The Military Museums

Canadian Navy

At the start of the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy operated just six destroyers and seven other craft with 3,600 crewmen.

Canadian Navy

At the start of the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy operated just six destroyers and seven other craft with 3,600 crewmen.

Canadian Navy

By May 1945, the RCN was operating over 400 warships with a force of almost 98,000 personnel. By war's end the Canadian Navy was the third largest in the world. During the war the RCN played a critical role in the six year Battle of the Atlantic.

The constant threat of German U-boats meant the supply lifeline to Britain was threatened. Merchant vessels had to be escorted by warships to protect them from U-boat attack. The RCN sunk 27 U-boats along with 17 destroyed by the RCAF. But the navy's success in this operation and in the naval support of D-Day came at a heavy cost. A total of 24 ships and over 2,000 naval personnel were lost during the war.

Canadian Naval Reserve


In 1923, Commander Walter Hose led the creation of a naval reserve that not only supported Canada’s fledgling navy but ensured its survival. Without Hose’s reservists, given low budgets and national apathy, Canada’s navy might well have withered and died; however, Canada’s citizen sailors, all volunteers, ensured the navy survived through their numbers and commitment. A century later, the Royal Canadian Navy is an equal arm of Canada’s Armed Forces, while reservists continue to serve at sea and on land.

But Hose's vision did not come easily nor quickly. Hose, a British officer commanding one of Canada’s first warships, HMCS Rainbow, first broached the idea of a reserve in the spring of 1912. His commanding officer, Admiral Charles Edmund Kingsmill, immediately pointed out, “My dear Hose, it couldn’t be done.” Kingsmill’s lack of optimism was a result of the politics of the days that saw bitter fighting in government over the need for a navy let alone a naval reserve.

Undeterred, Hose quietly encouraged and supported a group of sailors in Victoria, B.C., to form a volunteer naval company in 1913. It would take another ten years before Hose’s idea became reality, but a century later, Canada’s Naval Reserves and its reservists are recognized for the role they played in peace and wartime alike.

Early History

Even though Hose is recognized as the “Father of the Naval Reserve”, he was not the first person to try introducing a naval reserve to help defend Canada, often from the Americans. Various militia and defence acts between 1759 and 1895 proposed naval reserves or naval militias but none survived.

In 1759, the colonial government formed short-lived marine militias to counter American aggression, along with a Provincial Marine reserve in 1763 meant to oversee shipping on the Great Lakes, St-Lawrence River, and Lake Champlain. The Provincial Marine reserve ceased operations at the start of the War of 1812.

The Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, a brief insurrection against the British colonial government, led to the formation of a naval militia to counter the rebels, and during the late 1800s, the government tried several times to authorize a volunteer naval reserve; however, none of those initiatives took root.

The Fenian Raids of 1866 led to the formation of a volunteer naval reserve to serve on the Great Lakes. They helped fight off raids by the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of Irish patriots, intent on capturing Canadian territory. The Fenians planned to capture Canadian territory to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the British government in their bid for Irish independence. Once the Royal Navy arrived, the volunteer naval reserve was no longer needed.

With Canadian Confederation in 1867, the Royal Navy began withdrawing as it had no interest in protecting Canadian fishing agreements the newly-formed nation had made with the U.S. Instead, the fledgling government formed the Fisheries Protection Service built around a small fleet of armed schooners to protect the Atlantic fishery. While not a true naval reserve, as the captains of the ships were former Royal Navy officers and sailors were hired for the fishing season, the ships became the backbone of what would eventually become Canada’s navy.

A year later, the fledgling Canadian government established the Department of the Militia and Defence with the Militia Act of 1868. As part of the act, the government authorized a reserve of marine militia units to patrol its coasts, but as the threat from the U.S. diminished following the signing of the 1871 Treaty of Washington, the U.S. threat to Canada and Britain was eventually eliminated.

With that, Britain stopped patrolling Canadian waters altogether. The Royal Navy instead began sending its ships to other parts of the world, leaving Canada to defend its own waters. Without the direct protection of the Royal Navy, Canadian politicians were forced to consider whether it was time to form a navy.

The government, led by Sir John Laurier, initially augmented the Fisheries Protection Fleet with a handful of gunboats, while the Minister of Defence, Frederick Borden, pushed to form a naval militia that could serve as the foundation of a navy. But the government was still reluctant to commit to forming a full-fledged navy given the cost and the optics.

