The Eagles of Protection

by Colonel John L. Orr, Canadian Armed Forces (Retired)

German submarines were absent from the northwestern Atlantic during the first two years of the war, as they lacked the necessary range. The situation changed dramatically in July 1916, when the German merchant (unarmed) submarine U-Deutschland and U-53 called in U.S. ports.

The U-boats posed an obvious threat to the North Atlantic lifeline. Shockingly, in November 1916, the British Admiralty confessed to the Canadian government that it was unable to provide assistance to counter the menace off the country’s shores. 1 This did not sit well with the Canadians

The United States Enters the War

 

The situation worsened when Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917. U.S. entry into the war two months later opened the door for cooperation between the U.S., British, and Canadian navies in protecting trade in the North Atlantic, a task made easier by the introduction of convoys. 2 Canadian authorities understood that their east coast patrol force was not up to the tasks required and submitted a proposal in early 1917 to the Admiralty to establish seaplane stations at Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia. 3 The Admiralty agreed with the plan but was unable to provide the necessary support from its own resources. Fortunately for Canada, German submarines remained in the eastern Atlantic throughout 1917. 4

The Admiralty, however, anticipated their return to North American waters. 5 In response, the British suggested a plan for a combined force of seaplanes and kite balloons to address the weakness of the Canadian surface patrols, but once again stated that they could provide no material assistance and suggested that the Canadians turn to the Americans to ascertain what support could be obtained. The United States was keen to protect the American Expeditionary Forces as they sailed from Canadian as well as U.S. ports to cross the Atlantic. 6

With higher stakes in the game, matters moved promptly. At a meeting on 20 April 1918 in Washington, D.C., the Canadian Navy met with representatives of the U.S. and British navies to organize the details of air patrols for the upcoming shipping season. 7 What emerged was a proposal for two large air stations at Halifax and Sydney (much as had been planned a year earlier). Recognizing that the Canadians would require several months to organize and train their own naval air service, the United States agreed to provide 12 Curtiss seaplanes and kite balloons, as well as sufficient personnel to operate and maintain them, until the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS) was prepared to take over in 1919. 8

The U.S. Navy was reluctant to send a naval aviation contingent in 1918 because of the lateness of the season and the necessity to set up the air stations under canvas. But the service eventually agreed to send its personnel to Nova Scotia with the proviso that they should be in permanent quarters by 15 October, with Canadian station commanders residing on separate premises and acting as liaison officers with the Canadian naval authorities. 9

Lieutenant Richard E. Byrd of the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps (USNRFC) was selected to command Naval Air Station Halifax. Medically discharged from the Navy surface fleet in 1916 as a result of a sports injury suffered at the U.S. Naval Academy, Byrd had proceeded to Naval Air Station Pensacola in the fall of 1917 for flight training. He received his wings in April 1918. 10

Arrival in Canada

 

Byrd arrived in Halifax on 15 August. An advance party already had begun the onerous task of setting up the air station at Baker Point, the site of an abandoned 1860s brickyard and a derelict, but extant, fish oil factory. 11 On 19 August, Byrd raised “Old Glory” and U.S. Naval Air Station Halifax “went into commission as a war unit.” 12 In addition to commanding the station, Byrd was also appointed officer-in-charge, U.S. Naval Air Force in Canada. As such, he was responsible for U.S. NAS North Sydney which was under the command of Lieutenant Robert Donohue, U.S. Coast Guard. 13 Setting up the air stations was not an easy task. In his autobiography, Byrd begrudgingly noted:

To establish a military station for the basing of aircraft was a walloping job, and the ordinary requirements of men and equipment were complicated a thousand times by the presence of big and delicate flying machines. 14

An even more candid account of Byrd’s difficulties comes by way of the daily letters he wrote to his wife while in Canada. The letter of 20 August stands out:

So far I have not a single flying officer. I am putting up another plane and we’ll have it finished in a day or two. I was sore at the department this morning for its inefficiency—they sent me a lot of seagoing mechanics who know nothing about sea planes. The submarines are operating off the coast here so I am mighty anxious to get in the air. If we can’t sink a sub I think we can keep them aft. 15

Byrd was referencing U-156 , which was operating in the waters off Nova Scotia. The ensuing uproar in the press stirred up considerable controversy over the effectiveness of the Canadian Navy and brought increased pressure to get U.S. air stations’ seaplanes operational. On 26 August, a coordination meeting was held to hammer out U.S. Navy aircraft operations. Four of the six Curtiss HS-2L flying boats eventually assigned to each station were to be available for daily operations. Two were assigned to convoy escort duties, one for emergency antisubmarine patrols, and one for standby.

As convoys sailed on a cyclical basis, the aircraft tasked for convoy escort could be used for training or other purposes as long as they were available for escort duty on the days directed. Outward-bound fast convoys (8 knots or more) would be met off the harbor entrance and escorted 65 miles to sea, while inward-bound convoys would be joined 80 miles out. Slower convoys would have air cover for only 50 miles outbound and 60 miles inbound. 16

On 25 August, two U.S. Navy HS-2Ls took off from Baker Point on the eastern shore of the harbor and proceeded to fly over the Citadel, eliciting a strong letter of protest from the Halifax fort’s garrison. Authorities complained about the lack of notice of aerial activity and noted, somewhat pointedly, that “the fortress is equipped with anti-aircraft defenses.” 17 But the Halifax Morning Herald had a less-incensed reaction. In the accompanying article, the aircraft were described as “eagle[s] of protection,” here to defend the city by “tracking the sea wolves of the enemy.”

