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The Canadian Air Force


Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighter
photo by J. Gray

"Aeroplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value",
French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, 1911

Aviation in Canada can trace its roots back to 1908, when an aircraft known as the "Silver Dart" was built.  The plane was constructed from steel tubes, bamboo, tape, wire, and wood, with a silver Japanese silk covering on the wings, and it was from this silk that the plane was given its name.  It was designed and built by a group known as the Aerial Experimental Association, which had been formed by Alexander Graham Bell. The machine first flew in early 1909, in New York state, before being crated and transported back to Canada.  In February, 1909, the craft made its first Canadian flight from the surface of an icy lake in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.  On its maiden flight, the aircraft was piloted by J.D. McCurdy, one of its designers.

In time, the plane had flown over 200 test flights, and worked its way up to flights of almost twenty miles.  The aircraft soon flying at greater heights, and briefly caught the attention of military officials.  During one test flight, when the Silver Dart was being piloted by Casey Baldwin, it crashed.  Army officers in attendance at the demonstration were skeptical about the aircraft's ability, and military brass had soon lost any interest in purchasing the plane. Although the Silver Dart never flew again, its engine, built by Glenn Curtiss is housed in a Canadian museum.  A full scale replica of the plane was also built by the Canadian Air Force in the 1950's, and is on display at the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa.

The First World War

"Hunter" by Rich Thistle
used with permission of the artist

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Canadian government authorized the purchase of a single aircraft, an American Burgess-Dunne bi-plane.  Designed by a British lieutenant, the aircraft was built under license by a Massachusetts based boat building firm, and purchased by the Canadian government for $5,000. In October, 1914, the bi-plane and two officers, along with a mechanically trained sergeant who would serve as the ground crew, became the "Canadian Aviation Corps", and were soon bound for Europe. After crossing the Atlantic strapped to the deck of a ship, the plane finally arrived in England, where it sat abandoned and deteriorating in a field.  Eventually, the bi-plane was scrapped, and one of the two pilots, Captain E.L Janney, returned to Canada.  The second, Lieutenant W.F. Sharpe, joined the British air force, and was killed in 1915.

Canadian soldiers, horrified by the war in the trenches, were soon volunteering to join Britain's  Royal Flying Corps to escape the war on the ground.  Although Canada lacked the machinery of an air force, there was no shortage of men willing to train as pilots and observers in British aircraft. One of the men who had transfered from the Canadian Expeditionary Force (army) to the Royal Flying Corps was Major William "Billy" Bishop.  A native of Owen Sound, Ontario, he would later become the first Canadian airman to be awarded a Victoria Cross, and by 1917, was the RFC's top scoring ace, with 45 victories.

Although the Royal Flying Corps turned down many men, and recruits, because they could not fly, the Royal Naval Air Service offered opportunities to Canadian men who obtained their pilot's license.  Flight schools in Canada, and the United States, were seeing thousands of applicants, with the demand becoming overwhelming.

The first Canadians were soon in the air with the RNAS by late 1915.  Flight Sub Lieutenant Arthur Strachan Ince was credited with the first Canadian aerial victory, when he shot down a German seaplane off the Belgian coast in December.  Ince was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the first decoration to be awarded to a Canadian for air combat. By the summer of 1916, 3 (Naval) Wing had been formed as the RNAS's first offensive unit.  Among the pilots in the unit were 40 Canadians, several of whom later became Naval fighter aces.

In late 1917, the Royal Flying Corps was short of aircraft and pilots, and accepted an offer of squadrons and men from the RNAS.  Many of the aircraft from both the RFC and RNAS were soon in action over the Western Front, including a large number of Canadians.  By 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service had amalgamated, forming Britain's Royal Air Force.

Replica of Canada's Burgess-Dunne aircraft,
RCAF Museum, Trenton, Ontario,
photo by J. Gray, 2009

The year 1917 also saw the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps, Canada.  Two Canadian companies began building training aircraft, and delivery of the first planes was taken in February, 1917.  By May, the units were re-named "Canadian Training Squadrons", with sites being developed for training at Long Branch (north of Toronto), Camp Borden and Deseronto, Ontario. A number of ground crew were also recruited and trained at these facilities.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, arrangements were made allowing Canadian and British pilots to train during the harsh winter months in Texas.  In exchange, Canadian built training aircraft were provided to the US Army, and American pilots were permitted to be trained in the program. By war's end, the program had trained over 3,000 pilots and 130 observers, not including US personnel.  Of this number, 2,500 were sent overseas. Increased U-boat activity in the Atlantic also saw the formation of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service in 1917.  The RCNAS borrowed flying boats and kite balloons from the United States, and began operating from locations in Nova Scotia.

