HMCS (?) Earl Grey

Earl Grey in happier days, courtesy of Wayne Dutcher (

The photograph below triggered an interesting discussion on the RCN-HISTORY List in the summer of 1999. Was the Earl Grey one of the first warships of the Royal Canadian Navy? All postings appear courtesy of their respective authors. Worth seeing is Paul Beesley's page about the ship.

When the RCN Went to War in 1914

The original caption reads:

Fifty years ago the Royal Canadian Navy went to war for the first time and before the conflict ended some 9600 officers and men had seen wartime service in the RCN or RCNVR. Hundreds of other Canadians had proceeded to Britain to serve in ships of the Royal Navy or in the Royal Naval Air Service.

An unusual scene photographed in the Autumn of 1914 is the accompanying picture of the ship's company of HMCS Earl Grey (despite the signboard, she was commissioned in the Royal Canadian Navy) taken around the time she was preparing to sail for for Archangel, Russia, where she was

turned over to the Russian Navy who wanted her for ice-breaking capabilities.

Special gear provided for the journey included padded duffle coats, larrigans (knee-length, oiled moccasins) and caps the like of which the Navy surely cannot have seen before or since. They had enormous ear flaps which were tied together at the top of the cap when not in use. One individualist appears to be wearing a Balaclava.

The ship made the journey to northern Russia safely, with a brief stop at St. John's Nfld., for repairs, but there were casualties when the ship in which some of them were returning to England foundered.

The Earl Grey was built by the Canadian government as a freight and passenger steamer for service in Northumerland Strait between Prince Edward Island and the mainland. She was the third ship commissioned in the RCN - after the cruisers Niobe and Rainbow - having served under the

White Ensign briefly in 1912 during a cruise by the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. She was sold to Russia for $493,000.

The Earl Grey is still steaming the White Sea as the Fyodor Litke, according to the current edition of Jane's Fighting Ships. (1964) During her earlier Russian career she was known as the Kanada.

The original, from which this picture has been copied, is owned by former Chief Shipwright W.J. Fry.

(source: The Crowsnest, July 1964: "The Royal Canadian Navy's Magazine")

From: Dave Perkins (

Anyway, the journalist, in making a case for his-her view of things, has missed the fact that there were already at least two more warships and probably several other Canadian vessels genuinely in commission many weeks before this event took place.

The government owned Constance and Curlew, which had been fitted-out as mineswepers in 1912, were commissioned in the RCN "as soon as war was declared" and there is a strong possibility that their sister Petrel was as well. I don't know the date Earl Grey was supposed to have been commissioned, but CC1 and CC2 were commissioned on 8 Aug. 1914 and their depot ship HMCS Shearwater a month later on 8 September.

From: Laurie Farrington (

The Earl Grey is mentioned once in the official history - The Naval Service of Canada - Volume 1 by G.N. Tucker published by the King's Printer Ottawa 1952.

Page 236 reads as follows:

"In September 1914 the Colonial Office forwarded a message from the Russian Government, asking the Canadian Government to sell them an ice-breaker for use during the coming autumn at Archangel. It was very important from the military point of view to keep open the channels of supply into Russia. The Canadian Government's ice-breaker Earl Grey was accordingly sold to Russia, sailed to Archangel by a naval crew, and turned over to the Russian authorities there."

From: Rollie Webb (

There appears to be more to this story than a straight forward sale. Referring to the book Britain's Clandestine Submarines 1914-1915 by Gaddis Smith, Borden at first (September 1st) refused to sell the Earl Grey as Canada was short of icebreakers as it was and was waiting for the delivery of a new vessel, the J.D.Hazen from the brand new Canadian Vickers Shipyard ( their Hull No. 1). The initail contact was from Russian Government to Canadian High Commissioner Perley in London on August 17th. A visit of the Russian Ambassador from Washington to Ottawa and reported good progress on completing the Hazen apparently changed Borden's mind overnight and a deal was cut by September 9th. The price was £100,000. The ship sailed on October 9th.

