So Long Bonnie: The Decommissioning of HMCS Bonaventure and Canada’s role in Anti-Submarine Warfare

By Hugh A. Gordon, Keyano College

Part IV: Decommissioning

This is the fourth and final part in a series of articles about the decommissioning of the HMCS Bonaventure. See Part I, Part II and Part III

This aerial view shows Grumman Tracker anti-submarine aircraft aboard HMCS Bonaventure, Canada’s third and last post-war aircraft carrier. George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19900076-998

The public spats about decommissioning the carrier neglected discussing the carrier’s primary role. Anti-submarine warfare was changing and many military officers and strategists questioned the focus on airplanes and helicopters in tracking Soviet submarines. There was an assumption that Soviet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) would be able to dive deeper, become faster, and would be virtually silent so that they could not be tracked by underwater acoustic tracking systems. A series of reports from the Department of National Defence suggested that Canada needed to reassess its role in anti-submarine warfare. Like in the Defence Policy Review, there was a suggestion in a document from 1968 entitled “Future Trends of Canadian Maritime Forces 1975-1979” that Canada should only focus on surveillance. If the Navy focused on surveillance and destruction, there would be less of a “worthwhile return for the investment”. Simply put, the report questioned whether the composition of Canada’s ASW force could fulfill its role as it was currently outlined. The ASW force could search and destroy attack submarines, but not necessarily SSBNs. In a hostile engagement, enemy attack submarines would be actively attempting to target friendly forces, but ballistic missile submarines would hide at all costs until they were given orders to fire their missiles. The report viewed nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) as the best means to counteract SSBNs, but the cost did not make this an option for Canada. As for the Bonaventure itself, the report did not think the carrier was the best ASW tool for surveillance. The carrier could theoretically search as small area very thoroughly, but on a larger strategic level had less value.[1]

In the debate of the validity of ASW, there was the question of whether it was even worth searching for ballistic missile submarines. As offensive weapons, SSBNs had two capabilities as “first strike” and as “second strike” weapons. As first strike weapons, SSBNs could attack an enemy with as little as five minutes of warning. ASW forces would have to almost be directly on top of the sub in order to destroy it in the time that the SSBN rose close to the surface and prepared to fire its missiles. The Bonaventure was only able to perform a small focused area search. As a result, many observers questioned whether SSBNs could be destroyed before they could launch. As “second strike” weapons, the survival of SSBNs made them a very credible deterrent. If one side in a nuclear war launched a pre-emptive strike, SSBNs could ride out the initial attack hidden and undetected underwater, only later launching their missiles as a reprisal. Since SSBNs could not be credibly targeted, went the reasoning at the time, they formed perhaps the most essential leg of the deterrent “triad” which also included bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This was an argument which suggested that ballistic missile submarines should not be targeted by ASW because if there was a fear that such weapons might be lost in a war, the defending side might be placed in a “use them or lose them” situation.[2] Politicians were also worried about deterrence strategy, as Prime Minister Trudeau himself questioned the need for the DDH 280 ASW destroyer program because if Soviet SSBNs were attacked before a declaration of war, that might lead to a nuclear exchange. In addition, if destroyers waited for a declaration of war to hunt and destroy subs, then it might be too late.[3] The same logic could be applied to Bonaventure and its destroyers.

Defence technology analyst George R. Lindsey wrote several reports for DND about the changing nature of anti-submarine warfare. Using American research, Lindsey suggested that as submarines grew quieter and were better able to blend into the surrounding ocean, there was less of a prospect to find them. He pointed out that even if detected before a first strike, SSBNs could not be attacked until it was certain that they were launching their missiles. He suggested that anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) were the best means of countering submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), but the use of ABMs would lead to a larger arms race as nations built up larger stocks of missiles and warheads to counter and overwhelm any ABM shield. This was the reasoning behind the 1972 ABM Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States that limited deployment of such defensive weapons. Lindsey also pointed out that the Soviet ABMs were estimated to be only one-tenth the number of their ICBMs.[4]

Lindsey asked several key questions that challenged Canada’s ASW role: “Is it vitally important for the deterrence of nuclear war to defend against [SSBNs]? If it is highly desirable, is it in fact possible with the resources that can be made available? If effective defence is possible, is it against the missiles in flight or the submarine itself?”[5] With such strategic rationale, the Bonaventure lost its primary raison d’être. If a small, slow ship with a limited operational range had a limited ability to search and destroy contacts that might be better left alone, the carrier was an extravagance that the navy could not afford. Canada was concentrating a third of its naval manpower and a large portion of its military budget to one ship to counter a fraction of the Soviet threat.

HMCS Bonaventure (CVL 22) and the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Newport News (CA-148) at Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada), circa in 1962. Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1969, the Trudeau government and Minister of National Defence Léo Cadieux did not admit that the carrier was on the chopping block. First, Cadieux announced on 14 May that instead of a planned full-scale refit in Saint John, New Brunswick, the carrier would undergo a “mini” refit at Halifax instead, which prompted fierce criticism in the House of Commons about whether the government was interested in protecting jobs. Cadieux denied that the carrier was about to be decommissioned.[6] A week later, the Cabinet decided on the cuts to the Forces, including the Bonaventure, but there was no immediate announcement. The next day, 21 May, Cadieux was again asked if the Bonaventure was about to be scrapped along with other cuts, but after some prevarication suggested that it might be a possibility. Rumours continued to surface throughout the summer that the carrier was about to be paid off, or that the government was about to purchase more ships, but there was no confirmation about any of these ideas.[7] Cadieux continued to confirm and deny the end for the Bonnie up to a week before the actual announcement. In an interview with the Toronto Star, he suggested that the Bonaventure might be one item to be downsized from the CAF. When asked about the rumours, he dismissed them as “speculation—but may eventually turn out to be true.”[8]

When the cuts to the Canadian Armed Forces were announced on 19 September 1969, the Canadian Forces were left reeling from the announcement. Canadian Forces Europe would be cut to 5,000 men. Certain Canadian nuclear weapons, under joint American-Canadian control, would be phased out. The Army, Mobile Command, would have three historic regiments disbanded and their members reassigned to other units. The Air Force was the service least affected with no obvious reductions. The most visible cut was the Bonaventure. Its aircraft would remain in service, Air Command would continue to utilize them, but from shore-based airfields.[9]

As noted above, there was a vitriolic debate over the decision, but in the end, nothing changed the government’s plans. Ontario newspapers like the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail gave the carrier’s history, but were more concerned with other DND concerns, such as Arctic surveillance.[10] The Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, former Premier of Nova Scotia Robert Stanfield (PC-Halifax), referred to Canada’s NATO commitment as “tokenism”.[11] Other Opposition members were angry that the cuts had been announced before the House of Commons defence committee made its recommendations. James Boutilier suggests that outside of provinces like Nova Scotia and British Columbia, which are home to Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific Naval Fleets, most Canadians did not trouble themselves about the decision.[12]

Bonaventure‘s anchor, Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Wikimedia Commons

The Navy was adamantly opposed to the cuts and several former naval officers, including outspoken former Rear Admiral William Landymore, also a former Commanding Officer of Bonaventure, took the government to task for its decision. He called the decision to replace the carrier with new destroyers as “monkey business.”[13] The Navy’s belief in the carrier never wavered. This belief persists in the unfounded rumour that after the carrier was decommissioned, and its hull stripped bare, the hulk was hijacked while on its way to Taiwan to be scrapped. According to the rumour, the Indian Navy snatched the former Canadian aircraft carrier to replace INS Vikrant a carrier that was of the small class and shape as the Bonaventure. Why the Indians would want a 25 year-old hull of the same size and similar use to replace their own vessel, is unclear. Regardless, this romanticism towards a naval vessel shows that there were indeed some Canadians who took the ignominious end of the nation’s flagship very hard.

[1] “Future Trends of Canadian Maritime Forces 1975-1979”, 76/514c, DHH, 1-6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Milner, 264.

[4] George R. Lindsey, DRAE Report #5: July 1969, 74/174, “Canadian Maritime Strategy-Should the Emphasis Be Changed?”, 8

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Mail-Star (Halifax), 15 May 1969.

[7] House of Commons, Debates, 21 May, 1969, 8900-8901; Globe and Mail, 22 May 1969, 7. 

[8] John Doig, “Commons storm centre Bonnie may be dumbed”, Toronto Star, 12 September, 1969, 2.

[9] Léo Cadieux, “Statement by the Honourable Léo Cadieux Minister of National Defence, 19 September 1969”, CANFORGEN 169, File D1350-1901 (DIS), 110.1 (D2), DHH.

[10] George Bain, “No why in sight”, Globe and Mail, 20 September, 1969, 6;

Editorial, “We must claim our Arctic now”, Toronto Star, 20 September 1969, 14.

[11] David Crane, “It’s Just Tokenism, Stanfield Says”, Globe and Mail, 20 September 1969, 12.

[12] Boutilier, “Get Big or Get Out.”

[13] John Doig, “The Bonavanture may die as she lived — a ship of controversy”, Toronto Star, 19 September 1969, 3.