A Canadian shoots down "The Red Baron"

Back on the battlefields of Europe, a Canadian pilot made history, in April, 1918, when he shot down the famed German ace Manfred Von Richthofen.  Flying a blood red plane, and known as "The Red Baron", Von Richtohofen had scored 80 confirmed victories in his flying career, making him the most successful ace of the war.

Roy Brown was born in Carleton Place, Ontario, and learned to fly at a school in Dayton, Ohio, prior to enlisting in the military.  Brown began his flying career in early 1917, and by October of that same year, had been credited with his 5th victory.  A Distinguished Cross followed in November, and by February of 1918, Brown had been promoted to flight leader. Brown was soon a Captain in the newly amalgamated Royal Air Force, and sent to the heavy fighting near the Somme, as part of the newly formed 209 squadron.  Flying a khaki coloured BR 1 Camel, Brown and his men in the squadron were flying up to four missions a day, many of them low over enemy lines, where they were tasked with firing on ground troops.

On April 21, 209 Squadron and the Germans were in a dogfight over the Somme, near Corbie.  Von Richthofen had hit, and was now behind, another Canadian pilot.  Brown was able to fly in behind the German's red Fokker tri-plane and open fire on him. Breaking one of his own rules, Von Richtofen had  flown over the Allied lines, and came under heavy fire from Australian artillery.  His plane lost control, nose dived to the ground, and crashed in a field. The Australians recovered Von Richtofen's body from his Fokker, and buried him with military honours.  For his part in the dogfight, Captain Roy Brown was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross. Today, the seat from the German's plane remains on display at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

No. 1 and No. 2 Squadrons, Canadian Air Force

In November, 1918, a Canadian Air Force was created.  A training base was established in England, and two squadrons were formed as Canadian units.  81 Squadron, Royal Air Force, was established in November 1918, with all Canadian personnel.  They were equipped with Sopwith Dolphins, and re-named 1 Squadron, Canadian Air Force.

A second squadron, similarly manned with Canadian personnel, was established and became No. 2 Squadron, Canadian Air Force.  They were also equipped with Sopwith Dolphins. Before the two squadrons could move to France, and see action, the war ended, and by January, 1920, both squadrons were disbanded.

Dogfight - William George Barker

William "Billy" Barker, VC
Canada's most decorated Air Force officer

The following story, "Dogfight", by Edward Jablonski, is taken from his excellent book "The Great War, Stories of World War I", and gives some insight into the war in the air from a Canadian perspective.
It also tells the story of  William "Billy" Barker, winner of the Victoria Cross and Canada's most decorated Air Force officer.

It has been said, and to a certain extent it was true, that the first war in the air was a "fighter pilot's" war.  Certainly, the fighter pilots- the so-called aces- that is, men who had shot down five or more of the enemy's planes, were given much more newspaper space.

The exploits of such aces as the Baron von Richtofen, Georges Guynemer, William Bishop, Raoul Lufbery and, following America's entry into the war, Captain "Eddie" Rickenbacker, were duly reported and avidly read "back home".

Little was mentioned, however, about the exploits of the men who flew in the less glamourous two-seaters, the planes which carried observers, photographers, or bombardiers.  Day after day, and night after night, these little praised men in their big planes took off and quietly did their work.  Many died, and few were known by the general public.

The reason was that the fighter pilot, alone in his frail little plane, was an individual.  He was like a knight jousting in the skies, high above the mud and misery of the trenches.  When formations of planes met over the Western Front, even the pitiable infantrymen paused to look up.

The sky filled with snarling, twisting, and gyrating aircraft, many of them painted in the most brilliant colours.  Machine guns sputtered and an unlucky victim plummeted into no-man's-land trailing flame and oily smoke.  Under the stress of battle- too steep a dive or too sharp a turn- the little planes collapsed in the air and the hapless pilot was carried thousands of feet to his death in a wingless plane.  Not until the very end of the war did fighter pilots wear parachutes.

