Canadian Maple Leaf on the Funnel - in World War One!

Originally posted on the "Canadian Tribal Association" List 10 September 1998, here is evidence that the Maple Leaf emblem sported on the funnels of Royal Canadian Warships first appeared during World War One!

Custom May Have Originated off West Coast of Africa
 [From Crowsnest Magazine Vol 9, No.8 June 1957]

What is the origin of the maple leaf on the funnels of warships of the Royal Canadian Navy? Most people assume that it all began during the Second World War when Canada for the first time in history possessed a sizeable navy and undertook a man-sized role in the war at sea. Esprit de corps mounted to new heights. The officers and men who sailed the little ships of Canada proudly wore the White Ensign and gloried in their affiliation with the fleets of the Commonwealth and their heritage of the traditions of the Royal Navy. But they also wanted it to be known that they were Canadians.

At first, their attitude tended to be rather parochial. Badges of wonderful and sometimes weird design blazed from the gun shields of destroyers and corvettes. Painted bands on the funnels began to signify the group to which ships belonged. In at least one instance, the design on the funnel gave a name to a mid-ocean escort group and the "Barber Pole Brigade" was born. It appears to have been later in the Second World War that someone painted a green maple leaf on a funnel to signify that his ship belonged to Canada. The practice spread and was at last authorized by Naval Headquarters and adopted by the whole fleet.

After the war, for the sake of contrast, the colour of the maple leaf was changed from green to red and thus it remains to this day. The ultra-fancy gun shield decorations have been replaced by more sedate but heraldically correct ship's badges; the coloured bands have disappeared from the funnels. The maple leaf remains in a secure and lasting position as a symbol for all to see that the ship that wears it is Canadian.

Where does the story begin? Records at Naval Headquarters in Ottawa fail to show the name of the person who first thought of applying a maple leaf to the funnel of his ship or the name of the first warship to be thus adorned. But it was generally assumed that the idea was of Second World War origin. Then came a letter a few months ago from a man who had served in the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve during the First World War. He asked for recognition as the originator of the funnel maple leaf. Neither headquarters in Ottawa nor the British Admiralty in London can find records to substantiate his story, but that does not deny its truth. it could simply be that no one troubled to note the innovation in a report of proceedings or elsewhere. Here is the story.

Dear Sir:

I would very much like to know if you would recognize me as the
originator of the Maple Leaf in His Majesty's Royal Canadian Ships
on the funnels. I think I can claim this creation as mine!

In 1917, I joined the Royal Canadian Navy at Victoria. I was sent
overseas in 1917, May 17, from Halifax, N.S. and attached to the
Royal Navy . In 1918, March, I joined one of the Canadian
minesweepers at Gibraltar and was sent to Sierra Leone in the CD 8.
Also with us were the CD 2, CD 7, CD 11. In May 1918, I was made
AB Signalman and I asked the Captain of CD8 if he would grant me
permission to paint the emblem of Canada "The Maple Leaf" on the
funnel of CD 8. The Captain, A. Braye, granted me permission so I
painted the Maple Leaf in green and black, also on CD 2, CD 7 and
CD 11. I don't think anybody else can claim this distinction so I
apply to you for recognition.

Late of the Royal Canadian Navy
now at above address,
Thank you.

P.S.--I understand all ships of the RCN have painted Maple Leaf on funnels.

The information contained in Mr. Stephenson's letter has been confirmed at Naval Headquarters -- except for his claim to be the originator of the funnel maple leaf. During the Great War, 1914-19, Canadian shipyards produced 100 drifters for service as minesweepers in harbour approaches. The RCN, the RN and the USN each received some of these drifters and of those allotted to the Royal Navy, seven were dispatched by way of Gibraltar for service off the West African coast. At least four of these seven were manned by personnel of the Overseas Division of the RNCVR and these men were carried in the books of the hulk HMS Cormorant, depot ship at Gibraltar. As Mr. Stephenson states, the four Canadian manned drifters were the CD 2, CD 7, CD 8, and CD 11.

Under the escort of HMCS Shearwater, the four drifters sailed from Halifax on November 15, 1917, and at Bermuda came under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies Station. From this point on, the ships were under Admiralty control and, In fact, became RN property. Accordingly no further record of these ships is to be found in Ottawa. The Naval Historian learned of a former naval rating who had served in one of the four drifters and wrote to him for confirmation concerning the first use of maple leaf markings. The letter was returned from Saskatoon unclaimed.

Naval Headquarters files only disclose the date on which the maple leaf symbol was formally introduced into the Royal Canadian Navy. This was in a Naval Order in September 1944, which followed a recommendation, dated June 15, 1944, by the Canadian Naval Mission Overseas. The practice of painting a maple leaf on the funnel had, however, already been put into practice unofficially by Canadian warships. Early this year, the Naval Member of the Canadian Joint Staff in London was asked to consult Admiralty records to see if the facts could be learned there. The reports of proceedings from the drifters CD 2, CD 7, CD 8 and CD 11 and from the Senior Naval Officer, West Africa, for the period the drifters were based on Sierra Leone in 1918 were unearthed. They contain no reference to the maple leaf emblem.

That is how the matter stands. Everything points to the truth of Mr. Stephenson's claim, but there is no corroborating evidence. Of course, there is not necessarily any connection between the painting of the maple leaf on the funnels of four RN drifters off the steaming coast of Africa and the introduction of the symbol during the Second World War. The idea may have been completely original and historically unconnected with the drifters of many years ago.

A footnote to the story: When six Bay class minesweepers were transferred by the RCN to the French Navy in 1954, the senior French officer, Captain de Corvette Pierre Top, particularly requested that the maple leaf be left on the funnel of each ship. This was done.

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Last Updated: 21 September, 1998.