At age 16, Percy Nelles wanted a military career but did not intend to follow his father into the army and chose the navy instead. Charles Nelles applied to the minister of Marine and Fisheries for a cadet placement for his son in the proposed Canadian naval service. Sir Charles Kingsmill had just arrived to militarize the Fisheries Protection Service, and announced that the FPS would accept cadets. However, he informed the minister that it would accept only two cadets. Kingsmill had already accepted a youth named F.A. Campbell, so Nelles was actually the second cadet entered for service in the soon-to-be Canadian Navy. But Campbell withdrew, making Nelles the entire class of 1908.
The ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY was formally established on 4 May 1910. On 26 June, Percy Nelles and the cadets of the classes of 1909-10 were appointed to HMCS Niobe as midshipmen, although they had to wait until October for the ship to arrive in Halifax. When both the cruiser and the navy itself (metaphorically) ran aground in 1911, Nelles and his classmates were sent overseas to complete their training. Percy Nelles continued training, and served aboard several ships, until serving as a staff officer at Naval Service Headquarters (NSHQ) from 1917-23. He attained the rank of lieutenant-commander in 1922. After leaving Ottawa in 1923, Nelles spent a decade alternating between British and Canadian posts, and sea and shore assignments.
Following the Royal Navy's staff officer technical course in late 1929, Percy Nelles landed the best sea-going job of his career when he was appointed executive officer of the Bermuda-based cruiser HMS Dragon on 18 Mar 1930. That summer, Dragon set off on a South American tour and was making her way along the Pacific coast when her captain, L.H.B. Bevan, died suddenly. As the executive officer, Nelles immediately assumed temporary command. However, the Admiralty did not consider abandoning the cruise. Nelles was appointed acting captain and continued Dragon's three-month program.
In 1931 Nelles took command of the new destroyer HMCS Saguenay, the first warship built specifically for Canada. He also assumed the position of senior officer, Canadian Destroyer Flotilla, and spent a year at sea before being assigned commander-in-charge of HMCS Stadacona, at the navy's East Coast base, in June 1932.
As chief of the naval staff 1934-44, Percy Nelles was instrumental in the navy's survival of the Depression and the architect of its phenomenal wartime growth. An able, if colourless, administrator, Nelles was sent to London in January 1944 as liaison officer following a bitter break with naval minister A.L. MACDONALD over the handling of naval expansion. He retired in January 1945.
Author MARC MILNER
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Naval Centennial
A great source for information about celebrating the Canadian Naval Centennial. Check the menu on the left for event updates and historical notes about Canadian naval history. Click on "This Day in Canadian Naval History" for more. From the Department of National Defence.