Heart of Oak: A Pictorial History of The Royal Canadian Navy


140 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-458-99230-5





Reviewed by Sidney Allinson

Sidney Allinson is a Victoria-based communications consultant, Canadian
news correspondent for Britain’s The Army Quarterly and Defence, and
author of The Bantams: The Untold Story of World War I.


In many ways, this book could be said to reflect Canada itself in microcosm — a passage from the unassuming to the mighty, then faltering and blurring into some new and poorly defined role. The many superb photographs of fighting ships in Hearts of Oak show the changing style of naval architecture and sailors alike since the Royal Canadian Navy was founded in 1910. Through them, the book well supports its intention of being “a pictorial tribute to the courage and dedication of the Royal Canadian Navy on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.”

There’s a particular fascination in seeing how Canada’s fledgling navy looked before the Great War: rakish ships, primitive submarines, “pusser” gun drills and boarding parties, shown in Esquimalt and Halifax harbours. Author J.A. Foster and his researchers have brought to light a wealth of unique early photographs which help set the scene for the grander times that follow. One learns what a relatively minor role our navy played in the 1914-18 War, in contrast to the crucial importance of the RCN during World War II.

Starting as a “Three Trawler Navy” in 1939, the RCN rapidly became one of the worlds largest maritime forces, all within fewer than five years. Though the text of Heart of Oak is brief, it manages to cover many of the problems brought about by this rapid expansion — especially those involving the training of thousands of inexperienced voting recruits. The photographs show a new professionalism, with determined-looking seamen who learned their job well enough to become the main bastion of convoys during the Battle of the North Atlantic. Destroyers, corvettes, and MTB’s of Canada are also shown on more distant seas, fighting against F-Boats in the English Channel, and in support of the Normandy invasion.

Different problems arose in the post-1945 period, as the RCN was allowed to decline rapidly. Despite this trend, our navy still managed to acquit itself well during the Korean War. Along with other Allied destroyers, HMCS Haida, Athabaskan, and Crusader became famed and feared members of the Korean “Trainbusters Club” bombarding Communist railways along the coasts. They were final broadsides, however. Over the next few decades, deliberate policy by the long-lasting Liberal administration gradually reduced Canada’s navy to an embarrassingly small and ineffectual force. Though Ottawa had approved a Naval Air Service in 1945, it never went much beyond a single aircraft carrier, HMCS Magnificent — which was strangely cast in an anti-submarine role, rather than that of a base for air-launched strikes. Another carrier was retired around the time that the Royal Canadian Navy ceased to exist as a legal entity. On February 1, 1968, its proud tradition was merged with the other two fighting services into a unified Canadian Armed Forces. Happily, Heart of Oak is able to close on an encouraging note. With a change in government, a new frigate programme is now underway, along with plans to return naval personnel to distinctive uniforms and traditions. Full circle; 75 years after its foundation, the Royal Canadian Navy is born again.


Foster, J.A., “Heart of Oak: A Pictorial History of The Royal Canadian Navy,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/36242.