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Book Reviews

Victor Brodeur: Officier De La Marine Canadienne (1909-1946)

by Bill Rawling

Outremont, Québec, Athéna, 2008
268 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Hugues Létourneau

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Book coverSome years ago, naval historian Richard Mayne spoke of the relative silence in academic and naval circles surrounding the post-Second World War history of the Canadian Navy – a silence that lasted more than thirty years and was not definitively broken until the RCN in Retrospect 1910-1968 conference of 1982. Only since the 1980s has the study of Canadian naval history attained a degree of momentum.

In 2010, the Canadian Navy will celebrate its centenary. In comparison with the annals of European navies, and even the United States Navy, a hundred years is a short time. However, as Mayne pointed out, the process of catching up on our history is now well under way.

Out of some 200 people in the Canadian Navy to have risen to the rank of rear-admiral, only six – three percent – have been French-speaking Quebecers. A small contingent, and Brodeur was the first of them: like most federal institutions in the 20th Century, the Canadian Navy has glaringly reflected the English Canadian majority; a state of affairs that was especially marked in the Royal Canadian Navy, and persists today. Apart from Roméo Oscar Cossette, promoted to rear-admiral in 1945, three years after Brodeur, French-speaking Quebecers had to wait until 2003 – almost six decades – for another of their number (Forcier) to reach this rank.

Victor Brodeur was one of the first “group of six” officer cadets accepted into the RCN and initially assigned in 1909 to CGS Canada. The other five were John Barron, Trenwick Bate, Charles Beard, Barry German and Percy Nelles. Of Brodeur’s five classmates, only Nelles rose to a higher rank: he was a vice-admiral and Chief of Naval Staff from 1934 to 1944.

Brodeur was the son of Louis-Philippe Brodeur, Minister of the Naval Service under Wilfrid Laurier. But as Rawling reminds us, the fact that Victor’s entry into the new RCN was facilitated because he “knew someone” was nothing scandalous. It was standard practice at the time, and the other officer cadets no doubt had contacts of their own.

Bill Rawling, an historian employed by the Directorate of History and Heritage at the Department of National Defence, and the author of several works on various subjects, including the Battle of Cambrai, has laboured painstakingly, delving into letters and archives to convey a sense of the time and the customs of a navy that was tiny, even by today’s standards. There were frequent calls upon the Royal Navy to find training platforms for our officers, and sometimes ratings, petty officers, and even commissioned officers were supplied by the British to make up for our staff shortages. Brodeur’s job in Ottawa, in the early 1920s, was to ensure that our handful of ships and onshore facilities had enough seamen to fulfil their mission: a sort of career agent, but for the entire navy. Rawling seems to be the first to have described these early workings: Brodeur as a staff officer sometimes worked miracles with very limited resources.

In parallel, Rawling shows us that Brodeur was sometimes criticized in his evaluations for his “judgment,” partly because he was a Canadian nationalist at a time when toadying to the Royal Navy was the order of the day. Rawling also seems to depict Brodeur as not having the sophisticated technical knowledge required to command the navy or the Atlantic fleet during the Second World War. This is debatable, because an admiral was not usually expected to be as ‘operational’ as a frigate captain in the navy of the time, nor is he today. In any case, while in charge of more junior ranks, Brodeur distinguished himself through his innovations in armaments while assigned to the Royal Navy. One might add that in the small pre-war navy that was the RCN, the handful of officers who achieved high rank, like Brodeur, Hose, Jones, Murray, and Nelles, were by no means mediocre, and Brodeur would not have risen to the rank of admiral had his technical knowledge been insufficient.

That aside, Brodeur emerges from Rawling’s book in a very positive light. He was an officer for whom the men were very important, and throughout his career he was preoccupied with their welfare. He had a strong sense of duty and a deep love of the institution of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Good as it is, Rawling’s book has some annoyances. Although the quality of the French is high, the use of terms such as “officier exécutif”, “hydrofoil”, “commandeur” and “système de divisions” (instead of “commandant en second”, “hydroglisseur”, “capitaine de frégate” and “système divisionnaires”) shows that it would have been advisable to have the text vetted by a Francophone navy officer. Rawling could also have benefited from an interview with Victor Brodeur’s son, retired Vice-Admiral Nigel Brodeur. He failed to take this opportunity, and ‘Brodeur junior’ would surely have provided valuable insight. Finally, the absence of a bibliography is perplexing.

Despite these shortcomings, the fact remains that Rawling has written a book that had to be written. Evidently, such a specialized account – in French to boot – is unlikely to read by more than a small number of people. This is a pity: its strong points unquestionably make it an excellent contribution to our naval history, and the author paints a portrait of an officer with whom it would have been an honour to serve.

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Hugues Létourneau is a captain in the Canadian Naval Reserve.

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