J.L. Granatstein: HMCS Uganda: The Royal Canadian Navy ship that voted itself out of a war

The vote was decisive, with 576 sailors and 29 officers declining to volunteer and ending their participation in the war
The last Commanding Officer of the HMCS Protecteur, Blair Brown, salutes during a special occasion for all those who have served in or have a connection to HMCS Protecteur were at CFB Esquimalt for a Paying Off ceremony in Esquimalt, B.C., Thursday May 14, 2015. Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press.

Conscription was the most divisive issue in Canada during the Second World War. In 1942, the Mackenzie King government1William Lyon Mackenzie King held a plebiscite asking Canadians to release it from its promises not to impose conscription for overseas service.2Canadian conscription plebiscite, 1942,_1942 The nation agreed although an angry Quebec voted 72.9 percent no. In November 1944, shortages of infantry reinforcements overseas forced King to order 16,000 conscripted home defence soldiers to Europe; again Quebec was furious. Five months later with the war in Europe clearly drawing to an end and with a federal election to be held in June, the King Cabinet again considered conscription.

This time, the subject was whether to send conscripts to fight against Japan. The Progressive Conservative leader in the House of Commons, Gordon Graydon, had said in December 1944 that this was his party’s policy, and many Tories wanted this to be a major plank in the coming election. Aware of this, the prime minister and his ministers thrashed through the question, some ministers favouring compulsory service for the Pacific War.

But Mackenzie King would have none of this: “I took strongly the position that to create a conscription issue over Japan before a general election would be just suicidal and absolutely wrong…. It was finally decided… in light of the discussion, [to make] clear that whatever was done for the Japanese war would be on a voluntary basis….” This decision was communicated to the House of Commons on April 4, and King added this: “The men to make up whatever military force is to be employed against Japan will be chosen from those who elect to serve in the Pacific theatre.” In addition, volunteers were to get 30 days leave in Canada. 

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The difficulty was soon evident. The Royal Navy had transferred HMCS Uganda to the Royal Canadian Navy in October 19443Transfer to Canada and, without its name Canadianized, the ship was soon despatched to serve in the British Pacific Fleet in the war against Japan. All members of the Royal Canadian Navy were volunteers, including the 907 officers and ratings serving aboard the 8700-ton cruiser. Did Uganda’s crew now need to elect to continue to serve in the Pacific theatre? In Parliament, the Navy minister, Angus L. Macdonald, responded to a query by saying “I should think very sympathetic consideration would be given [to] any man on the Uganda who, having put in a year of service on that ship, and the European war being over, wished to return to civilian life. I think such a request would be very carefully and sympathetically dealt with.” Naval Headquarters in Ottawa soon directed the ship’s commander to ask its officers and ratings to sign an undertaking that “I hereby volunteer for service in the war against Japan and agree to serve in the Pacific Theatre and/or any other theatre for the duration of hostilities should my services be so required.” 

Uganda’s Captain, Rollo Mainguy, was puzzled by all this. As he said years later, “we got this signal. We couldn’t understand what it meant. And after great exchange of signals, we were given orders finally that we had to vote. Everybody on board votes secretly as to whether or not they volunteered to fight against the Japanese. If they said yes, they’d get 30 days leave. Well, that sounded a bit improbable as we were already fighting. So the way this signal and exchange of the signal was received annoyed everybody, every single soul on board.” 

Some sailors, at sea without pause for seven months, were unhappy because Uganda had not been designed for service in a tropical climate and was infested with rats and cockroaches, short of drinking water, and ordinarily only had rations of canned meat and dehydrated vegetables. Others had been away from home for years and wanted to see their families and find a civvy job. Nor were matters helped when Mainguy in effect called those who might vote against volunteering again “quitters.” That comment did it, and the vote was decisive, with 576 sailors and 29 officers declining to volunteer. As one sailor recalled, “I was one of the ones who did not volunteer. I was prepared to stay there, but if they were going through this nonsense of volunteering (which was all it was) I wasn’t going to volunteer again.” 

Now the problem became clear. Without returning to Canada, it was impossible to get more than 600 men onto the cruiser to replace those who refused to volunteer. Even then it would take weeks to make the ship fit to fight as a team. On July 27, Uganda left the Royal Navy flotilla, the best estimates being that it could return with an all-volunteer crew sometime in September. In fact, Uganda did not return to Japanese waters. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had forced Japan to capitulate, five days after the cruiser made it to port in Esquimalt on August 10. 

The federal election on June 11 had returned the Liberals to power with the barest of majorities.41945 Canadian federal election Unfortunately for Conservative election hopes, the media did not learn of the Uganda affair until six weeks after the election, and the newspapers were furious. The Globe and Mail was outraged: “When was there ever a more shameful slander on so splendid a career?” while the Liberal-leaning Halifax Chronicle acidly editorialized that “The Government’s policy regarding conscription for the Army has aroused enough ribaldry at home and abroad for any reasonable people to bear. Now, it appears that indecision and weak-kneed policy has created another demarche which threatens to hold the Canadian Navy up to unparalleled ridicule.” 

The criticism was wholly justified. The government’s decision had led to Uganda voting itself out of the war. This was shameful policy, as the media said, but it was also appalling that Canadian servicemen had decided to withdraw from combat operations in the final stages of a war. Their absence mattered little militarily, but without doubt it was also shameful.

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