WHAT IS THE NAVY DOING?
AN ADDRESS BY LIEUT.-COMMANDER WILLIAM STRANGE, R.C.N.V.R.
The President, John C. M. MacBeth, Esq., B.A., K.C.
Thursday, November 26, 1942.
MR. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: Gentlemen of The Empire Club: The fact that any guest is given platform here more than once is evidence that those who are charged with the responsibility of selection consider that he has ability as a speaker and a message that should be received.
Lieutenant-Commander William Strange, R.C.N.V.R., was our guest in December, last year, when he addressed us on the subject "Into The Blitz".
Born in England and trained for the Navy at Osborne in the Isle of Wight and at Dartmouth, he became a man of parts and experience in the oilfields and swamps of Trinidad, as a salesman in the English Midlands, as a lecturer in English for the Educational Department of Cairo, Egypt, and even as a tramp in the streets of Old London, "not actually starving", as he says, "but yet a little apprehensive about the week after next". If his proportions then were at all comparable to his proportions today, he probably looked the situation over and decided that he might fairly take a chance.
His wanderlust spent, he came to Canada in 1929 and engaged in a line of commercial work which used the radio as an advertising medium and William Strange as the advertiser. He cultivated this acquaintance and in 1932 turned to radio and writing as a wholetime effort.
He immediately initiated a series of book reviews by radio, which ran, almost without interruption, for the next five years.
He became a free-lance journalist and a student of world politics, publishing, at the request of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, the result of his studies under the caption, "Canada, The Pacific and War".
Lieutenant-Commander Strange is author of the two series "They Shall Not Pass" and "Carry On, Canada", also of the feature programme "Quiet Victory" which won for him the prize awarded by the Institute for Education by Radio for the best North American war effort broadcast in 1941.
He also gave the well-known series of talks under the general heading "Back From Britain".
He has a reputation-that is, a good reputation-as an actor, frequently appearing or, shall I say, being heard, in his own productions.
His book, Into the Blitz, is an account of his experiences and observations during a trip to England and the European battlefront, including the Atlantic crossings, and his connection with and sympathy for the merchant seamen impelled him to donate to the Navy League of Canada for these brave men the entire royalties from this book.
This is Navy Week throughout Canada and it is most appropriate, therefore, that our guest should be a man of the Navy. May I say that this fact gives particular pleasure and gratification to us who are engaged in Navy League work, so many of whom we welcome here today.
Gentlemen: Lieutenant-Commander William Strange, R.C.N.V.R., who will address us on the subject, "What Is The Navy Doing?". (Applause.)
LIEUTENANT-COMMANDER WILLIAM STRANGE: Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests, and gentlemen of The Empire Club: This is the second occasion on which you have seen fit to honour me with an invitation to address this gathering. On the former occasion I was able to bring you news from an island; today I come to bring you news from the sea.
When I was asked, some time ago, what was likely to be the title of this address, I deliberately chose the question which constitutes the age-old grouch of the Britisher when things go wrong. Very reasonably, the men and women of our Empire have an implicit, I believe indeed an unshakeable faith in the British Navy. This is reasonable, for the Navy had much to do with the winning of our Empire. It is essentially a sailors' Empire, whose component parts are best reached and linked by ships; it has had much to do with the policing of our Empire it has, for many years, had everything to do with, the holding of our Empire.
Safely, confidently, his faith buoyed up by the seas, and protected by walls whose mortar was the salt of 'the sea and whose unshatterable units were the ships of the British Navy-safely and confidently, tunelessly too, if need be, the veriest yokel in the British countryside could sing at the top of his voice, "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves".
He was right. So long as they held the seas, so long indeed as they exercised a reasonable modicum of control over the sea-lanes, the possibility of serfdom resultant upon conquest by some invader was, to say the least of it, exceedingly remote.
