We can’t fight without a merchant navy
Major-Gen. W. H. S. Macklin says
We had to disgrace the Magnificent to get troops to Suez. We’re wasting billions on defense, he says, if we ignore the fleet we need to transport our army
Since the Korean war broke out in 1950 Canada has spent almost ten billion dollars on her armed forces. Canadians were surely entitled to expect that, in an emergency, the necessary elements of those forces would be able to move to the required spots with speed and precision, by land, or sea. or air. Ministers have frequently assured the tired taxpayers that this would be the case.
Last November the crisis arrived, and nobody could contend that it came without warning; the international storm signals had been living for months. Our government deemed it necessary to dispatch a force to Egypt.
In the military sense this force was of the smallest possible size and of the lightest conceivable nature. Ehe army portion of it, as the government thought of it until Colonel Nasser corrected them, was a solitary infantry battalion of less than a thousand men. plus some detachments and details of other arms and services. In the end it turned out to be the detachments and details that went, without the battalion.
The expedition included no heavy armament. equipment or transport—no monstrous tanks (or even any little ones), no significant weight of ammunition. Ehe fact is, no expedition in Canada's military his-
tory was ever so lightly or so scantily equipped since the days of Champlain’s coureurs de hois, who sometimes went in canoes, but usually on their feet.
What. then, was the plan evolved by our Department of National Defense for shifting this tiny military party across the sea?
First, we had news of our powerful aircraft carrier, HMCS Magnificent, steaming back from Britain to Halifax, and straining all her boilers to get there. And then there was the shocking spectacle of this great vessel being disarmed—her aircraft removed, her guns dismantled, her ammunition seen on television by the whole nation, pouring down conveyors to the shore. So. in jig time she was turned into an inferior species of troop transport and rendered impotent, helpless to fight and incapable even of protecting herself. After sitting at Halifax for several weeks she steamed off to Port Said in that condition.
Canadians should understand exactly what was done to them on this occasion. This warship is the strongest component of the Royal Canadian Navy. Also, she is by far the most expensive unit of any of Canada’s fighting forces. Upon her maintenance, and that of her predecessor. Warrior, and their aircraft, this country has spent many scores of mil-
lions of dollars since World War IE On the building of her successor, HMCS Bonaventure, recently commissioned, we have lavished tens of additional millions.
The value of the Magnificent and her costly aircraft for the defense of Canada has been debated and questioned repeatedly in the highest circles of the cabinet. Always it was decided that she was worth her terrific price. Our citizens may reasonably demand, then, why in these dangerous critical days this country was deprived for months of the protection she is supposed to afford us, and why our navy was subjected to the abject humiliation of seeing her stripped of her armament before starting on the first active commission of her entire career.
The inexcusable answer, of course, is that the government, for diplomatic reasons connected with the further appeasement of Col. Nasser, thought that they must have an unarmed Canadian ship to take these Canadian troops to Egypt, and there docs not exist a merchant ship, cither liner or freighter, of Canadian registry that could be used to do the job. Canada, one of the greatest overseas traders in the world, is without an effective merchant marine.
We have been caught this way before. In 1941, when it was
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“Ottawa spent eleven million dollars to build a ferry — then found she didn’t fit her harbor”
decided to send a force to Hong Kong, we owned no ships to lift it. We chartered a British liner, the Awatea, to carry the troops, and after a long delay we secured a much slower American freighter, the Don José, to take the expedition’s vehicles. The Don José never did get to Hong Kong. Being of American registry, she was ordered into a Philippines port by the U. S. Navy, and Brigadier J. K. Lawson’s valiant soldiers fought their bitter battle without any of their motor transport at all.
The only really notable venture that our government has made into the shipping business these past ten years has been the construction of the Newfoundland ferry William Carson. Robinson Crusoe built a boat, and then couldn’t get it into the water. The Department of Transport built the William Carson for eleven million dollars, and couldn’t get her into her harbor. Several years later, and several more millions worse off, they still can’t get her into her harbor. It would not be far wrong to say that she typifies the way our merchant-shipping industry has been kicked around.
Canadians depend heavily on sea
transport for their high standard of living, but few understand this since they rarely see the ships that serve them. Our record of maintaining a merchant marine appropriate to our national status and adequate for our needs is a poor one. Since Confederation we have had three merchant Heets and we have lost them all.
Our first fleet was established in the days of wooden sailing ships, and disappeared about sixty years or more ago. It had not been kept up to a level of efficiency, in ships and methods, that could compete with the merchant ships of other lands. Its operators clung woodenly to sail while others turned to steam. In the end they were forced to furl their sails forever.
When the sinister danger of submarinewarfare emerged during World War I we went into the shipping business as a public-owned undertaking, and created the Canadian Government Merchant Marine. It was then discovered that such a project cannot be developed overnight and, not surprisingly, that the war was over before any Canadian merchant ships were at sea.