Obviously, it took a good deal of courage merely to go up in one of those tricky planes, let alone go into battle in one.  It was this special quality that brought so much attention to the fighter pilots of the First World War.

In truth, however, aviation had very little effect upon the final outcome of the war.  It was not until late in the war, in fact, that the full meaning of "air power" began to be understood and there was a change in the thinking of the military planners.  This came to be called "strategic bombardment", which moved the battle out of the battlefield and behind the lines.  Great fleets of giant bombers, protected by tiny fighter planes, took off to bomb enemy factories, rail centers, supply depots, and other strategic places.  Without the materials to make war, the enemy eventually would have to give up.

Among the early pioneers of strategic bombardment were England's Hugh Trenchard and the colourful American, General William Mitchell.  They closed the book on the day of the aces.  Formation flying became the rule and the day of the lone eagle was over; dashing and impetuous young airmen were disciplined according to the newly discovered tactics of air fighting.  What had once been a deadly game became and even deadlier science.  The fighter pilot, who had once been on his own, became just another member of a team.

Even so, just two weeks before the war ended, the men in the front line trenches witnessed the most spectacular dogfight of all time.  It was an event never equaled, not even in the Second World War.  It served to remind the world that the individual was important, even in mass war.

The hero of this classic dogfight was a young Canadian, William George Barker.  Born at Dauphin, Manitoba, on November 3, 1894, Billy - no one ever called him William - had grown up in Canada's great midwestern prairie land.  As a boy, he loved to roam through the fields and woods, and was a crack shot with a rifle.

When war came, Billy was nineteen.  He rushed to enlist, feeling, as did so many others, that the cause of England and France was his cause too. On finishing training late in 1914, Billy was assigned to the machine gun section of the Manitoba Cavalry.

By the spring of 1915, Billy was mired in the trenches in France, and having second thoughts about the glory of war.  He had never considered flying with any seriousness, but a few weeks in the mud took care of that.  It was not, of course, merely the chance to get out of the trenches.  Billy had an adventurous spirit, loved excitement, and longed for more action than he experienced in the stalemated trenches.  He applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.

Illustration by Arnie Kohn,
From "The Great War: Stories of World War I" by Edward Jablonski


This was a typical move on the part of many of the young adventurers who served during the early months of the war in the more conventional artillery, infantry, or cavalry.  Aviation was like a magnet to certain types of men - the seeker of action, the imaginative warrior, the hunter, or the hater of discipline.

Billy was delighted when his transfer came through, but was a bit disappointed to learn that he was to be trained as an observer-gunner. Being flown around in an old two-seater, the B.E.2, a clumsy, slow, not very  reliable plane, was not exactly Billy's idea of high adventure.

The B.E. (British Experimental) was known as "The Quirk" to airmen.  It was a plane which had outlived its usefulness by 1915 when Billy Barker transfered to the Royal Flying Corps.  While it was stable and easy to fly, it was not maneuverable, and therefore not a battle plane.

The Quirk was easy prey to the new Fokker monoplanes which had only recently appeared on the Western Front.  These German planes were equipped with one or two machine guns mounted on top of the plane's fuselage, just in front of the pilot's cockpit.  These guns could fire directly through the propeller in the direction of flight; all the pilot had to do was aim his plane at the enemy and pull the trigger.

This device enabling the guns to be fired directly through the propeller was a deadly and remarkable innovation at the time and might have had a great effect upon the war's outcome had more of these synchoronization devices been made in time.  Until Anthony Fokker devised the synchronized machine gun- and made it work - battle planes carried little more armament than pistols, rifles, and, in the beginning, even bricks.  Later, machine guns were mounted clumsily on the fuselage or atop the wing, but guns often jammed and were difficult to reload.  Unless the gunner was careful, he could shoot up his own plane.

The early Quirk's didn't even carry guns, but when machine guns were installed, the additional weight did not improve the plane's performance at all.  It could barely reach a speed of seventy miles an hour and could just about reach an altitude of ten thousand feet.

Still, Billy, once he had resigned himself to serving as an observer, and not the more glamourous pilot, was quite happy flying around in the old Quirk.  Just getting into the air was a wonderful experience.  He was among the first few to see the earth from an aircraft.

