Canadian Wings :: The History & Heritage of the Royal Canadian Air Force

british commonwealth air training plan

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Agreement, between the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force was signed in Ottawa on December 17, 1939. This date also marked the 65th birthday of Prime Minister W.L. MacKenzie King and at the end of the day he wrote in his diary.

It was certainly a memorable birthday. I suppose no more significant Agreement has ever been signed by the Government of Canada, or signature placed in the name of Canada to [such a] definitely defined obligation.

The agreement had not been an easy one to negotiate. The discussions went on for over two months - from about 10 October when the first meeting was held until the early hours of December 17 when the delegates, with a sign of relief, put signatures to the document in the Prime Minister's office. From beginning to end the negotiations were dominated by MacKenzie King. Realizing how important the scheme was to the United Kingdom he put on a masterful display of diplomatic maneuvering - bullying, threatening and cajoling until he had wrung as many concessions as possible from the British representatives. Yet, politics aside, the signing of the BCATP Agreement was a momentous event. Strategically it was important for three main reasons: it furnished air training fields that were reasonably close to the United Kingdom yet well beyond the reach of enemy aircraft, it provided a uniform system of training and laid the basis for the pooling of Commonwealth air power. Initially, the British hoped and expected that the RAF would be the only operational force - one big air force to which Canada and the other Commonwealth countries would contribute manpower much the same as in the First World War. This wish was not completely realized for King demanded that a token number of squadrons (the exact number to be decided later on) be distinctively designated as RCAF. The negotiations almost collapsed over this issue but King refused to sign the Agreement until the weary British delegates reluctantly gave in.

Zero Day

On "Zero Day" - 29 April 1940, No. 1 Initial Training School, accommodated at the Eglinton Hunt Club in Toronto, opened its doors on schedule to the members of the first group of 221 trainees all classified as A.C. II (Aircraftman II)- at the very bottom of the rank structure entitled to $1.70 a day plus free room and board. Seventeen of these were washed out in training and the rest went on to become pilots, air observers, wireless operator-air gunners and air gunners. One hundred of them, the envy of their comrades, were selected for pilot training, promoted to the exalted rank of L.A.C. (Leading Aircraftman - $2.00 a day) and sent to 15 different flying clubs across Canada for the elementary phase of instruction. Forty-seven who finished their training before the others, came together again as No.1 Course at No.1 SFTS at RCAF Station Camp Borden. On 30 September 39 of them received their wings. Two were killed in air accidents and the others ceased training for one reason or another. On graduation about half of the group were commissioned and the others were promoted to sergeant rank.

Proud to be proclaimed as the first class of pilots to graduate from the training plan the new pilots fully expected to be sent overseas and were naturally disappointed to learn that they were needed in the BCATP as flying instructors, staff pilots or in some other capacity. Such was theexperience of the next two or three classes of pilots nearly all of whom were plowed back into the training scheme. The first class of pilots to go overseas as a body was a group of 37 Australians who graduated in November 1941 from No.2 SFTS at Uplands, Ottawa. Before this, however, a class of 37 Canadian observers had already arrived in the United Kingdom. The first observers to complete their training, they received their wings at Trenton on 27 October, 1940 and after a short period of leave, they embarked on the Duchess of Richmond. Over half of them went to Bomber Command of the RAF and most of the others to Coastal Command. A year later half of them had been killed in action and by the end of the war two thirds of them had lain down their lives for their country.

To Be or Not To Be?

When the Battle of Britain was at its height in the summer of 1940 the BCATP gave the appearance of being a collection of half-finished schools and on many sites where schools were planned but not yet begun there was no activity whatever. Under the circumstances the planners came in for a good deal of criticism and some people, both malcontents and well meaning individuals, were asking if it would not be better to forget about the BCATP or at least curtail it and send some of the flying instructors and other aircrew who were retained in Canada to the aid of Great Britain. Such a proposal was made but the answer came back that the BCATP must not only be continued but it must be expanded and pushed forward as rapidly as possible. The driving force behind this expansion was embodied in the personalities of C.B. "Chubby" Power, the Minister of National Defence for Air and C.D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply. Speaking in the House of Commons on 29 July, 1940, Power reviewed the progress of the plan and the problems that had to be overcome. "We are told," he concluded, "that it is Canada's most important contribution to the common effort and ultimate victory. We are determined that it shall be."

