Floating our boats on a shoestring

Walter Hose kept the Canadian navy alive through tough times, building reserve forces that later proved pivotal

To mark the centennial of the Royal Canadian Navy,

Times Colonist editorial page editor Dave Obee is writing a series of retrospectives. This week: Walter Hose, father of the Royal Canadian Navy.

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To read previous columns in the series online, go to timescolonist.com/navyhistory.

Who was the father of Canada's navy?

Not George Foster, the Opposition member of Parliament who raised the notion of a navy in 1909. Not Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister at the time the Naval Service Act was passed. And not Louis-Philippe Brodeur, the first minister of naval defence.

The honour goes instead to Rear Admiral Walter Hose, a true "man of the sea" who shaped the navy in its early years and set the stage for its successes in the Second World War.

Hose was born on the P&O steamer Surat on Oct. 2, 1875, in the Indian Ocean. His father was an Anglican bishop.

At the age of 14, Hose joined the Royal Navy and was assigned to HMS Britannia. He had six commands, including gunboats in Newfoundland and the China and East Indies stations, and a torpedo gunboat in the Home Fleet. He also trained Royal Navy reservists in Newfoundland from 1902 to 1905.

In 1909, Hose was the executive officer of the armoured cruiser HMS Cochrane, but promotion within the Royal Navy was too slow for his liking, so Hose contacted the new Canadian naval service in search of a brighter future.

At first, he was simply on loan from the Royal Navy, then in 1911, he was given command of HMCS Rainbow, based in Esquimalt, after the resignation of Rainbow's first commander. Hose was also given responsibility for the Esquimalt Dockyard.

In 1912, Hose resigned from the Royal Navy to become a permanent member of the Canadian navy.

In his time here, Hose lived at 649 Admirals Rd., in Esquimalt.

Hose's first years must have been frustrating, because after the initial enthusiasm in Parliament, there was little money for the navy.

HMCS Rainbow remained the only naval vessel on the Pacific coast, and Hose could do nothing but watch as crew members gave up on their naval careers.

By 1913, Rainbow could no longer leave her home port. She did not have enough crew members.

Hose tried to persuade the government that a reserve force could be raised. After his initial efforts were rebuffed, he won approval from the new minister, Douglas Hazen, in 1913.

Given the green light, Hose quickly rounded up volunteers from Esquimalt and Victoria, and Canada's first naval reserve was officially born on May 14, 1914.

The men did not have uniforms or official status, and they were not paid. That did not curb their enthusiasm -- a good thing, considering that they were put to work within a matter of weeks.

In July 1914, Rainbow was sent to Vancouver to deal with the Komagata Maru, the Japanese ship that had brought immigrants from India, in violation of federal regulations. Rainbow escorted the Komagata Maru and its 400 passengers out of Canadian waters.

When the First World War started the next month, Rainbow was sent to sea to escort Royal Navy ships and to look for the German cruiser Leipzig. The mission ended a few weeks later when reinforcements from England and Japan arrived, effectively driving the Germans out of the North Pacific.

Rainbow performed general patrols, and seized some German merchant ships. Her most valuable role was likely as a training vessel for the Canadian naval reserves.

In August 1917, Hose was sent to Sydney, N.S., as captain of patrols, dealing with the threat posed by German U-boats.

After the war ended, Hose was based in Halifax. In 1920, he was ordered to naval headquarters in Ottawa, and named assistant to the naval minister and acting director of the naval service.

His first task was to obtain more ships, and he acquired three from the Royal Navy. They arrived in Halifax in December 1920.

In the fall of 1921, the Liberals replaced the Conservatives as the federal government, and started chopping the country's military spending.

Hose was confirmed as the director of the naval service on Jan. 1, 1922, possibly the worst time to take the position.

The government cut the navy's budget to $1.5 million, 40 per cent below the $2.5 million promised by the defeated government. Hose had to reduce the naval fleet to six ships and lose the naval college, which had been moved to Esquimalt in 1918. Personnel dropped to about 400.

His answer was again to build up the reserves, with units in cities across Canada. Many of the men who joined the new Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve had never even seen the sea. The reserve was set up on Jan. 31, 1923, with 1,000 officers and men. It had divisions in 15 cities.

Hose was named chief of naval staff in 1928. HMCS Skeena and Saguenay, the first two warships built for the RCN, were part of his long-range plan for a small fleet to meet Canada's defence requirements.

The depression caused even more problems for the navy. There were more cuts to the navy's budget, and the $422,000 that was left in May 1933, after the slashing was finished was not even enough to cover the cost of disbanding the service.

Hose left the remaining fight to others. He retired from the navy in June 1934, promoted to rear admiral on the retired list.

The structure he established proved invaluable a few years later, when the Second World War started in 1939. At the war's peak, the Royal Canadian Navy had 87,000 officers, men in uniform and Wrens -- and 78,000 of them were from the reserves.

Hose died at Windsor, Ont., where he had lived since 1950, in June 1965.

In October 1967, Victoria's naval reserve division, HMCS Malahat, dedicated a plaque in honour of Hose at St. Paul's Naval and Garrison Church in Esquimalt.

Evidence of his work is not hard to find. He kept the navy alive through tough times, and he established the reserves, which proved essential when Canada went to war in 1939.

Next week: The Second World War.

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