From One World War to Another (1919-43)

The Air Force to 1942

Expansion of the RCAF and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

Westland Lysander IIIa reconnaissance aircraft

Caption: Westland Lysander IIIa reconnaissance aircraft

After June 1940 the British air force played an essential wartime role. Before the autumn of 1940, Canada did not attempt to obtain special identification for its thousands of aviators serving in the Royal Air Force. After that time, dozens of squadrons would display Canadian colours. Yet outward appearances could not conceal certain realities: 60 percent of Canada’s fliers served in the RAF, and they made up 25 percent of the strength of its Bomber Command. The activities of the few Canadian air units were also controlled by the British, who supplied most of their ground crew and even some of their flight personnel. This account of the Canadian air effort would be incomplete if we failed to mention the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which was conducted in Canada and prepared 131,000 Allied air crew, including 73,000 Canadians, for action. During the summer of 1939, in anticipation of war, Britain had attempted to revive and expand on the pilot training plan that had been so successful in Canada during the First World War. Mackenzie King rejected the idea. When hostilities broke out, however, the project resurfaced and the prime minister began to see its advantages: It would represent a significant contribution to the war effort without being costly in terms of human lives. The spectre for Mackenzie King was seeing this war result in conscription, to divide the country once again.

In December 1939 the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was drawn up, with Canada agreeing to cover a large part of its cost. The first trainees would complete their instruction towards the end of 1940, and the Canadian crews trained under the programme would serve in Britain. In 1940 discussions took place concerning implementation of one of the clauses of the Plan, which stated that overseas squadrons would be clearly identified as Canadian. By late 1942 there were 107 schools in Canada, most having required the construction of infrastructures that would spawn the large airports of today.

During this war, however, Canada would still not control its own squadrons, which did not have majority Canadian ground crews. Eight Canadian fighter squadrons were involved in the air battle over Dieppe on 19 August 1942 - which was virtually separate from what was taking place on the ground - without even the support or knowledge of the senior Canadian air force officers posted to Britain. It is often forgotten that the RAF used the Dieppe raid to provoke the biggest air battle over the European continent. Although aircraft losses were two to one in Germany's favour, the Germans could no longer manage to build as many planes as they were losing, whereas the Allies could easily make up their losses.

Throughout the war Canada was seeking its identity in the air, and its significant contribution in this area would become more or less watered down in the context of the overall Commonwealth effort.

Additional Images

Bristol Bolingbroke IVT bomber