The Whole Story of a Half-Company: The Navy on PEI in the 20s and 30s

Sims Building at corner of Kent and Hillsborough Streets. Headquarters for the RCNVR Charlottetown Half company beginning in 1935. Undated photo: P.E.I. Regiment Museum

Several histories of Charlottetown date the beginning of a Canadian naval presence in the Island’s capital as the establishment of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte in 1942. In fact it began almost two decades earlier.

The Royal Canadian Navy was in a poor state after the end of the Great War. Its fleet, which had included civilian ships drafted for the duration as well as well-used cast-offs from the Royal Navy had been gradually reduced as naval spending diminished. By 1923 there were only two active warships; one on each coast. In 1922 the entire navy had only 402 officers and men.

However, in 1923 the Dominion Government, in spite of its reduced budget decided to strengthen its defence capacity by establishing two reserve organizations.  The first of these, the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR) recruited experienced men who worked on the sea in their civilian occupations such as merchant mariners and fishermen. Charlottetown was one of the port divisions established. The RCNR replaced the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) which had come into being in 1914. The other component of the reserve was the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and originally consisted of fourteen naval reserve companies (later known as “divisions”) across the country. Three of these were in the Maritimes with a full company in Saint John, a half company in Charlottetown and another half company in Halifax. A half company consisted of about fifty seamen, three lieutenants or sub-lieutenants and a medical officer.  In March 1923 the lieutenant commanding the Halifax half-company visited Charlottetown to begin setting up the new unit which was to be entirely manned by volunteers. Recruits signed up for three year’s service which included two weeks each year aboard one of the navy ships or at a land-based training base such as Halifax, and thirty drills of one hour at the company headquarters in Charlottetown. Recruits were paid 25 cents per drill while officers served without remuneration.  However during the annual two-week training both officers and men received the normal regular navy pay for their rank.

The similarity of the names of the several organizations resulted in considerable confusion on the part of the public and of the media and it is often difficult to completely separate the activities of the groups.

HMCS Patriot ca. 1922.  This ship was one of those on which Charlottetown Naval Reserve crews received training.

By the end of April 1923 George Hedley Buntain had been gazetted as Acting Lieutenant and officer commanding the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve Charlottetown Half Company. Early in May recruiting began and training commenced soon afterwards. In June the following year two members of the half company, Wilfred Cullen and Willard Locke, were chosen to join the crew of H.M.S. Hood and H.M.S. Repulse on a training cruise from Esquimalt to Halifax via the Panama Canal. When H.M.C.S. Patriot visited the city in July 1924 the officers and crew of the half company marched with the crew of the visiting vessel in a church parade. In later years the training in Halifax often coincided with naval visits to the West Indies.   

HMCS Champlain ca. 1932  which replaced the Patriot and was used as the east coast training vessel for both the regular navy and the RCNVR

It appears that not all the activity of the volunteers centred around training as there is a report of a social at the Navy League Club in May 1925 which saw a concert with songs, recitations, and musical numbers followed by a dance by the Brighton Club Orchestra.  Later that year a re-organization meeting of the half company concluded with a card party and led to the establishment of a RCNVR bowling league at the League of the Cross Alleys. The reserve also had a very successful hockey team and in the 1930s it fielded a basketball team.  The RCNVR had regular use of the gyms at the Holy Name Club and the YMCA.

While the local press was fulsome in its praise of the RCNVR half company in Charlottetown the reputation of all of the maritime units was not the highest at naval headquarters.  After three years of operation the director of naval reserves found “… the units very similar in a general way, and not up to the standard desired or required…Halifax and Charlottetown require shaking.” Part of the problem was the quality of the petty officer instructors but the availability of suitable quarters was a contributing factor.

John Ings House, Dundas Esplanade. Headquarters of the Charlottetown Half Company RCNVR 1929-1935.

When founded, the half company was headquartered and trained in the Charlottetown armories on Kent street near West Kent School where they had use of a room and the drill hall. In 1929 the Department of Naval Defence leased the Navy League Building on Dundas Esplanade and converted it to company headquarters for the RCNVR, equipping the facility for both training and leisure activity. Drill nights were Mondays and Thursdays.  The building proved to be unsatisfactory after a number of years and in 1935 the Sims building on the corner of Kent and Hillsborough Streets was leased from the province and renovated for use of the RCNVR.  Originally built as a furniture factory the building had been used as a cold storage and pork packing plant and most recently been used as quarters for the male residents of Falconwood Hospital after that structure  was destroyed by fire in 1931. The renovations saw the third floor converted for caretaker’s quarters and the first two floors fitted for use of the naval reserve with club rooms provided for the Army and Navy Club which had been founded as an officers club in 1932. The RCNVR moved into the building in the summer of 1935.

