HMCS Uganda: Politics, Plebiscites, and the Pacific War
In May 1945, a remarkably rare event in the history of war took place, as the crew of the Canadian cruiser HMCS Uganda voted their ship out of the Second World War. This unusual event might be seen as another example of the mutinies and absences-without-leave common in military history and which make it easy to assume that on a regular basis service personnel removed themselves from combat, against orders. However, the HMCS Uganda scenario was unique in that the officers and crew were actually given the opportunity to end their combat service by their own political and military superiors.
Originally known as the HMS Uganda, the Crown Colony class cruiser saw action with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean theatre. In late 1943, the cruiser was heavily damaged by a German radio-controlled glider bomb. While in dry-dock for extensive repairs and refitting, the ship was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and recommissioned. On December 30, 1944 HMCS Uganda began a long journey to the Pacific and entered combat in April 1945 with the British Pacific Fleet. The Uganda served as naval artillery, a “picket” ship detecting enemy vessels, and fighter screen defending Allied battleships and aircraft carriers. On this last duty, the Uganda encountered the Japanese kamikaze suicide plane attacks which peaked during the Battle of Okinawa (April-June 1945).
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government was tackling the thorny issue of manpower. The Canadian government could compel its citizens into military service, but King wanted to ensure that overseas service was voluntary. In April 1945, as the European campaign was ending, he issued an order that asked active personnel to volunteer for the Pacific theatre. Accordingly, this decree included the men aboard HMCS Uganda, already fighting in the Pacific.
The Uganda’s men had much to consider with this order. With the war coming to a close, the ship was destined to return to Canada. For the crew this meant a reunion with families and prospective jobs, not to mention the end of extremely uncomfortable living conditions onboard the ship and the brutal warfare in the Pacific. Moreover, there was the perceived insult of being asked to volunteer for something they were already doing. In fact, this perception was one of the most commonly cited motives for not volunteering. Ironically, the ship would sail to Canada to unload those who did not volunteer, regardless of the overall outcome of the vote. In this context, the crew was given the unusual decision to extend their combat service. On May 7, 1945 605 officers and men, out of a total 730 personnel, opted to return home.
Occurring late in the war, the vote on HMCS Uganda went largely unnoticed. However, this vote remains a unique event in military history, as for once, combatants were given a democratic choice to fight and decided against it. This event provides profound insights into the nature of Canadian military service in the Second World War and the nature of warfare in general.
Learn more about HMCS Uganda by listening to veterans who shared their stories with the Memory Project: