Canadian Maritime Strategy … or is it just tactics?

There is an interesting discussion over on (there is, by the way, also a for those who want different coloured screens) which started with an article by Capt (N) Hugues Canuel, RCN, in the Canadian Naval Review, in which he argued that materialists, those concerned only with buying new ships rather than with why they were needed and how they would be used, have seized control of the Navy, to the nation’s detriment.

But, in my opinion, there is a rather thick, and quite blurry line between naval strategy and naval tactics. One member used the Battle of the Atlantic to distinguish between two doctrines:

  • image-assetSea control ~ which was practised by the 2nd World War allies ~ mostly British Admirals Percy Noble and Max Horton in Britain and Canadian Rear Admiral Leonard Murray ⇒ in St John’s and Halifax; and
  • Sea denial ~ which was practised by German Admiral Karl Dönitz.

The difference between the two tactical doctrines was very clear. The strategic aims were equally clear:

  • 20385_karl-donitzAdmiral Dönitz wanted to knock Britain out of the war ~ something that he (and Churchill) understood could be done by starving Britain into submission by preventing food, fuel and ammunition from reaching Britain from North America. (We can be eternally grateful that Adolph Hitler did not share Dönitz’ strategic vision and listened, instead, to lesser men and his own, inept, instincts); and
  • Yousuf-Karsh-Winston-Churchill-Smile-1560x1960Prime Minister Churchill, who really did say that “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’,” who wanted to keep Britain fighting, at the very least resisting, until the Americans could, finally, be persuaded to come to the rescue.

Screen Shot 2020-03-19 at 09.13.31Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King did have a grand strategy of his own. It was to do as much as possible while operating with the lowest possible risk of casualties ~ the conscription crisis of 1917 was, always, uppermost in his mind and he was, therefore, terrified of casualties. He mightily approved of the Navy doing a HUGE share in the Battle of the Atlantic ~ especially by building ships in Canadian yards and escorting convoys which he hoped would be a low-risk affair.

Churchill’s grand strategy was based on Britain surviving … there was, I believe, a ‘worst case’ scenario in which the British Isles were occupied and the King and his government went to Canada or even India. But that has always seemed to me to be a sort of fantasy. The United Kingdom, without the British Isles, made no sense.

(While I believe that Rudolph Hess was, as they say, a few fries short of a happy meal, I think that he and several people in Germany believed that it might be possible to negotiate a peace with Britain which many felt was a necessary precursor to a successful campaign against Russia. The Battle of Britain (die Luftschlacht um England) (September 1940 to June 1941) was, clearly, not going in Germany’s favour. Late in 1940, the Nazi high command had been forced to send a German Army formation to Libya to prevent a complete rout of the Italians. Malta still held out, meaning that Britain had air cover throughout the Mediterranean. In short, Britain was not going to go down unless it could be starved into submission ~ and in the spring of 1941, the Battle fo the Atlantic was going in Germany’s favour. There was, in other words, some reason for Germans to believe that an armistice might be possible ~ freeing up all of Germany’s power to be used against the USSR.)

(But things were changing for the Allies, too. At just about the same time as Hess was flying to Scotland, then Commodore Leonard Murray of the Royal Canadian Navy, who had been in England on other duties, had met with and persuaded Admiral Sir Percy Noble, who liked Murray and had been his commander in earlier years, that a new convoy escort force should be established in Newfoundland and that it should be a largely Canadian force (with British, Dutch, Norwegian and Polish ships under command, too) and that it should be commanded by a Canadian officer. Admiral Noble insisted, to Canada, that Murray, who he liked, personally, and who had written, extensively, on convoy operations in the 1920s and ’30s, must be that commander. The establishment of the Newfoundland Escort Force, which would be more appropriately renamed the Mid Ocean Escort Force in 1942, was a key decision at the much-debated operational level of war which put an expert tactician (Murray) in command of a major force and allowed him (and Noble) to move closer to achieving Churchill’s strategic aim. The Battle of the Atlantic was not won in 1941, but it seemed to Churchill, Noble and Murray that they were a lot less likely to lose it, even without the Americans.)

