Nations, stood firm to its contract, the fleets went to war stations and war routines. The great Mediterranean Fleet was reinforced, because the Navy had been whittled down and we had not a strong enough fleet in that Sea to take on Italy. It was reinforced from other stations. I myself had a squadron there which was known as "The Foreign Legion". My own ship, the Exeter, when we started for that war, came from Valparaiso. Another cruiser I had there, the Ajax, was in the West Indies at the time. I had one cruiser from China, and there were two cruisers from the Australian fleet. 'That was the situation we were in. We had nearly a year of intensive training. There were day and night gunnery and torpedo practices, mock battles, destroyer and submarine and air attacks. It was a strange situation, for we were based in what was in effect a neutral port, Alexandria, but whenever there was an air raid practice in harbour, the whole of Alexandria blacked out. Short of a shooting war, it was the real thing.
And when, in July, 1936, that war of plunder and murder came to an unhappy and unsatisfactory end, there was the Spanish Civil War which kept our ships of the Mediterranean and home fleets fully employed with patrols, guarding the Merchant Navy from seizure by Franco's Navy and from attacks by Italian submarines, which were taking a surreptitious part in that war.
During this time we experienced some strange incidents. I remember one day at Gibraltar. At about seven o'clock in the morning, my signal station reported one of General Franco's warships had taken charge of a British ship. They had only to take their ship a very few miles away to Ceuta and there would have been trouble. So we had to stop this. Normally we always had one destroyer ready, which used to nip out of harbour and tell the other fellow to go away. On this particular occasion it was a little unfortunate. I had something like eighteen destroyers out, which were doing a sweep of the Mediterranean to locate a ship which General Franco said was carrying contraband. That left two. One was under repair and one had gone off at six o'clock on a very urgent mission. So I made a signal to the one destroyer and asked him if he had his fast motor dinghy ready. The Commanding Officer replied "Aye, Aye, Sir". So I told him to put on board an officer and a rating with a rifle and hoist his colours, and "go out and tell that Dago to get to hell out of it". This little boat goes about twenty knots. I think the Spaniard must have thought it was equipped with many torpedoes, because he up and ran for all he was worth.
And so, with all this practise we had at Alexandria and other places, and, as I say, twenty years or more of it, when the King's ships were called upon to take up the present struggle, the Navy's sword was already sharpened and every officer and man could truthfully reply "Ready, aye Ready!"
In some ways it was a fairly hard school,--we did not get a great deal of rest,-but it was a very happy one, because every ship is a composite force carrying its weapons of war, its grocer and butcher shop, its hairdressers for those who want a permanent wave, its hospital, its Church, its school and its public library. In fact, it is village life in its best form. The Admiral has, so to speak, the best house in the village, and that is proper because, as is well known, all Admirals are grumpy, decrepid old men who have got to be looked after; but he lives, as do all the officers, at close quarters with the men: they know each other's tricks and habits, and they know that when the battle comes, whether they are serving together in a tin sided destroyer or in a heavily armed battleship, they are all in the same boat And just as a quick decision taken by the Commander-in-Chief may put the issue of a big battle beyond doubt, so the initiative of a young officer or man, by dealing with a fire or flooding a magazine, may save a ship.
There are, of course, many relaxations--leave periods, to which, as Their Lordships remind us, we are not entitled, but which must be regarded as privileges; and, of course, there are too, many gay times in Imperial and Foreign Ports though regrettably, since they put up the Income Tax, very few sailors can now afford to keep a wife in every port.
Now ship work and fleet work are team work in the highest sense. Just consider for a moment the chase after and the destruction of the Bismark. When that great ship emerged from her Norwegian hiding place, we had perhaps several ships which, as far as guns were concerned, could fight that vessel on level terms, but we had then only two which had the three essentials, that is gun power, armour protection, and the speed to force her to action. If she had got loose she might have plundered and destroyed off Halifax one day, off New York the next, then perhaps on the South African trade route, or to the River Plate and round the Horn to the Pacific and perhaps Vancouver, and made rather a nuisance of herself. There is, of course, too, a good deal of trade in the Indian Ocean and the China Seas, but you can see that every ship or convoy at Sea, all our supplies of men, food, and munitions, were in serious jeopardy. It is no exaggeration to say that that ship was worth a million tons of shipping, because the oceans are so very wide and it is very easy for even a large ship to be lost. So the Navy set out to catch what Mr. Jorrocks in Handley Cross would have called the biggest fox wot ever was seen".
Well the story is now history. She was first sighted and reported by an aircraft of the Coastal Command, which duly put two Cruisers on the scent. These two Cruisers shadowed her in mist and snow and darkness for over twenty-four hours, and that is a most difficult operation of war. They could not afford to be hit by Bismark's huge, long-range guns, yet, they had to keep touch, closing-in in thick weather or darkness and dodging out again as the visibility improved, so as not to let the quarry escape. But one thing was certain, they had to hold that ship. They did eventually lose her in thick weather, but they had held on long enough to put the Prince of Wales and Hood onto the trail. The Hood, as you know, was sunk, but she went down with a great band of fine fellows, and played her part by putting at least two 15 inch shells into the enemy vessel and thus reducing her speed. She had drawn first blood.
Again the monster was lost in those Northern mists; but the pack of hounds was out--large numbers of battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, and destroyers, of the Home Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Tovev, all joined in the hunt. Two great ships, the Rodney and the Resolution, left their convoys and also joined in the chase. Their convoys, of course, were of immense importance, but it was a case of fight neither with small nor great, save only with the King of Israel-and the King, in the form of the Bismark, was loose on the seas. It was eventually Rodney, with her 16 inch guns, that turned that ship into a veritable floating hell.
Meanwhile one Admiral in the Renown, taking with him the now lost but ever famous Ark Royal, worked out his own appreciation as to where the enemy would go, and, after steaming over 1,000 miles at over 30 knots, he put up a reconnaissance aircraft, and there she was. Planes from another aircraft carrier had already attacked with success before the aircraft from the Ark Royal put at least one torpedo into the enemy's screws and rudder and partially disabled her steering gear: and all this time the destroyer forces,--which included one from Poland, who got so savage they had to call him back,--kept nipping in like terriers and helped towards her destruction.
I believe that the Commander-in-Chief, acting greatly and with full confidence in his well known Band of Brothers, gave his ships all the information he had--which was not a great deal--in one short wireless signal, and then left them to do it. And then he himself, in the King George V, was in at the death, battleships, battle-cruisers, the fleet air arm, cruisers, and destroyers, all having taken part in the chase.
That is team play. That is the spirit engendered centuries back and fostered very carefully in peace and war, which functioned well and thereby brought an episode in the Battle of the Atlantic to a very successful conclusion.
I believe that the Atlantic Battle has been going a little better for us in the last few weeks. Fewer ships have been sunk and a great many are being built. But the sinkings are still terribly heavy and we never know what evil news the morrow may bring, neither do we know how many submarines have been sunk nor at what rate the shipyards of Germany and the occupied ports are turning them out. In fact, the battle is not yet won, and we must regard the present situation merely as a lull in the action and-prepare with all the haste we can to meet an intensification of, and even greater ferocity in, the attack.
Now that is being clone over here in Canada. Ships and guns are being built. I often wish that more people could go into some of the big and small workshops and see what is going, forward, because so many people ask me if Canada is doing anything. But this is all on the secret list and anyone trying to gate-crash may find his path obstructed by the Minister of Munitions himself standing, like Minerva, fully armed and bristling with those many cannon of every size and shape which he has contrived to produce so quickly. In my many visits, I find that team spirit all the way. I have been around a great many workshops and plants, and they are all working with one object, and that is that the Empire may win the war. It is that spirit which binds and ennobles our Empire, and it is slowly but surely grinding Hitler and his Band of Brigands into dust. It is the same spirit which will carry us to that victory, the dawn of which may be beginning to break.
