The Canadair Argus
The Untold Story of Canada's Cold War Maritime Hunter
Bert Campbell & Cary Baker
Copies of the book can be purchased at the Greenwood Military Aviation Museum,
the Inside Story in Greenwood
direct from the author at email@example.com
During the Cold War the Argus contributed to the strategic maritime balance by routinely conducting random anti-submarine patrols in Canada’s NATO area of responsibility. One of the by-products of these patrols was the reporting of all surface traffic encountered, including the regular flow of Soviet cargo ships en route to Cuba. In October 1962, when American intelligence gleaned that Soviet ships were transporting ballistic missiles to Cuba, only 90 miles from continental USA, the entire U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet put to sea to form a blockade against the missile-laden ships. Similarly, the RCN put all of the resources that it could muster to sea, as did RCAF’s Maritime Air Command. The world was on the precipice of a Third World War.
Prime Minister Diefenbaker had to be coerced to abide by the NORAD treaty by placing the RCAF component of NORAD at DEFCON 2 (Enemy attack imminent); however, Diefenbaker could not be convinced to put maritime forces on an equivalent alert status. Consequently, authority to assist our American ally in searching for the Soviet ships was never issued and the rules of engagement including the release of weapons at sea, in accordance with DEFCON 2, were never promulgated. Without the support of the government the Canadian Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Rayner, could say nothing to Admiral Dyer, his Atlantic Fleet commander in Halifax, other than, “Do what you have to do”. Ingeniously, Admiral Dyer immediately activated a “national” exercise scheduled for November. Although not authorized, Admiral Dyer invoked operations plans, which called for a “Sub-Air Barrier” across the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap . With the agreement of the USN, Canadian planners moved the Sub-Air barrier farther south to extend from Cape Race NL some 600 miles southeast to a point 300 miles from the Azores. For the first two weeks 24 Argus from Greenwood were divided between surveillance and barrier patrols to locate and track Soviet ships and submarines. Eight more Argus later joined from Summerside.
The Argus’, with their much longer range, were the key players from the start. They were the only aircraft able to cover the far southeast end of the barrier, a 1,000 miles from Greenwood.Three Argus were continuously on station, six hours out, eight on station and six hours back, twenty hours per flight. They carried full war loads, 8,000 pounds of Mk 54 depth charges and Mk 43 torpedoes. Torpedo batteries were even charged; an irreversible and expensive process and hundreds of sonobuoys were dropped. When sonobuoy stocks ran low the USN flew in an extra 500 at no cost! But at no time did the RCN or the RCAF’s Maritime Air Command go officially to a higher degree of military vigilance than DEFCON 5. Canadian ships and aircraft patrolled with the Master Armament Switch in the “ARMED” position but had no authority to release any weapons.
Because it lacked political authority Canadian participation was not displayed on the USN’s status boards and maps in Washington. Commodore J.C. O’Brien, the Canadian naval attaché in Washington, did everything to ensure that the USN’s most senior officers were aware of Canada’s unofficial commitment. There were no official communications between Halifax and Ottawa. Admiral Dyer kept Admiral Rayner informed only by telephone. Defence Minister Harkness kept the information to himself despite his knowledge of Diefenbaker’s opposition to Canada’s participation in the Cuban blockade. The RCN and the RCAF’s Argus’ stood alone honouring Canada’s duty to stand by her North American ally, without one scrap of paper, memo, minute or message, or one public announcement to give it direction or approval.
The USN’s “Historical Account of the Cuban Crisis” has no mention of Canadian operations. But those few who really knew what the Canadians had done also knew it lacked political authority. USN Vice Admiral “Whitey” Taylor, who commanded anti-submarine forces in the Atlantic, thanked his Canadian counterparts most sincerely, but only by classified messages and personal calls. The Argus’ finest hour in which it played a key role in defusing a crisis that had brought the world to the brink of war passed unheralded.