But this fact was only true so long as they maintained a navy. On various occasions the British have either been without a navy, or have let their navy get into a dangerously weak condition. On several of these occasions there has been serious trouble. Julius Caesar landed without naval opposition. Hengist and Horsa did the same. So did Canute. William, Duke of Normandy,, won a crown and taught us all an exceedingly memorable date because the British had not tumbled to the fact that the sea was not, as William Shakespeare falsely observed "a moat defensive to a house" but was a satisfactory channel of invasion. To complete the rather startling catalogue of uninvited visitors to Britain one may mention that Henry of Anjou, Bolingbroke, Warwick the King: maker and Edward the Fourth might all reasonably be included.
The Spanish Armada failed because there was a navy. It was a rag-tag-and-bobtail navy, but it worked. The Dutch got into the Medway because the navy was allowed to weaken. Napoleon had his invasion dreams shattered by the great Lord Nelson.
These things, gentlemen, are a part of the web of Canadian history. From them the British learnt the value of naval vessels and transports as a means of conquest. Because of the fundamental truths underlying them, General Wolfe came up the great St. Lawrence River, and by the daring use of small boats and an intrepid landing force, fused in the white heat of battle the two great races from whose loins this Canada has sprung.
The origin of Canada as we know it is then, a naval origin. The story of the Canada we know began with ships.
"Forward moves the story now
And to half-awakened world
Wherein the Iroquois and Huron roam at will,
Lords of their land until
The coming of the warrior-settlers
From the sea.
A world of stout firm-growing tree,
Of buffalo, and beaver, and shy deer
Formed and patterned by the ageless ice,
Its scale beyong the comprehension of the creatures in it dwelling,
Its good earth bringing forth the grass
Its fruits yielding the seed after his kind,
In the long-ordained pattern of the great Ordaining Mind.
A world of huge unconquered mountain,
Of great bright-shining waters fast-enclosed by the land
The whole beyond capacity of Man to know and understand
A world unto itself-alone
Until the moving story of the ships,
Adventure-laden, seeking new horizons as of yore, Touched upon its shore.
These men, our ancestors, came in ships, deep in the weight of men, to march with firm tread
"To the mountain's feet and the river's head;
To move inward to the land's heart,
The sleeping deer to wake;
The Indian to drive from his ranging home,
The new-built ships to sail upon the lake;
The land to know, its contours to espy,
To look upon the ancient glories of the new
With the old world's eye
The stout stockades to build, the towns, the cities fair;
New work to make, new industry to bring, new smoke to hang upon the stilly air.
Thus, arising from the old, was the new world newly made.
They came, these men: they saw: they stayed.
Theirs was the victory.
They came by sea."
I do not wish to labour the point, gentlemen. I have certainly not gone into all this merely for the doubtful pleasure of reading some of my own indifferent verse. But I do wish to make the point extremely clear. The claim of the island of Britain to have "arisen from out the azure main" is a pretty enough conceit, but is it a legendary and hypothetical claim, based upon geological surmise. The claim of the overwhelming majority of the population of the American continent to have as its ancestors men who came by sea is neither legendary nor hypothetical: it is certainly not surmise it is plain fact, fact beyond all doubt or possibility of intelligent dispute.
What has happened once can happen twice. Indeed, it happened for the second time when Wolfe profiting by the long experience of his race in the use of the oceans of the world as a means of transport, brought his ships into the St. Lawrence and stormed Quebec in the absence of any effective naval opposition.
What has happened twice, may happen thrice. Therefore, when I attempt to answer the question that I have deliberately posed, the first thing that I must say is that the Navy is living up to the sea-going traditions of the spiritual ancestors of its ships, and the actual ancestors of its men, and is-in a hundred ways-providing protection for these shores.
That protection takes the form, very largely, of protecting ships. This is a familiar story. 'Guns, planes, tanks, shells, bombs, men and commando daggers would be all useless to our cause-would offer no protection, or only belated protection, to our homes, no matter how great their efficiency or quantity-if there were no ships in which to take them to the places where they are needed most.
This fact is appreciated to the very full by the enemy. It is, indeed, exploited. I am venturing here a personal opinion-I hope it will be understood, not only by members and guests of The Empire Club, but also by the Press, that this is in no sense an official address. That exploitation has been very successful. Even today, with a taste of victory upon our tongues for a change, it would be the greatest folly to underestimate the peril that lies beneath the waters. The U-boat is Hitler's most successful weapon, and-if one may take a long view--it constitutes certainly one of the greatest threats to the security of our country.