It was not until 1900 that Canada saw its first cohesive naval reserve, and technically, it was not even Canadian as it was formed in the British colony of Newfoundland. The Newfoundland Division of the Royal Naval Reserve, authorized in 1900, operated until 1922. It was in Newfoundland that Hose, then a young lieutenant with the British Royal Navy, first experienced the effectiveness of a naval reserve. Hose built his vision for a Canadian Naval Reserve based on what he saw during his time with the Newfoundland volunteers.

Canada finally got its own navy—first known as the Naval Service of Canada in 1910 with the passage of the Naval Service Act (It became known as the Royal Canadian Navy in 1911). Along with authorizing a navy, the act also authorized the formation of a naval reserve of qualified volunteer mariners and a naval college. Unfortunately, while the naval college was built in 1910, plans for the naval reserve failed when the now-conservative government attempted to replace the Naval Service Act in late 1912 with the Naval Aid Bill.

Instead of supporting a home-grown navy, the Naval Aid Bill proposed that the Canadian government spend up to $35 million to help Britain build more battleships in a bid to stay ahead of the growing German navy. The bill passed in the House of Commons but failed when the Senate defeated it. With the bill’s failure, Hose saw an opportunity to keep the RCN from dying an early death by using volunteers to bolster its personnel.

Hose proposed a permanent reserve, or citizen navy, based on the Newfoundland Naval Reserve, with units across Canada; however, it was then that Kingsmill flatly told Hose that forming a naval reserve was not feasible. Despite Kingsmill’s negative assessment, Hose was not about to give up on his idea.

Hose got his chance in 1913. After taking command of the naval base at Esquimalt in 1911, he learned of a group of Victoria sailors who sought to create a volunteer naval company. Hose encouraged and supported the volunteers, and despite a reprimand from Kingsmill, both Hose and the Victoria volunteers persevered, and by mid-1914, the volunteer company had grown to 140 members. It was not exactly what Hose envisioned; nonetheless, it was a start.

First World War

The start of the First World War in 1914 forced the government’s hand as the need of personnel swept aside its reluctance to support a navy. In May 1914, with the growing threat of war, the government established the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR).

The Victoria volunteers and members of the Newfoundland Naval Reserve were assigned to Canada’s two naval vessels, HMCS Rainbow, based out of Victoria, and HMCS Niobe, based out of Newfoundland.

Ottawa, meanwhile, started slowly with a handful of volunteers and a fleet cobbled together from private yachts and borrowed ships that patrolled the St. Lawrence Seaway. As the force grew, about 1,200 volunteers sailed for England and overseas service. In all, some 9,600 volunteers joined the RNCVR during the war.

The government disbanded the RNCVR in 1920 as part of steep post-war budget cuts. With the war over, Canadians across the country saw the navy as an unnecessary expense. The government slashed the naval budget from $2.5 million to $1.5 million, while the number of naval personnel dropped from 9,600 to five hundred.

Recognizing that $1.5 million was too small of a budget to effectively operate a navy, Hose saw a naval reserve as a cost-effective way to keep the navy operating. This time he knew that along with convincing the politicians, he also had to win over reluctant Canadians. To do that, Hose decided to bring the navy to the people by establishing training centres across Canada.

Hose, now a rear-admiral with the RCN, finally succeeded in creating a permanent naval reserve in 1923. The government formed two distinct units: the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR).

The RCNVR, which had a planned enlistment of seventy officers and 930 men, was intended for individuals with no seafaring training or experience. The RCNR, which had an initial enlistment of seventy officers and 430 men, was meant for professional merchant marines.

The first training centre, known as a “stone frigate”, opened in Montreal, followed by centres in Calgary, Charlottetown, Edmonton, Hamilton, Ottawa, Quebec City, Regina, Saint John, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg. By 1925, training centres were also operating in Halifax, Prince Rupert, and Vancouver. Reservists met once or twice a week at their stone frigates and then served two weeks each summer at either the Halifax and Esquimalt naval bases and on two destroyers and four minesweepers.

Unfortunately, Hose failed to capture the attention and passion of Canadians, and by the Great Depression of the 1930s, his dream began to unravel. Tight budgets led to funding cuts, and as a cost-cutting measure, the naval reserves saw its personnel cut from 1,500 to 1,000 sailors.