The work was routine, however.  The plane would sputter over the lines, Billy would indicate any important changes from their previous visit on his map, and they would return to their squadron base.  Though spoiling for a fight and hoping for more action, Billy proved to be an excellent observer.

It was weeks before he got his first taste of real action.  One fine day in March, 1916, when Billy and his pilot were plodding along over the front line in their Quirk, they found themselves under attack.  It was one of the Fokkers they had been hearing so much about and which had been shooting down Quirks with disheartening regularity.  Some pilots were already referring to themselves as "Fokker Fodder".

Actually, the Fokker was overrated.  It could, however, reach a speed of eighty miles per hour, ten per hour better than the Quirk. It was more maneuverable, although it might fall apart in the air if tossed around too much.  Its major advantage was the forward firing machine gun.

As the single-winged Fokker approached there was little else Billy and the pilot could do but point their Quirk for home, wait for developments, and hope for the best.  The smaller plane, the black crosses on the wings growing larger, drew nearer.

Billy had already dropped his pencil and gripped the handles of the twin Lewis machine guns which were mounted between his cockpit and the pilot's. It was an inconvenient arrangement, for in order to fire to the rear, Billy had to fire over the pilot's head in the back cockpit.  He also had to be careful, when firing to the sides, to keep from hitting the wings.

As the Fokker pulled in behind them, they heard the chattering of its machine guns and watched small holes appear in the fabric of their wing. Billy could see what appeared to be the twinkling of lights from the gun muzzles.  A brace-wire twanged and came loose.

Billy held his fire, carefully getting getting the plane in his sights, gauging the range and speed of the Fokker.  The German plane was already beginning to overtake them.


Pressing the triggers of his guns, Billy raked the Fokker from nose to tail.  Bits of metal and fabric flew off into the plane's slipstream.  Another short burst and Billy could see a puff of black smoke curl out of the engine.  The Fokker practically stopped in midair, pulled up for a moment, faltered, and then, with a black stream of smoke marking its descent, plunged towards the ground.  It was ripped to fiery pieces in no-man's-land.

Billy, his face streaked with the smoke from his guns, turned and smiled at his pilot.  The latter waved with his free hand and thumped the cockpit cowling, congratulating his young observer for a job well done.

Nor was his pugnacity overlooked by the British High Command.  Billy's service as an observer was recognized in the form of the Military Cross and in April, 1916, he was commissioned as a lieutenant.  Even more important, not long after that, he was chosen for pilot training.

The miracle of William Barker's early air career is that he soloed after only fifty-five minutes of dual instruction.  Generally, it took a fledgling several weeks of following his instructor's movements on the duplicate set of controls in is own cockpit before he himself acquired "the feel of the stick".  But Billy was off on his own after less than an hour.  He was not apparently a cocksure youngster, for when he returned to fly at the front he never failed to carry an extra set of landing gear struts.  This was a wise precaution, for though he flew skillfully, Billy did not feel he would always land successfully.

He had been assigned to No. 15 Squadron to fly another two-seater, the R.E. 8 (Reconnaissance Experimental), in which he participated in artillery spotting.  Flying dangerously low over the lines, the men in the artillery observation plane observed the shells of their guns falling in the German positions and radioed back to the gun positions to inform them whether or not they were hitting their targets.

Billy became most unpopular with his observers, for he seemed absolutely fearless and brought them down so low that they could miss nothing on the ground.  On the other hand, the anti-aircraft - called "Archie" - from ground emplacements rarely missed. There was even the possibility that they might be struck by one of their own artillery shells.

This was a bit more exciting for Billy after his long stretch as an observer himself.  In another air battle he managed to shoot down another German plane.  Following yet another flight over the lines, he brought back his plane so badly shot up that it practically fell apart during the landing.  He and his observer were miraculously unhurt.

Then came the cruelest blow of all.  The job Billy had done had been so impressive that he was tagged by the High Command to be posted back to England for six monthsas an instructor. So, early in 1917,the reluctant twenty-three year old Billy, veteran of many months of flying over the front linesand with two German planes to his credit, returned to the quiet life of a training base in England.

Immediately upon arriving Billy applied for a transfer back to France.  This orthodox method failing, Billy devised a method of his own.

