ONE OF THE LEAST KNOWN stories of the Second World War is that of a unique group of West Coast fishermen who went to war in their fishing boats. These fishermen put on naval uniforms, had guns, minesweeping gear and depth charge mountings installed on their craft, hoisted the White Ensign, and put to sea as part of the wartime Royal Canadian Navy. Their job was to patrol Canada's Pacific coast, with its hundreds of islands, inlets and channels, alert for any evidence of enemy activity. The coast of the B.C. mainland measures 1,579 miles and the islands add another 3,979 miles.
For the patrol job there was none better than the fishermen with their first-hand knowledge of the coast and its tricky waters. Their small craft were capable of penetrating the small bays and inlets along the B.C. coast. Members of the Fishermen's Reserve performed numerous salvage tasks, aided other vessels in distress, and once landed a crew in a densely wooded area to capture a bandit. Necessary orders to organize the Fishermen's Reserve were approved by the government in 1938, and in February, 1939, the training program was started. The keenness of B.C.'s fishermen was reflected in the fact that the first course, which lasted one month, resulted in more than 40 boats turning up with full crews.
When war was declared, the Reserve was immediately called up and the fishing boats reported for duty as they arrived in harbour from the fishing grounds. By the end of September, sixteen vessels had reported at Esquimalt or Prince Rupert, and immediate steps were taken to outfit the boats for their war duties. They were armed with depth charges and light anti-aircraft guns, and many were also equipped for inshore minesweeping. Up to the end of 1941 no administrative staff had been established for the Reserve, and the duties of Commanding Officer were carried out by the Commanding Officer of HMCS Givenchy, a naval establishment at Esquimalt. When Japan entered the war in December 1941, there was an immediate need for more patrols along the Pacific coast.
|Pictured here is HMCS Santa Maria, a small, seaworthy and rugged
patrol craft whose speed was in the 6 to 8 knot range.
Ships of the Fishermen's Reserve on the West Coast did not see action against the enemy. Reports have it that the Navy fitted each vessel with a Canadian Marconi FR-12 so any suspicious activity could be quickly reported. (RCN Photo E-1331).
The need was partially met by commandeering 20 vessels formerly owned by Japanese fishermen. These were fitted out by the Navy and manned by the Fishermen's Reserve. In September 1942, orders were issued to recruit 400 men as soon as possible for assault landing craft duties. William Head quarantine station, near Esquimalt, formerly used for training, was again taken over by the Reserve. By this time, most fishermen were already in the Reserve, or had enlisted in other armed forces, and many recruits came from logging camps. As the war entered its fourth year, the Reserve boasted 50 vessels with a complement of almost 1,000 officers and men.
The Fishermen's Reserve had two ranks not found elsewhere in the service. These were the officer's ranks of "skipper coxswain" and "coxswain", which corresponded to warrant rank in the regular navy and reserves, except that they were junior to the established warrant ranks. The two ranks were apparently introduced to meet the case of men who were perfectly competent to handle small ships in coastal waters but who lacked the academic or technical qualifications usually required of a naval officer. The ranks with their lower pay and limited opportunities of promotion, led to some dissatisfaction and, in the case of the "coxswain", to confusion.
The Fishermen's Reserve coxswain wore officer's uniform but his sleeves were devoid of gold lace. This sometimes meant coxswains were mistaken for chaplains - a misunderstanding that could be quickly dispelled by the salty language of the fisherman. By 1943, it became clear to all concerned that if the war continued it would become essential for the Fishermen's Reserve personnel to undergo regular naval training to offset the increasing difficulties of operating a navy within a navy. A naval staff officer was appointed and a training syllabus drafted. The assault landing craft unit organized earlier had been separated from the Fishermen's Reserve by 1943, and its training was now taken over by the RCN at HMCS Naden, at Esquimalt. There was a need for this unit overseas, however, and the Fishermen's Reserve regulations permitted personnel to serve only on the West Coast.
The problem was solved by taking trained volunteers from the Fishermen's Reserve into the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. By April 1943, HMCS Givenchy II was commissioned at Esquimalt to provide the Fishermen's Reserve with a dock area, mess halls and classrooms. An instructional staff was selected and a training syllabus put into operation including field training, seamanship, signals, pilotage, AA gunnery and lectures by commanding officers of various ships.
As the threat to the coast diminished, steps were taken to disband the Fisherman's Reserve. Personnel were given the choice of transferring to the RCNVR or returning to essential industry. Chartered vessels were returned to their owners. By the early part of 1944, all but 180 men had been transferred to the RCNVR or were discharged, and in January, 1945, the last Fishermen's Reserve rating was demobilized. With their seamanship, intimate knowledge of local waters, enthusiasm and readiness for duty, its officers and men won an extremely good name for the Fishermen's Reserve. One officer was awarded the MBE for an outstanding job of rescue in heavy weather, and five other officers and three men received awards for similar deeds, or exceptional services of other kinds. Theirs was a unique, little-known organization whose members answered the call in a time of emergency and quietly gave outstanding service until the job was done.
Here is a complete list of the vessels in the Fisherman's Reserve as listed in Canadian Warship Names by David Freeman.
The late Jack Arrowsmith provided this additional information to complement the article.
1940 HMCS VANISLE - Launched 1936, 83 tons, returned 1945.
1.1.40 HMCS LEOLA VIVIAN - 49gr tons. hired, aka:"LEELO", returned to owners 1946.
1.1.40 HMCS ARISTOCRAT - Launched 1932, 122 tons, returned to owners 1946.
1.1.40 HMCS MEANDER - Launched 1934, 53 tons, hired, returned to owner 1946.
1941 HMCS FIFER - Launched 1939, 194 tons, returned 1946.
1.1.42 HMCS BILLOW - Launched 1927, 46 tons, Japanese, seized, sold 1945.
1.1.42 HMCS COMBER - 31 gr tons, , sold 1945.
1.1.42 HMCS CHAMISS BAY - Launched 1928, 58 tons, returned to owners 1945.
1.1.42 HMCS SCATERIE - Launched 1926, 41 tons, hired, returned to owners 1946.
1.1.42 HMCS VALINDA - Launched 1933, 143 tons, hired, returned to owners 1946.
Chester Williams who served at Masset from February to October 1943 states: “All the FY vessels were fitted with the the Marconi FR-12 set. We used to copy the broadcast from CKG Prince Rupert and then re-broadcast for any auxiliary vessels in our vicinity. I think we were transmitting somewhere around 2400 kcs.”
Contributors and Credits:
1) Crowsnest Magazine.
2) Canadian Warship Names by David Freeman. Vanwell Pulishinmg, St. Catharines Ont.(2000). ISBN 1-55125-048-9