Members of the Cowichan Historical Society learned about a little-known chapter in the province’s history this week from a talk by guest speaker Catherine Gilbert of the University of Victoria. Her subject: the Second World War military base on Yorke Island, north of Courtenay at the junction of Johnstone Strait and Sunderland Channel, just northwest of Kelsey Bay.
Its seeming geographical insignificance is matched by its physical stature, a half-mile round, 120 acres of rock and scrub growth subject to strong winds, year-round. It sounds obscure but, from 1937-1945, Yorke Island served as one of western Canada’s most vital military installations.
Capt. George Vancouver couldn’t possibly have foreseen this in the summer of 1792 when he named its more imposing neighbour “out of compliment to Mr. Spelman Swaine, R.N., at the time master’s mate on board the Discovery, after Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke, son of Lord Chancellor Yorke (1770), and grandson of Philip Yorke, the founder of the noble house of Hardwicke in 1733, Lord Chancellor in 1737, and created the first Earl of Hardwicke in 1754.” (Whew!—that’s a quote from Capt. John Walbran, B.C.’s first chronicler of geographical place names.)
Note the reference to Philip Yorke, third Earl of Hardwicke. Thus, 70 years later, Capt. George Richards, R.N., naming its knobby western consort, Yorke Island, “after the family name of the noble house of Hardwicke”. I’m sure the Yorkes would have been pleased!
Uninhabited and partially logged in the 1920s, Yorke Island basked in anonymity until 1936 when, with the growing threat of world war and Japanese aggression in Asia, Canadian military attention was focused on the need to protect Vancouver from enemy naval bombardment. There was Esquimalt naval base, of course, but that didn’t preclude the possibility of a hostile naval force using the back door, via the Inside Passage.
(There’s a fascinating legend of just such a “near-miss” during the First World War. Admiral von Spee’s Far Eastern (Pacific) Squadron, caught in Chinese waters upon the outbreak of hostilities, made a dash for home. As fanciful as it sounds, some military historians believe that the German fleet “intended to bombard and capture Vancouver and Victoria and then, in cooperation with German residents, establish a foothold on the Pacific Coast”.
According to some, the German fleet was inside Dixon Entrance when they momentarily glimpsed a three-funnelled steamship. It was the Grand Trunk Pacific’s passenger liner Prince George that inadvertently saved the day, her mistaken identity as a British warship deterring von Spee from pressing his attack.
It was this threat of assault by sea, and Yorke Island’s commanding position at the northern entrance to Seymour Narrows, that made it of vital strategic importance as it became ever more apparent that war was again looming.
Typically, governmental good intentions lacked in substance. The two quick-firing 4.7-inch guns that were installed were old at the outbreak of the First World War. Nevertheless, work proceeded on building accommodations for personnel and installation of searchlights until the very eve of hostilities when, faced with the immediate threat of German U-boats in the Atlantic, Canada concentrated its limited resources on the east coast.
Two weeks before Canada declared war on Germany, members of the 85th Battery of the 15th (Vancouver) Coast Brigade, Royal Canadian Artillery, received their marching orders: Yorke Island. Boarding a navy minesweeper, four officers and 52 men embarked for what would be home to as many as 260 servicemen.
In his 1978 book Vancouver Defended, Peter Moogk notes that when HMCS Comox cleared Vancouver, bound for Yorke Island, her contingent of militiamen were “the first [Canadian soldiers] to go ‘overseas’ in the Second World War”.
Their introduction to army life at ‘Yorkey’ was one of dismay. Initial accommodations consisted of two huts totalling less than 1200 square feet, and the amenities were spartan: no hot and cold water, no indoor plumbing, heat was provided by woodcutting details, water had to be shipped in.
Although Yorke Island never fired a shot in anger, its guns sent dozens of warning shots into the sea, under the bows of passing ships and small craft which refused to stop on command.
One such warning round, fired before No.’s 1 and 2 guns were correctly calibrated, landed astern of its ‘target,’ terrifying the vessel’s captain into immediate submission. It could well have ended tragically.
Japan’s entry in the war created tension for a time but the greatest threat to the island’s personnel were boredom and isolation; there was at least one suicide. Finally, in August 1945, V-J Day spelt freedom for Yorke’s captive population. In mid-October, as the last military personnel took their leave, an armada of local fishermen-salvagers swarmed ashore with hammers and wrecking bars. Yorke Island, Canada’s westernmost bastion, was history.