He had been in England barely a week when Training Command was flooded with reports of a "crazy bloke" who was buzzing villages, scattering cattle with power dives, and even flying under bridges.  One of his favourite stunts was to run his wheels over the roofs of some of the houses in some nearby hamlet, practically frightening the understandably startled occupants to death.

The entire countryside was up in arms.  The word had barely come through when above the base's headquarters building appeared a tiny fighter plane barely clearing the chimney tops.  With a roar, the plane suddenly zoomed up, nosed over, and dived toward the building, scattering the officers who had gathered outside the door and generally upsetting their dignity.  The backwash of the plane filled the air with papers, dust, twigs and furious officials.

The "crazy bloke", of course, turned out to be Billy flying out his frustration over his new job as an instructor.

By the end of September, he was sent to No. 28 Squadron, then forming at Yatesbury.  On October 8, 1917, the squadron was stationed near Droglandt, France.  A fighter squadron!  Billy was jubilant.

The new Sopwith Camel, a tiny twenty-eight foot wingspan fighter plane, was used by No. 28 Squadron. It had been named The Camel because of the hump-like structure just in front of the single cockpit in which the twin guns were fitted.  It was powered by a "rotary" engine, a nine cylinder Le Rhone, which spun around as fast as the propeller.  In other words, it was as if the propeller and the engine were one unit, unlike the more orthodox engines in which the propeller itself was stationary and only the propeller revolved.  When you flew the Camel, you sat behind an engine which whirled around 1,250 times a minute.

This created a strong gyroscopic effect which made the camel a highly maneuverable plane and a deadly one to an inexperienced pilot.  Many student pilots had been killed while flying the Camel because in a right turn it had the tendency to flip over on its back and out of control.  To an experienced pilot, the Camel was the finest fighter plane of the war.  He could make it dance in a dogfight, confusing many a German pilot with a sudden, darting turn.  One pilot described the plane as "a fierce little beast", and it suited Billy Barker's style perfectly.

In France, he orginated an unusual tactic.  Instead of meeting the German Albatroses high in the sky, Billy lured them down close to the ground.  He had learned that the Camel was especially sensitive at lower altitudes.

Billy tested this idea just a week after arriving back in France.  He was a flight leader and one day, at dusk, as he was leading his flight home from a sortie over the lines and still deep inside German territory, he spotted German planes coming towards them.

The British pilots rushed in for the attack.  In the confusing melee Billy saw that one of his flight members was in trouble with an Albatross on his tail.  He kicked the rudder and went to help the British pilot - and found himself under attack.  Twin streams of machine gun fire flashed past him.  There was a German Albatross on his own tail.


Canada's Air Force Between the Wars

Canadian Officer's Uniform, 1919-1924,
RCAF Museum, Trenton, Ontario
photo by J. Gray

Following the disbanding of the Canadian air force in Britain, Canada was left only with some training aircraft and a small amount of equipment from the disbanded Naval Air Service.  However, in 1919, Britain provided Canada and other commonwealth nations with a signifigant amount of aircraft.  Known as the "Imperial Gift to the Dominions", this program was a post war sharing of surplus equipment.

In addition to shipping over 100 aircraft to Canada, the British also supplied 12 dirigible airships, some kite balloons, dismantled hangers, and several hundred trucks and other motorized vehicles. In February, 1920, a Canadian Air Force was formally set up in Canada. Headquarters would be established in Ottawa, and training would be conducted at Camp Borden.  The new air force was uniformed in navy blue, and their cap badge was a maple leaf with the abbreviation CAF, flanked by two wings and a crown.  The new air force's motto became "Sic Itur ad Astra", meaning "Such is the path of the stars". A strength of 1,340 officers, and 3,905 other ranks was authorized, although this was formed on a non-permanent basis, with members being part-time auxiliaries.  Operations commenced in October, 1920.

In February, 1923, King George V authorized the designation "Royal Canadian Air Force".  On April 1, 1924, the new RCAF offically became a permanent component of the Department of Defence.  The dark blue uniform was changed to match the Royal Air Force's light blue, and Trenton replaced Borden as the RCAF's primary base. Under the new organizational structure, the RCAF was divided into three components.  A permanent air force, or "full time", was authorized, with a strength of 61 officers and 262 men.  The Non-Permanent Air Force was a continuation of the auxiliary arm, operating since 1920.  Finally, the Reserve Air Force was created, a non-active body that could be called upon in the event of war or national emergency.

