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Jim Plomer

Cmdr. Jim Plomer, retired, Prince Edward County.

The gold-braid mind is destroying our navy

James Plomer

McLean's : 7 September 1963

Until the early 1960s, James Plomer DSC*, CD, OBE (1911-1986) was the top Canadian naval officer who actually went to sea. Here he describes the hidden scandal of our navy and the shorebound admirals who § Waste billions on a clumsy and often useless fleet § Perpetuate an outdated system based on pomp and ceremony § Hide the facts about our ships from the government and the people.     When he retired last spring, Commodore James Plomer was the most decorated officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. He joined the naval reserve in Winnipeg in 1932, when he was a clerk. At the outbreak of war, in 1939, he was loaned to Britain’s navy, rather than Canada’s, because the chances of seeing action at sea seemed higher. For a year he commanded an armed yacht on the Thames Estuary, for sixteen months he directed a group of Royal Navy mine sweepers in the English Channel, and finally he was appointed captain of the corvette HMS Sunflower. He received the DSC for ramming one submarine, which survived, the Bar for sinking two others. In 1944 he taught antisubmarine tactics to Royal Navy personnel at Londonderry, and the following year he returned to Canada to direct a joint navy and air force tactical school at Halifax. In the Korean war he commanded the destroyer HMCS Cayuga, and won the Order of the British Empire and the U. S. Legion of Merit. In 1959 lie was appointed senior Canadian officer afloat, and he led the Canadian naval forces during NATO exercises in the Atlantic and the Caribbean.


SINCE THE END of the Second World War, the Canadian people have spent three and a half billion dollars on the Canadian navy. For this sum they have been provided not with a modern, functioning navy but with a fleet of ships which are badly chosen, badly equipped and poorly manned. The Royal Canadian Navy’s ineffectiveness amounts today to a major scandal.

I recently retired from the navy, four years early, because I resolved that I should write of these deficiencies. In my view, the people of Canada have been badly hoodwinked, both through the press releases of the navy and through various ministers of defense, who have themselves been misinformed by their naval advisors. This article, which describes the deficiencies of the navy in detail, is the final discharge of my duties as a naval officer to the people of Canada.

The heart of the problem of the Royal Canadian Navy is the self-perpetuating, self-electing group of admirals. Canadian admirals have come to believe in themselves as a social institution, a marching society, a kind of uniformed Tammany Hall. Indeed, some of them have come almost to see the navy as their own private property! Arrogantly, they believe that military law, the Naval Discipline Act, and pageantry are all that we need to make a modern navy.

For this Canada has paid a price: the seagoing skills and the arts of war without which no navy can be effective as a keeper of the peace. In the Canadian navy, morale is low, ships arc unable to function effectively, many vessels break down in the course of exercises, and vital tasks assigned to Canada by NATO simply cannot be performed in an emergency.

A citizen who has helped to pay for this major failure may now want to ask: Do we after all need a navy? In my opinion we do, even in the nuclear age, for these reasons:

Plague of mutinies

Canada is not a maritime-minded nation – most citizens live far from the sea – and this may partly explain why our citizens know so little about the navy they pay for. At the same time, the Canadian people are told very little about their navy. Our parliamentary estimates, compared with those of other Western nations, are about as informative as if they had been prepared in Peking for American tourists.

Yet we do have a maritime aptitude, and we proved it in the Second World War. We accomplished apparent miracles of building warships and merchant vessels, and the ninety thousand landlubbers who manned and officered this third largest allied fleet, often after only rudimentary instruction, proved they could sail and fight magnificently in varied operations. They did this in ships that were small, that never stopped rolling and pitching, that were wet inside and out. They sank thirty enemy submarines; more important, they fought the U-boats off the convoys which carried the goods to Britain.

But throughout the war – and this is where the trouble begins – there was friction between the permanent officers of the navy and those who joined only to fight the war. There was more friction, in fact, than in any other allied navy. In the prewar Royal Canadian Navy, many permanent officers imitated slavishly the style of the Royal Navy, affecting towards their subordinates the manner of a squire to a poorly educated tenant. This affectation, alien to our national background, produced between officers and men, and between permanent officers and temporaries, a hostility which simmered throughout the war. It flared up with a mutiny toward the end of the war on the destroyer HMCS Iroquois, at Plymouth, when sailors locked themselves in the forecastle to protest their working conditions and the attitude of their officers. (It is a pity that Canadian naval officers, while copying the British style, have failed to imitate the intense concern many British officers have for their subordinates.) In victory, the real explosion came: much of the navy's prestige was destroyed in the VE Day riots at Halifax.