The naval reserve faced further cutbacks in 1933, but Hose effectively argued that growing tension between the U.S. and Japan could eventually spill over to Canada, given its proximity to both nations. Canada needed a naval force.

As a result, while it certainly languished, Hose’s dream did not die altogether. By 1937, new reserves had formed on both the east and west coasts with the creation of the Supplementary Reserve, comprised of yachtsmen, and the Fisherman’s Reserve that drew on the boats and skills of West Coast fishing fleets.

Second World War

The start of the Second World War in September 1939 allowed the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve to grow. The government authorized the addition of seven more half-companies or 350 sailors in all, bringing the number of personnel to 1,700 officers and sailors. That number matched the regular navy.

Where the members of the RCN and the RCNR were professional mariners, members of the RCNVR were, of course, volunteers. The officers tended to be professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and engineers, while the sailors, also known as ratings, typically came from factories, farms, trades, and other labour-based services. Most volunteers, both officers and ratings, were white males with British backgrounds.

The government did allow a small number of Black Canadians to join, but Indigenous people, along with German and Italian Canadians, were discouraged from joining the naval reserves. Japanese Canadians were excluded altogether. Finally, as the RCN operated in English, unilingual Francophone Canadians faced a considerable barrier to enlisting.

The RCNVR proved to be remarkably effective for it recruited eighty percent of personnel serving on RCN ships. In 1939, the RCN and the naval reserve each had 2,000 personnel of all ranks. By the end of the Second World War, the RCN had the third largest Allied navy. When the war ended, eighty-four percent, or 76,000, of the 96,000 ratings and officers serving with the RCN came from the RCNVR.

On the destroyer HMCS Skeena, for example, the reserve supplied eighty-seven percent of the crew. It is thanks to Hose that Canada became such a naval powerhouse, and without Canada’s involvement, the Battle of the Atlantic could have had a very different outcome.

Post Second World War

When the war ended in 1945, RCNVR personnel returned to their stone frigates to demobilize and return to civilian life. Before long, the third-largest Allied navy had shrunk dramatically.

Even so, many reservists continued to serve with what had become known simply as the Naval Reserve. Often referred to as “Saturday night sailors”, they continued to train once-a-week and two weeks a year, usually in summer. Their commitment, although minor compared to what they provided during the war, helped Canada’s navy develop its own traditions and personality, pushing it further from British naval traditions.

In 1947, the RCNR and the RCNVR merged to become one organization that kept the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve moniker. At the same time, the University Naval Training Division (UNTD), founded in 1943, expanded its programs and began offering university students officer training for both the reserve and the regular force.

Altogether, 7,000 students took advantage of this program, attending six months at university and serving six months with the navy each year. As a bilingual program, the UNTD provided Francophone Canadians with a barrier-free opportunity to enlist.

The UNTD was disbanded in 1968 and was replaced by the Reserve Officer University Training Plan. Hampered by "low recruitment quotas and more limited breadth of training opportunities,” the Reserve Officer University Training Plan was a “shadow” of the UNTD. It was, however, open to women, unlike its predecessor.

Cold War

Where the naval reserve had become an integral part of Canada’s Armed Forces during the Second World War, the Cold War, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, changed naval operations, especially the Naval Reserve. The immediacy of nuclear war meant the Armed Forces had to be fully trained and on standby, both of which were difficult for a reserve comprised of part-time volunteers.

As a result, the Reserve was tasked with civil defence. Instead of operating as a distinct part of the RCN with specific missions, naval reserve personnel were now seen as reinforcements for the regular force.

The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, also cut $100 million from the defence budget in 1958, which once again led to reduced personnel and the training they received. But even in times of cost-cutting, the Naval Reserve survived as it always had. A small fleet of ships set aside for the exclusive use of reservists meant that they keep training and continue to patrol Canada’s coastal waters while still bolster the regular navy when needed.

By 1963, the Department of National Defence experienced further cutbacks, leading to the closure of five naval reserve divisions, including HMCS Malahat in Victoria, along with all naval air reserve squadrons. Naval reserve personnel were reduced to 2,700 members across Canada, but surprisingly, many of those individuals chose to stay on without pay.

