Rear-Admiral Leonard Murray one of Canada’s most important wartime commanders

November 10, 2020 – “Experience had taught me this: to find out what you’re capable of it is only necessary to get a chance to do it, and someone else must have enough confidence in you to provide that chance.”

Rear-Admiral Leonard W. Murray, who penned these words, was given that chance.

From humble beginnings he went on to become the only Canadian officer to command a theater of war during the Second World War.

Widely considered to be one of Canada’s most important operational commanders, Murray was recognized for his sea smarts. The abiding respect and concern he had for his sailors were his key leadership attributes. At the height of the war, he exercised command over hundreds of warships and aircraft, ensuring protection of the convoys used to deliver vital supplies to the United Kingdom.

The second of four children, Murray was born in Granton, Pictou County, N.S., on June 22, 1896, and grew up along the shores of Pictou Harbor. A natural sailor, he entered the recently founded Halifax Royal Naval College in 1911 when he was just 15 years old. Two years later he was appointed as midshipman in a Royal Navy vessel, the first in a long series of British and Canadian ships in which he served during the First World War (most of his action was in the St. Lawrence River and in the Pacific) and between the two world wars.

While serving in Canada, Murray worked on both coasts in operational and administrative leadership positions.

When the Second World War broke out, Murray’s wide-ranging career was at its height and he was appointed Canada’s Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff.

RCN photos

Murray spearheaded the charge towards a small ship anti-submarine navy. The crucial event was the sinking of the ocean liner Athenia on Sept. 3, 1939, which suggested that the Germans would immediately wage an unrestricted submarine campaign.

“The prime minister was very concerned,” Murray recalled in a 1971 interview, “and we were able to impress on him that this kind of anti-submarine war was one that our small Canadian navy was best fitted to compete in. We got his approval for anything that could be done and there was never anything to stand in our way.”

In May 1941 Murray was put in charge of the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF), part of the Allied convoy system during the Battle of the Atlantic. Created in response to the movement of German U-boats into the western Atlantic Ocean, the NEF was instituted to cover the convoy escort gap that existed between the local convoy escort in Canada and the United Kingdom.

The establishment of the NEF marked the beginning of the modern Canadian navy. Previously, the RCN had served either uniquely Canadian needs, or as part of the larger British imperial fleet. With the NEF, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) began to carve out distinct strategic, operational and tactical roles within an emerging western alliance dominated by the United States.

Murray is considered the “father” of the NEF, and the man who would see the RCN through this formative period of trade escort and anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic.

He also mentored young sailors in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), giving them the chance to prove their worth.

“In the autumn of 1941 young volunteer reserve officers who had never seen salt water before the war took command of corvettes manned by 88 men – the number of white and black keys on a piano and each with his own peculiar note – and took their full part in the Battle of the Atlantic,” he said.

“In my dealings with the young RCNVR captains, I did my best to give them the opportunity to find their own feet and they did it. Once having tasted success they never looked back. What a blessing that we had the bright young people to accept this kind of responsibility.”

Murray would command the NEF until 1943 when he was appointed Commanding Officer Atlantic Coast and in April 1943 as Commander-in-Chief Canadian North West Atlantic (CNWA) and Deputy Commander U.S. Task Force 24.

From his headquarters in Halifax he commanded all Canadian and Allied air and naval forces involved in convoy protection. He remained as Commander-in-Chief CNWA until the end of the war in Europe.

By May 1945, Murray had exercised command over fleets of hundreds of warships and aircraft of several nationalities engaged in the key naval campaign of a global war.

Murray retired prematurely in 1945 as a result of the inquiry into the Halifax Victory in Europe Day riots, which placed the blame for the riots on inadequate preparations by naval authorities under his command.

He moved to England in 1947 to study law and in 1949 he was called to the Bar, specializing in admiralty law.

Murray died in Buxton, England, on November 25, 1971, and his ashes were brought to St. Paul’s Church in Halifax the following year.

Since his death, a number of commemorative steps have been taken to honour his memory, including the placing of a memorial in his honor in Pictou; the placement of a collection of his medals and related naval artifacts in the Canadian Naval Operations School (CFNOS) in Halifax; the renaming of Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC) New Glasgow in Nova Scotia to RCSCC Admiral Murray; and the naming of several naval buildings, including the CFNOS building, at Canadian Forces Base Halifax.

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