We are all members of a team, and as somebody has written, "It is the individual effort of every blade of grass that makes a meadow green", so it seems that there must be few of us who, each in his own sphere, cannot, by taking thought, add something to the Imperial strength. After all, we serve under one Flag--the Union Jack. It is a flag that has perhaps seen more gallantry, self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty than any other in this world. (Applause.) It is the emblem of our great Empire. And I say--I don't want to preach--let us wave our Union jacks, and put up our "V for Victory" signs wherever we like--but, above all such manifestations, let each and every one of us be quite sure that our personal effort in this Crusade, whether it be physical, mental or financial, entitles us to wear our Flag of Empire, the Union Jack, as our Club Colours. (Prolonged applause.)
MR. W. EASON HUMPHREYS, 2ND VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE CLUB: Mr. President, Admiral Evans, Distinguished Guests: I have been in the presence of naval officers before and I remember the first experience very well. I was on deck- at Divisions, being inspected. The officer inspecting said to the accompanying officer, "Tell this officer to go below and dress himself". I went below and asked a brother officer with more experience, what was wrong with my uniform. Without a word he tucked my handkerchief into the pocked out of sight and said, "Now go on deck". After that, whenever I saw a high ranking naval officer, I wanted to fall down the nearest hatch.
But on this occasion, Sir, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be in the presence of such a high-ranking naval officer who has addressed us on The Navy today.
I believe, Sir, that we in Upper Canada, living as we do about a thousand miles from the nearest sea on our own shores, need to be told a good deal more than we have been told of the work of His Majesty's Navy, for I venture to say, Sir, that Canada's economy has depended upon, and will continue to depend upon, the Navy. I have watched with interest, Sir, the faces of the members of this large audience, and it is quite clear that they would wish me to thank you very, very sincerely for this interesting, instructive, and, I may add, most inspiring address. Thank you very much indeed, Admiral Evans.
Gentlemen of the Empire Club: With some misgivings I succeeded this morning in persuading our President to permit me to depart from our usual straight and narrow path in view of this special occasion today. As one of a group of men of the British Empire Overseas Branch of the Board of Trade, some of whom are our guests today, I' should like to say that that group has taken an interest in one of the ships being built here for the Royal Navy. One of these ships, now known as H.M.S. Fort York, was christened in this city recently by Miss Sheila MacDonald. The Overseas Branch of the Board of Trade was given the privilege of submitting a name for the ship, which up to that time was known, I believe, as Ship No. 21. Since Toronto is in the County of York, and since Ship No. 21 was to be christened within a few hundred yards of historic Fort York, the name H.M.S. Fort York seemed appropriate. This name was submitted to Admiral Evans who kindly secured for us the Admiralty's approval to this name.
Since we are interested in H.M.S. Fort York and her crew, my colleagues and I recently met her new Commanding Officer. We told him we were interested in the welfare of the crew of his ship and then asked him if there was anything he would like personally. We were rather touched by what he said. "I think", said he, "I would like to beg a picture of Their Majesties the King and Queen for our wardroom". It has been a pleasure to accede to that request and so, Admiral Evans, will you please accept this framed picture of Their Majesties the King and Queen for the wardroom of H.M.S. Fort York.
VICE ADMIRAL EVANS: On behalf of the officers and men of H.M.S. Fort York, I want to thank you most warmly for this photograph. I am not quite sure at the moment, but I think that it is highly probable that the ship will be manned by officers and men from Canada, and, if that is the case, you may rest assured that everything on board will be as it should be and ready for battle at any moment. They themselves could wish for no greater inspiration, no greater encouragement, and no greater honour than to have displayed in their ship a photogaph of--if I may so put it, these wonderful people. (Applause.)