Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR)

Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR)

The RCNVR was created in 1923.  The organization was established by Rear-Admiral Walter Hose at a time when the Navy was under drastic budget cuts.  Hose saw the establishment of a reserve force as a great way for the fledgling Canadian Navy to build support from coast to coast.  Thus he established Naval Reserve Divisions in every major Canadian city.

The initial authorized strength of the RCNVR was 1,000 all ranks.  Fifteen Canadian cities were earmarked for a division.  Most were to be of “Half-Company” strength, which was 50, all ranks. These cities were Calgary, Charlottetown, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Ottawa, Prince Rupert, Quebec City, Regina, Saint John, Saskatoon, and Vancouver.  Three cities were ordered to man to a “Company” strength, which was 100, all ranks.  These cities were Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg.  The first commission was given, on 14 March 1923, to Lieutenant Frank Meade, who established a company-sized detachment in Montreal.  By the end of that year, twelve units had been formed.

The RCNVR became the backbone of the Canadian Navy, recruiting officers and sailors for the Navy.  The usefulness of the RCNVR was demonstrated in 1939, at the onset of the Second World War, when the RCNVR was used to recruit and build the navy.  By the end of the war, Canada had the third largest navy in the world, with a complement of nearly 100,000.  Most of these men and women were members of the RCNVR.

After the Second World War, the RCNVR was merged into the Royal Canadian Navy Reserves.

Officers in the regular navy wore straight stripes on their uniform sleeves while RCNVR officers had wavy stripes, giving rise to the nickname “Wavy Navy”.

In 1941 Naval Reserve divisions were granted the designations ‘His or Her Majesty’s Canadian ships’ and received  their own command and a seat on the Naval Board.  The new naval reserve establishment formed a robust reserve force building popular support amongst Canadians for the fledgling Canadian Navy.  During the Second World War, the RCNVR became the backbone of the Canadian Navy, recruiting officers and sailors for the Navy.  By the end of the war, Canada possessed the third-largest navy in the world, with a complement of nearly 100,000.  Most of these men and women were members of the RCNVR.

Robert Hampton "Hammy" Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR (November 2, 1917 – August 9, 1945) was a Canadian naval officer, pilot, and recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) during the Second World War, one of only two members of the Royal Navy's (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA) to have been thus decorated in that war. (The other was Eugene Esmonde, a British pilot.)  Gray was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Gray was born in Trail, British Columbia, the son of John Balfour (JB) Gray, a Scottish immigrant, Boer War veteran, and jeweler.  His mother was Wilhelmina Gray from Listowell, Ontario.  He had an older sister, Phyllis, and a younger brother John (Jack).  He resided from an early age in Nelson.  In the fall of 1936, he enrolled at the University of Alberta and spent two years there.  During the summer of 1938, he decided to switch to medicine at the University of British Columbia, where he completed his BA.

In July, Hampton and his two friends, Peter Dewdney and Jack Diamond drove all night to Calgary to enlist at the naval reserve unit there (later HMCS Tecumseh).  They enlisted as part of a program under the RCNVR to supply officer candidates to the Royal Navy.  Hampton and his friends took the train to Halifax in Sep 1940, and sailed for England on the Duchess of Richmond. Their initial training began at HMS Raleigh.  In Dec 1940, they were offered a chance to join the Fleet Air Arm, and about two dozen of the Canadians transferred to HMS St Vincent at Gosport for basic training.  The course took three months, and concentrated on navigation, signalling and seamanship.

In March 1941, the group was transferred to the No. 24 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Luton near London.  His elementary flying training began in the Miles Magister, an open cockpit monoplane, at No. 24 EFTS, where he made his first flight on 21 March.  In June, Hampton was sent to the No. 31 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Station Kingston, Ontario.  He was able to get a short leave to return to Nelson, before starting training on Canadian Car and Foundry (CCF) Harvard Mk. II aircraft.  His training continued as he began to fly Fairey Battle trainers.  Hampton was commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant and graduated as a pilot in Sep 1941.  He was able to get a short leave before leaving for Halifax and sailing for HMS Heron, the Royal Navy Air Station at Yeovilton, England.  His initial fighter training was on Hawker Hurricanes.

