His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe was a 11,000-ton Diadem-class heavy protected cruiser, which was originally commissioned into Britain’s Royal Navy. In 1910, Britain sold the vessel to Canada, where it became one of the first two warships of the new Royal Canadian Navy. Niobe saw a few years’ service, including briefly during the First World War. In 1915, due to the ship’s deteriorating condition, it was tied up in Halifax’s naval dockyard and used as a depot ship.
Royal Navy Service
Niobe was built by Vickers Limited at Barrow-in-Furness, England, and launched on 20 February 1897. It entered service as a Royal Navy (RN) warship in 1898 and was one of eight in the Diadem class. Niobe was part of the (English) Channel Squadron when the Boer or Second South African War broke put in late 1899, and it escorted troop ships carrying reinforcements to the war. Niobe returned to its English Channel duties after the war but also escorted ships to some of the far reaches of the British Empire.
HMCS Niobe: Specifications
|Beam (Width)||21 m|
|Armament||16x16-inch guns, 12x12-pounder guns
5x3-pounder guns, 2x18-inch torpedo tubes
Royal Canadian Navy Service
After several years of debate within Canada and discussions with British authorities, the Naval Service of Canada was created on 4 May 1910. A year later, in August 1911, it was renamed the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Canada purchased its first two warships from Britain even before the navy was officially established. Rainbow was bought in November 1909 for the west coast. In January 1910, Canada bought the newer and much larger Diadem-class cruiser Niobe for the east coast for £215,000. The RN also agreed to loan Canada 50 officers and more than 500 sailors to operate the cruisers and train Canadian recruits.
HMCS Niobe steamed into Halifax Harbour on 21 October 1910, known as Trafalgar Day in the RN, escorted by two Canadian government fisheries protection vessels. Decked out in flags and bunting (known as “dressed” in nautical terms), Niobe fired her guns to salute her new home port. Cannons mounted on the ramparts of the Citadel, the fortress overlooking the harbour, fired a welcome in response.
Did You Know?
Trafalgar Day marks the anniversary of the 1805 victory of a Royal Navy fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson over the combined French and Spanish fleets. The battle took place off Cape Trafalgar on the coast of southwestern Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. HMCS Niobe’s arrival at Halifax was carefully timed to coincide with the 105th anniversary of the famous battle.
Louis-Philippe Brodeur, the minister of marine and fisheries, announced the cruiser’s arrival as “a dawning epoch of self-reliance.” In his flowery rhetoric, Niobe would “plant the standard of progress and true Canadian national greatness upon the virgin slopes of a glorious future that unrolls its splendid proportions before our vision today.”
It was fortunate the RN had agreed to loan sailors to the RCN, since the entire strength of the navy at the time was only 350 officers and men. The warship’s career almost came to an inglorious end when it ran aground on dangerous ledges off Cape Sable at the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia on the night of 30–31 July 1911. The ship was nearly lost before rescue efforts succeeded in floating it free. It took until the end of 1912 before the resulting damage was repaired.
First World War
Prior to the outbreak of the war in August 1914, Niobe was employed on coastal patrols, but continuous breakdowns kept it in Halifax for long periods of maintenance and repairs. When the war began, Canada gave operational control of Niobe to the RN. To prepare the ship to go to sea, additional sailors were needed. They were quickly transferred from elsewhere, including more than 100 sailors from the Royal Naval Reserve in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Niobe’s first operational mission was to escort a troopship carrying the Royal Canadian Regiment from Halifax to Bermuda in September for garrison duty. Later that fall, Niobe joined the RN’s 4th Cruiser Squadron, which was based in Bermuda. Niobe assisted in the blockade of 38 German merchant ships that had sought protection in the neutral American harbour of New York City.
This monotonous task involved stopping, boarding and searching every ship for cargo destined for Germany or for German citizens who were attempting to get home to assist in the war. Every 16 days, Niobe returned to Halifax to load fresh provisions and coal. By July 1915, Niobe’s condition had deteriorated, and it returned to Halifax.
Although a major refit was necessary to make Niobe seaworthy, the ship was too old to make it cost-effective. It never put to sea again and was tied up in the naval dockyard, where it was used as a depot ship for accommodation and offices.
At 8:45 a.m. on 6 December 1917, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian freighter Imo in the narrowest part of Halifax Harbour. This caused a fire on Mont-Blanc’s deck, and the crew quickly abandoned ship, which then drifted toward Pier 6. Sailors on Niobe spotted the fire, and the ship’s captain sent his steam pinnace (ship’s boat) with seven volunteers to assist Mont-Blanc.
At 9:05, Mont-Blanc exploded in the largest man-made, nonnuclear explosion in history. The force of the explosion blew Niobe’s pinnace and its crew to pieces. The two sailors in charge of the boat received the Albert Medal posthumously. The explosion also badly damaged Niobe, but it was repaired and continued as a depot ship. Niobe was sold for scrap in 1920 and broken up in Philadelphia two years later. (See Halifax Explosion.)
October 21, Trafalgar Day, is the RN’s most important annual commemoration and was also celebrated by the RCN. Today, Trafalgar Day is known in Canada as Niobe Day to reflect the RCN’s roots.
Niobe’s ship’s bell is held by the Naval Museum of Halifax and is used on special occasions. A 900 kg anchor uncovered in the Halifax dockyard in 2014 was identified as one of Niobe’s from its time as a depot ship. In 2016, the Canadian War Museum bought Niobe’s wheel from a museum in Camden, New Jersey.