Betrayed: Scandal, Politics and Canadian Naval Leadership
by Richard O. Mayne
University of British Columbia Press, 296pp., 2006
What the Book has to Say
In 1944 Vice Admiral Percy Nelles was fired from his position as head of the Royal Canadian Navy in one of the most public and controversial breakdowns in Canadian civil-military relations.
Sixty years later Richard O. Mayne, a naval reserve officer and historian, revisited the incident in his book, Betrayed: Scandal, Politics and Canadian Naval Leadership, published in 2006 by UBC Press in association with the Canadian War Museum. The book was based on his MA thesis and at the time of its publication Mayne was part of a team of researchers engaged by the Directorate of History and Heritage at the Department of National Defence.
The main argument in Betrayed is that Nelles’ removal was “politically motivated — brought about by individuals who took their criticisms of the navy directly to the Naval minister, Angus L. Macdonald and his executive assistant John Joseph Connolly.” Instead of working through proper channels within the Navy and the department responsible for the armed forces (the Minister being the Vice-Admiral’s boss), these individuals operated informally through networks of their own creation. It is Mayne’s contention that this activity caught out Nelles and that he was “a victim of hidden agendas”. In some measure, the book is an attempt to amend the bad rap Nelles has been handed by history.
Mayne describes his approach as an historian as one “influenced by the new naval history” as defined by John Sumida and David Rosenberg. Believing that too much emphasis is placed on leadership, these two American scholars have argued that naval historians can learn more about the decision-making process in complex organization like the navy through the study of its bureaucracy. This approach suggests that key governmental and military figures depend on a large supporting bureaucracy that both informs and shapes their decisions.
In Mayne’s account there were several key players in Nelles’ take-down starting with Lt. Commander Andrew D. MacLean RCNR who was critical of the Canadian Navy on three counts: the outdated equipment of North Atlantic fleet (the need for up-to-date weapons and detection systems), the discrimination against reservists by regulars (the part-timers vs. full time career professionals), and the seeming disinterest of top brass in problems affecting the morale and performance of the men at sea.
Second was Commodore G.W.G. “Shrimp” Simpson RN who took over command of the Royal Navy base in Londonderry in April 1943. A down-to-earth British officer, Simpson was in charge of the RCN escorts when they arrived in Northern Ireland after their transatlantic missions. Simpson’s “popularity among the Canadians was legendary” says Mayne; he knew the Canadians, and understood their frustration with substandard gear. Ultimately he concluded their problem was systemic, stemming from what he later described as “the lack of cohesion and direction from the professional top due to a percentage of officers in the intermediate and lower ranks, with political axes to grind.” He had communicated the concerns through regular channels (that is to say, via RN command to RCN Command in Europe and back to Canada). When this produced no results he, too, took the opportunity to send a message directly to the minister.
Third was Lt. Commander William Strange, a volunteer reservist and journalist before the war, who was assistant naval information officer in Naval Service Headquarters by 1943 when he detailed by Newfoundland Command to investigate the escalating “welfare” problems in Londonderry (i.e. lack of recreation facilities and unruly behaviour). When Strange turned up, Simpson had a lot to tell him, and very quickly the focus of his report shifted to the unsatisfactory state of equipment and the perception that Ottawa and NSHQ didn’t care.
“Simpson had unknowingly tapped into Connolly’s network of reserve informants. As one of Connolly’s friends, Strange passed on the message that seagoing officers were on the verge of rebelling over the equipment situation. By doing so he began a process that eventually led Commodore Simpson to bypass chains of command in the Royal Navy and the RCN so he could communicate problems directly to the Canadian naval minister. Simply put, while the MacLean scandal had left Macdonald vulnerable, Strange’s interference opened the floodgate at Naval Service Headquarters and perhaps sealed Nelles’ fate by turning a perceived morale problem with an operational deficiency on the North Atlantic into a political crisis in Ottawa.”
John J. Connolly was briefed by Strange on his return, and shortly afterwards, Connolly left for Newfoundland and the UK to conduct an investigation of his own for the minister, intending to ascertain finally the degree of disaffection within the service, and the state of modernization. He’d already established a network of informants (particularly among reservists), and the previous year had gone on a similar mission to the East Coast.
Finally there was Rear Admiral G. C. Jones who, as second-in-command, played a role in the lead-up to Nelles’ departure. These were two months in late 1943 when all the chickens came home to roost; the serious disconnect that existed between the Minister and the Admiral (who seemed not to speak the same language), the enormity and complexity of the modernization challenge, the festering disaffection between reserve and regulars, and the endemic problem of communication between Naval Service Headquarters and the rest of the service, the minister and the Royal Navy. Jones was a tough-minded officer, and as career-driven as any of them (which is how Mayne describes the navy generally). He played his cards close to his chest while gunning for Nelles’ job, and in January 1944 he got it.
Although these men were all in very senior positions, Mayne’s focus was on the interrelationship between the two bureaucracies. His research relies on documents (the usual letters, memos and minutes) and historical interviews, plus some contemporary consultations particularly with three reservists from that era still living who “shaped my understanding of life in the wartime reserves”. His innovation was in trying to unearth the unofficial, behind-the-scenes activity, tracking the machinations involving senior levels of both the navy and the ministry, and the people who had a hand in the Vice Admiral’s undoing. He suggests at least three networks were operating outside channels.
Mayne acknowledges the lack of specifics about these networks, for example how many participants were involved and how widespread was the sentiment. He makes much of the fact that the criticisms of NSHQ were often unfounded — when people assumed nothing was happening, things often were, and actions had already been taken in some cases. The interventions, he stresses, came mostly from sea-going officers and not their commanding officers who would have been aware of the larger issues and seen the bigger picture. The word for these narrow-vision, front-line fighters in navy parlance was “sharp-end grousers”.
As Mayne narrates the story, MacLean lit the fuse of the slow-burning crisis. After his release from the Navy late in 1942 and return to his pre-war work as a publisher, MacLean published two long articles airing his concerns about the RCN. He’d taken the final step, unforgiveable to many. He blew the whistle. For this he earned a diatribe from the minster in the House of Commons that included an ad hominem attack on his military record.
That did nothing to quell the gathering crisis, as Mayne meticulously details. Nelles was ultimately required to fall on his sword, and the Thomas Cromwell who masterminded it was J. J. Connolly. “Although offered as a sacrifice to those who had complained, Nelles was a victim of a politically expedient plan designed by an executive assistant who wanted to shift the public’s anticipated wrath over modernization from his boss to the former chief of naval staff. It is a testament to Connolly’s abilities that he was able to get rid of Nelles without the press, Parliament, or the public ever discovering the real reasons for his replacement.” Macdonald kept his job, Nelles was appointed senior Canadian flag officer (overseas) and left for London.
John Connolly was appointed to the Senate by Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent in 1953 and as leader of the Government in the Senate served in the Pearson Cabinet 1960-1963.