In early Feb 1942, Hampton completed his operational training and was transferred to HMS Ketral at Worthy Down near Winchester with No. 757 Squadron . This was a second-line squadron flying Blackburn Skuas, an obsolete 1934 design fighter.  In May 1942, Hampton was transferred to HMS Afrikaner in South Africa, to serve with No. 789 Squadron which was flying a mixture of Fairey Albacore's, Hawker Sea Hurricanes, Fairey Swordfishes and Supermarine Walruses.  He was stationed at Tanga, Tanganika, flying Fairey Fulmars and Grumman Martlets.  No. 789 Squadron was positioned there to protect against Imperial Japanese Navy fleet advances through the Pacific.  After the American success at the Battle of Midway, this threat to South Africa eased and Hampton was re-assigned in Aug 1942, to No. 795 Squadron, HMS Kipanga at Kilindini, Kenya.  In Sep 1942 Hampton was posted to No. 803 Squadron flying Fairey Fulmars from Tanga and he was then posted to No. 877 Squadron in Tanga.

On 7 Dec 1942, Hampton was posted to the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. On 31 Dec 1942 he and was promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to No. 877 Squadron flying Hawker Sea Hurricanes as second in command.  In July 1943, No. 877 Squadron was moved to an airfield near Mombassa.  In Feb 1944, he was transferred back to England, and in March he returned to HMCS Stadacona in Halifax for 10 weeks leave.  He then returned to England with HMS Heron for training on Vought F4U Corsairs, Grumman Hellcats, and Supermarine Seafire fighters.

On 6 Jul 1944, he joined No. 1841 Squadron on HMS Formidable under LCdr Richard Bigg-Wither, flying Corsairs.  Hampton took part in raids conducted by HMS Formidable squadrons against the German Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz in Kaafjord, Norway on 17 July as part of Operation Mascot.  Hampton flew with a force of 40 Corsairs escorting 44 Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers from the other carriers to the target.  One of the Corsairs was shot down by German flak.  Cloud cover prevented most of the Barracudas from seeing their target and they failed to hit the Tirpitz.

On 24 Aug 1944, HMS Formidable launched another attack, but this time the Tirpitz was covered by a smoke screen.  The pilots attacked in spite of the smoke, and encountered flak from the surrounding mountains, resulting in three Corsairs being shot down.  Another strike was sent in on 29 August, and one bomb hit the battleship, but did not explode.  One Corsair failed to return.  Hampton was mentioned in dispatches for his run over a German destroyer that was throwing up heavy flak.  During the attack, his Corsair was hit in the rudder by a 40-mm flak shot.  He flew back to the ship and orbited for 45 minutes in a brave show of airmanship waiting his turn to land rather than disrupt the landing pattern.  With his gun camera film showing extreme close-ups of the anti-aircraft guns, he was heard to say that "some dumb Canadian needed a good talking to".  

He was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches (MID), on 16 Jan 1945, which read, "For undaunted courage, skill and determination in carrying out daring attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz."

(IWM Photo, A 24787)

Corsair fighters and Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers ranged on the flight deck of HMS Formidable off Norway in July 1944.

In Sep 1944, HMS Formidable was assigned to the British Pacific Fleet (BPF).  Repairs to the main engines took several months while the ship was in Gibraltar, so Hampton took some of the pilots to Alexandria, Egypt, for further training and practice.  The ship reached Colombo on 8 Feb 1945, and Sydney on 19 March.  It joined several units of the BPF, including HMCS Uganda, and then the group sailed to Manus in the Admiralty Islands.  After a brief stop at Leyte, HMS Formidable joined the BPF on 14 April 1945.

By the spring of 1945, operations in the European theatre of war were winding down after the invasion of Europe and allied success in re-occupying much of Europe.  HMS Formidable was re-assigned to operations in the Pacific and the final drive to defeat Japanese forces.  At this time, Nos. 1841 and 1842 Squadrons were refitted with 20 new Chance Vought F4U-1D Corsairs while other squadrons aboard now flew 12 Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers and 6 Grumman Hellcat fighter aircraft.