The story continues that very shortly thereafter Canadian Vickers got involved in the assembly of submarines for Britain and later Russia ( without Ottawa knowing anything about the deal) which consumed the facilities and workforce and the new icebreaker delivery slipped into 1916. This delay

caused all sorts of problems between Ottawa and Canadian Vickers. Not surprisingly this ship was also turned over to Russia upon completion and became the Mikula Stevanovich (sp?) but was eventually recovered by Canada in 1921 or so and saw service as the Mikula throughout the 1920's and 30's and was scrapped just before the Second War.

Many decisions affecting the use of Canadian assets, whether they be ships, shipyards , service men or whatever were actually made in England and Canada was told, forced or coerced to play along. Vickers was really just an extension of the London policy makers and reacted accordingly.

From: Laurie Farrington (

The Earl Grey saga continues. We now know more about her than we did last week. We are informed by the official history of the Naval Service of Canada that she was a Canadian Government ice-breaker and a naval crew took her to Russia . However, some evidence is required that this Canadian Government Ship was in fact entitled to be called HMCS Earl Grey. To confirm the prefix (CGS or HMCS) status of the Earl Grey, does anyone have access to source documents or an old Navy List which might list the names of all HMC Ships, especially in the September 1914 period?

From: Dave Perkins (

I have a copy of what passes for the Canadian Navy Lists and from 1910 to October 1914 but it is reprinted extracts from the Canadian section of the RN Navy lists. The only units included are the two cruisers, the two dockyards and the Naval College.

The first RCN List that I have access to is for April 1918, which doesn't help much. Can anybody else do better?

I also have copies of the Canadian sections of the RN Lists themselves beginning in Jul.(?) 1915 which includes full details of the officer complements of the ships and establishments of the RCN including auxiliary vessels. Unfortunatey, unlike the warships, there is no date of commissioning given for the auxiliaries and nor are the dates of appoinments given for the COs.

Unless someone has access to a more complete set of Lists (DND Library??, D-Hist??) the answer will be hard to find.

I take issue with Tucker's statement that a "navy crew" was put aboard the Earl Grey. Having had occasion to examine the state of the RCN in August 1914, I know that there just wasn't any such body of men to be found in the organization. Even the two cruisers were badly undermanned and if it hadn't been for the RN paying off the two west coast gunboats, and the existence of the RNCVR, there wouldn't have been enough trained bodies to man either cruiser at a seagoing level.

If the crew was "navy" at all, it is possible that the existing complement was temporarily enrolled in the RNCVR as was done with the other auxiliaries. They were already serving in a federal government service, so this is much more logical. I believe too that the captain, and probably some of his officers, could have been RNR anyway. If we knew who the CO was we could check that. I see by another post that an RN navigator was posted aboard, which would make sense.

Tucker, I've noticed in a number of instances, took the accounts of others at face value and oftimes these were incorrect. I think he, like our historical institutions of today, was somewhat short on resources.

On rereading the caption in the Earl Grey photo, I realize that the writer was trying to make the point that Earl Grey was the third ship commissioned in the RCN. This by virtue of carrying the GG [Governor-General] on his tour in 1912. This, I think, is a very dubious distinction. The ship could certainly have hoisted the white ensign at the time by virtue of having the Sovereign's representitive on board, but I don't think she was in commission.

From: David J Freeman (

From my records - taken largely from the file in DHH, and from the article in the Crowsnest, it seem that Earl Grey was commissioned into the navy twice.

The first time was in July 1912 making her the third ship com'd into the RCN. She was in commission again from 4 - 29 Oct 1914, obviously for transit to Archangel.

According to the Crowsnest article - page 25, Aug 1964, she was HMCS Earl Grey. I'm satisfied.