By 9 September, NAS Halifax was conducting airborne patrols, and on 21 September, NAS North Sydney also became operational. Work on permanent barracks and hangars at both locations commenced in September, although a chronic shortage of civilian laborers meant that it was not possible to complete the structures at either station by 15 October.

Just as things appeared to be operating smoothly, influenza broke out. In Halifax, personnel were quarantined on the station, while in North Sydney, they were accommodated in town. Stringent precautions were taken to prevent the spread of the disease, and by the end of October, the outbreak had been checked.

Flying continued virtually unabated until the 11 November armistice. American personnel started to return to the United States by the latter part of November, and by 11 December, NAS North Sydney had been closed down. Halifax officially closed on 7 January 1919. The kite balloons assigned to Halifax and North Sydney never flew because of a shortage of shipboard handling winches and were, along with the aircraft and engines, eventually turned over to Canadian authorities.

Epilogue

In the final analysis, U.S. Navy aircraft logged 184 hours flying from Halifax and 97 hours flying from North Sydney and played a key, albeit brief, role in northwest Atlantic trade protection. As for Byrd, he said that his experience in Canada revealed that “[no] people in the world [could have been] more tolerant, helpful, cordial and hospitable than were our Canadian neighbors of 1918.” 18

One hundred years later, 12 Wing Shearwater, the successor to U.S. NAS Halifax, is the main base of the Royal Canadian Air Force for supplying maritime helicopters and is responsible for the provision of operationally ready aircraft and personnel to the Royal Canadian Navy.

Little remains at Shearwater from the Byrd era except for a steel hangar erected as a temporary wartime structure in 1918 and still in use (although not as an aircraft hangar). However, Byrd and the role of his men in the defense of Canada is not forgotten: The Wing Headquarters Building is named in his honor—the only foreign officer memorialized with a military building in Canada.



1. William Johnston, William G. P. Rawlings, Richard H. Gimblett, John MacFarlane, The Seabound Coast, vol. 1, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Navy, 1867–1939 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010), 396.

2. Johnston et al. The Seabound Coast, 459; John Terraine, Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars, 1916–1945 (London: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999), 58.

3. Commander R. M. Stephens, “Memo: For the Director of the Naval Service,” 21 March 1917, Directorate of History and Heritage (hereafter DHH) 77/58, vol. 20, file 3.

4. Johnston et al., The Seabound Coast, 451.

5. Governor General, UK, 22 November 1917, Request estimate of submarine situation and Admiralty reply of 3 January 1918, Sir Robert Borden fonds, Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC) C-4318, Image 179, 135, 136–140.

6. J. A. Wilson, “Aviation in Canada,” 31 March 1937, 13, John Armistead Wilson fonds, LAC C-10787, Image 73, Héritage.

7. Captain Walter Hose, Memorandum for Director of the Naval Service, 20 April 1918, LAC RG 24, Vol. 3833, file N.S.C. 1017-10-7, vol. 1.

8. Ibid.

9. Johnston et al., The Seabound Coast, 627.

10. Richard E. Byrd, Skyward (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1933) 27.

11. Canadian Department of National Defence. Environmental Site Assessment of the Main Base (Shearwater).

12. Byrd, Skyward, 69.

13. Byrd was designated U.S. Naval Aviator #608 in April 1918. Lt. Donohue was designated U.S. Naval Aviator #54 and USCG aviator #3 in June 1917. https://aoptero.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/CG-Aviator-List-12-1-20... . Donohue would eventually rise to the rank of rear admiral in the USCG. See also Peter E. Lawson, Naval Air Station North Sydney 1918, https://cgaviationhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/Narratives/NAS_North_Si... .

14. Byrd, Skyward, 68.

15. Ms. Eleanor (Lee) Byrd speech at Shearwater 90th Anniversary Dinner, Shearwater Aviation Museum Archives. Vertical File, Richard E. Byrd, permission to reproduce granted by Ms. Byrd.

16. J. D. F. Kealy and E. C. Russsell, A History of Canadian Naval Aviation 1918–1962 (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1965), 4. See also DHH 77/58 volume 20.

17. Halifax Citadel to Flag Commander, Admiral’s Office HMC Dockyard, August 26, 191,. Letter GSO1 DHH, 77/58.

18. Byrd, Skyward, 77.

Colonel Orr joined the Royal Canadian Navy in September 1963 and graduated in 1967 from the Royal Military College of Canada. He was appointed as Canadian Armed Forces attache? in Cairo and subsequently served in Allied Forces Central Europe before returning to Canada as the deputy commander, Maritime Air Group and then Maritime Air Component Commander (Atlantic). He retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in September 2000.
 

 
 

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