From the Archives: Commissioning Royal Roads

Jenny Seeman
Officer on the Neptune Steps

Seventy-five years ago, some important changes were taking place at Royal Roads. In late August of 1942, the last 120 volunteer probationary sub-lieutenants graduated from HMCS Royal Roads to take up positions on wartime vessels. Then, on October 21, 1942, the new Royal Canadian Naval College was officially commissioned, where cadets would embark on a two-year training course to equip them for service in the Royal Canadian Navy.

In 1940, with the Second World War raging in Europe and enemy submarines causing trouble in the waters of the Atlantic, Canada had committed an enlarged naval fleet to join the fight. However, the closure of the Royal Naval College of Canada in 1922 and cuts to defence spending over the following years meant that the navy lacked both personnel and ships to honour the commitment.

The Canadian government, in consultation with the Royal Canadian Navy, had agreed that a new permanent naval college was not only justified but desperately needed and the argument was quickly made that the temperate climate of the West Coast would be the ideal location as it would allow for year-round training. The vast Dunsmuir estate that was for sale was chosen for its multiple commodious buildings and waterfront setting with a lagoon that would be perfect for sail training.

This photo by G. Maves was likely taken as part of a promotional series to try and sell the Dunsmuir property after 1937.

Before the permanent college could be established, however, the immediate need for trained officers had to be addressed. In December 1940, the newly acquired property was commissioned as a ship, HMCS Royal Roads, named for the anchorage lying just off shore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In January of 1941, the first wave of volunteers to train as probationary sub-lieutenants arrived from across the country. As reserve volunteers, the candidates were varied in age, some still in their teens and others already mid-career professionals. There were no academic courses for the volunteers: in fifteen weeks, they were drilled in skills that would be immediately pertinent to service needs, such as gunnery, navigation, signalling and torpedoes. 

Cadets standing on floating dock - note uniforms were not yet ready for the volunteers. Photo credit: VPL, accession 46339.

Memories of the men who undertook the brief training program evoke an unexpectedly civilised atmosphere, with a busy schedule broken each day for dinner and socialising in the gunroom (drawing room) of the castle.

C.S.J. Lancaster was in the third class (September to December 1941) of sub-lieutenants and remembered his experience:

“These few weeks were an intensive introduction to a life few of us had known before… Living right in the castle gave us quick start in learning to be gentlemen. The dining room had furniture and cutlery from one of the great P&O passenger liners, the Rajputania, that had been converted into an armed cruiser at Esquimalt. Our sleeping accommodation was in the upper floors of the castle. While the huge bathtubs were supposedly immobilized in favour of showers [in the basement], some of our classmates found the required plungers and so were able to enjoy a tub where one could stretch out at full length, just like the original owners of Hatley Park. The custom of after-dinner coffee in the gunroom, served in demi-tasse cups, gave a little bit more elegance to the life of an Acting Probationary Sub-Lieutenant.”

Derek Johnstone, from the second class (May to August 1941), a chartered accountant before arriving at HMCS Royal Roads, also remembered:

“The bar in the gunroom was opened at 6 p.m., giving time to enjoy a drink before dinner at seven. Some of us thought the prices were a bit high; and then there was the matter of reading material: one copy each of Life, Time and a Victoria newspaper for 125 sub-lieutenants. I spoke to the class president… and he agreed to ask the Paymaster-Lieutenant for a copy of the gunroom accounts, which was grudgingly handed over. It didn't take me long to see that we trainees were being milked of our monthly dues for the benefit of the wardroom. We complained to Lt ‘Jumbo’ Webber, who dismissed it as “moan" but was obliged to report the problem to the C.O., who convened a meeting in his office… The upshot was that we were given more magazines and newspapers and given some other concessions - too late for our class to benefit, but probably improved life for subsequent ones.”

photo courtesy VPL accession 46333

An officer on the Neptune Steps at HMCS Royal Roads.  Photo credit VPL, accession 46333.

Of course is wasn’t all fine dining and magazines. Instruction was intense, beginning daily at 6:00 a.m. with a 30-40 minute run or boat pulling session. While multiple construction and retrofitting projects were taking place across the property to prepare for the new naval college, many classes were held outside or in temporary wooden buildings erected just west of the castle. The stables were the first buildings to be made ready for use, having been quickly converted to classrooms and a gunnery. 

View from the Lagoon

After the fifth class of volunteers had completed their training in August 1942, final preparations were made for the first class of the naval college. Consisting of 100 cadets, the new class would comprise 50 juniors and 50 seniors. The 50 slightly older cadets were chosen for their outstanding academic ability and would be the only cohort to complete their studies in 9 months instead of 2 years. For each subsequent year, it was planned that fifty new cadets would join for their junior year. Cadets were to be between the age of 15 years and 8 months and 17 years 8 months and they had to pass both an exam and an interview to be admitted. In the two years, they would be educated not only for a naval career but also in academic subjects and physical training.

Recommissioning Day, October 21, 1942. Grant Block is still under construction

The Cadet (Grant) Block, which would contain the dormitories, classrooms, laboratories, dining area, and quarterdeck, was ready to be occupied on Oct. 12, 1943. The move was begrudged by many cadets, as remembered in the 1943 Log yearbook:

“This evacuation took place at the beginning of the year and few Cadets will forget plodding backwards and forwards, groaning beneath beds, chests of drawers and quantities of clothes. The College became a mixture of Dunkerque and the retreat through France in 1940. This evacuation was regarded as a mixed blessing; the Seniors in particular, having spent an entire year in the warm antiquity of the old building, regarded it all as an unwholesome plot. They had spent one month in the palatial Senior Gunroom, long enough to miss the soft armchairs and throw rude remarks at the seemingly stark efficiency of the new building. It did not take long, however, for us to get used to it, and we have become quite attached to the three-inch oak benches and fluorescent lighting.”

Royal Roads remained a naval college until 1947, when post-war government budget cuts again challenged the defence department. The Air Force joined the college to create the RCN-RCAF College – Royal Roads and in the following year, the Army joined, creating a tri-service college that would remain on site until 1995.

If you have any questions about the early years of Royal Roads, either as a ship on land, a naval college or a tri-service military institution, contact Jenny Seeman in the archives, ext 4122.