If, in the first flush of a success which is not yet complete, and can represent only a step towards the far fiercer struggle which lies ahead in Europe, we were for one moment to slacken our endeavours to overcome this danger, if we were to slacken our ship-building, we would be taking a grave risk.
The shipyard worker who slacks today is either ignorant, apathetic, or suicidal. Nothing is more important to our present efforts than a continued and ever-increasing supply of ships. Nothing could be more fatal than a diminution of that supply.
This countrv today, this continent, indeed one might say, in a certain sense, the whole of our civilization, is ringed around with hulls of steel. Let that wall of floating steel begin to crumble, and all is lost.
Now, a very important sector of that wall is held by the Royal Canadian Navy. If, at the outbreak of this war, any man in this country had prophesied that the Canadian Navy would, within three years, have a personnel of some fifty thousand, and possess beyond five hundred vessels--he would have been called an optimist. And considering that enormous expansion of personnel which began with some 1,700, I would like you gentlemen to think for a moment of the terrific activity there has been in the direction of training in order to pass so many men through training establishments in such a way that in a minimum of time, (and an extraordinary minimum it has been), they could be made into effective fighting seamen. If, given the likelihood of a major and continuous battle developing in the Atlantic, he had stated that Canadian ships and Canadian seamen would be handling more than one-third of that battle, and doing it with some distinction, he would have been dismissed as a visionary lunatic. You will be interested to know that today we are handling some forty-five per cent of the Battle of the Atlantic. (Applause.)
These things are cold fact today, mere matters of record, known well-and no longer marvelled at--by those who know anything at all about the Naval Service.
Ours is a navy built up at break-neck speed. Indeed, I believe for the speed in building a navy we have beaten all records in all history.
Our ships formed a part of that vast protecting screen which bore the men and materials on the victorious course to North Africa. They are to be seen daily in the North Atlantic. Their stems have knifed through the Pacific waters. The ice-laden road to Murmansk knows them, too. This is a record of ubiquity in which, perhaps, our Navy may take some pride.
The story of our personnel is, if anything, even more impressive. Canadian seamen, officers and ratings, are to be found wherever there is fighting on the seas. They are scattered throughout the ships of the Royal Navy, and have distinguished themselves both in action, and in the permanent long-drag, whose predominant note is vigilant boredom, which is the lot of the fighting seaman in time of war.
One hundred and fifty-four of our officers and ratings have won decoration, mention in despatches, or official commendation. . This, in a service where opportunities of individual distinction are few, and the standard very high indeed, is not unimpressive.
But the doings of the Navy are concerned less with the gaining of individual distinction, than the performance of those comparatively humdrum duties, as members of a series of teams whose united strength forms that floating wall of steel to which I have already referred.
I remember this summer, when I was at sea for a short time, running into one of those situations which, if you give them thought, provide you with plenty to think about. I was in a corvette on escort duty, looking after a small section of a larger convoy which we were to meet as it arrived from the other side of the Atlantic.
We made our rendezvous in fog-which is not always very easy to do. And, as we took over from another escort group, we steamed past a number of small ships of that group. We recognized one or two of them, and exchanged signals. One or two were British. One or two were Canadian. There was a Polish vessel, and a corvette of the Fighting French navy, and yet another flying the Dutch flag. The teamwork of the Atlantic was very evident.
There was a little thrill in this. Our Navy is quite used to such sights: but it was my first trip at sea since joining up, and I found it rather striking. It, of course, led to the obvious thought that our Navy is doing precisely what all the navies of the United Nations are doing-we're all doing our damndest to get the merchant ships, the transports, and the rest, to their proper destinations with the least possible amount of loss. And we're doing it as a team.
That, expressed simply, is what the Navy is doing. It is not news. It is something that everybody knows, and it is not, in the spectacular way, particularly heroic.
Yet, there are certain things about that job only dimly realized by the majority of people, about which the public should know far more than it does.
