Admiral unilaterally sent Canadian warships as part of US maritime blockade of Cuba

OTTAWA (CP) - Kenneth Dyer, a retired admiral who acted on his own and sent Canadian warships to sea to help the United States during the Cuban missile crisis, has died.

The family asked that his age not be disclosed, although a friend said Dyer was in his early 80s. Dyer was a rear-admiral commanding the East Coast fleet when the crisis over the deployment of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba broke out in 1962. President John Kennedy declared a naval blockade of the island and asked for Canadian support. The request sparked a short-lived political crisis in the government of then-prime minister John Diefenbaker.

Diefenbaker wrangled with his defence minister, Douglas Harkness, and refused to put Canadian forces on alert, even though the crisis appeared to be a potential detonator for nuclear war.

While his political masters and his superiors in Ottawa, including Vice-Adm. Harry Rayner, the chief of the naval staff, were paralyzed by the political situation, Dyer acted.

According to Tony German, who wrote about the little-known incident in his book, The Sea is at Our Gates, the admiral sent his Royal Canadian Navy warships to sea to hunt Russian submarines. Dyer knew he was straining the traditional civilian-military leash almost to the breaking point.

"I don't think there's any question about it that Douglas Harkness was trying to get a decision from the prime minister and couldn't get a decision," German said in an interview. "This lack of decision was clear to Adm. Dyer.

"The chief of the naval staff couldn't, under those circumstances, give him directions but he did what any prudent commander would have done under those circumstances; he put his forces completely ready and positioned not only so they could take whatever action might be necessary, but also to protect his fleet."

Midway through the crisis Ottawa decided to call a low-level alert, but Dyer had already pulled out all the stops.

A modern-day account of the incident drawn from the Canadian Forces web site says Dyer deployed 22 destroyers and aircraft carriers with 28 planes, two subs, 12 shore-based anti-submarine planes and 22 patrol planes in support of the Americans.

The United States navy, trying to tighten its blockade around Cuba, let the Canadians cover a big segment of the North Atlantic with patrols seeking Russian subs.

"The RCN took over a very substantial segment of what would normally have been a U.S. responsibility and certainly allowed at least one (anti-submarine) task group to move down further south," German said. "It most certainly released the U.S. navy forces."

The crisis ended in November. The Russians agreed to withdraw their missiles. The superpowers backed away from the nuclear brink.

In Canada, politicians and the military decided to agree that nothing much had happened.

"I think they all preferred to forget it," German said. "The crisis had been resolved and it was very little known or understood."

The navy's web site account by David Robinson goes further:

"What had been done was necessary, but attention could not be drawn to the navy's achievements without underlying the state of crisis within Canada's political and military institutions.

"There would be no battle honours, no medal presentations, no commendations."

Dyer himself was soon promoted to vice-admiral, but he took early retirement as the in-fighting over unification of the Forces grew in the mid-1960s.

German said Dyer was much respected in the navy.

"He really understood the people who were working for him." German recalled.

Dyer risked his career and even a possible court martial when he sent his fleet to aid the Americans without permission, yet German said this was typical.

"He was very brave, as was underlined by the kind of bravery he exercised in this particular incident."

Even before the Cuban crisis, Dyer had been a war hero. He won the Distinguished Service Cross in 1942 when, as commander of the destroyer HMCS Skeena, he sank a German U-boat.

Among his post-war career highlights was a 19-month stint in command of the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent from 1951-53.

He is survived by his wife Diana and five children; Kenneth, David, John, Michael and Deborah.

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