Every war has its humorous incidents and anecdotes. (No hate mail, please, folks) Some are funny at the time, some are only funny years later. There are even some from the London bomb story during the blitz in 1940. During World War I, when the soldiers were living like rats in mud and being eaten by lice, Bruce Bairnsfather produced some famous cartoons.
One of the best stories about Canada in World War I concerned British Columbia, and it happened at the onset. It didn’t seem funny at the time, but British Columbia had its own navy for a few days! Its total strength was two submarines.
There was great alarm in Victoria and Vancouver late in July and early in August 1914, because Germany had a naval squadron in the Pacific under Admiral von Spee. The story circulated that it would bombard the cities and then capture British Columbia with cities and then capture British Columbia with the help of former German citizens living there. Some very respectable citizens of German extraction were given a rough time.
The old cruiser Rainbow, stationed at Esquimalt since 1910, was ordered to protect grain ships from the German cruisers Nürnberg and Leipzig. There were no real guns or ammunition to protect Victoria and Vancouver, except a few old relics.
The British Admiralty sent out a “warning telegram” on July 29. A group of businessmen in Victoria learned that a Seattle shipyard had built two submarines for the Government of Chile, and informed Premier McBride. The premier urged the commander-in-chief at Esquimalt to get in touch with Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa, who referred the matter to the Admiralty.
In the meantime, Premier McBride did not wait. He knew that the United States would put neutrality laws into effect as soon as war was declared, and the submarines would not be allowed to leave Seattle. Captain W. H. Logan, Lloyd’s representative in Victoria, was sent to Seattle to buy the submarines under the greatest secrecy and have them delivered near Trial Island, just outside Canadian territorial waters. They made their way to the island in fog and darkness. Having been inspected and found satisfactory by a retired officer of the Royal Navy, they were taken over by Commander Bertram Jones on August 4.
The chief janitor of the Parliament Buildings, Premier McBride’s personal messenger, was sent to Seattle with a cheque for $1.5 million to pay for the submarines.
There was near panic when the submarines appeared off Victoria on the morning of August 5. The shore battery had not been notified, owing to the secrecy, and might have fired on the submarines with its old guns if word to hold off had not been received in the nick of time.
There was more comedy in finding crews for the submarines, but British Columbia had its own navy until August 7 when the Federal Government took over for the British Admiralty. Fortunately Admiral von Spee’s fleet sailed south and British Columbia was not attacked during the war.
If you want to learn more about this, there are a few sites to suggest. There’s Modern Day Pirate Tales, a blog by Daniel Sekulich; and there is For Posteritys Sake.ca, as well as the CFB Esquimalt
Naval & Military Museum for a good article on the HMCS Rainbow.