28 November 2008

And now, a not-so-great moment in Canadian history

Several of my readers said they enjoyed my little tidbits of Canadian history, particularly the military kind. I tend to dwell on some of our more valorous deeds. Today I will tell the story of one of our less noble events. This is the story of the HMCS Uganda.

The Uganda was a light cruiser, with a main armament nine six inch guns. Originally built by the British, she was heavily damaged during actions in the Mediterranean in 1943. While she was undergoing repairs and a refit the Canadian government negotiated with the British for the acquisition of the ship. On October 21, 1944, the Uganda was transferred to the Canadian Navy.

She quickly became the pride of the fleet (at the time Canada had one of the largest navies in the world) she was the largest and most powerful ship in the RCN (unless you count our escort carriers), and served as the flagship for the fleet. She was transferred to the Pacific theatre of operations where she received battle honours for Okinawa, and partook in operations at Formosa and Sakishima Gunto. Her conduct was honourable and noteworthy, and she was considered to be a valuable asset to the British Pacific Fleet and the US Third Fleet, both of which she was attached to at various times during her tour of duty in the Pacific.

So far, so good. What happened, then, that she is in the less-than-heroic category? In a word, politics.

The Wartime Government run William Lyon Mackenzie King (one of the biggest nutjobs to ever run a country or political entity- and remember the list of nutjobs to run a geographical area includes Nero, Caligula,etc) had just run an election which turned on the conscription crisis and the Zombie crisis. If he supported conscription he was in danger of losing Quebec, a major power base for him. Under the ambiguous slogan of "Conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription" the Liberals had squeaked out a narrow victory. Eventually King was forced to send some of the Zombies (men who had signed up or been conscripted into the army but refused to volunteer for overseas duty) to Europe. Because of this, tensions were increasing in Quebec, where (lead by the clergy, I am sorry to say) conscription was extremely unpopular. To keep Quebec at least somewhat mollified, King promised that the war against Japan, when the invasion occurred, would be fought totally and entirely by volunteers.

Back to the Uganda. As a result of the politics, the Uganda received a strange transmission from the RCN headquarters in early May, 1945. The captain was ordered to take a poll of his crew and see how many wished to volunteer to fight Japan. I stress, this occurred while they were actually fighting Japanese forces. The poll took place on May 7, and the result was 605 of the 907 member crew voted not to volunteer to fight Japan. As a result, the ship detached itself from the American Third Fleet and sailed for home, arriving in BC on August 10th, the date of the Japanese surrender.

The ship was mothballed 1947, but recommissioned in 1952 for the Korean War. As it was recommissioned the Uganda was rechristened the HMCS Quebec, a rather fitting name, considering its history. It served two tours in Korea. In 1956 the ship was taken out of service and in 1961 it was sold for scrap- to Japan.

To this day, the Uganda remains the only known warship in history to democratically vote itself out of a war.

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