At the end of June 1945, HMS Formidable and four other British carriers sailed from Sydney, Australia, to join the USN Third Fleet under U.S. Admiral "Bull" Halsey.  The BPF was designated as Task Force 57, and allocated to the Sakishima Gunto islands to the north-east of Formosa.  The objective was to take the airfields out of operation so that the Japanese could not route replacement aircraft to Okinawa.  This was tedious work because the Japanese could repair the airfields as fast as the British took them out.

On 4 May 1945, Admiral Rawlings detached the battleships and cruisers from the formation for bombardment operations.  Many of the large ship crews were bored doing little except AA work for the carriers, so this was designed to boost their morale. Unfortunately, the removal of these ships from the AA screen allowed kamikaze aircraft to break though the air defence and to hit the carriers.

One kamikaze hit HMS Formidable's flight deck, and the 500 lb. bomb exploded, setting fires.  Eight crew were killed and 47 others injured, and 11 aircraft were destroyed, but damage control soon had the ship back into operation.

HMS Indomitable was also hit glancing blows by two kamikazes that had been partially deflected by the AA fire.  On 9 May 1944, HMS Victorious was hit by two kamikazes, and another hit HMS Formidable.  This time the fires started by the bombs caused greater damage, resulting in the destruction of 19 aircraft by the flames or the water used to fight them.  There was only one fatality, although several were injured.  HMS Formidable was reduced to 15 operational aircraft.  On 22 May, the ship departed the fleet and sailed to Sydney, Australia, for repairs and replacement aircraft.

HMS Formidable sailed from Sydney on 28 June 1945 to rejoin the BPF, which was now designated as Task Force 37, under Admiral William "Bull" Halsey.  In Sydney, HMS Formidable had strengthened its AA capability by replacing its 20-mm Oerlikon cannons with 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns.  In addition, it had brought the air groups up to strength with 40 Corsairs, 12 Grumman Avengers and 6 Grumman Hellcats. The Corsairs were split evenly between No. 1841 and No. 1842 Squadrons.  Hampton was the senior pilot in No. 1841 while LCdr R.L. Bigg-Wither was still the commander.  There were about 200 Canadian air crew serving with the BPF at this point.

The British and American naval forces were sweeping the coasts of Japan to destroy the last remnants of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).  Many of the ships were hidden in small bays to hide them from the Allies while they were waiting for the invasion of the homeland that was expected in October or November of 1945. The Japanese still had some 2,000 smaller craft that were expected to be used as kamikaze ships in the invasion. The objective of the operations was to destroy as many as possible. On 18 July 1841 Squadron attacked the Niigata area on the west coast of northern Honshu. The following day they attacked the Chosi area, 50 miles east of Tokyo. Bad weather delayed operations for the next few days, but on July 24 the attacks were directed at the Shikoku Island area at the southern end of Honshu.

By July 1945, the carrier was involved in strikes on the Japanese mainland.  On 18 July, Gray led a strafing mission against airfields in the Tokyo area.  On 24 July, Gray led another flight to the inland sea which damaged one merchant ship, and damaged two seaplane bases and one airbase.  Gray earned a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for aiding in sinking a Japanese destroyer in the area of Tokyo on 28 July.  The award was not announced until 21 Aug 1945, when the notice appeared in the London Gazette with the citation, "For determination and address in air attacks on targets in Japan".

On July 27, the Canadians in the BPF were dismayed to watch the departure of HMCS Uganda, the only Canadian ship with the BPF, sail for home because the majority of the crew refused to volunteer for the Japanese war.  On 28 July, Hampton attacked and sank a Japanese destroyer at Maisuru.  He was immediately recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for this action.

On 29 July, a powerful typhoon swept in and caused considerable damage to the Allied fleets.  The weather was not clear enough for flying operations before 6 August 1945.  The BPF was stationed off northern Honshu where the Japanese were believed to be storing aircraft in anticipation of the invasion.

Air operations were cancelled that day so the Americans could drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  It was obvious that this might have an impact on the end of the war, so the Commanding Officer of HMS Formidable advised his pilots to "not take undue risks".