It should know, for instance, that with less than a handful of exceptions, our Navy consists of very small ships. A destroyer, after all, can hardly be called gigantic. It certainly cannot be called a comfortable vessel. It is not even particularly safe, for it has no armour worth mentioning, and relies almost entirely upon its speed for its safety.
A corvette is so much smaller than a destroyer that I remember going aboard a destroyer a while back, after a spell in a corvette, and congratulating the Captain on the enormous size of his ship.
Ours, gentlemen, is a small ship navy. That is to say, a navy whose ships are very hard on its personnel. A day of rough weather in a corvette will tire you out--even if you have nothing to do. The muscular effort of maintaining yourself perpendicular when all about you (to misquote Kipling) is perpetually in cock-eyed motion, is quite tiring all by itself. This applies to every ship that we have in the North Atlantic, or elsewhere, with the sole exception of our three armed merchant cruisers. And even these are, I am told, less comfortable than they look.
I believe it has been said, by our enemies, that the Canadian Navy is a navy of yachtsmen, who are hopelessly amateurish, and whose ships are not much good. I doubt if this view will be corroborated by crews which, unhappily for them, made all too definite contact with the Assiniboine and the Oakville, with the Chambly and the Moose Jaw. (Applause.)
Of course, it's a navy of amateurs. The professionals are now in a very small minority: but it's extraordinary how much skill a serious-minded amateur can develop, if he has had good professional guidance. It's surprising how much damage he can do. It's inspiring how much he enjoys the process.
If the Germans persist in regarding our little fighting ships as amateurish ugly ducklings: at least we may justifiably retort by paraphrasing Mr. Churchill, and exclaiming Some Ducklings!
And, having regard to the effect of our depth charges, we might add-Some Eggs! (Laughter.)
Yet, though it is true that the Canadian Navy has had its share of the improved U-boat hunting which has been a pleasing feature of the long-drawn-out battle of late, I would not wish, for the sake of provoking some optimistic mirth at our enemies' expense, to suggest to you that the U-boat menace is not the most serious that we face today.
Rather would I wish to make some attempt to show something of how serious that menace is. They have penetrated the St. Lawrence, and have sunk twenty ships. That is food for thought.
They have ranged the seas, not immune, but with considerable success, and have nullified hours and hours of work on the farm and in the factory, by sending the products of toil to the bottom of the sea, together with good ships and brave men.
Above all things, gentlemen, let me impress this upon you. A submarine is not easy to find, even with the best of detector devices; and a submarine is not easy to sink when found.
I often think that that is a fact of which people are not sufficiently cognizant. You will probably be interested to know something of the effectiveness of the modern submarine. Here are some figures and facts:
A modern U-boat often has a range of some 15,000 miles. There have been stories, I know, going about the country that they have been coming over to this side, reprovisioning and refuelling. They seem hardly worthy of serious consideration. If you have a range of 15,000, miles you don't have to take risks like that. Rumours of that sort appear in the light of fact, pretty ridiculous. Its top speed, on the surface, for limited periods of time, and in good weather, may be as much as twenty knots. Again, f or a limited period, it can do some nine or ten knots when submerged. In emergency, it can remain submerged for 24 hours. A large submarine may carry as many as fourteen torpedoes.
Now I would like you to think of this weapon, for a moment, in terms of the average merchant ship. Many merchant ships can do no more than six or seven knots: ten knots is a fair speed; sixteen or above, is exceptional. Thus, the speed of a convoy-which is necessarily that of 'the slowest ship-is often as little as eight knots or nine, and may easily be as little as six knots. In other words, a submarine on the surface can quite easily overtake the average convoy.
There have been those who, regarding this undoubted fact with some considerable misgivings, have been inclined to the view that it is a mistake to herd a number of ships together for the ocean, or coastal, passage, and, so to speak-deliberately hold down their speed to a point where they can easily be overtaken by the enemy. But it is only by herding ships together like this that we are able to provide a good measure of naval protection.
Losses of ships proceeding alone, and without escort, have been very heavy. Losses of ships in convoy, on the other hand, represent--when taken as a whole--a very small proportion of the ships in passage.