In the early days, the air force was used in more civilian roles than military. Duties such as forest fire patrol, aerial surveying, air transport, and medical evacuation were common.  In 1932, the air force budget had allocated $15 million for civil expenditure, and only $2.5 million for military usage.  It was not uncommon to see two bush aircraft of the same type land on a northern lake, one lettered in civilian markings, and the other bearing the insignia of the RCAF.  Aviation, both military and civilian, boomed in the thirties.  Flying clubs began to form, many of which trained the pilots who would fight in the Second World War.  Also, regularly scheduled mail and passenger flights began, and by 1934, Canada had carried more air freight than any other nation in the world.

However, in the 1930's the Great Depression struck, and the Royal Canadian Air Force was again downsized.  The permanent force was cut, and many of the civil functions were turned over to airlines and private companies.  As the permanent air force was being slashed, the non-permanent force began to grow.  Auxiliary units were established in Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg.  A few years later, a new unit was added in Dartmouth.

Tensions in Europe, in the mid-1930s, again saw an expansion in the air force.  Squadrons were re-established in Trenton, and Rockcliffe, Ontario. Training was also expanded at Borden, and by November, 1936, the RCAF had been freed of nearly all of its civil duties. By 1937, the air force budget had reached $4.5 million, and the permanent force was at 249 officers, and 1580 men.  The Non-Permanent force had a complement of 163 officers, and just over 850 men. Seven Stranraer flying boats, of an eventual 18, went into service.  Two Canadian companies, Boeing of Vancouver and Ottawa Car Company, were also contracted to build aircraft.  Several other companies began building aircraft under license.

The 1938 budget was $11 milliion, which later soared to $30 million, as the situtation in Europe was growing serious and war seemed inevitable.  By the time the Second World War was declared, the Royal Canadian Air Force had reached 20 squadrons, over 4,000 officers and men, and a fleet of over two hundred aircraft. In addition, Canadian companies were contracted to build British aircraft.  Canadian Associated Aircraft Ltd., produced Handley-Page Hampden bombers, and Canadian Car and Foundry was licensed to build Hawker Hurricane fighters.  Twenty of these Hurricanes were sent to Britain in early 1939.

The Second World War

RCAF Hurricane, Trenton, Ontario
photo by J. Gray, 2009


When the Second World War began in 1939, the Royal Canadian Air Force consisted of only 230 aircraft, over half of which were training or transport planes.  Of these, only nineteen Hurricanes and ten Fairey Battle light bombers could be considered front line aircraft.  Like the Navy, the Air Force would have to begin a major program of building and recruiting, both for homeland defence, and to help the air war in Europe.

The RCAF during the war consisted of three major parts, two of which remained in Canada.  The first, known as the Home War Establishment, was responsible for the defence of Canada.  Among their duties were coastal defence and the protection of shipping, under the direction of two operational commands, Eastern and Western.  In the early years of the war, when the German navy's U-boats were posing a threat to Canada's Atlantic coast, the majority of resources were allocated here.  Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the occupation of the Aleutian Islands, the priority was switched to focus on the west coast.  By November, 1942, the Home War Establishment reached its peak, with 37 squadrons, almost equally divided between both coasts.

The Second part of the RCAF was its involvement in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.  Canada was chosen as a training ground for Commonwealth pilots for several reasons.  The wide open spaces of such a large country provided the land to construct many airfields and schools and Canada was safely beyond the reach of enemy bombers.  Pilots from the Royal Air Force, as well as Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians, would receiving their flight training at the Canadian schools, where they were provided with a uniform system of training.  In addition, the plan allowed for a pooling of Commonwealth air power.

The RCAF's third component was known as the Overseas War Establishment, and consisted of air force personnel and equipment sent to Britain for the war in Europe.  A large number of Canadian air force personnel served within the Royal Air Force squadrons.  Although no separate Canadian fighter groups were formed, many RCAF fighter pilots served in the RAF, as well as forming an all-Canadian Squadron, which saw action during the Battle of Britain.  A Canadian bomber group, however, was formed.  

