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Book Reviews



Reviewed by Jurgen Duewel

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by John Boileau
Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2010
214 pages, $21.95
ISBN: 978-1-55109-747-3

Reviewed by Jurgen Duewel

The city of Halifax and various navies share a long history. Halifax was founded in 1749 by the British as a naval port to counter the French fortress at Louisburg, and it was to remain an important part of the worldwide chain of British naval stations until the early 1900s. After Confederation, Halifax's importance to the British Empire started to decline, and finally, after 1905, when Britain found herself distracted by yet another European foe, she turned over the Halifax dockyard to Canada and to the newly-founded Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1910. It is here that John Boileau begins his new book, Halifax & the Royal Canadian Navy. As Boileau points out, although Halifax had always been a navy town, this port, much like the young Canadian navy, would be wholly unprepared for the storms that were to engulf them both over the next 40 years. The story of Halifax and the RCN, which grew and matured together during the 20th Century, is one that Boileau has chosen to relate, and he does a commendable job.

At the beginning of the First World War, Halifax was a quaint, almost sleepy, town of less than 50,000 inhabitants, and it was not ready for the large influx of soldiers and sailors that inundated the city after 1914. Canadian sailors had never been made particularly welcome in Halifax, and, to make matters worse, in 1916, at the urging of Haligonians, provincial authorities enacted a temperance law that closed every bar in the city. Nevertheless, sailors being sailors, and assisted by opportunistic entrepreneurs, they soon found a way around the law by frequenting illegal drinking spots known as "Blind Pigs." However, overpriced and watered-down booze did little to ease the resentment that many sailors felt toward the city. Boileau reminds us of the tragedy of the Halifax explosion of 1917, which generated over 11,000 casualties, and the resulting unfair accusations of blame that were directed at the navy did not ameliorate an already-uneasy situation. As Boileau correctly and properly acknowledges, the First World War was primarily about the soldiers in the trenches with respect to danger, and those who joined the navy were derisively termed "slackers" by Haligonians, and they were taunted to join "the real fight." After the First World War, Halifax returned largely to being its sleepy self, because although naval representation remained, it shrank to near-invisibility. The Second World War would generate population growth again, this time from 78,000 to 124,000 inhabitants as the city became a major staging ground for convoys, the RCN grew to become the fourth-largest navy in the world, and the port became a major focal point for the Battle of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, when it came to lessons learned from the last war on how to treat service personnel, Halifax did not seem to have learned much. It was still the only major seaport where there were no legal drinking establishments for sailors who lived aboard ships. Consequently, many sailors preferred St. John's Newfoundland over Halifax as a port of call, and "Newfie John" attracted a fondness from sailors that Halifax never achieved. On VE Day, 8 May 1945, tensions that had been building over the five years of war spilled over into riots in Halifax, during which a brewery was ransacked and store windows were smashed. The bad feelings that were generated from these riots would linger for many years.

Boileau adds an interesting chapter, on the heretofore largely-neglected contributions of women in uniform, especially during the Second World War. In addition, there is also a compelling piece dealing with the voyages of the ice breaker Labrador, which many Canadians will be surprised to learn commenced service as a naval vessel, the HMCS Labrador. Labrador’s experiences in the Canadian Arctic during the 1950s are especially relevant today. Boileau also includes an interesting piece with respect to the Cuban Missile Crisis, relating how Rear Admiral Dyer, the ranking Flag Officer in Halifax at the time, did not wait for the political leadership to raise readiness levels of the fleet. On his own, he ordered the fleet to take up war stations, exemplifying the navy's motto of "Ready Aye Ready" to defend Canada.

When Boileau adheres to his principal theme of Halifax and the Royal Canadian Navy, his book is excellent. One of the best features of the book is the many previously unpublished photographs he has included. However, when he ventures into other areas of history, he, quite frankly, ‘comes up short.’ In airing a relatively minor error, he credits the RCN's Tribal Class as being the first ships to be powered by gas turbines, when, in fact, the Royal Navy's Tribals preceded the Canadians in being so equipped by more than 10 years. Secondly, and more seriously, he charges that the German battleship Admiral Scheer fired upon and wounded survivors in lifeboats after the sinking of HMS Jervis Bay in 1940. Boileau provides no substantiation for this accusation, and an extensive search through the records – including the London News report of the incident, and the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 53, Jervis Bay Memorial Branch's extensive memorabilia, including the account of the Swedish freighter Stureholm, which was in the area at the time picking up the 65 survivors – fails to corroborate his accusation. Unfortunately, this unsubstantiated entry taints an otherwise fine book.

Nonetheless, those who are interested in knowing more about the symbiotic relationship between Halifax and Canada’s navy should definitely give this book a read.

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Lieutenant-Commander Jurgen Duewel is a Maritime Surface Officer on staff at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston and is responsible for Officer Professional Development Period 3. Lieutenant-Commander Duewel has a Master's Degree in War Studies from RMC, and is currently working on a doctorate in Educational Leadership..

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