With that statement, then, you have a fair part of the answer to our question, What is the Navy Doing? It is providing effective protection for the men and materials who are keeping the war away from the Western Hemisphere. By doing so, it is protecting our shores.
It is a part, a very effective part, and a growing part, of that steadily-strengthening team which is winning the war upon the high seas.
I do not see how anybody, whether wearing naval uniform or not, can speak on naval matters today without saying something of the work of the Merchant Navy. It is, thank goodness, at last achieving some recognition. There never was finer, or braver work done since man learnt to use the seas. There has never been a tougher job: there has never been a more important job.
I would like to make one further point. It has to be remembered of the merchant seamen that they are not professional fighters. They are not even amateur fighters, though they have proved in the event to be among the most doughty fighters of all history. Within the last year or so, due to their heroism, they have received an increasing measure of public recognition, but I can assure you of this, no recognition can ever match their courage, their humour or their humdrum solid determination. Never have seamen faced greater risks and never have they faced them with greater cheerfulness.
I would like to give you a single example, typical I know of many, of the kind of thing that our merchant seamen have faced in the Atlantic and are still facing. This is the story of a tanker. I came across it some time ago. It was written in the simple, straightforward language of the ship's Chief Officer. The report would have been written by the Captain but he didn't live to write it. It is a very simple story. They got into some bad weather and became separated from the convoy and early in the evening they were hit by a torpedo. They investigated the damage, rather cheerfully because it didn't seem to be too serious. Fortunately, the tanker was coming this way and was filled with water. It absorbed a good deal of the shock, so they carried on, taking of course the necessary precaution of immediately manning their guns, of which they had only one.
Shortly afterward, the submarine responsible, assuming that the tanker would be in no condition to do anything very much, came to the surface and the tanker immediately opened fire. The submarine surfaced, I believe, two or three times during this period of the action (for it certainly was an action), and every time she came up they put her under again with the light four-inch gun.
Then, after the necessary manoeuvring, the submarine put another torpedo into her. So they investigated the damage again and finding the engines still turned and they could still make a speed of perhaps four or five knots, they carried on, waiting for another shot at the submarine.
Well, about this time a second submarine appeared and came to the surface. They immediately opened fire on her and scored either a direct hit or a near miss, for she disappeared into the twilight, after making an attempt to submerge and then deciding against it. She was certainly damaged.
They carried on for about an hour and then were hit by a third torpedo. This was bringing the matter to a rather serious situation. The ship obviously couldn't go on being torpedoed indefinitely without breaking up, and the water was getting rough and she was now showing signs of breaking up. So the Captain gave orders to abandon ship.
The Chief Engineer and the 3rd Officer, who was in charge of the gun, however, carried out some investigation, and they represented to the Captain that it was not necessary to abandon ship yet, that she would probably hold together for a while and there was still a good chance that the original submarine might come up and they might get her.
So with the ship literally breaking up under their feet, they stood by and waited and in due course the submarine did come up, and they continued to fire. It now became a surface action between them. They continued to fire until they had no more ammunition left. The submarine then put another torpedo into them. The ship promptly broke in half, and here is the thing that captured my imagination. In the report is to be found these words: "It was now decided finally to abandon ship, owing to conditions." (Applause.)
They took to the one boat that they had left and some rafts. The submarine, now realizing that the situation was perfectly safe, came to the surface, turned their searchlights on them, scored a direct hit on the raft on which was the Captain and, I think, four wireless operators and some ratings, and then went off into the night.
I have some naval friends here and I am sure they will recognize this phrase, coming from the Merchant Service, "The Navy always arrives when the whole thing is over. (Laughter.) I am happy to say it was one of our corvettes that did arrive, however. The submarine had gone, but they stayed around and they took every man who was still alive on board and brought them back.
That story always strikes me as reminiscent of the last fight of the Revenge. It was a fight to the last shot, until the ship actually was going down, when they abandoned her "owing to conditions".
