So Long Bonnie: The Decommissioning of HMCS Bonaventure and Canada’s role in Anti-Submarine Warfare
By Hugh A. Gordon, Keyano College
Part III: Debating the Bonnie’s Future
As the Defence Policy Review was debated within DND and the Cabinet, the Bonaventure was added to lists of redundant equipment. On April 30, 1969, the Interdepartmental Working Group tasked with the DPR reported back to the Cabinet with suggested cuts to the Canadian Forces. The Group’s report stated that “For financial reasons, it will be necessary to take action to dispose of HMCS Bonaventure…” Other ships, including two supply ships, a cruiser, and a destroyer were also slated for decommissioning.[i] There is no evidence that the Bonaventure’s continued existence was debated by the Cabinet. Defence Minister Léo Cadieux suggested the ultimate decision regarding the carrier rested with him and he ordered it decommissioned because of its annual cost. In an interview, Cadieux could not remember the actual date when the decision was made, but it was during a meeting with the “general staff”.[ii] According to Marc Milner, the decision was relayed to Admiral John O’Brien in Halifax, who reluctantly concurred.[iii] Neither the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), or the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS), were from the Navy. Stuart Soward quoted a former commanding officer (CO) of the Bonaventure who believed that Cadieux and the CDS made decisions without consulting the full Defence Council. Without substantial Navy input to protect the carrier, Army and Air Force Generals were unlikely to stand up for Maritime Command’s largest asset.[iv]
Several senior military officers, from all three branches, including the navy, were never certain about the need for Bonaventure, and were vocal about it when asked. Vice-Admiral Harry DeWolf, on the day the ship was commissioned lamented: “Here we are getting this bloody great thing and how are we going to pay for it? How are we going to keep it running?”[v] General J.V. Allard allegedly said in a 1967 meeting that “we’ve got to get rid of something, I’m going to get rid of that carrier.”[vi] During the hearings on the DPR held by the Parliamentary Special Committee on External Affairs and Defence (SCEAND), Professor (retired General) Charles Foulkes suggested that the combination of the Bonaventure and its aircraft along with frigates and other weapons was just a combined wish list of Air and Maritime Command. As Foulkes stated, “We presently have one carrier and I do not believe one of anything is any good to anybody.”[vii]
With defence and foreign policy both under the microscope, it is worth remembering that the carrier was much more than just a symbol. The carrier was a maritime surveillance tool, as well as a weapon system. The Sea King-Tracker combination was felt by the Navy to be the most effective ASW tool after submarines, but the aircraft carrier did have limitations. Even from a military perspective, it was not a perfect weapon system. The Bonaventure lacked any air defence weaponry after old anti-aircraft Bofors guns and the Banshee fighters were removed.[viii] The hull of the carrier was small, with a short landing deck that prevented the ship from basing larger jets. It was also much slower than other modern warships, which limited its functionality in NATO operations.
There was a general bias against carriers in the hearings and articles surrounding the Defence Policy Review and the decommissioning of the Bonaventure. Even though the carrier was not primarily an offensive weapon, but a defensive one, there was a belief that tracking and destroying submarines could spark a conflict and a nuclear war, as Prime Minister Trudeau had pointed out.[ix] By the late 1960s, the aircraft carrier as a weapon system was associated with large American strike fleet carriers that projected military power around the globe. ASW carriers, on the other hand, were small ships that had one purpose rather than many.
Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the carrier was political scientist James Eayrs. He had served in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, but he felt very little loyalty to the contemporary Maritime Command, and particularly its affinity for large warships like Bonaventure. He believed Canada focused on ASW because there was a political desire not to upset the United States. He argued there were fears that the United States would infringe upon Canadian sovereignty by taking over the ASW role. He argued such fears were unfounded because “serious” ASW was performed by attack submarines that were unobtrusive. While Eayrs suggested that the role of submarines in ASW was essential, in his opinion, carriers were a waste of resources. In a particularly vitriolic article written in support of the government after the announcement to scrap the Bonaventure, Eayrs attacked the Navy’s entire history with carriers, predominantly with anecdotal evidence that was irrelevant to the Bonnie, or worse, inaccurate. He blasted the Navy for having trained its first carrier, HMCS Warrior in warm waters, despite the fact that the carrier was not really equipped for Arctic warfare. He quoted Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King from 1947 who claimed that the second Canadian carrier HMCS Magnificent was the largest in the world and as such was an invitation for an enemy attack. This was despite the fact that the Maggie, as the carrier was known, was one of the smallest afloat. Eayrs did not mention Bonaventure’s ASW role in any detail.[x]
Department of National Defence allowed a former Executive Officer of the Bonaventure to write a response to
Eayrs’ sensationalist attack. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have been
published, but it demolished many of Eayrs’ assertions. However, the article
written by Commander A.E. Fox also did not go into any detail about the
carrier’s ASW role and why it was important.[xi]
[i] Cabinet Document 430/69, 30 April 1969, RG2, Privy Council Office, Series B-2, Volume 6346, LAC, 13.
[ii] Interview with Léo Cadieux, 15 July 2002.
[iii] Milner, 264.
[iv] Stuart E Soward, Hands to Flying Stations: A Recollective History of Canadian Naval Aviation (Victoria, BC:. Neptune Developments, 1995), Vol. 2, 446.
[v] W.G.D. Lund, “The Rise and Fall of the Royal Canadian Navy, 1945-1964: A Critical Study of the Senior Leadership, Policy and Manpower Management”, Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Victoria, 1999, 391.
[vi] Boutilier, 395.
[vii] Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence, Minutes of Proceedings, 12 February 1969, Evidence of Professor Charles Foulkes, 945.
George R. Lindsey, “Canadian Maritime Strategy-Should the Emphasis Be Changed?”, DRAE Report #5: July 1969, 74/174, Canada, Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), 16, 26-27.
[ix] Milner, 264
[x] James Eayrs, “Bonaventure’s Career: HMCS White Elephant,” Montreal Star, 29 September, 1969.
[xi] Cmdr. A.E. Fox, “Bonaventure’s Career: HMCS Gung Ho,” 1983-84/232, Vol. 85 1351-CVL 22, 16 Oct. 1969., RG 24, DND, LAC.