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

 Harvard training aircraft, Dunnville, Ontario,
photo by J. Gray (2009)

At the start of the Second World War, one of the most important roles played by Canada and the Royal Canadian Air Force was the training of large numbers of aircrew from around the British Commonwealth.  With its wide open spaces, and safe distance from attack from the Germans, the Canadian countryside was ideal for such an endeavour.  Set up in December, 1939, the training plan was scheduled to run until March, 1943, and would involve pilots and instructors from Canada, Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.  Schools would be set up across the country, with the goal of graduating thousands of pilots and other aircraft specialists to fight the war in Europe.  As the war dragged on, the training scheme was extended beyond 1943, and by the time the war had ended in 1945, the schools had trained nearly 132,000 aircrew.  Of this number, nearly eighty percent were Canadians.  Many others went on to serve in Britain's Royal Air Force, as well as more than three thousand who served in the Fleet Air Arm. Graduates of the training program also served with the Australian and New Zealand Air Forces.

In the initial planning stages, it was estimated the plan would cost approximately 600 million dollars. The British would contribute training aircraft and parts, valued at approximately $185 million, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand contributing the remaining funds.  Canada's Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, insisted that the RCAF would run the training plan, but the other Commonwealth nations would be guaranteed a voice in day to day operations.  Liason officers from each country would be attached to the training plan, and all students would be trained in a uniform fashion.  Planners estimated five thousand training aircraft would be required, a number that was later reduced.  Among the aircraft which would be utilized were more than seven hundred Canadian built Tiger Moths and Fleet Finches, a further seven hundred North American Harvards, more than 1,300 twin engine Avro Ansons, and 750 Fairey Battles which would be used in a gunnery training capacity.

The planning was complete and the plan approved in mid-December, 1939.  Immediately, work had to begin locating suitable locations for airfields and the construction of schools. Several Canadian airfields already existed, and could possibly be transformed into Air Force training schools.  Many others would have to be built from the ground up.  Survey work began, with inspectors and engineers from the Department of Transport working alongside RCAF officers.  Suitable airfields had to be located away from hills, mountains, tall buildings and telephone wires, but also accessible to electricity, water, and transportation lines.  Swamp lands were avoided, and the locations required areas with good soil and suitable drainage.  As a result of these requirements, many of the schools were located in southern Ontario, and the southern portions of the prairie provinces.  By the time surveying was complete, twenty four existing Canadian airfields were already suitable for air force use, needing only the addition of some buildings.  Another fifteen were usable, after some extensive work.  Approximately eighty more would have to be built from scratch.  The Air Force hired a Winnipeg engineering firm to begin construction work, and engineers and draftsmen were soon employed to design scores of buildings.... hangers, medical facilities, barracks, administration buildings and mess halls would all be required.  To speed up the construction process, buildings were constructed to a standardized pattern, and many of the airfields were built in a similar fashion.

Plaque at No. 6 Service Flying Training School, Dunnville, Ontario,
photo by J. Gray (2009)

Coming from all provinces and all walks of life, the first place new airmen began their careers were at one of five manning depots across the country.  Located in Toronto, Brandon, Edmonton, Quebec City and Lachine, recruits learn military drill, discipline, weapon handling, and the basics of flight and navigation.  The recruits also experienced a transformation from civilian to military life, living in massive dorms with hundreds of bunks, lining up for food, clothing, haircuts and bedding, and being drilled constantly.  In the words of author Spencer Dunmore, bodies were there to be trained and worked until they resembled airmen. Upon graduation, the recruits are promoted to "Aircraftsman 2", and directed towards the next training school, either as flight crew or grounds crew.  The next step for airmen is one of the Initial Training Schools (ITS), where they undergo another ten weeks of training.  At the end of this program, some will be selected to begin pilot training.  Those who are un-successful as potential pilots are trained in other aircrew functions, such as navigators, bombers, wireless operators and gunners.

Further Reading:

Dunmore, Spencer, "Wings for Victory. The Remarkable Story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada", McClelland and Stewart Publishing, Toronto, 1994
Faryon, Cynthia, "Unsung Heroes of the Royal Canadian Air Force", Altitude Publishing Canada, Canmore Alberta, 2003

McCaffery, Dan, "Air Aces. The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots", James Lorimer & Company, 1990

Molson, Kenneth, "Canada's National Aviation Museum", National Aviation Museum Publishing, Ottawa, 1988

Shores, Christopher, "History of the Royal Canadian Air Force", Royce Publications, Toronto, 1984



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