One man took the blame for that tragedy – Rear-Admiral L. W. Murray, the commander in chief in Halifax – and it was his official responsibility. But the riots were the result of shaky leadership and poor administration in general. This should have been the subject of an immediate inquiry into the navy, an inquiry which might have prevented the further disasters which followed. Four years later, a plague of mutinies broke out in our ships on both coasts. From 1947 to 1949, sailors again and again refused to perform their duties in protest against the conditions under which they lived and worked – on the carrier HMCS Magnificent, the cruiser Ontario, the destroyers Athabaskan and Crescent, the frigate Crescent. There had been nothing like this in peacetime since the Invergordan Mutiny in the Royal Navy in the 1930s.

In Canada the mutinies brought naval prestige to a new low. For those serving, they were a shame and an agony. Their number proved they were not the responsibility only of those directly involved but were, again, proof of basic faults in the leadership and administration of the entire navy. The immediate result was a commission, under then Rear-Admiral E. R. Mainguy, assisted by Leonard W. Brockington, the distinguished Toronto lawyer and businessman, and Louis C. Audette, a lawyer who had ably commanded a frigate during the war.

Wealth of ceremonies

The Mainguy report, which appeared in 1949, was a masterpiece of perception and clear statement. It had many detailed recommendations, but its main thesis was that elaborate ceremonies should be drastically cut down in the navy, that obsolete Royal Navy traditions should be abandoned, and that the Canadian navy should co-operate more closely with the United States Navy. On this document, this Magna Carta, an effective navy with high morale and enthusiasm, could have been built. But it was not.

In any other country, a parallel set of circumstances would have been followed by drastic reforms. But in Canada, where the navy is left to the admirals, the reforms failed to come. The navy was left to put its house in order, and the navy refused to do so. Only a few of the Mainguy recommendations were implemented, and every officer directly involved in the mutinies received his promotion in due course. It became a saying in the wardrooms: “If only / could have a mutiny, my future would be sure!” It was a tragedy. Those responsible arrogantly turned their backs on the future. The chance for reform was gone. For many of us a further disappointment was to come. When E. R. Mainguy himself became chief of naval staff he failed to implement the findings he had signed.

Our Navy is being destroyed

Since the Mainguy report, the RCN has grown from eight thousand officers and men to twenty-one thousand. There have been no more mutinies – relations are generally better between the younger officers and men, and more of the men are married, making the dangers of mutiny too great. But I know from my own experience with the fleet that the morale of younger officers and men is low.

When I took over as senior Canadian officer (Atlantic) in October, 1959, there were already ample grounds to believe that the fleet was in a poor physical state. For two years I had a difficult and frustrating assignment. The winter exercises in February-March, 1960, when the fleet was based at Bermuda, were a series of mishaps. Morale was bad in many ships. Ships broke down with alarming frequency – not only the older ships but even those in the new Restigouche class. Most.of this, of course, was officially recorded and reported. What happened? Nothing. Excuses were made that the old ships were obsolete. But obsolescence and neglect are entirely different problems. These ships suffered from neglect.

The case of the destroyer HMCS Crusader was the worst. The hull of this post-war ship was in such bad condition by I960 that she was condemned as unseaworthy. The total estimate for her repairs and refit stood at over a million dollars. Pending approval of the funds, she was laid up at Sydney, N.S., without a crew. There were delays, and by 1962, forgotten, she had deteriorated to such an extent that she now needed five million dollars spent on repairs. Whole areas of her plating were rusting away. You could walk through her water-tight bulkheads. Her electric cables were going. It was later decided that she had reached the point of no return and should be scrapped. Yet throughout this time she was shown on the NATO force-goals as one of the ships Canada would place under NATO operational command at the outbreak of war.

This chain of events, in which we lost a beautiful ship which should have sailed the seas for many more years, is appalling enough. What is indicative of the atmosphere in the navy is the fact that not even a board of inquiry was held. In fact, I do not know of a single case where a commanding officer has faced a board of inquiry for even the grossest neglect of his ship. The admirals get the standards they demand. There was once an engineer in chief of the navy who wrote on a report to the chief of naval staff that he could no longer be held responsible for the physical state of the fleet. That engineer in chief did not become an admiral. Instead, the chief of naval staff promoted an officer who was, in his term of office, conspicuous by his absence from nearly all naval board meetings. Inevitably the condition of the fleet continued its downward path.

Should the “state of readiness” of ships be a constant concern of the naval board? In the United States, the chief of naval operations has a group, headed by an inspector-general, which reports to him directly on the condition of all combat ships. He has to know exactly what he can count on, and he does know. In Canada, the state of readiness is the responsibility of individual admirals. As an officer in operational command, I have made repeated representations to three admirals and two chiefs of naval staff. My reports have been either politely or rudely ignored. In each case the chief of naval staff has said that the state of readiness was the business of the admiral on the coast.

