1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


World War I

HMCS Rainbow
HMCS Rainbow in Esquimalt Harbour. She was one of two British cruisers acquired in 1910 by the Canadian Government as the first ships of the Canadian Navy.
(public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)

shell holes in HMS Kent
Damage to the HMS Kent caused by shell fired by the German cruiser SMS Nurnberg on December 8, 1914 in the Battle of the Falkland Islands.
(public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When war broke out in August, 1914, all the children were moved out of the dockyard. Joy and Betty stayed at the old wardroom near the Naden Gates, then the home of Captain Walter Hose, commander of HMCS Rainbow.

"Captain Hose was like our second father. He played Santa Claus, I can remember him at the wardroom, coming through the dining room window, he must have had to come up a tall ladder, with a huge sack on his back. He was wonderful. We used to have the most wonderful picnics too." (Later, as Admiral Hose, 'Santa Claus' became known as the father of the Canadian Navy.)

German ships were known to be off the coast of North America when war broke out.

As Joy Phillips saw it as a child of nine: "The Rainbow was ordered to sea to find Algerine and Shearwater who were down south, we thought with the Germans. ... the Algerine didn't have time to coal so burnt her furniture and rushed to sea as fast as she could and the Germans left her alone. ... eventually she met up with the Rainbow captained by Capt. Hose. Daddy had the most enormous Union Jack, ... and she flew that. They were awfully brave, those little tiny ships on patrol duty for months on end." (Other reports confirm HMCS Rainbow did meet Algerine and Shearwater off Cape Flattery. Another source says "most of the moveable woodwork had been put over the side" of the Algerine, but doesn't mention lack of coal.)

"I can remember the famous HMS Kent that was in the battle of the Falkland Islands," Joy recalled. "I remember her coming in the harbour with smoke coming out all the shell holes. I can remember that quite well, all hands terribly deaf from the explosions. It was a long way to come for repairs."

It was a scary time for at the beginning of the war "when we all thought we were going to be blasted off the face of the earth." Joy confessed she got it into her head that "Germans were Germs and flew through the air and attacked you with little spears .. I had a house up in the trees and thought I was quite safe and they wouldn't find me and I'd stay there for hours."

Defense of the coast was augmented by Japanese warships. "The Japanese navy was so wonderful, the ships came [even before the war] usually as a squadron of three. ... One of the funniest stories - we used to wear cap ribbons of the ships we liked and one afternoon we were setting out through the dockyard gate ... and wondered why a group of Japanese sailors were so interested in us. ... Captain [Yoshioka?] of the [Asama?] arrived in full regalia to call on mother. 'Mrs. Phillips, I've come to inform you that your eldest daughter is wearing my ship upside down."

Mrs. Phillips remained in The Big House during the war and "ran it as a sort of naval club, a home away from home for naval officers, a house full of lost souls with nowhere to go, but not like an institution. We stayed with Captain Musgrave's wife and went to town by tram to St. George's School for Girls."

Between the wars

George Phillips was posted to Halifax in 1918 then to Ottawa until 1923, when the family returned to the Dockyard.

"This time we didn't stay in Admirals House but in the chief engineers house, the oldest in the dockyard, because Admirals House had no furnace. The Crimea War buildings nearby were used as offices for the Admiral, my father and, I think, the intelligence officer. They should never have been pulled down. We lived within the dockyard until 1933 when father retired. ...

"We looked forward to the arrival of the Royal Navy ships which still came every summer from Bermuda to Esquimalt, then to Comox, and we went up too. We followed them, all of us were known as the seagulls. We did have a wonderful time."

But 1924 was the summer to remember. It was the year of the great round-the-world Special Services squadron, when ships of the Royal Navy fleet visited all the countries of the Empire who contributed to the victory of World War I. They were in Victoria and Vancouver in June. See Photo Gallery

"That was when the special services squadron came in 1924 - Hood, Repulse, Adelaide, four little cruisers, Delhi, Dauntless, Dragon and Danae tied up in Esquimalt Harbour. I remember going to 10 dances in two weeks. Two ships were tied up together, we danced on the quarter decks of two ships with a platform between, on whichever ship your partner belonged to. The Dowagers sat on the platform, and we wondered if it would collapse. They were beautiful little ships, so well designed, nowadays they're all superstructure, looking top heavy."

The Royal Navy's Special Squadron Tour 1924
Crowds of Victorians saw the largest battleships of the British navy, HMS Hood and HMS Repulse, docked side by side at Ogden Point during the Special Services Squadron visit to Victoria in June, 1924. (Esquimalt Archives photo)

The Second World War

Joy Phillips was one of the first women to stand watch on the signals bridge in 1941: "The last place in the world where you would have found women - at least that's what they [naval personnel] made us feel. The first day they put us through the mill, I felt my head had been cracked on both sides of my skull with a hammer by the time I got off duty.

"There were no stairs to the top of building 70. We had to climb up a ladder to the bridge [carrying] everything but the kitchen stove, including food, there was no chance of getting to the canteen except on the 8 to 4 watch. It was quite a thing going up that ladder with umbrellas and gumboots and everything.

"Four to midnight was one I loathed. On Midnight to 8 I would just have to flake out on four chairs after my deadline, then [a yeoman] who used to think we needed PT used to take us out on the roof at 6 a.m. for exercise. It was lovely on a fine sunny morning, getting some air, after all night it was pretty muggy by then."

June 6, 1944, was an extraordinary day on the signals bridge.

"I'll never forget D-Day. I was the only official coder and decoder by that time. There was a pile of signals two feet high after middle watch tried to keep up with them. I started tackling them but they gave me another coder, we didn't stop at all from 3 p.m. to 8 - we wondered what in the world was going on.

"Eventually we thought, let's stop and read the text of a decoded signal - To our absolute amazement, it was D-Day! But by the time we got off duty we were too exhausted to celebrate."

Joy Phillips stayed on at the Dockyard signals bridge until 1951. This verse by an anonymous member of the group was found in Esquimalt Archives files.

a verse honouring the women decoders

(Some excerpts of the Phillips interview were first used in the 1990 publication of Beyond the Blue Bridge: Stories from Esquimalt)

See some wonderful photos of the Special Services Squadron World Cruise 1923-1924
from the album of one of the sailors on the HMS Repulse.

Back to Vancouver Island History | Women's History