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Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War

By David Zimmerman

Review By Jan Drent

May 1, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 150-151

This welcome new study concerns the operations of Canada’s west coast fleet in the two decades after the Second World War. Soon after 1945, defence policy came to be dominated by Canada’s contributions to NATO force planning, with a heavy focus on preparations to defend Western Europe in a crisis. The roles and missions of forces on the Pacific were overshadowed in this Atlantic-centric planning climate. David Zimmerman sets out to demonstrate that the Pacific Fleet — termed the “Yacht Squadron” by the east coast navy — was in fact busy training under national and alliance plans to maintain a high standard of operational readiness between 1945 and 1965. He also shows that planning with the United States for regional defence, which had its origins in the Second World War, resulted in close and sustained operational relationships with American forces on the Pacific Coast.

Zimmerman’s background as a seasoned military historian and faculty member at the University of Victoria makes this an authoritative study. Maritime Command Pacific is based on an extensive study of operational records in Library and Archives Canada. Zimmerman has also drawn on the small body of academic studies, some by his own graduate students, that examine various aspects of the postwar Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). This book concerns operational activity over two decades; it does not attempt to cover the oceanographic and other research conducted by defence scientists on the west coast, the economic impact of maintaining the RCN on the west coast, or the social and economic impacts of the naval and civilian support communities on Greater Victoria. It does trace how naval manpower shortages over the years preoccupied senior officers who devised measures to overcome them.

Largely chronological, the narrative follows operations and defence planning changes through official correspondence. Zimmerman shines light on three little-known episodes. The first was the demand placed on local staff as demobilization shrank the wartime RCN by 83 per cent in under a year. The second was the presence of Japanese mines along British Columbia’s long and largely uninhabited coast from 1945 until the early 1950s. These anti-ship mines had broken from their moorings in the western Pacific and were carried east by ocean currents – indeed they were precursors to the debris that arrived after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. These drifting mines would be an unwelcome problem in the immediate postwar years, necessitating regular mine patrols to follow up on reports from fishermen and others. A handful of mines were destroyed by naval teams; the last event, in 1952 southeast of Prince Rupert, resulted in the death of the demolitions officer and the wounding of a petty officer. Zimmerman’s third striking item of fresh information concerns how west coast destroyer escorts and frigates were deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Grounded in official reports, this volume inevitably reflects contemporary institutional thinking. Zimmerman meticulously records successive exercises and the evolution of joint defence plans with the US, for example the emergence of what is known as “strategic ASW” (antisubmarine warfare) to counter Soviet missile-carrying submarines that could target North America. Zimmerman covers a range of issues, contemporary concerns, and oversights, for example in June 1962, the frigate HMCS Stettler was sailed hurriedly to investigate a Soviet trawler, rumoured to be on an electronic intelligence-gathering mission, operating near a US submarine exercising off Cape Flattery. Embarrassingly, Stettler was deployed without a camera and crewmembers were asked to take photos, which proved unsatisfactory.

Maritime Command Pacific was initiated as part of the baseline research to support a future official history of the RCN between 1945 and 1965. It is one of a series of studies in Canadian military history published by UBC Press in conjunction with the Canadian War Museum. Rich in detail, this is an authoritative account of the operations undertaken by west coast warships (and to a lesser extent by RCAF Maritime Patrol aircraft) in these years. While the text covers operations on the west coast, it also serves as a useful description of how Canada’s maritime forces operate in peacetime. A useful list of abbreviations enables the reader to decode the book’s many contemporary acronyms. The illustrations are well chosen and there is a useful and clear map of the Canadian area of responsibility under allied plans. The text is supported by good endnotes and a helpful description of relevant academic work. While the narrative ends in 1965, a final chapter sketches developments up to 2014. This is a nicely produced book but the shocking price — $95 for a slim 165-page narrative – might mean that it finds its way only into better academic libraries.

Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War
David Zimmerman
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015, 206 pp., $95. cloth