THE HISTORY OF CANADA'S AIR FORCE
the War Years
Royal Canadian Air Force 1939 - 1945
The RCAF peace time establishment called for a total of twenty-three squadrons, of which eight of the eleven permanent squadrons had been formed on the eve of war. In the first month of World War II it was found that only fifteen squadrons could be brought up to strength and mobilized - twelve for home defence and three for overseas service. For aircraft there were 20 different types totaling 230 aircraft, over half were training or transport aircraft, and only nineteen (19) Hurricanes and and ten (10) Fairey Battle light bombers could be considered front line aircraft. From this small nucleus both in personal and equipment the RCAF expanded to become the fourth largest allied air force.
The wartime RCAF consisted of three main parts, two of which were in Canada. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the Home War Establishment - which was to deploy thirty-seven squadrons for coastal defence, protection of shipping, air defence and other duties in the western hemisphere. The third with its headquarters in London, England the Overseas War Establishment. At the end of the war it had forty-eight squadrons serving with the Royal Air Force in Western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East.
On the first of January 1944 the RCAF reached its peak wartime strength of 215,200 all ranks (including 15,153) women, 104,000 were in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 64,928 were serving at home and 46,272 were serving overseas. There were 78 squadrons in service: 35 overseas, 43 at home (of which six had been ordered overseas).
Home War Establishment (HWE)
At the beginning of the war the RCAF's Home War Establishment had two operational commands. Eastern and Western Air Commands and seven under strength squadrons equipped with a variety of obsolescing aircraft, with which to defend the country. The largest threat to Canada and allies at the time were the German U-boats in the North Atlantic so top priority was given to expanding the facilities and capabilities of the Eastern Air Command. In December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and later occupied the Aleutian Islands off Alaska and the priorities were reversed with the focus now on Western Air Command.
Through out 1941 and 1942 the Home War Establishment was to achieve its maximum growth. With squadrons dispersed as far east as Newfoundland and supporting the Americans in Alaska serious problems arose with in exercising operational control. To overcome these difficulties, both air-commands were authorized to form operational groups as require. Odd numbered groups were assigned to Eastern Air Command and even numbered groups to Western Air Command.
In November 1942 the Home War Establishment reached its peak strength with a total of 37 squadrons - 19 in Eastern Air Command and 18 in Western Air Command.
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Agreement, between Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand was laid out on October 10, 1939 and on December 17, 1939 the agreement was signed, converting Canada into what President Roosevelt of the United States later termed the "airdrome of democracy." 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. For more info on the BCATP view our feature article. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Overseas War Establishment (OWE)
Early in the fall of 1939, the RCAF officers were pressing for the formation of overseas units. A supplementary agreement to the British Commonwealth Air Training plan was signed on January 7, 1941, between Canada and Great Britain, stating the 25 RCAF Squadrons would be formed in the United Kingdom. Canadian officials proposed that a RCAF fighter and bomber group should be formed, however it was determined that due to the geographical nature of the RAF's fighter groups an all Canadian fighter group would require between 40 and 50 fighter squadrons and this was determined to be unfeasible. In the end only a Canadian bomber group was formed this being No. 6 (RCAF) Group.
The RCAF and RCAF personnel served in many RAF squadrons and Command.
Army Co-operation Command
When Canadian army requirements for France were drawn up up , one of the units was to have been an army co-operation wing (No. 101) consisting of 3 squadrons. No. 400 (previously 110) squadron and No. 414 Squadron, equipped with P-40 Tomahawk aircraft, formed No. 39 (AC) Wing (RCAF). In January of 1943 a third squadron, No. 430 Squadron was added and all three squadrons were now equipped with P-51 Mustang aircraft. On June 1, 1943 RAF Army Co-operation command was disbanded and the RCAF units were transferred to the newly-created Second Tactical Air Force.
A total of twelve RCAF squadrons served within RAF Fighter Command during the war. Eight day fighter, three night-fighter and one intruder squadron.
No. 6 (RCAF) Group - The RCAF contributed 14 Bomber Squadrons to RAF Bomber Command.
No. 331 Wing
In May 1943 three RCAF Bomber Squadrons, Nos. 420, 424, and 425, were removed from No. 6 Group equipped with Wellington Mk X aircraft and sent on loan to North Africa. There, as No. 331 (Medium Bomber) Wing, RCAF, they took part in the heavy bombardment in preparation for, and in support of Operation Torch, the allied landings in Sicily and Italy.
Canada contributed large numbers of air and ground crews and, at one time or another, seven squadrons. Three of these squadrons, Nos. 404, 407 and 415 were shore based and Nos. 413, 422, 423 and 162 were equipped with flying boat aircraft.
South East Asia Command
The RCAF contributed three squadrons to this command, two transport and one coastal reconnaissance squadron. No. 413 was the coastal reconnaissance squadron and was instrumental in preventing the Japanese invasion of Ceylon. The transport squadrons, Nos. 435 and 436, were formed in India and flew Dakota aircraft in support of the British Fourteenth Army in India and Burma.
Second Tactical Air Force
The success of the Luftwaffe in supporting its ground operations led the allies to examine it close air support ideas. The RAF's first effective close support operations came with the Desert Air Force, in support of the British Eight Army. The Second Tactical Air Force was formed with squadron mostly drawn from Fighter Command and would support the British 21st Army group consisting of the British Second Army and First Canadian Army.
In the summer of 1944 No. 437 Squadron was formed as part of RAF Transport Command and equipped with C-47 Dakota aircraft.
The summary of the work preformed by the squadrons at home and overseas is but one part of the story. The other part of the story concerns the 249,662 men and women who wore the uniform of the RCAF. Of this total, 93,844 personnel served overseas, the majority with the British rather than Canadian units. Nearly 60 percent of RCAF personnel were with RAF squadrons. The RCAF contribution to the Royal Air Force was significant . At least one in four fighter pilots in the Battle of Malta was from Canada as did one-fifth of Coastal Command's Aircrew. At the end of the war, almost a quarter of Bomber Command's aircrew were from the RCAF.
The RCAF's Roll of Honour contains the names of 17,100 personnel who gave their lives in the service of Canada. Of these fatalities 14,544 occurred overseas - among them 12,266 on operations and 1906 in training accidents. The majority of overseas casualties were with Bomber Command.