On the night of 8 Aug 1945,  Admiral Vian, leader of the British forces, briefed Squadron Commanders not to take any unnecessary chances in their attacks on Japanese targets, as the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Japanese capitulation was expected at any time.   Also, the senior officers knew but could not disclose that another A-bomb was to be dropped the following day on Nagasaki.  Pilots were told to limit staffing or bombing runs to one pass to limit risks.

At 0835 on 9 Aug, Hampton climbed into his aircraft and prepared to lead his flight of seven Corsairs in the attack on Matsushima airfield.  At the last minute, Chief Petty Officer Dick Sweet was sent to Hampton's waiting aircraft with an urgent message that Matsushima Military Airfield had been heavily bombed earlier and was thought to be out of commission and if so he was to seek other targets of opportunity.  Hampton led his flight to Matsushima airfield, confirmed the damage and the need to attack other targets such as Japanese ships he had seen anchored in Onagawa Bay.

Flying from the mainland side at approximately 10,000 feet Hampton turned his two flights towards Onagawa Bay to avoid anti-aircraft fire.  This bay had several ships in it, including the 1000 ton destroyer Amakusa, Minesweeper 33, the newly completed destroyers Ohama and Soya, several other smaller subchasers, and minesweepers, and three merchant ships.  He dove his aircraft in order to get down to sea level for the short bombing run at his chosen target.  All Japanese ships in the bay were heavily armed and prepared for an air attack.  The group had been warned of air attacks that had occurred at other airfields nearby and were on full alert.  Additional anti-aircraft positions dotted the surrounding hills creating a killing zone for attacking Allied aircraft.

At 09:20, Hampton led the flight into the attack from 10,000 feet, and came in low over the hills and levelled out over the water at about 50 feet.  He aimed for the largest ship in the harbour, the ocean escort vessel Amakusa that was about the size a small destroyer. As he leveled out for his bombing run, one of his two five-hundred pound bombs was shot away by a hail of cannon and machine gun fire from Amakusa, Minesweeper 33, the target ship Ohama (a target ship being a gunnery training vessel) and Sub Chaser 42.  Hampton released his other bomb and scored a direct hit on  Amakusa.  This bomb penetrated her engine room instantly killing 40 sailors (including all in the engine room) and triggering an the explosion in the aft ammunition magazine. This massive explosion resulted in the sinking of Amakusa in just minutes.   The Amakusa quickly flooded, and listed to starboard.  The bugle sounded "abandon ship" and survivors jumped into the water.  The ship went down quickly, taking 71 crew with it.

As Hampton's Corsair flew away from the ship, it suddenly burst into flame.  His flight members then recounted seeing his aircraft enveloped in smoke and flame. They reported that his aircraft, at an altitude of only fifty feet, rolled to the right and crashed into the sea in an explosion of debris and water. The aircraft was never seen again.

The pilots saw the loss of their leader, and after "someone keyed their radio mike saying ‘There goes Hammy", his Second in Command, SubLt MacKinnon, took over as Flight Leader.  They swung around for additional passes on the ships in the bay, launching two more attacks until the two flights exhausted their bombs and cannon ammunition on other targets in the bay.  The Ohama was hit and sunk, and Minesweeper 33 was hit before the aircraft left for HMS Formidable.  158 Japanese servicemen were killed, including 71 on the Amakusa alone.  Most of the warships in the bay were sunk, (including Ohama), destroyed or badly damaged.  Japanese accounts of the battle talk of the valour demonstrated by Commonwealth pilots as they pressed home their attack.

The aircraft returned a few hours later, to continue the attack.  On the return approach to HMS Formidable from this second attack, Lt G.A. Anderson's aircraft engine faltered and the plane hit the roundown and he was killed, the last Canadian to die in the Second World War.

In the afternoon, an additional 40 Grumman Wildcats from the American forces attacked the remaining ships in Onagawa Bay adding additional damage and sinking several more ships.  While these attacks were going on, the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.  On 10 Aug 1945, the aircraft from HMS Formidable returned to Onagawa Bay where the Kongo Maru was attacked and sunk.  Of the 15 ships in the bay, only the 86 ton subchaser 161 survived.  That evening, the Japanese accepted the terms of surrender.