In the year 1962, right up to the Cuban crisis, the state of readiness of the fleet was never the subject of formal discussion by the naval board. However, just before the Cuban crisis, the naval board did devote a whole morning to discussing a Tri-Service Handbook on Ceremonial and a new summer uniform for wrens. I know. I was there.

The RCN admirals’ unholy genius for buying the wrong equipment

The admirals of the Royal Canadian Navy have for years demonstrated an unholy genius for buying the wrong equipment. The story of the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure, bought from the Royal Navy and commissioned in 1957. tells a great deal about the Canadian navy today.

Bonaventure is the only floating platform we have for our fixed-wing aircraft. Naval aviation in Canada represents a considerable capital investment. and in fact this is the most efficient section of the service. The Tracker aircraft, their pilots, and their maintenance crews are excellent. (The same could be said of the helicopter squadrons, but for a deplorable error in ordering replacements which delayed operation of the new' aircraft by two years, including the time of the Cuban crisis.) A carrier properly chosen and properly used is not obsolete, but Bonaventure is a major error, for several reasons:

Bonaventure is only one among many such cases. The Saint class tugs are another costly error. They were supposed to be dual-purpose tugs, for use in harbor or deep sea. Professional seamen would have rejected them at the design stage – they have no reserve buoyancy aft, which makes them vulnerable in bad weather, and they have only a single screw, which makes them difficult to manœuvre in harbor. But the naval board accepted them.

A costlier item still is the three inch seventy-calibre antiaircraft gun installed on all the newer destroyer escorts, at a price, for each twin mounting, of $1,300,000. They were built in Canada on the basis of an untried design that came from England. It has taken six years and a fantastic amount of money, in manhours, to get them working. If the Cuban crisis last year had turned into war, our whole fleet would have been vulnerable to air attack. These destroyer escorts, with their forward guns still not working, would have been open to air attack from anything, even from a Piper Cub with a single bomb. There are many men alive in Canada today who had to fight in the war with inadequate defense against air attack.

That was part of the game. But surely there is no excuse for this in a new thirty-million-dollar warship. The guns would have been better scrapped. A modern gun could have been purchased from the United States for less than it has cost the RCN to make these guns work.

But these practical problems are not, so far as I can determine, the main concerns of the leadership of the Royal Canadian Navy. I have noticed, over the years, that the more an officer worries over the trivia and pomp of ceremony, the greater will he his ignorance of the arts of war and seamanship.

The biggest problem of the navy’s budget is manpower costs, and every year these go up. On this subject the Mainguy report said: “If this results in the abolition of unnecessary flummery, useless parades and pointless mustering, and a greater attention to the essential work of a ship, a most useful and necessary purpose has been served.”

Obsession with a bygone age

But that purpose has not been served. It all goes on, just the same – the pointless musterings, the guards of honor for visiting senior officers from headquarters. An admiral I know once moped and fretted for days because he didn't get a guard of honor when visiting the coast.

This ceremonial requires hours of practice for the men involved. The American navy cannot afford these luxuries and has restricted such rituals to special occasions, such as the visits of foreign dignitaries. But in Halifax there are ceremonial divisions once a week at the barracks, when at least seven or eight hundred men waste a whole morning. In my view, the parade ground plays a part in recruit training – and there it should end.

In my opinion, this childish obsession with the pomp of a bygone age is far stronger in the RCN than in any other modern navy. In fact, the highest Canadian officers seem to depend on this, rather than on the job they do, to establish their authority. And it is this attitude of humorless self-importance that causes unrest in the service. The psychology of the parade ground, with its mechanical obedience to orders bellowed and shouted, is a holdover from the age of the battleship. But the battleship has gone now (Canada never owned one in any case).

The parallel with antisubmarine fighting, which is the navy’s main task today, is not parade-ground marching but a game, like hockey. How does the coach of an NHL team train his players? Hockey demands skill, initiative, endurance, and quick thinking. Antisubmarine warfare is the same thing in a different dimension. It is fought in a watery jungle – from the air, the surface, and the depths themselves. It is guerrilla war at sea. There is no set piece, as in the days of the battleship, for no two situations are alike. The weather, the weapons, the formations of ships and submarines, even the temperature of the water, all contribute to an infinity of permutations and combinations. Like hockey, it requires the close teamwork that comes only from mutual confidence. Does an NHL coach train his team with ceremonial divisions, falling in and falling out, marching in threes? Does he direct their every movement on the ice from the bench? Does he have to order them to shoot when they are close to the goal? I think not: he trains them extensively in what they must do, for victory depends on their skill and initiative.

The RCN’s parade-ground psychology shows itself in other ways, with equal futility. From senior windows in the Halifax dockyard, the ships moving in and out are severely criticized if their external appearance is faded or rusty. Fresh paint means praise, whatever the internal shambles. This results in the endless dabbing on of paint (often in wet weather, when it will do more harm than good by sealing in the moisture along with the paint, to breed rust). Professional seamen call this “paint for cosmetic purposes”; around the barrack square the urge to do it is known as “the whitewash complex.” Concentrating on it leads to neglect of the interior condition of many ships and produces decay.