Like its predecessor, this nationally owned merchant fleet failed to meet the improving standards and wasted away until, for all practical purposes, no deepsea merchant marine existed when war came again in 1939. This country had then less than a quarter of a million tons all told.
Before World War II was well started the submarine made itself felt once more, deadlier than ever. It soon became clear that British shipyards would be incapable of replacing the losses. Year after year the merciless, relentless Battle of the Atlantic went on. right up to the day of the German surrender. In these days of nuclear bombs we are prone to folget the submarine; it came close to beating us more than once.
In April 1941, after eighteen months of deliberation and procrastination, a Canadian crown company was set up to start building ships. It was then decided that it would be a sound idea to keep some of these new ships under our own control, so in March 1942 the Park Steamship Company was organized. It did not operate any ships itself, hut allocated them to private interests under a sort of rental arrangement.
We learned the hard way
The first ship produced under this scheme went into operation in the spring of 1942, and the lust one was completed one month after the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Once again we had learned the hard way that a merchant marine cannot he bought in some local supermarket. We had been at war almost three years before any of these ships were carrying cargo, and four years before they were playing an effective part. At that, we could not man them, but had to borrow officers and crews from Great Britain. Some of these crews came from the bottom dregs of British marine manpower. and became easy marks for Communist propaganda.
After the war a new plan was adopted to establish a peacetime merchant fleet. The government had had enough of the business of running deep-sea shipping, and set about disposing of its Park ships with all convenient speed, the idea being to sell as many as possible to Canadian companies under a special formula. This allowed purchasers to defer payment if they agreed to operate the vessels indefinitely under Canadian registry. In all, two hundred and fifteen of the ships were bought by Canadians, of which one hundred and fifty-seven came under the formula.
Besides giving us a sizable postwar merchant marine, the scheme proved quite profitable to the treasury. In April 1947 the minister of trade and commerce felt entitled to suggest, “The government can look with some satisfaction upon its shipbuilding, ship-operating, and ship-disposal policies during the past seven years.”
When the government hatched this enterprise one of the impelling motives was defense. In assisting at the birth of
to Who is it? on page 38
Tyrone Guthrie, who helped attract international attention to Stratford, Ont., as director of the Shakespeare festival.
the Canadian Maritime Commission in 1947 the minister of trade and commerce said that its function would be to help the shipping and shipbuilding industries to keep healthy and efficient. This, he said, was important from a defense viewpoint. for “a merchant navy is a definite part of a nation's defensive armory." The prime minister himself later remarked that the importance of a merchant marine to national security is one of the valid reasons for maintaining it.
In spite of these official pronouncements the public showed little interest in
the venture, and as time went on ministers conveniently forgot the defense implications. Some influential commercial interests evinced actual opposition to the whole plan. For instance, in May 1944 a committee that had been set up by the Montreal Board of Trade to examine the matter argued forcibly in its report that a merchant marine would need heavy subsidies. They could see no sense in such an expense, because, they said. “An opportunity of carrying our exports in their own ships is appreciated by a great many important nations, thus
constituting an important selling factor
"It is also the case”—went on these businessmen—“that a Canadian merchant marine would chiefly displace the shipping services of Great Britain, our largest overseas customer."
This committee was reporting in the midst of the biggest war in history, at a time when we were feverishly building ships to replace sunken tonnage. Yet not a solitary word did they have about the defense aspects of a merchant marine. Defense considerations to them were obviously thought to be a temporary nuis-
ance that would somehow vanish with victory, never to return.
Since then, these outdated and colonial ideas of the Montreal Board of Trade have solidified into hard government policy. A little while ago it was announced, with loud blowing of nationalistic horns, that Canada has decided to dredge her own ship channel on her own side of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This is a great and worthy project of national importance. It certainly rates something other than the curious excuse that was advanced to justify it by an anonymous
“high Ottawa authority,” who stated that the channel will be excavated “in order that low-cost foreign shipping can compete economically on the Great Lakes.” This is like building a railway, then letting others run the trains on it.
For the first couple of years after the war our shipping business was brisk and profitable, but the circumstances were artificial and temporary. In the longer run the gloomy forecasts about the financial prospects of an unsubsidized merchant fleet proved accurate, and ours found itself in ever-increasing trouble.
A dispassionate observer of Canadian affairs might surely wonder why this particular business, despite its basic importance to our national safety, has always been left out from under our national tariff blanket, and has been allowed to fend for itself in a world of fierce competition. The inevitable result is that it has been unable to survive, and during the past few years has wasted away to the vanishing point in the frozen wind of adversity. While the rest of Canada booms as never before, our merchant marine has virtually disappeared.
The main reasons for this are quite simple: they lie in the high labor costs of operating Canadian ships, and in the correspondingly swollen price of replacing old ships by new construction in Canadian shipyards. The Canadian workman is rightly accustomed to big wages and a decent living standard. Fie will not work for a merchant marine, or a shipyard, that cannot offer him a position in life comparable to what he can earn in other branches of industry. There is no known reason why he should.
