Navy marks centennial by reinstating 'executive curl'
Published Sunday, May 2, 2010 5:13PM EDT
HALIFAX - After serving 43 years in the Canadian navy, including two tours during the Korean War, you wouldn't think someone like George Aucoin would be moved by something so insignificant as a small gold braid.
But you would be wrong.
"The navy has come back to life," Aucoin exclaimed Sunday after Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced he would reinstate the so-called executive curl on officers' uniforms to mark the navy's 100th anniversary in Canada.
The curl is a loop of braid that appears above an officer's rank insignia on their epaulettes and tunic sleeves. Its origins can be traced to the 1850s during the Crimean War, and it was adopted by the Royal Canadian Navy when it was formed in 1910-11.
But the curl was dropped when the branches of the Canadian Forces were unified in 1968.
Aucoin, a retired chief petty officer from Margaree Harbour, N.S., said that was a bad idea.
"Its significance is that it shows we have a navy," he said after MacKay spoke to a small crowd of sailors at Canadian Forces Base Halifax.
"It's hard for some of the new personnel to see the significance because they didn't wear the old uniform ... It was part of our identity. It will mean a great deal to us seeing it come back."
But the uniform change is only one of many ways the navy plans to commemorate its centennial.
There will be international fleet assemblies at naval bases in Victoria and Halifax, port visits by Canadian warships along the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes and Canada's coastlines, a musical revue, publication of a coffee table book and the unveiling Monday of a stamp series by Canada Post.
On Tuesday, more than 2,000 sailors will parade through the streets of Halifax and Victoria, marking 100 years since royal assent was given to the Naval Service Act, which established Canada's Department of Naval Service.
As well, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, Chief of the Maritime Staff, will present a ship's bell -- dubbed the Canadian Navy Centennial Bell -- during a ceremony on Parliament Hill.
Later this summer, the Queen will pay tribute to the navy when she visits Halifax.
MacKay also announced Sunday the navy will soon offer all members of the military a badge called a Sea Service Insignia to recognize those who spend at least 365 days of cumulative time at sea during their military careers.
The minister made the announcements prior to the annual tribute to those who served during the Battle of the Atlantic, one of the longest campaigns of the Second World War.
"It was during this time that our navy acquired its sense of purpose," MacKay said. "Our men and women in uniform sacrificed so much and they very much deserve our thanks and recognition."
MacKay spoke briefly about the navy's support during the Vancouver Olympics, the humanitarian assistance it offered after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January and its ongoing missions to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa.
He said he had just returned from the High Arctic where navy ships have helped reassert Canadian sovereignty despite harsh conditions, and he commended Canada's sailors for their efforts to thwart terrorism in southwest Asia since the 9-11 attacks in 2001.
"Tonne for tonne, sailor for sailor, we take a back seat to no one -- Canada's navy is among the best in the world," he said.
But there was a time when the navy didn't have much to crow about.
Only four years after it came into being, the Royal Canadian Navy had only two ships and 350 men as Canada was thrust into the First World War. It could offer little more than modest patrols while German U-boats sank several Canadian fishing trawlers and schooners off the East Coast.
By contrast, the navy played a decisive role during the Second World War by assuming responsibility for the northwest Atlantic, the only major theatre of the war to be commanded by Canadians.
The Battle of the Atlantic saw the navy escort more than 25,000 merchant ships to Europe. The RCN lost 14 warships to enemy attack and another eight ships to accidents at sea, with about 2,000 sailors losing their lives.
As well, at least 70 merchant navy ships were lost during the war, claiming the lives of 1,700 seamen.
By the close of the war, Canada had the third-largest navy in the world with 90,000 men and 6,000 women in uniform, and 434 commissioned vessels including cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and auxiliaries.
"The Canadian navy came of age then," said Rear Admiral Paul Maddison, Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic.
"Unlike Vimy, there was no land to hold, no flag to plant, no memorial to build. We just went out, did what we needed to do alongside merchant mariners and we came back, turned around, and we did it again and again and again."
During the Korean War, eight Canadian destroyers were dispatched to the Far East. They blockaded the coast, protected aircraft carriers, bombarded enemy-held coastal areas and provided humanitarian aid.
The advent of the Cold War prompted the navy to improve its ability to track Soviet submarines and long-range aircraft while working with NATO allies.
More recently, the Canadian navy was deployed during conflicts in Persian Gulf, the former Yugoslavia and East Timor.
"We haven't stopped, " said Maddison, adding that the navy is looking forward to the modernization of its 12 Halifax-class frigates -- starting this September -- refurbishment of all four Victoria-class submarines, development of an Arctic patrol ship and introduction of the Cyclone helicopter to replace the aging Sea King.