THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION AND THE ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY: Inquiry and Intrigue

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THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION AND THE ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY: Inquiry and Intrigue John Griffith Armstrong Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002. 250pp, $39.95 cloth (ISBN 0-7748-0890-X), $24.95 paper (ISBN 0-7748-0891-8)

The Halifax explosion of 6 December 1917 remains the greatest single disaster to befall any Canadian city. The disaster occurred as a result of the collision between the explosive-laden French merchant ship Mont Blanc and the Norwegian relief ship Imo. Much of the city of Halifax was destroyed, and over 1,600 were killed. While the disaster has been the subject of several popular histories, until now the event has not been given the detailed scholarly study required to sweep away myth and provide an accurate account of what took place. John Griffith Armstrong has undertaken the first such academic work, and it is a very good study indeed. Armstrong's focus is on the role of the Royal Canadian and Royal navies in the events leading up to the explosion, its aftermath, and the investigations that followed. By shifting the attention of the reader away from the calamity that befell the city, Armstrong has provided a remarkable fresh look into the explosion.

That the tiny Canadian navy (RCN) was at the centre of events has not been generally understood before. Armstrong shows that the situation in Halifax harbour was rather chaotic, since there was no clear chain of command. The competing interests of the two navies, the harbour master, and the pilots' service over how the port should be controlled caused this confusion. There were no explicit safety regulations governing the navigation of highly dangerous cargo into and out of harbour, or where the ships carrying such cargo could be docked or anchored. The muddle created the situation that allowed for a disaster; all that was required was some bad ship handling or a similar mistake. Armstrong explains that the situation was primarily the fault of the RCN, although the lack of clear direction from Ottawa and powerful local political interests were also to blame.

While Armstrong's description of the situation in the harbour is excellent, he does not clearly explain that the system of controlling the movement of ships overseas was comparatively a new one. Only a few months earlier, a convoy system was established and anti-submarine nets laid to protect the entrance to the harbour. …