Accordingly, to operate a ten-thousandton freighter on Canadian registry, with a Canadian crew, costs just about a hundred thousand dollars a year more than it does to run the same ship on United Kingdom registry. The differential is even greater in the case of ships operating on the registries of certain other countries. It needs little mental effort to deduce that a Canadian owner who tries to keep ships afloat under such adverse conditions is likely to end up quite soon in bankruptcy, unless he gets some sort of assistance.
By the middle of 1956 there remained on Canadian registry, under Canadian management, exactly eighteen dry-cargo, ocean-going vessels. Eight of them form the remnant of the old Canadian National Steamship fleet trading with the West Indies. Of the others, all but a couple are small, and mainly engaged in coastal trade. One sails around in the Mediterranean, with an Italian crew, and never comes home to a Canadian port.
We have left no effective merchant marine whatever, either for our trade in peace, or for our needs, however desperate, in war. Of our vast transoceanic trade in 1955, Canadian ships carried less than three percent.
Moreover, unless we do something about this, our merchant fleet will be followed into oblivion by our shipbuilding industry as soon as the present program of naval construction is finished in a couple of years. We shall then be
where we were in 1939. with neither ships nor shipyards.
it is also worth observing that the confident prediction of its opponents that a subsidized merchant marine would displace the shipping services of Great Britain has proven to have neither substance nor validity. What has happened is that British shipping has been steadily replaced anyway by more cheaply operated foreign shipping. Ten years ago British ships were carrying nearly one half of our foreign trade, but their slice lias now been slimmed down to less than thirty percent. Right now vessels registered either in Liberia or Panama are carrying about a quarter of our exports and imports. This seems to be the "lowcost foreign shipping" that high Ottawa authority is digging the St. Lawrence channel for. We are at liberty (as yet) to wonder if this, tremendous volume of business, carried on the backs of the cheapest of cheap labor, does much good to the mass of Liberians or Panamanians.
From the viewpoint of the narrowerminded it is true enough that merchant shipping is not financially attractive business for Canada. But Canada most certainly never was built on that kind ol reasoning; precisely the same thing applies to all kinds of other commercial and industrial activities. An efficient merchant marine actually is far more important to the independent nationhood we like to boast about than a lot of the enterprises that we do protect so sedulously.
What’ll our escort navy escort?
In earlier and more adventurous days this country went out on a limb to build the Canadian Pacific Railway for nationalistic reasons, and since then we have never stopped extolling the wisdom and foresight of the statesmen who did it; their names are famous. For forty years we have heavily financed from the public treasury the great Canadian National Railway System, and what government would dare let it collapse? But still, we cheerfully accept a situation in which these giant transportation networks, the arteries of our life, end abruptly at seaboard.
We have a navy, and a very expensive one, designed entirely and exclusively as an antisubmarine and antiaircraft escort force. We have just commissioned a carrier to replace the not-so-Magnificent. We have been proudly launching a whole series of submarine killers, w'hich are packed with secret devices and come at about twenty million dollars apiece. The only function of this great force is the shepherding of merchant ships and convoys.
If there is any sense or logic in the contention that it is in our interests to leave the carrying of all our ocean trade in the hands of other nations, some of which we assuredly cannot depend upon in war. why would it not be as reasonable to argue that we should leave the guarding of the merchant ships to the people who own them? Why not just abolish the navy and save a whale ol a lot more dollars than we do now by having no merchant navy?
We are unlikely to do anything so stupid because, in spite of our lamentable neglect and indifference, we know perfectly well that in a great war our survival is going to depend once again on the maintenance of the sea routes. But having no freighters of our own. we are going to be very unhappy, and in a very bad state indeed, if we find on the day of reckoning that we cannot get freight ships of other flags for our nicely dressedup navy to escort.
As for the size of the subsidy that
would provide us with a decent merchant fleet, the experts are telling us that, as of now, it would amount to about ten dollars per ton of shipping per year. At that rate we could run the fleet we had in 1947. of a hundred and fifty tenthousand tonners, for fifteen million dollars a year. If this sounds like a lot we should remember that it is less than one single percent of the stupendous sums that we have been pouring into the bottomless pit of our defense department year after year since 1950.
I submit that the situation 1 have de-
scribed is one more piece of evidence that our whole present defense policy is unsound and based on fallacy. It is absurdly slanted in the direction of static air defenses, and leaves us wide open to grief and disaster in all other directions.
In this matter of shipping what are we doing? We are spending hundreds of millions every year on a navy, and on elements of our air force, to protect our ports and our shipping lanes. We lay out public funds to build docks and wharves, to dig great canals, to dredge ship channels, to erect lighthouses — all
for no other purpose than to facilitate the sea transport of the goods by which we prosper in peace and which we must have for victory in war.
With all this, so utterly negligible is our merchant marine that we could not use it to move a corporal’s guard of soldiers to a danger spot abroad, but must dangerously and shamefully disarm our greatest warship to do it. This argues a degree of indifference to one obvious aspect of defense that is hardly consistent with our survival in times like these. ★