Gentlemen, stories of heroism are always very interesting and exciting, but I would like to impress upon you one final thing, and that is that it is the convoy that does not appear in the newspaper which is the small victory in the Atlantic or anywhere else. The Navy's job is to see that the goods are delivered. Therefore, when people say to you, "I had a very dull trip. Nothing happened", you may immediately turn around and congratulate them and perhaps give the Navy a wink, because we do wiggle them through in the most extraordinary fashion.
I met a tanker Captain the other day who had crossed the Atlantic in this war thirty times before he saw any action. I believe that is a tribute to somebody in the Operations Division. Submarines are detected, I won't say readily, but continuously, and every possible effort is made to get convoys past them without being sighted at all by the submarine; and that, in the final analysis, is the Navy's real job, so far as our navy is concerned at the present time. Please do not think it is a defensive function, it is very offensive. After all, there willl never be the final victory gained offensively if the Navy, and with that I include the merchant navy, does not succeed in delivering the goods.
That then, summed up fairly briefly, is what the Navy is doing. It is doing the Navy's job. It is keeping the sea-lanes as clear as they can be kept in these circumstances. It is guarding our shores. It is taking all the necessary risks, facing the gales which can do sometimes more damage than the enemy, and facing the enemy with very great enthusiasm.
This is the job of the Navy--To keep the sea-lanes clear, That the ships may ply 'Neath a cloudless sky, Forgetting the shades of fear; That the trade which is your life, and my life, May move, as the Lord ordained On the waters' face, From place to place, Unhampered and unrestrained.
This is the job of the Navy--To guard the edge of the land, To the water to go And encounter the foe, By sea to make the stand, That the sleep of the child may be dreamless, And the mother's be deep and sound, For the certain fact That no alien act Shall disturb our country's ground.
This is the job of the Navy--To dare the raging gale, To challenge the might Of the storm's height, And to follow the raider's trail. To hold to the great tradition Of the men who made us free, To sail in the wake Of Nelson, and Drake, On the restless, heaving sea.
So pray for the men of the Navy, As they fight for your freedom yet; As they guard your life, In this time of strife, Cold, and tired, and wet, Think of the job of the Navy, And as you do so, pray, That the years ahead May be free from dread That the Navy's here-to stay!
Mr. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: My reading, Sir, takes me into strange corners at times. You mentioned the little Revenge. I recall reading that the Captain, or the old man on the bridge, bore the name of Sir Richard Grenville. My reading also tells me that Sir Richard Grenville actually used to surprise the men of his crew by chewing up glass and letting the blood run down from each corner of his mouth. I don't know what merit there is in that, but, when the old man on the bridge will chew glass as a challenge to his junior officers, there must be something pretty tough about the Navy.
You also mentioned the teamwork that was so evident when the Canadian convoy arrived at its ocean rendezvous and took over from the convoy that had brought the ships from the Old Land to that rendezvous. I want to put in a plug here, Sir, for the Sea Cadet Movement, and for the work that the Navy League is doing in Halifax, in particular. We have there, as you know, the Allied Merchant Seamen's Club on Hollis Street, and the work that the Navy is doing in connection with just such incidents as you have related is being supplemented by the work of the Navy League. We have, in that hostel, little rooms where the men from Poland, the men from the Netherlands, the Free French, nationals from other allied countries, may gather together among themselves and speak their own languages and have their own discussions, and carry on according to their native customs.
Also, sir, you were speaking of origins. I remember reading that there was a little man in the time of Charles II, who wore a long wig, who was a bit of a philanderer, who played a flute, but who, withal, was a good navy man, a good administrator. His name was Samuel Pepys. He established a colony on the north coast of Africa and put his brother-in-law in command of that colony. It prospered for a while but eventually had to be abandoned.
Now, I think that a great many people agree that Samuel Pepys was really the founder of the modern English Navy. Little Samuel Pepys, the man who before anaesthesia was known, could submit to the operation for the extraction of gall stones and still stand it, was a pretty tough individual. And I think, Gentlemen, speaking of origins, that you will find that a very great deal of credit is due to Samuel Pepys as the originator of what we know as the modern English Navy.
Now, we thank you very sincerely for coming to us a second time. You have done a grand job today. We hope you will be with us again, either before the war is over or afterward. Thank you, Sir, sincerely. (Applause.)