On 31 Aug 1945, Lt Hampton Gray was officially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DFC), and on 13 Nov 1945, he was further awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

The following was the official citation:

"For great valour in leading, from the aircraft carrier Formidable, an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan, in the Japanese Island of Honshu, on August 9, 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships, Lieutenant Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success. Although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Gray has consistently shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership".

As Hampton's remains were never found, he was listed as missing in action and presumed dead.  He was 28 years old.  He was one of 150 from across Canada and by war's end, 28 had been decorated for bravery.  Eighteen of these men never made it home.  Mark Peapell noted "from May till the end of the war there were six Canadian pilots assigned to HMS Formidable, with only two surviving the war."  The first Canadian killed in action over the mainland Japan was a Canadian Corsair pilot, as was the last the last Canadian naval casualty to be killed on operations in the Second World War, Lt Gerald Arthur Anderson, as he attempted to land his aircraft back on HMS Formidable after Gray’s loss."

Hampton's Chance Vought F4U Corsair, coded 115.  (My artwork)

Canadian Lt Atkinson flew Grumman Hellcats from HMS Formidable in July 1945.  (My artwork)

Hampton is commemorated, with other Canadians who died or were buried at sea during the First and Second World Wars, at the Halifax Memorial in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The War Memorial Gym at University of British Columbia, Royal Canadian Legion hall in Nelson, numerous other sites in Nelson, and the wardroom of HMCS Tecumseh (his RCNVR home unit) also bear plaques in his honour.

A memorial for Hampton was erected at Onagawa Bay in 1989 in Sakiyama Park.  This is the only memorial dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.

Soward, Stuart E. A Formidable Hero: Lt. R.H. Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR.  (CANAV Books; First Edition (1 Jan 1987).

The RCN's sixth and final Harry DeWolf-class offshore patrol vessel is named HMCS Robert Hampton Gray, one of many honours accorded to him in Canada.

Lieutenant (P) Gerald Arthur Anderson RCNVR

Lieutenant (P) Gerald Arthur Anderson was a Canadian fighter pilot who served in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) during the Second World War.  As a pilot in No. 1842 Squadron Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA) on HMS Formidable, Anderson flew the Chance Vought F4U Corsair Mk. IV (Serial No. KD 548).

On 9 August 1945 – the same day that the B-29 Stratofortress “Bockscar” dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, Lt. Anderson participated in an aerial attack on Onagawa Bay in northern Japan.  Anderson’s contingent, Call sign “RAMROD 3”, engaged Japanese ships in the bay that had been attacked by No. 1841 Squadron of HMCS Formidable.

All but one ship in the bay was destroyed by the Canadian Corsair and American Hellcat assaults.  However, Anderson’s Corsair was struck, causing it to leak fuel rapidly.  On his final approach to landing, Anderson’s engine cut out, causing him to hit the after end of the flight deck of HMS Formidable, his plane broke in two, and plunged into the Pacific Ocean.  Lieutenant Gerald Anderson was the last Canadian to die in the Second World War.  Lt Anderson was 22 years old.


With the end of the Second World War, the Naval Reserve was formed in 1945 replacing the RCNVR.  Expected to maintain the same level of skill as the Regular Force, training and pay for reservists was equalised.  Focused on minesweeping, escort, and coastal patrol; each division mirrored its organisation, training and crew with all officer branches and non-commissioned trades across the fleet.  Despite successfully expanding the University Naval Training Division (UNTD), forming a dedicated 'Commanding Officer, Naval Divisions' command in 1953 and attaching various tender craft to NRD's; the Naval Reserve experienced suffered a decline in skill due to focusing on generalist skills and lack of opportunities to work on sea-going ships leading up to the unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968.

Tucker, Gilbert Norman. The Naval Service of Canada, Its Official History – Volume 1: Origins and Early Years. (Ottawa, King's Printer, 1962); and, Boutilier, James A. RCN in Retrospect, 1910-1968. (UBC Press, 2011).

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