With the outbreak of war in 1939, it became clear that the Canadian government’s newly-acquired Hatley Park was going to have a role to play in the war effort. Exactly what that role would be was unclear in the early stages of what became the Second World War.
Initially, it was thought that the Colwood castle would be the overseas residence of King George VI, a safe refuge away from all of the fighting. That plan was rejected, and the government created a naval training academy instead.
“They realized very quickly that there was a big shortage of naval sub-lieutenants in the Canadian Navy that could lead the escort ships that were going back and forth across the Atlantic,” explained Jenny Seeman, museum and archives specialist with Royal Roads University.
The facility was essentially treated as a ship on land, named HMCS Royal Roads, and facilities given naval names such as quarterdeck and mess.
Officers in training, who were chosen from the reserves, were given just 90 days of instruction before graduation. “In 1940 they were quickly pushing officers through so that they would have this sub-lieutenant class,” Seeman said.
Quarters were cramped despite the luxury of their surroundings, as four individuals could occupy a cabin that was previously reserved for a single servant when the Dunsmuir family owned and lived in the castle. “Cramped, cozy. You get to know your fellow cadets very well,” Seeman said.
Derek Lukin Johnstone, a Vancouver native in the reserves, wrote an account of life at Hatley during those days. The daily routine was a rigorous one, with wake ups at 6:30 a.m. and physical training to follow shortly after.
After breakfast and a march of the various divisions, the trainees went to class. Classes included seamanship, signals, gunnery, parade ground drill, torpedo mechanism, gun loading and firing, pilotage, navigation and Morse code.
“For [parade ground] drill we had as instructor a young [reserve] sub-lieutenant named Junior Boyd who obviously was bitterly disappointed at not being sent to sea. He took out his frustrations by giving orders in a stentorian voice and being loudly abusive to those who … made some error in their drill movement order,” wrote Johnstone.
Most of the training officers were decent, he added, but noted that he and other qualified professionals from civil life had “our own frustrations at being sometimes ordered about like a group of schoolboys.”
Classes ended around 5 p.m. and that left Johnstone and his fellow trainees with free time to play tennis or go for a swim.
Weekend leave went from Saturday morning until Sunday evening, and Johnstone was part of a group that hired a small seaplane to take them from Esquimalt Harbour to Vancouver each weekend.
“Reading between the lines on this, they actually had a pretty good life. It was rigorous … but it also seemed really civilized to me,” Seeman said.
Johnstone also recounts a visit from Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King as another memorable moment.
“The P.M. spoke from a terrace about six feet above the parade ground, but he did not use a microphone and did not speak loudly enough to be heard properly except by the two front rows. I was quite a bit further back, and could only catch a few words here and there … ”
Johnstone passed with the sixth-highest mark in a class of 123, a status he didn’t feel he deserved. “I knew I had done well in navigation and signals, but my gunnery mark of 90%…was much too generous,” he wrote.
After the completion of their training, which was mostly theoretical, the group was sent out into the navy. Curiously, many hadn’t exactly earned their sea legs.
“They were given these huge responsibilities and lot of them hadn’t actually spent a lot of time on a ship before,” Seeman said.
Johnstone died in Vancouver in 2009 in his 97th year.