Saturday, July 07, 2012

When Canada Had A Rather Respectable Navy - The Tale Of The HMCS Bonaventure

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the decommissioning of Canada's third and last aircraft carrier, the HMCS Bonaventure, often called the "Bonny" by her crew.

Yes, during and immediately after World War 2, Canada had the 3rd largest navy in the world and the Royal Canadian Navy's experience and skill at convoy escort and anti-submarine work was second to none.

The end of the war, and the subsequent government focus on military cutbacks over the decades after the war in favor of an "all butter, no guns" social program economic policy ended that dominant position. This was to lead to the continued cutbacks facing Canada's navy until many feared it would be down to 3 ASW canoes and a convoy escort kayak. A sad fate for a country that borders on three oceans and with its own proud maritime tradition. Such cuts spelled the demise of Canada's last aircraft carrier.

The HMCS Bonaventure was a Majestic-class aircraft carrier, formerly the HMS Powerful that was purchased in 1952 for the Canadian navy from Britain. Operating McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee jet fighters and Grumman CS2F Tracker anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft as well as HO4S helicopters, the Bonnie was able to carry out "around the clock" carrier operations - keeping four Trackers and two HO4Ss in the air at all times, saturating an area of 200 square nautical miles (690 km2) with anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Conducting aircraft carrier "Round the clock operations" is a feat only accomplished to date by the RCN and the US Navy.

However, under Prime Minister Trudeau, it was decided in the 70's to cut back Canada's commitment to NATO by 50%, mainly in order to divert the funds to social programs. After all, when you're under the US Defense shield, why bother having your own navy as more than just a token force?

So, 42 years ago, HMCS Bonaventure, Canada's last aircraft carrier, just after it had undergone an $11 million dollar refit, was ordered decommissioned and to be scrapped. Canada's small navy still remains a respected and professional force with a great reputation for anti-submarine work, but it remains a shadow of its former glory at 28th in the world, tied with Israel. Canada now has a navy half the size of the Columbian Navy and one third that of Chile's Navy. By comparison, the US Navy is 40 times larger than Canada's today.

An interesting sea tale remains regarding the fate of the HMCS Bonaventure: The story goes that as it was on its way to the scrappers, it was exchanged at sea for its sister ship, the Majestic-class Indian Aircraft Carrier Vikrant. In that way, the Indians received a shiny refitted aircraft carrier and the scrap yards received a worn out Majestic class aircraft carrier and everyone was happy.

It's a good story and rather pleasant to think that the Bonny went on to give good service for years in the Indian Navy as the INS Vikrant.

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