The 1964 White Paper on Defence led to the 1968 unification of all three services—air, land, and sea— into the Canadian Armed Forces. Unification brought the Naval Reserve—now known as the Canadian Forces Naval Reserve—increased funding, the re-instatement of closed divisions, and a new responsibility: naval control of shipping.

The Cold War resurrected the threat that Europe would be once again reliant on North American supplies, transported, as they were during the Second World War, in convoys across the Atlantic. The Naval Control of Shipping Organization, which organized and monitored merchant shipping, offered reservists, including women, a new trade as shipping control operators.

Unification also brought changed traditions that included a switch from the typical blue naval uniform to the green uniform worn by the unified armed forces (This led to reservists to name themselves “the Jolly Green Giants”). Berets replaced the navy’s distinctive cap with its wide tally or ribbon. Unification also replaced the White Ensign—a white flag with a red cross and the British Union Jack in the top left corner—with the new Canadian flag, adopted in 1965.

By the end of the 1960s, sixteen Naval Reserve divisions were active across Canada, and while the reserve still had a national presence, it lacked a formal role in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Cast adrift, the reserve’s activities also tended towards building esprit de corps than actual defence training. Reservists no longer trained with the regular force navy, instead training on their six aged ships, one of which was a former RCMP vessel. The reserve began to experience a high turnover of personnel.

In 1973, at the Naval Reserve’s 50th anniversary, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau paid tribute to the organization and its personnel writing that the reserve, “kept the concept of a Canadian Navy alive between the two world wars, provided the main source of manpower for the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, and since then, has been an integral part of the modern, peace time forces of Canada."

That was a turning point. A new initiative, the Summer Youth Employment Program, which ran from the 1970s, through to 1990s, helped to bring new life to the reserve. The program was designed to attract university students leading the naval reserves to have the highest level of education within Canada’s armed forces. It also brought in new recruits, as a result. Most importantly, it helped to "inject a degree of warlike seriousness into reserve culture… missing since Korean War"

The 1987 White Paper brought the concept of “Total Force” to the Naval Reserve giving it new and active defence missions such as coastal defence, minesweeping, and the Convoy Commodore Organization , which focused on convoy tactics and the very real challenge of successfully guiding merchant ships across the Atlantic in wartime.

With these new responsibilities, meant to fill gaps created by reductions in the permanent force, came new ships, the Kingston-class coastal patrol ships, commissioned between 1996 and 1999, to replace the old Gate class vessels. Today, the Kingston-class vessels are crewed by both regular force and reserve personnel.

During this time that women finally saw growing opportunities in the Naval Reserve. Not only were women serving on the bridges of ships, but they were also being placed in command. Commodore (Ret’d) Laraine Orthlieb was the first to break that barrier with her promotion to lieutenant-commander in 1977. Orthlieb became Canada’s and the Commonwealth’s first female flag officer with her promotion to commodore in 1989. Parks Canada named Orthlieb a Parks Canada Hometown Hero in fall of 2023 during the naval reserve’s centennial.

By 1999, the Naval Reserve had twenty-four divisions across Canada with about 4,000 active personnel. Along with providing personnel to support the regular force, the Reserve continued to crew the Kingston coastal defence vessels to conduct harbour defence, mine sweeping, search and rescue, surveillance, and, of course, Naval Control of Shipping.

Modern Naval Reserve

Today, the Naval Reserve is fully integrated into the Canadian Armed Forces, allowing reservists to play an important role in Canada’s defence and security and the wellbeing of Canadians. The Reserve has twenty-four divisions across Canada with the headquarters still in Quebec City, which ensures that Francophone Canadians can still join and serve without barriers.

Reservists are still meeting once or twice a week and one weekend a month, along with a summer cruise. They can also attend the Canadian Forces Fleet School Québec in Québec City to receive training that allows them to seamlessly operate within the Canadian Forces, specifically on defence missions. They still crew the Kingston-class ships, six on each coast, alongside full-time members of the RCN on coastal surveillance and patrols, search and rescue, and fisheries patrols.

Reservists are also serving where ever the RCN sails, patrolling international waters as part of joint security operations that include combat operations, counter-illegal activities, such as drug interdiction, and peacekeeping support.

But most importantly, a century later, the Naval Reserve is still there for Canadians by responding to natural disasters that include flooding, forest fires, and ice storms. Each division is also very active in its community, supporting local events, volunteering, and raising money for charities.

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