George Buntain had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1931 and served as commanding officer until 1935 when Lieutenant Commander John Joseph Connolly, who had been an officer in the half company for a number of years succeeded him.  He, in turn was succeeded by Lieutenant Commander Ken Birtwistle in 1940.

The status of the half company changed in 1941. Previous to that time it was not considered a formal “vessel” of the Royal Canadian Navy but with the commissioning of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte in that year a new chapter in the history of the unit opened. That story will be told in a future posting on this site.

 

Advertisements

Sea Cadet history in Charlottetown dates from WW II

During the early years of the Second World War mobilizing the entire community, young and old, was an important aspect of war preparation. The explosive growth of both the Canadian navy and the merchant marine showed that an ever-increasing supply on men was required to maintain the sea links across the Atlantic and around the world.

Crest of the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets

One way to address this need was to create youth training units throughout the country and in 1941 The Minister of Naval Services authorized the formation of Sea Cadet Corps across Canada.  The sea cadets were a late addition. Army Cadets had existed in conjunction with schools for many years and air cadets were formed in 1940. The Navy League cadets dated back to 1918 but they had not been particularly successful on Prince Edward Island. The difference with the Sea Cadets was that the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) was an active partner with a Civilian Committee to create support for the initiative.

In June 1942 enrollment for the Corps in Charlottetown was initiated.  The Charlottetown Yacht Club offered its facilities for training and the hall of Prince of Wales College was to be used for drilling purposes.  Training was provided by officers and men of the RCNVR including Lt. Ian Burnett,  Norman Saunders, B. Earle MacDonald, Albert Roop and Dr. E.S. Giddings.  The training to be provided was to be similar to that given to naval recruits during their first eight weeks at a training establishment.  Restricted to boys 12 to 18 years of age preference was given to recruits 15 years and older.

Summerside Sea Cadets on parade.

Within two days of the announcement of the formation of the Charlottetown Seas Cadet Corps “Kent” some 115 boys had signed up at the Charlottetown Yacht Club and within a month 65 cadets were in training two nights weekly with plans to expand to 150 when more uniforms and equipment were secured.  In an inspection of the Corps in October 1942 100 cadets in their blue naval uniforms drew positive remarks from the Commanding Officer of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte, Lt. M.G. McCarthy. The following year saw the formation of a corps in Summerside.

In 1943 the designation “Royal” was appended to the name when the King consented to be the patron of the corps.  The Kent Corps continued to grow, a sea cadet band was formed and some 150 boys, six officers and two instructors were planning for a 1943 summer camp at Camp Buchan, near Pinette.

Rocky Point Ferry Fairview, a training vessel for Sea Cadets

In what was to become a regular training exercise several of the cadets (under the close supervision of the regular crew) took over the control of the wheel, deck and engine room the S.S. Fairview on its return trip to Rocky Point for a Saturday afternoon in May 1943.     The next year two, 14 foot International Dinghy sailboats were provided as the most appropriate type for seamanship training.   The fleet was added to as the sea warfare ended and  Lieut. Commander C.P. MacKenzie reported that a 46 foot diesel harbour craft would be attached to H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte. The craft had been built in Summerside by Palmer and Williams.  In addition to the harbour craft the training In addition to the fleet grew to 4 sailing dinghies, and 2 rowing cutters.

In addition to the weekly sessions, summer camps continued to be a major part of the training regime with 72 boys from Charlottetown and 19 from Summerside at a camp at Waterside, near Pownal in 1945, 100 boys at the same location in 1946 , 40 boys attending  regional camp near St. John N.B. in 1947 and a contingent of Island boys at a 1948 camp at Mahone Bay.

In 1947 Chief Petty Officer Lawson Drake was chosen as one of twenty-five sea cadets to represent Canada on a visit to the United Kingdom as guests of the Navy League and the British Admiralty.  They crossed the Atlantic on H.M.C.S. Warrior and spent several weeks abroad.

Seventy years on, RCSC Corps Kent continues to be active with training and sailing activities at the naval facility at H.M.C.S.  Queen Charlotte.