Anyway, the boundaries of strategy vs. the operational art vs. tactics were as thick and blurry in 1941 as they are today. The decision, taken in 1939, for example, to build little corvettes in the many British and Canadian yards that could not build a real warship was, in retrospect, a key strategic choice, but it was, at the time, totally materialist: just a commonsense, engineer solution to an operational problem ~ lack of ships. Ditto for the eventual decision, which had to be made by Churchill, himself, to reassign some of the big, long-range, Lancaster heavy bombers to Coastal Command. It was, once again, with the benefit of hindsight, a key strategic move, but at the time it would likely have seemed, to Capt (N) Hugues Canuel, the author of that Canadian Naval Review essay, to be materialistic, more concerned with how to use the resources available than with deciding what is needed.

I agree with Capt (N)  Canuel that, by and large, Canadians have left strategic and even operational level thinking to first, the British and more recently the American admirals ~ Rear Admiral Murray being known, in the 1930s and early 1940s as a notable exception.

But, in my opinion, the fundamental strategic issues about any Navy are political, not military. Elected politicians, it seems to me, have to do two things:

  • Explain to an already overtaxed, ill-informed and always sceptical population why the country needs a Navy, at all, and why it needs a larger, better fleet; and
  • Allocate resources ~ money, mainly ~ to build, train, maintain and use that Navy.

The decision to use military force is always political but naval power, by its very nature, is even more political. Warships send a very visible, highly effective message to everyone. “Here,” a warship signals, to friend and foe alike, “is Canada, ready to help or B823284685Z.1_20170329170404_000_GDM1RSGGE.2_Super_Portraithinder or to protect and promote Canada’s vital interests.” When a warship deploys and visits a foreign port it might be a sending a diplomatic signal saying “we, Canadians, are nice, 524900_9330836_canadian-frigate_updatesfriendly, helpful people, please vote for us to join the UN Security Council,” or the signal might be saying “here is a billion dollars worth of warship and hundreds of Canadians sailors, if you attack it then you are at war with Canada and its nuclear-armed allies, including the USA. Beware!” Sending either or both messages are valid strategic (and therefore political) uses of a Navy … but before any country can use its Navy it has to have one, and it needs to be credible. It, the Navy, also needs to be part of a broader, deeper, national grand strategy which should be open and shared with the Canadian people and with the world. Canadian political leaders need to say, firmly and honestly ~ both would be somewhere between extraordinarily difficult and downright impossible for Justin Trudeau ~ what Canada stands for and what we are prepared to do to stand up for our vital interests.

I believe that our national interests are simple; at their very simplest they are Peace and Prosperity. To put a little flesh on the bones, Canada should commit itself to:

  • In the words of the UN’s Charter, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war;” and
  • To help to ensure that the global system in which we live freely and trade freely works for all of mankind, regardless of race, creed or gender.

That implies a commitment to protecting ourselves and protecting others. That, in turn, calls for a robust foreign policy which is backed up by capable armed forces. That includes a Royal Canadian Navy that has enough of the right ships in commission and enough men and women, officers and sailors and civilian support workers to sail them and keep them working. The business of deciding how many ships and how many sailors and so on is a strategic decision that, rightfully, belongs to our elected political leaders. Screen Shot 2020-03-19 at 16.21.24The business of using them is also a politically led operational decision, taken with expert advice from officials, diplomats and Navy officers. The business of effecting the government’s direction is a mix of the operational art and tactics which is the proper and, once the guns start firing, the exclusive domain of the officers and sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy.

But, what Canada needs, above all, and soon, is a government that, unlike the current Trudeau regime, will make sensible strategic choices and rebuild Canada’s Navy so that it can do a share of keeping the sea-lines-of-communications open for free trade.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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