At the start of World War I, the only naval reserve force in Canada was the volunteer unit in Victoria. Its members went to war in one of Canada’s first two warships, HMCS Rainbow, the submarines CC1 and CC2 and other vessels based in Esquimalt.
One interpretation of the origin of the name Malahat holds that it means “infested with caterpillars” referring to a year when tent caterpillars stripped the trees of all their leaves. The other interpretation of the name is that it means “place where one gets bait” which could mean the bait in question were those very caterpillars.
Malahat is a training establishment for part-time sailors as well as a local recruitment centre for the Canadian Naval Reserve in Victoria, British Columbia. It is one of 24 naval reserve divisions in major cities across Canada.
The genesis of Canada’s Naval Reserve first emerged in Victoria in 1913, when a group of citizens began coming together several evenings each week to become familiar with drill, seamanship, admiralty law, arms drill and naval organization.
Then-Cmdr. Walter Hose, who was in charge of Her Majesty’s Dockyard at Esquimalt Harbour, provided support and encouragement to this volunteer group. Hose believed that the only way to win public support for the fledgling Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was to create a citizen navy, “a naval reserve with units across the country”.
The volunteer group was legitimized by an Order-in-Council on May 18, 1914. They became No.1 Half Company of the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR).
At the start of World War I, the only naval reserve force in Canada was the volunteer unit in Victoria. Its members went to war in HMCS Rainbow, the submarines CC1 and CC2 and other vessels based in Esquimalt. Following the general demobilization at the end of the war, the RNCVR was disbanded.
The Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) was established on January 1923, with 1000 officers and men. Naval reserve divisions soon opened in fifteen cities across Canada. Victoria’s No.1 Half Company was not re-established in 1923, and “it was felt that the Regular Navy presented enough of a presence in Esquimalt, that a reserve unit would seem to be a waste of money in an era of extreme austerity”.
For nearly 20 years, Victoria’s only connection with the RCNVR was the large groups of reservists who carried out naval training in Esquimalt every summer.
World War II brought the naval reserve back to Victoria in the form of a combined Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) and RCNVR recruiting centre. In 1944, the recruiting centre was commissioned as HMCS Malahat, with an expanded role that included training.
Despite public outcry, HMCS Malahat was disbanded only two years later in 1946. Malahat’s officers and men were borne of the books of HMCS Discovery in Vancouver, while the Victoria office continued to operate as a recruiting centre.
HMCS Malahat was recommissioned as one of Canada’s Naval Reserve Divisions on April 23, 1947, the same day as HMCS Scotian in Halifax. The two were the 14th and 15th of the 24 divisions commissioned. The remainder of the 24 Naval Reserve Divisions would be subsequently commissioned, with the last being HMCS Queen Charlotte (Charlottetown) in 1994.
HMCS Rainbow 1891
Rainbow was presented to Canada in 1910, and was recommissioned HMCS Rainbow on 4 August. She and HMS Niobe were purchased from the Admiralty to be used as training ships at Royal Naval College of Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Canada paid $225,000 to acquire Rainbow, using outstanding money from the Marine and Fisheries Department. Before departing Great Britain, the ships required alterations to make them suitable for training. This required new heating systems, an up-to-date galley, the latest in Marconi wireless, the enlargement of the cadet gunroom and principal messes and the removal of the obsolete secondary armament.
After commissioning, Rainbow was assigned to the west coast of Canada and was the first Canadian ship to sail around South America by the Strait of Magellan. After a 12-week passage of over 15,000 nautical miles (28,000 km; 17,000 mi) the cruiser arrived at Esquimalt, British Columbia on 7 November 1910. However after commissioning, the status of the Canadian vessels and their ability to operate without direction from the Admiralty kept the new ships within coastal waters. This limited Rainbow to fisheries patrols until the matter was settled. Her service was quiet on the west coast, performing ceremonial duties, training and coastal fisheries patrol, notably apprehending the American fishing schooner Edrie in February 1913 for illegal fishing. When Niobe was laid up in 1913, her crew was sent west to fill out Rainbow’s complement.
The Komagata Maru Incident
Canadian Immigration officials approach the Komagata Maru filled with Sikhs wishing to immigrate to Canada
In July 1914, Rainbow was called to Vancouver to assist with an international incident that was unfolding. Komagata Maru, a Japanese merchant ship filled with Sikh immigrants from India, challenged Canada’s immigration law, designed to prevent immigration from South Asia. The ship’s passengers were not permitted to disembark even though they were British subjects. After the local authorities were rebuffed in their attempts to make the ship leave, Rainbow was ordered to intervene. After some discussion with the passengers, who had taken over the vessel, those aboard Komagata Maru agreed to leave Vancouver only when supplies for the ship were provided. Twenty of the passengers were killed upon returning to Budge Budge, India, after they resisted an attempt to forcibly return them to Punjab.
When the First World War broke out, Rainbow was sent to cover the withdrawal of the British sloops, HMS Shearwater and HMS Algerine, which had been engaged protecting British citizens during civil unrest in Mexico. She was the largest armed ship the Allies had at the time in the western Pacific Ocean and was ordered to find and engage ships of the Imperial German Navy in the Pacific Ocean; in particular SMS Leipzig and SMS Nurnberg. She never met either of these ships, although she missed Leipzig by only a day at San Francisco. She remained the only source of protection for shipping in western North America until the arrival of the Japanese armoured cruiser Izumo. Following the destruction of the German Pacific Fleet at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, the greatest threat to shipping in Pacific was considered to be armed German raiders and Rainbow was considered to be a match for all but the fastest. However in 1915, her patrols were shortened due to the lack of a collier to refuel Rainbow while out on patrol.
In early 1916, Rainbow was still patrolling the west coast of North America, performing reconnaissance on German shipping. On 23 April 1916, she seized the German-owned but American-flagged schooner Oregon then followed that up by seizing the Mexican-flagged schooner Leonor on 2 May. The cruiser returned to Esquimalt with the prizes in tow on 30 May. In 1916 and early 1917, Rainbow was used to transport $140,000,000 in Russian gold bullion (valued in 1917 Canadian dollars), between Esquimalt and Vancouver. This money was placed in trust with Canada by the Russian government for protection due to the impending Russian revolution.
The Royal Canadian Navy found that the cost of operating Rainbow was using up too much of the West Coast naval operations budget, and the crew of Rainbow were sorely needed on the Atlantic coast for the fight against the U-boats. Rainbow was decommissioned and de-activated on 8 May 1917, her crew sent east. On 5 July she was recommissioned in Esquimalt as a depot ship. She served in this capacity until 1 June 1920, when she was sold for scrap to a Seattle shipbroker.