These same senior officers in Halifax who demand parade-ground pomp and exterior paint also tightly control the ships from the shore. In exercises, the initiative comes not from the men commanding the ships but from the shorebound officers. No other navy does this: others recognize that shore officers should exercise the minimum of control possible and support the initiative of the man on the spot, for he alone can properly deploy his ship or ships effectively. This results in many difficulties, not the least of which is the swamping of communications’ facilities. It must also involve security risks: the torrent of messages during an exercise must provide some edifying entertainment for the quiet listeners on the Russian trawlers.

In one exercise, which was often used off Halifax up to 1962, the admiral went a step further than simply having the ships march to and fro in orderly platoons. Instead, the entire Atlantic Fleet, carrier included, gyrated endlessly within proscribed circles, rigidly controlled by the senior officers ashore. On one occasion, American ships joined in this madness. Afterward, the American officers showed great courtesy and restraint in their comments, but privately, among friends, they offered a different view.

It is my contention that those charged with the responsibility of directing Canada’s sea defense do not possess the ability to carry out their work effectively, and I believe this has been true for a long time.

What are the qualifications for admirals in Canada? They differ from those in other navies. Officers who have failed quickly under operational stress have become admirals. So have officers who dress up in sailor suits but rarely go to sea – the last admiral I worked for had been to sea for less than two months since before the war. Other admirals have little operational experience. In fact, there seems to be only one major qualification for a Canadian admiral: to have been an officer in the prewar permanent force. There have been only three admirals of other origins, and two of them have been promoted in the last two years.

For the fact is that, though perhaps two hundred thousand Canadians have passed through the navy, this little force of prewar officers believes that it alone should run the service. To this end, every stratagem has been employed, and the manipulation of appointments by admirals forever talking about loyalty and dedication (they mean loyalty to the prewar club) has been carried out with all the underhandedness of a bungling, devitalised Mafia – but more gorgeously attired. There are several officers of unusual ability who can never hope to become captains let alone admirals, because they were once enlisted personnel. The mentality which produces this situation also produces remarks like that of an admiral who told a friend of mine, a fine officer, that he could not be promoted because he ate his lunch in the office. This atmosphere eventually makes the abler young officers leave the service; too many have left since the war, and more are leaving. It is survival of the unfittest.

A remedy suggested

Criticism like this, of course, is useless without the suggestion of a remedy. It is plainly necessary that the nation should take careful stock of the Royal Canadian Navy, and I think the current committee on defense of the House of Commons should look long and carefully into the navy’s affairs. There is much that can be done to make our present service more efficient. The carrier is not much, but at a justifiable cost she can be made effective. There are ways to use the Tracker aircraft. We need an antiaircraft missile ship to support the present fleet, and we need to make our future ships more specialized. The greatest need of all, however, is submarines. The training of our ships and aircraft, as well as the aircraft of the RCAF cannot properly be carried out with the four obsolete submarines presently available. Nor can we do without submarines which can be used as an antisubmarine weapon: there is a gigantic area of Canadian coastal waters ignored by the RCN in the North, and here only the submarine can operate effectively against hostile submarines.

But we can never effectively improve naval policies, administration and morale without a drastic housecleaning at the top. The administration of the service must be organized so that the government has direct control – and, more important, so that the government can never again be fooled into believing our navy is ready to defend Canada when it is not.

In the peculiar organization of the navy, only the chief of naval staff has the ultimate authority. The naval board is only a consultant committee with whatever authority the chief of naval staff chooses to delegate to it. The government must have a representative at the naval board.

No other navy of any size is so unfettered in its administration or less accountable to civilian authority. This is a trust that has not been honored, and it should be ended. The naval board should include a civil servant of considerable experience, with the rank of at least assistant deputy minister, who can report to the government on the true condition of the navy. His assignment would be to bring the RCN into the world and make it a part of Canada rather than a private club.

A new approach like this could bring great benefits to Canada and the Western alliance. We have the chance – we have had the chance, in fact, since 1945 – to make our navy one of the finest in the world. We have the best-educated enlisted personnel in any navy. We have a skilled force of civilian personnel, and well equipped dockyards. The average age of our ships is below that of most navies.

It has not been pleasant to write this article, but I have considered it an unavoidable responsibility. I believe one must be a Canadian first and a naval officer second. Though I am no longer a naval officer, I want to see the RCN become the great service it should be, respected by ally and potential enemy alike, so that one day riots and mutinies can be spoken of openly as something the Royal Canadian Navy has lived down at last.



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