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Navy's first subs bought by B.C.

When Chile disputed the details of two new underwater craft it had ordered, the builder sold the submarines to Canada -- for 40 per cent more than the Chileans would have paid

To mark the centennial of the Royal Canadian Navy,

Times Colonist editorial page editor Dave Obee is writing a series of retrospectives. This week: The First World War.

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

Victoria, 1913. A group of young men decided they wanted to join a navy reserve, but there was a catch -- the Canadian navy, just three years old, did not have a reserve for the men to join.

So when John Douglas Hazen, the minister of the naval service, came to Esquimalt for a visit that summer, the eager men offered their services directly to the man in charge. Hazen was impressed with their enthusiasm, and agreed that they could use a building at the Dockyard for their drills.

He didn't have that much to lose. The volunteers had no uniforms, no official status and certainly no pay. But they did start something -- they set the stage for 100,000 more people to volunteer to serve in the navy in the years to come.

In 1913, the navy was not prepared for war. It had a complement of 330 officers and men and only two ships -- HMCS Rainbow, based in Esquimalt, and HMCS Niobe, based in Halifax. The reserves would prove to be an essential part of the service.

In July 1914, the members of the Victoria reserve received uniforms, and started their training on HMCS Rainbow, with the ship's officers and petty officers serving as instructors. That meant Rainbow could still go to sea, because the volunteers helped replace some of the regular sailors who quit the navy in the early years of its existence.

When the war started in Europe the next month, Canada joined immediately as a member of the Commonwealth. The British Admiralty told the Canadians to concentrate on the army, because it would take too long to build ships for the navy.

In October 1914, when the first soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force left Quebec for England, they were carried on 32 passenger liners, and only three of those ships were owned by Canadian companies. Their escorts were four light cruisers from the Royal Navy. Canada was not a naval force by any stretch of the imagination.

By that time, Victoria's naval volunteers had already made a huge difference on the light cruiser Rainbow. The day before war was declared, the ship had slipped out of Esquimalt and headed down the coast to help protect two Royal Naval ships, HMS Shearwater and HMS Algerine.

"Few of those who saw her depart on that eventful occasion ever expected to see her return," a senior Dockyard official was later quoted as saying.

Under Capt. Walter Hose, Rainbow had set out with volunteer reservists making up a third of the crew. Their foe, if they encountered it, would be the Leipzig, a formidable German cruiser reported to be in the area.

Hose took Rainbow to San Francisco, but heard nothing from the British ships, which had no radios. Off the Golden Gate, Hose ordered all woodwork be ripped out of Rainbow and ditched into the ocean to reduce the chance of fire should the ship be hit.

Fortunately for everyone on board Rainbow, the crew members did not encounter the Germans. The only ship they saw was the SS Prince George, a Grand Trunk coastal steamship that had been quickly converted to a hospital ship. It was steaming south as Rainbow came north, and the enthusiasm on board Rainbow almost resulted, legend has it, in one less coastal steamship.

The arrival of Japan into the war, as an ally of Britain, cooled the threat on the Pacific because the Germans pulled back. There was only one major battle, in November off the coast of central Chile, where the British suffered a major defeat.

HMCS Rainbow stayed in service close to home, just in case, until the Americans entered the war in April 1917.

The excitement on the high seas in August 1914 was matched in Victoria, where a discussion at the Union Club led to one of the most memorable stories in British Columbia's history.

For a few days, our province owned two submarines. It was all because of a conversation between James Venn Paterson, president of the Seattle Construction and Drydock Company, and Capt. William H. Logan, surveyor for the London Salvage Association, about two submarines Paterson's company had just finished for the Chilean government.

The Chileans were arguing about details and they owed money, so Paterson had the inspired notion of offering them to Canada. The logic was simple: At the start of a major war, an under-equipped country would be a ready buyer.

Logan went to see Sir Richard McBride, the premier. After a quick exchange of telegrams with Ottawa, McBride approved the purchase, even though Paterson's asking price of $1.15 million was $332,000 more than his agreed price when the Chileans were buying.

Logan went to Seattle on Aug. 4 with a naval reserve officer in civilian clothes, acting carefully but quickly because the deal had to be done without the Americans -- neutral in the war at that point -- or the Chileans -- the about-to-be-spurned suitor -- getting wind of it.

The submarines slipped out of Seattle using electric motors, then fired up their diesel engines and sped toward Canada as quickly as they could.

A Canadian tug, the Salvor, was waiting for them about eight kilometres south of Trial Island. At the rendezvous point, retired Royal Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bertram Jones, who was trained on submarines, and Lt. R.H. Wood, the chief engineer at Esquimalt, inspected the boats for about five hours.

Then, the money was handed over in the form of a B.C. treasury cheque, and the subs sailed to Esquimalt. The amount paid by the province represented twice the annual budget for the entire Canadian navy, but it was money well spent. The submarines were considered to be a better defence of our coastline than Rainbow would ever be.

For a few days, the two subs were named Paterson and McBride, but then Ottawa reimbursed the province and assumed ownership. The names were changed to CC1 and CC2 when they were commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy. They served on this coast until 1917, when they were shifted to Halifax.

Canada's navy was not a great presence in the war, reaching a peak of 9,000 personnel. One ship was lost. HMCS Galiano, a fishery protection ship, requisitioned into the navy in September 1917, foundered off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island on Oct. 30, 1918, while taking supplies to the wireless station on Triangle Island. Thirty-nine people lost their lives; there were no survivors.

Next week: Some notable figures in the history of the navy.