HMCS Rainbow | The Canadian Encyclopedia


HMCS Rainbow

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Rainbow was an Apollo-class cruiser that was commissioned into Britain’s Royal Navy in 1893. In 1910, Britain sold the vessel to Canada, where it became one of the first two warships of the newly formed Naval Service of Canada. Rainbow served 10 years in the Canadian navy, including throughout the First World War. It was sold for scrap in 1920.

Royal Canadian Navy

Royal Navy Service

Rainbow was built at Hebburn-on-Tyne, England and launched on 25 March 1891. It entered service as a Royal Navy (RN) warship in 1892 as one of 21 in the Apollo class. Rainbow served on the China Station (1895–98), followed by Malta (1898–99).

Between 1900 and 1909, Rainbow saw limited service due to high operating costs, although it did make some voyages to the Mediterranean. In 1904, the RN restricted the ship to harbour duty and decommissioned it in early 1909.

HMCS Rainbow Specifications


3,265 tonnes


95.7 metres

Beam (Width)

13.3 metres


5.3 metres


19.75 knots




2x6-inch guns, 6x4.7-inch guns

Armament (final configuration)

4x12-pounders, 4x6-pounders, 4x14-inch torpedo tubes To support landing party operations: 1x12-pounder, 1x3-pounder, 4x.303-in machine guns

Black and white photo of HMCS Rainbow in 1917

Royal Canadian Navy Service

The government created the Naval Service of Canada (NSC) on 4 May 1910. (See Royal Canadian Navy.) This followed several years of debate within Canada and discussions with British authorities over whether Canada should have its own navy or provide funds to build ships for the RN. The Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier finally decided that Canada would have its own navy. At the time, however, the country did not have the capacity to build warships; they would have to be purchased from Britain.

Even before the establishment of the NSC, Canada bought Rainbow for ₤50,000 in November 1909 as a training ship and for fisheries protection duties on the west coast. By then, the Apollo class was already obsolete. In January 1910, the government purchased Niobe for similar service on the east coast. Besides providing ships, the RN also loaned Canada 50 officers and more than 500 sailors to help operate the ships and train naval recruits.

On 4 August 1910, Rainbow was commissioned into the NSC. The ship then sailed for Esquimalt in a 28,000 km voyage around South America and arrived on 7 November. The RN had two ships stationed there at the time, the small steam-and-sail sloops HMS Algerine and Shearwater, neither of which had radio facilities. Until the end of 1912, Rainbow sailed up and down the west coast to train its crew, attract new recruits, engage in ceremonial visits and undertake fisheries protection duties.

HMS Shearwater and HMCS Rainbow

The NSC was formally renamed the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) on 29 August 1911. In 1913 and most of 1914, Rainbow was mostly idle due to crew shortages. There was, however, one unpleasant incident that involved Rainbow during this period.

Komagata Maru Incident

In 1914, HMCS Rainbow was involved in an incident involving Indian immigrants. In the early 1900s, a few thousand South Asians immigrated to the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States. Their arrival attracted negative attention, and in 1908 Canada prohibited further immigration from India (modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). Most Canadians at the time believed that Canada was “a white man’s country,” which resulted in extremely restrictive immigration policies.

Despite this policy, the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver harbour on 23 May 1914, carrying about 375 Punjabis — mostly Sikhs — who wanted to emigrate to Canada. Immigration officials would not let any Indian passengers ashore, and a standoff followed. The Indians resisted all attempts to make them leave voluntarily, and Canadian officials blocked communications, attempts to take the case to court and even food and water, until the situation aboard the ship became desperate.

Komagata Maru

On 18 July, police and other officials stormed Komagata Maru to remove the Indians by force and put them on a ship to Hong Kong. The passengers beat back the police with a hail of objects, including lumps of coal. The next day, authorities quickly accepted Rainbow’s offer of assistance. After hurried preparations to make Rainbow ready to sail and find additional crew, it reached Vancouver the next day.

Rainbow’s arrival convinced the Indians to leave, and Komagata Maru sailed for Hong Kong on 23 July. Rainbow provided a pilot and escorted the Japanese ship out of the harbour to the open ocean; it then returned to Esquimalt.