Acceleration

Underthe guiding hand of Air Commodore Robert Leckie, Air member for Training (later Air Marshal and Chief of the Air Staff) the plan moved into high gear. Construction crews worked round-the-clock using floodlights for the night shifts and new schools sprung up like mushrooms. Recruits were often moved in before the buildings were finished, the runways completed or the water supply hooked up and tramped to and from their classes in ankle deep mud. But the training went on at an accelerated pace. By the end of 1941 the pilot output was more than double what had been called for in the original plan.

Draft Dodgers in Reverse

By the summer of 1940 the supply of experienced Canadian pilots needed for flying instructors and for miscellaneous flying duties was nearly exhausted and the RCAF looked south of the border for a fresh supply. As the United States was not at war American pilots had to be "smuggled" into Canada through a clandestine recruiting organization set up by Air Marshall W.A. (Billy) Bishop. In addition, although there was no shortage of young Canadian aircrew recruits, American boys, attracted by the publicity given the BCATP, began crossing the border and lined up outside the nearest recruiting centres in such members that they caused some embarrassment to Canadian authorities. Occasionally they were followed by worried parents who, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, pleaded with them to forget about foreign wars and go back to school. Eventually, President Roosevelt gave his blessing to this mass exodus and ordered that Americans going to Canada to join the RCAF or RAF be granted exemption by the draft board. After Pearl Harbour 1759 American members of the RCAF transferred to the armed forces of the United States, another 2000 transferred later on and about 5000 completed their service with the RCAF.

Overproduction

If any criticism is to be made of the BCATP it is simply that it was too successful. By the end of 1943 it was running like a well-oiled machine and turning out pilots faster than they could be absorbed into operational squadrons. In February 1944, after consulting with British authorities,Air Minister Power decided that the scheme must be slowed down. When the brakes were applied there were still thousands of recruits in various stages of training and they were jolted and jarred like passengers in a railway express that suddenly grinds to a halt. To their dismay and discouragement those anxiously waiting to begin flying training were told they were no longer needed as pilots. Courses just begun were canceled and the trainees given the choice of transferring to another category of aircrew for which there was still a demand, or joining the army or navy or taking their discharge. Student pilots who were well advanced in their training were allowed to continue but understood that they had little chance of being sent overseas and might be released at any time. Only the instructors, freed from their training duties and given priority in overseas postings found reason to rejoice.

Training continued until March 31, 1945 when the BCATP came to an end.** The total number of graduates was 131553 - 49808 pilots, 29963 observers and navigators, 14996 air gunners, 18496 wireless-operator air gunners, 15673 air bombers, 1913 flight engineers and 704 naval air gunners. Of the total 72835 were members of the RCAF, 42110 were RAF, 9606 RAAF and 7002 RNZAF. It should be noted however, that while the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand sent recruits to Canada for training they also operated training plans of their own. Among the RAF trainees there were large numbers of allied nationals; about 2000 members of the Free French Air Force, 725 Norwegians, 260 Czechoslovakians and slightly smaller numbers of aircrew from Belgium and Holland received their wings at various units of the BCATP.

** Email received from Alan Turner - "I was in a batch of trainee navigators that did not arrive at Halifax, and thence Moncton, until May 1945. We went on to Rivers, Man., (others to Portage la Prairie, Man., and to Prince Edward Island) and began training with Course 129 on 28th May. When we had only about three weeks left before our final 'Wings' exams, training was stopped abruptly on 23rd August 1945, and a couple of days later we were all on our way back."

As proclaimed by President Roosevelt Canada indeed had become "the aerodrome of democracy.
 Final Output of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
  Trade RCAF RAF RAAF RNZAF Total  
  Pilot 25646 17796 4045 2220 49707
  Navigator 7280 6922 944 724 15870
  Navigator (B2) 5154 3113 699 829 9795
  Navigator (W) 421 3847 30   4298
  Air Bomber 6659 7581 799 634 15673
  Wireless/AG 12744 755 2975 2122 18596
  Air Gunner 12917 2096 244 443 15700 
  Flight Eng 1913       1913
Total 72734 42110 9706 7002 131552