From: George R. MacFarlane (

Further to the Earl Grey saga, Lt. William Scott Chalmers DSC RN on loan to the RCN. Appointed Rainbow as Navigating Officer 1912, and Earl Grey as First Lieutenant and Navigating Officer 1914. Returned to the RN 1914. He is thought to have been promoted to RADM with a CBE and DSC and to have been an author of naval history. Can anyone confirm this?

From: Cliff McMullen (

Re Earl Grey: Please excuse me if I'm longwinded - it's the old civil servant in me. Amongst her reputations and refinements, in her time she was regarded as having the best passenger accommodations. Now in those days (and when considering the Northwest Passage it continues thru' to today) icebreakers had paying passengers for transit to remote or otherwise unaccessable points in Canada. There was also the problem with Governmental departments as to which may have been involved. Unlike today wherein the Coast Guard is an all encompassing agency, back then there was Fisheries, Oceanographic, Supply, Quarantine, Revenue, and so on and so on. When the Govenor General of the time visited the West Coast only the finest of seaward accommodations would suffice - after all he was the King's representative. Thus the Earl Grey was the only ship considered. It certainly couldn't be an aged coal-burning cruiser which had never been fitted as a flagship (besides she had only recently returned from a tour of guarding the seal migration from hunters). So the Earl Grey was transferred to the authority of the DND for the duration of the visit. This was and still is a government regulation - that when any vessel belonging to any government department or agency is required by the navy for however long (or short) a period, it was to be immediately turned over to the navy (a recent times illustration of this is the acquisition of the RCMP's vessel French that the navy required for a training ship). Earl Grey thus became HMCS for that cruise only. The crew may have been issued uniforms, who's to say, but they remained coast guard personnel. As to being called a warship, she was never armed. But then again neither was HMCS Prince William. The distinction of being number three in the service therefore is correct. As to the Petrel and other revenue cruisers being fitted out for minesweeping, this is true. But this was done as a precautionary move in the 'event' that war should happen. They remained in coast guard service as fisheries cruisers with department crews until after the war began. In fact it was several months into the war when they were called up. In point of usage even the Rainbow could technically be called only number two since prior to the creation of the DND the coast guard cruiser Canada represented our country at various British naval exercises in the Carribbean and off the East Coast with an unofficial navy crew from 1905 onwards. In fact, she was the Canadian official representative at the Quebec Tercentenial sitting alongside the RN's representative battleships.

From John Duerkop (Westsport@COMPUSERVE.COM)

The following is mostly from Harry Bruce's Atlantic Lifeline, The Story of the Atlantic Ferries and Coastal Boats (1977) and from Thomas Appleton's Usque Ad Mare, a History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services (1969).

The icebreaker Earl Grey was built as the governor general's yacht in 1909 (and was named after him) and as a Northumberland Strait ferry. She had a clipper bow and bowsprit, raised fo'c'stle, two masts and a single funnel and a counter stern. Her hull was really meant to cut through ice rather than to ride up on it and crush it. She was built by Vickers at Furness in 1909. 2357 gt, 6500 IHP, twin screw, capable of 17 knots, 250'. During 1914 she was sold to the Russians for service at Archangel and successively renamed Kanada, III International in 1920, and Fedor Litke in 1923. In 1923 she worked in the Baltic, in 1925-1928 in the Sea of Azov and in 1929-34 out of Vladivostok. She then returned to Murmansk via the Arctic route. In 1936 she made the trip back again to Vladivostok via the Northern route, but spent the war years working out of Archangel and Murmansk. In 1955 she sailed to within 400 nm of the North Pole, the closest a surface vessel had then come to the pole.

The icebreaker Minto was named after the governor general, and was launched by Gourlay Brothers of Dundee Scotland in 1899. Straight stem and cruiser stern, two masts (plus a tall derrick forward of the bridge), one funnel. 1089 gt, 2900 IHP, 225'. She entered service on Northumberland Strait in 1899. She usually worked the Georgetown-Pictou route. She was sold to the Russians in 1915.

Last Updated: 24 December, 2001.

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