By Bob Gordon
The mayhem and bedlam that demolished downtown Halifax during VE-Day celebrations gone wild merited the screaming headlines. The scale of the violence was unprecedented and the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Royal Canadian Navy, having grown at an unprecedented pace to become one of the largest navies in the world, was hell-bent and determined to preserve the image and influence it had earned escorting convoys and hunting U-boats across the North Atlantic. A Naval Board of Inquiry was immediately convened, reporting before the end of the month.
Nationally, the Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was in the midst of an election campaign, facing a challenge from a resurgent Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. It was delighted to punt the whole affair into the hands of a Royal Commission, appearing to take action, but safe in the knowledge the Royal Commission would not report until after voters cast their ballots on June 11, 1945. The Royal Commission on the Halifax Disorders, May 7–8, 1945 by Honourable Mister Justice R.L. Kellock was established on the Thursday after the riots and reported on July 28, 1945, seven weeks after the election.
The Naval Board of Inquiry largely attributed the violence to two factors: the phenomenal expansion of the RCN — or more particularly the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) component of it — and its temperament as a ‘small ship’ navy. The RCN was comprised of 3,300 personnel in 1939. Six years later it numbered 95,000. These tens of thousands of novice mariners had no tradition of strict discipline, frequent, dispassionate punishment, the hierarchical organization of ‘big ships’ in the Royal Navy, and the gulf between officers and sailors. The inquiry’s report highlighted: “The service of the majority of seagoing personnel has been in small ships, where discipline is necessarily less rigidly enforced, due to war conditions … While unit discipline in the ships may be considered satisfactory, inadequate stress has probably been placed on the behaviour of libertymen ashore…”
Directorate of History and Heritage historian R.H. Caldwell rightly dismisses this explanation as tripe. If this was a navy-wide problem it should have occurred “overseas and in Canada, throughout the war,” he avers. And it didn’t. Caldwell takes his examination of the riots one step deeper, examining strains peculiar to the RCN and circumstances unique to the city of Halifax during the war. In a similar fashion, the Kellock Royal Commission avoided generalizing and sought specific roots distinctive to the Halifax outburst. It found it in the persons of RAdm Leonard W. Murray, commander of Canadian North-West Atlantic, and LCdr Wood, commanding officer of the Shore Patrol at HMCS Stadacona and the senior officer in Halifax. Over three days Murray had submitted to a scathing examination. Wood was subject to a similar going-over and the commission’s report was blunt.
It offered four reasons that the VE-Day celebrations turned violent and then persisted into a second day. The fourth was a throwaway. A loquacious, rambling exhortation to the police forces to cooperate and communicate amongst themselves more effectively to facilitate the maximum efficiency and optimum deployment of available personnel. It concluded limply: “All one can say is that the police forces could have been better directed and might well have been more effective, particularly at the liquor stores. The system of receiving calls and dispatching aid was poor and did not tend to an effective or intelligent use of the forces available.”
The third focused on LCdr Wood, citing his failure “to report the situation on Barrington St., before the attacks on the liquor stores to his superiors so that effective action might be taken by the navy itself to clear the streets of its rioting personnel.” Murray testified to the commission that he had no idea of events on the night of May 7 until mid-morning May 8, long after he had again released thousands of libertymen into the city. This observation is not meant to exonerate Murray, although it does stand as stark evidence that the gravity of the situation was not communicated up the chain of command adequately. This criticism hardly strikes at the heart of the matter, however.
The first two points shortly and sharply pilloried Murray and Wood. In the first place, Kellock concluded that thousands of naval personnel should not have been loose on the streets of Halifax: “In my opinion, therefore, the disturbances of May 7th and the early hours of May 8th were due to: (1) Failure on the part of the naval command to plan, in accordance with the requirements laid down by Admiral Murray himself, for the entertainment of the ratings in their own establishments for the purpose of keeping them off the streets.” Pre-VE-Day planning had been predicated on civilians partaking of official celebrations in a largely shuttered city while service personnel celebrated separately onboard ship and on base. Testimony by various officials from the mayor to the chief of police confirmed this. The solemn tone and subtly, affirming words were Murray’s death knell. They also captured Murray’s direct and immediate responsibility for the scale and duration of the destruction.
Across the RCN, indeed in military forces around the globe, plans were being made to prepare for VE-Day. Murray had clearly identified the issue, that celebrations could well get out of hand. He was not ignorant. Moreover, he had clearly identified what he saw as the solution. The report noted quite specifically: “in accordance with the requirements laid down by Admiral Murray himself.” However, it also stated, this had not happened due to “failure on the part of the naval command.” Setting aside semantics, the phrase might have just read ‘failure on the part of Admiral Leonard W. Murray.’ He was the theatre commander and also the senior RCN officer stationed in Halifax.
Inexplicably, on two days during which plans had clearly been made to keep naval personnel entertained on base, Murray released thousands of libertymen on the evening of May 7. Then, totally unaware of the maelstrom around him, he did it again on the morning of May 8. Commission testimony, such as this exchange, buried Murray:
Q: Looking at that Exhibit 77, there were thirteen thousand odd who were in a position to go ashore on Monday and 9,069 went ashore. And on Tuesday 9,508 went ashore?
A: That is correct.
Q: Have you any actual data with the information of those that were ashore from establishments on Monday and were not ashore on Tuesday?
A: No, I was speaking in general terms. But in the main the people on shore Tuesday would not be the same as were on shore on Monday.
Q: But you would not be certain that those who participated in the troubles Monday night would not be on shore Tuesday?
A: Not the particular individuals.
Q: And the ring-leaders or actual participants on Monday night, most of them or all of them might be on shore on Tuesday?
A: That is possible, yes.
Based on Murray’s own testimony the Royal Commission reported: “Even though he could have been certain that none of the participants of the previous night would be on leave the next day, he could have no assurance, but would have every reason for apprehension, that a repetition on May 8 of the conditions of May 7 (i.e., large numbers of ratings wandering about the streets of the city on the official holiday, with the police situation remaining the same) might bring about a repetition of the same sort, of disorder.” Murray released unplanned hordes of naval ratings, ‘wandering about.’ And then repeated that mistake the next day, compounding the damage. At this point, in Shakespeare’s wonderful phrase, with having Murray “Hoist with his own petar,” the report continued with faithfulness to the Bard to “delve one yard below their mines/And blow them at the moon.”
Kellock concluded an order Wood issued, on the basis of Murray’s direct instructions, neutered the Shore Patrol, leaving them shooting blanks. In a nutshell, the Royal Commission’s Exhibit 72, described by Kellock as “a rather strange” document, ordered the Shore Patrol to not arrest intoxicated sailors on VE-Day:
“The main object of the patrol on this day will be to try and control naval personnel rather than restrict them. A certain amount of damage is bound to occur, and unless the patrols can persuade the offenders to desist, there is little further action to be taken. No person is to be apprehended by the patrol unless absolutely necessary, and it cannot be stressed too strongly that the success of the patrol on VE-Day will rely solely on tact.”
Kellock went on to note that approximately 300 copies of this order were circulated, meaning it may have been widely known. Even were it not, its effect, in practice, would have been recognized as policy as soon as the first uproars were not suppressed. Speaking plainly, Murray ordered the Shore Patrol to let the naval personnel have the run of the city. Murray blew it. He failed miserably. The riots were and will always remain his responsibility. A brilliant operations officer, he totally and completely mishandled civil-military relations in this most important instance.