The RCN in St. John’s: A rich history and lasting legacy

RCN and allied vessels of the Newfoundland Escort Force are shown in St. John’s Harbour during the Second World War. Photo courtesy of the Naval Museum of Halifax.

By Margaret Conway, CFB Halifax Public Affairs

On July 13, 2018, CFB Halifax and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) handed over command authority of Canadian Forces Station (CFS) St. John’s to the 5th Canadian Division Support Group of the Canadian Army (CA). Here’s a look back at the RCN’s presence in the city of St. John’s through times of war and peace which resulted in an everlasting bond between Canada’s navy and the people and province of Newfoundland.

Canadian Forces Station St. John’s Transfer of Command Authority

A routine military Change of Command ceremony follows a fairly predictable sequence. The incoming and outgoing parties deliver speeches, the Presiding Officer adds his or her remarks and the command scrolls are signed, among other traditions.

On this particular occasion, however, both Lieutenant-Commander (LCdr) Parsons and Major (Maj) McKenzie were involved in a sword ceremony. During the ceremony, LCdr Parsons picked up and handed a naval sword to the senior RCN representative and the ceremony’s Presiding Officer, Commodore (Cmdre) Darren Garnier, after which Maj McKenzie received an army sword from the senior CA representative and Deputy Commander of 5th Canadian Division, Brigadier-General (BGen) James Camsell. This giving and receiving of swords signified the transfer of command authority of CFS St. John’s from CFB Halifax (RCN) to 5th Canadian Division Support Group (CA).

For much of its 50 year history under RCN command, CFS St. John’s has been home to six Canadian Army Reserve units that have occupied the majority of the office and training facilities. Transferring command authority of the station from CFB Halifax (RCN) to the 5th Canadian Division Support Group will enable these Army Reserve units to receive the administrative and logistic support necessary to implement mission specific capabilities that have been assigned to them through the Strengthening the Army Reserve initiative, part of the Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy.

Despite what he described as a day “filled with lots of emotion for many,” Cmdre Garnier spoke with reassurance in his address, confirming what is already known to many: that the RCN has been connected to the city of St. John’s and surrounding communities for over a century, and that the station’s transfer to CA command in no way diminishes the deep connection that exists between the RCN, the city of St. John’s and the province of Newfoundland.

Cmdre Garnier closed his remarks by thanking LCdr Parsons for his excellent work on behalf of the RCN and the CAF and wishing Maj McKenzie the best as he assumed command of the station. He then pointed to the stunning vista of land and sea beyond the room’s full wall of windows that reveals a narrow waterway connecting St. John’s to the North Atlantic. He reminded the incoming Commanding Officer and the 5th Canadian Division representatives on-hand that to move forward and progress was essential to the continued success and CFS St. John’s and that, despite the challenges that may lay ahead, there is always a new day.

“The sun always rises over Quidi Vidi through that little gut.”

History

The RCN has been connected to the city of St. John’s and the province of Newfoundland for over a century dating back to the First World War.In 1910, the heavy protected cruiser HMCS Niobe was purchased by Canada from the Royal Navy (RN) for use as a sovereignty patrol and training vessel by the RCN (known then as the Naval Service of Canada).

In September 1914, Niobe joined the war effort, traveling to the St. John’s Harbour in the Dominion of Newfoundland, then a British colony, to pick up 107 sailors from the Royal Naval Reserve Newfoundland Division who had been training on British ship HMS Calypso. Niobe’s combined crew of Canadian and British sailors, including the Newfoundland reservists, patrolled the waters from New York and Boston to Iceland for enemy cruisers and Merchant vessels.

As the Second World War began, the RCN’s presence in St. John’s grew: Canada’s sailors were called on to help protect merchant ships traversing the Atlantic Ocean to deliver essential North American supplies and military personnel to Britain. RCN warships and sailors comprised over half of the escort vessels defending merchant ships from German U-boats. The Battle of the Atlantic (BOA), as it became known, was the longest continuous military campaign of that war.

The St John’s Harbour became a key geographic location during the BOA, as its proximity to Europe allowed the RCN, RN and allied navies to remove a dangerous protection gap that had left Merchant vessels at the mercy of the U-boats. Merchant ships from Halifax would now be escorted to St. John’s and turned over to the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF), a combination of RCN and RN ships that, given their location, could now sail further in order to perform a direct hand-off to allied vessels in the mid-Atlantic.

With the creation of the NEF, the city of St. John’s became a busy naval hub during the Second World War. On shore, clubs, messes and recreation camps offered social refuge to naval and merchant sailors who had come together in a time of great conflict. The St. John’s-based Crow’s Nest, originally known as the Seagoing Officers’ Club when it was established by then RCN Captain Rollo Mainguy, still exists today.

Despite the many tragic losses that occurred while battles raged throughout the cold North Atlantic, the war had created what would become a lasting bond between the people of Newfoundland and the RCN.

Canadian Forces Station St. John’s

Post-war, the RCN maintained its presence in St. John’s, eventually taking command of CFS St. John’s upon its creation in the late 1960s. Under RCN command for the last 50 years, the station has provided operational and logistical support to various lodger units throughout the province and essential support to naval ships visiting St. John’s. The station was housed in multiple war-era buildings until 2014 when the state of the art Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander W. Anthony Paddon Building was completed.

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