Barney's Bell

Posted by Daniel on Jun 20, 2010 - 13245 comments

A ship's bell sits on the bar in the wardroom of HMCS Discovery in Vancouver’s Naval Reserve Unit on Deadman’s Island, Stanley Park. It represents the spirit of "Barney" Johnson, a British Columbian naval officer who served in WWI and WWII. Newly promoted officers still ring the bell today to signify they will be buying drinks for everyone at the bar.

The officers and ship's company of HMCS Preserver presented the bell to Captain B.L. Johnson, DSO, RCNR in February 1943 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his seagoing career. Four years after Johnson's death in 1968, his son donated the treasured memento to HMCS Discovery in memory of his father.

Few young naval reserve officers who have rung that bell know anything of its history and to whom it belonged. Barney Johnson was a legend in his own time and his life story is a perpetual example to naval personnel, both serving and retired.

Johnson watched Canada's first submarines, CC1 and CC2, come alongside in Esquimalt following their clandestine departure from Seattle the day after WWI broke out. He was a young master mariner of considerable repute from Vancouver who had been "lent" by the BC Pilotage Authority for one month to the RCN to assist with the navigation of warships in the hazardous Inside Passage. Johnson, in the turmoil of the outbreak of war, became the First Lieutenant (executive officer) of one of the new submarines and quickly mastered the art of navigating in three dimensions instead of two.

Less than a year later, Lt. Johnson, erroneously designated a volunteer reservist, transferred to the H class submarines then building in Montreal. He became the commanding officer of H8 and sailed her across the Atlantic, a feat not accomplished in submarines previously. Johnson was the first reserve officer to command a submarine in the British Empire and, most probably, in the world. The Royal Navy deemed this most irregular and tried to relieve him of command when H8 arrived in Portsmouth. Johnson retaliated by telling his superiors that he would transfer to general service sooner than serve another "apprenticeship" to regain his submarine command. The RN relented after hearing about the skillful Canadian from the regular RN submarine captains who crossed the pond with him in other H class boats. Grudgingly, the RN admiral confirmed Johnson as CO of H8, unwittingly launching an extraordinary submarine career.

As if that was not enough, the RN then attempted to get Johnson to accept a commission in the regular navy so that one of their submarines was not commanded by a colonial reservist. Johnson refused pointblank, preferring to remain in the wavy navy of which he was so proud, and paved the way for the RCN and RN to take reservists seriously. Subsequently several Canadian reservists commanded British submarines during WWII.

In WWI, Johnson's brilliant seamanship brought H8 home safely after a mine blew off her bow near Holland, and won him a DSO (but that's another story). In WWII he also served with distinction both at sea and ashore in the rank of commander, but not in submarines. Johnson's career exemplifies the essence and spirit of the naval reservist. Who better to remember when his bell rings in the wardroom of HMCS Discovery?

© Julie H. Ferguson 2010