First World War

On 1 August 1914, the Admiralty asked the Canadian government to make Rainbow available for west coast trade protection in view of the expected war. (See First World War.) Because of an earlier sealing patrol and the Komagata Maru incident, Rainbow was ready to sail, except for shortages of high-explosive ammunition and crew members.

At the time, Algerine and Shearwater were off the Mexican coast, part of an international squadron protecting foreign interests during the Mexican Civil War. Meanwhile, the powerful German East Asiatic Squadron under Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee was at sea. The squadron consisted of two armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, plus three light cruisers, Emden, Nürnberg and Leipzig. Von Spee wanted to damage as much Allied shipping as he could on his way back to Germany.

Von Spee decided to sail via South America, where he hoped to take on coal in some of its many neutral countries and communicate with Germany. He first detached Emden to the Indian Ocean on an independent raiding mission; Dresden later replaced it.

On 3 August, Rainbow left Esquimalt under Captain Walter Hose. The next day, war broke out and the Canadian government placed the cruiser at the Admiralty’s disposal. The Admiralty directed Hose to protect Algerine and Shearwater, so he headed south. He reached San Francisco on 7 August, where he hoped to take on coal. The recent American neutrality proclamation, however, allowed him only sufficient coal to reach the nearest British port. Rainbow had enough for that, but authorities allowed it to take on 50 tons as a safety margin.

Meanwhile, Emden and Nürnberg had been reported off San Diego heading north, but there was still no indication of the location of the two RN sloops. Hose steamed out of San Francisco and patrolled across the German cruisers’ expected route, hoping the sloops were steaming northwards. To prepare for battle, sailors tore out all nonessential inflammable woodwork and tossed it overboard.

On 10 August, Rainbow began heading slowly up the coast; the ship’s coal was running low, and Hose believed that Algerine and Shearwater must be safely to the north. Once back in Esquimalt, he learned that Leipzig had been capturing ships off San Francisco. Hose immediately sailed south, but the next day, the Admiralty recalled Rainbow because a modern RN cruiser was on its way to the west coast.

Did you know?
An RN squadron dispatched from Britain to engage von Spee’s ships, encountered them on 1 November 1914, 80 km from the Chilean island of Coronel. In the ensuing battle, the Germans defeated the British squadron and sank two of its ships with all hands. Four RCN midshipmen were among the crew of the British flagship Good Hope, the first Canadian combat casualties of the First World War. (See Battle of Coronel.)

In January 1915, the Admiralty ordered Rainbow to search for Dresden off the Mexican coast. In March, other warships located the German cruiser in the south Pacific and sank it. Rainbow sailed back to Esquimalt, marking the end of its operational service.

Russian Gold

In early 1916, Imperial Russian authorities became increasingly alarmed about a revolution breaking out in the country. They decided to ship the nation’s gold to the Canadian mint in Ottawa for safekeeping. In February, the Russians sent about $140 million in bullion from Vladivostok to Canada on a Japanese warship.

Rainbow met the Japanese vessel far out to sea off the northwest tip of Oregon and transferred the gold during a semi-gale. The warship then sailed for the CPR docks in Vancouver. There, the gold was transferred to waiting rail cars disguised as a silk train and supervised by armed guards. (See also Canadian Intervention in the Russian Civil War.)

Final Years

By 1917, the threat from German warships to the Pacific coast had ended. The Japanese protected the north Pacific, while the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917 meant the US Navy (USN) was also available. Meanwhile, the German U-boat threat on the east coast had increased substantially. Rainbow became a training facility for gunners for east coast patrol vessels. (See Canada and Antisubmarine Warfare in the First World War.)

In June 1917, Rainbow was converted to a depot ship and reduced to making short voyages around Vancouver Island to train new officers. After the war ended, an American scrap metal company purchased the cruiser for $67,777; it left Esquimalt in September 1920. Shortly after, Rainbow sank off Seattle while under tow with a load of copper ore.


The forerunner of today’s Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps Rainbow (see Cadets) was established in Victoria in 1918. Three of Rainbow’s ship’s wheels were salvaged, one of which is on display at the Canadian War Museum. In 1968, the American government sold the USN submarine Argonaut to the RCN, which renamed it Rainbow in honour of the cruiser.