The British Commonwealth
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Air Training Program


Contrary to impressions given by history books the Allied Forces during World War II did not spool up their war efforts from a standing start in 1939-40 in response to the Axis threat. From as far back as 1933, not even the Canadian political mechanism was able to deny the coming conflict and their inevitible involvement in it and, while above the surface they were calm and aloof - like a duck, they were madly churning away below the surface.

As early as 1936 Group Captain Arthur Tedder of the RAF Reserves drew up an official memo, outlining the importance of Canada as a potential training ground for RAF pilots in the event of war. Obviously the situation in Europe had deteriorated to the point where long range contingency plans were being put together for when Germany attacked Britain itself.

Canadian politicians would only agree if control of any such facilities was in Canadian hands, the British government rejected this, so this original memo and concept was abandoned. But the idea was good in principal and would not just die.

In 1938 another mission from Britian visited Canada to evaluate the capabilities of the its aviation manufacturing industry, with an eye to buying needed machinery from Canada. They were a little disappointed, but felt things could be brought up to snuff. Now, about this time -with the immenent threat of war- the Canadian public wanted to know how its government stood on supporting England when war did start, but it was a bad time to look for a firm stand from the political forum. Not wanting to do anything that would lose the federal election due in 1940, the Liberal Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, performed two years of truly amazing burfurcating, sliding and evading. And in fact he managed to put off any commitments until after September 10, 1939 when Canada had declared war on Germany.

Crane Crash
Ansons in a Hanger in Edmonton

Then, in a brilliant series of moves through October and November he told each faction whatever they wanted to hear about how Canada would be involved in the war effort and, when he had everyone happy, called an election for March of 1940.

Canada at this time was still unable to shake off the last economic ennuie from the Great Depression of the 30's, and the prospect of anything that would provide jobs was starting to look acceptable, even a war; especially if (as promised) Canadians would manufacture necessary materials, but would not be forced to fight. Try to remember that the economic spinoffs for a community near any military installation is substantial, even in boom times. So, with a few rumours of lots of British Government money splashing around for the construction and maintainance of British Air Training Bases (courtesy of your present govenment) a Liberal victory was assured.

After the election, of course, all bets were off. Conscription did happen and Canadians got very involved in the war effort in all capacities. And the BCATP bases? Well, Peter Conrad says it best in his book 'Training For Victory'

..careful consideration and due deliberation was given to all factors involved (best possible location for weather, logistics, accessibility, etc), ... "Most long time Liberal constituancies received a school early in the war (except for Kings constituency which received two), followed by constituencies that had a CCF member of Parliament, especially those CCF constituencies that had previously been Liberal. (The district of) Melville was an exception to the pattern because it had been a longtime supporter of the Liberal party and continued to elect Liberals during and after the war. Few Conservative constituencies received facilities."

Whatever the politics of the situation, the BCATP was an excellent concept and, with the dedicated sweat of thousands of people who believed in the program, it worked well on many levels.

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A Pair of Cessna Cranes Argue Right-of-Way During a Takeoff at Calgary

The startup phase progressed quickly, on September 10, 1939 war was declared, on October 10, 1939 it was announced that Australia, Canada, The U.K. and New Zealand had agreed that Canada would provide a training ground for Commonwealth Aircrew where training could take place away from the battle zone in Europe. Limited participation in the form of volunteers was received from other Commonwealth Countries such as India, Hong Kong, and even the Bahamas. On December 17, 1939 the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreement (BCTAP) was signed between all the parties concerned, the election was won by March 26, 1940 and in early April of 1940 of the most comprehensive aircrew training programs ever undertaken was instigated.

On April 29, 1940, the first schools opened and by the end of September 1941 all but three of the proposed schools were in operation. Training went ahead of schedule and as early as September 30, 1940 the first 39 pilots passed out of Camp Borden, followed by the first air observers from Trenton on October 24, and 50 air gunners on October 28. In June 1942 the number of schools was increased to 67 (including 21 double schools) and ten specialist schools were added for operational personel and flying instructor training.

To give an idea of the magnitude of the venture, you have to look at the realtionship between the existing personel numbers and what they grew to. For example, in the fiscal year ending March 31, 1939 - less than 6 months before the war started - the RCAF had a total strength of 4,061 officers and airmen had produced only 45 pilots from their training programs. Under BCATP, at its peak, the RCAF component itself was to administer 40,000 personnel and to instruct and graduate 20,000 aircrew per year from some 74 training schools and other installations. This didn't include an additional 27 RAF training schools that were started as RAF and later came under the BCATP control. By the close of 1943 there were 104,000 personnnel in Training Commands 1 thru 4 operating a total of 97 schools and 187 ancillary units on 231 sites (this includes the RAF's 40,000 personnel at 27 locations).

Students with odd accents from all over the world started pouring into Canada to be trained, and in spite of the spine cracking effort put out by the BTACP mechanism and sundry local public works departments, the lack of experienced training personel and facilities was chronic.

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Public Works Crews Working on the Mossbank, Saskatchewan Hard Stand

A call went out to the public and private communities in Canada to help and the response from these sources was immediate and strong. For example, all 17 private flying clubs in the Canadian Flying Clubs Association began providing elementary flying training, and a group of commercial operators from bush flying and charter outfits banded together to provide training for the air observers. Private industry geared up and soon there were student pilots, bemused observers, sleepy gunners, beginning bombadiers, and lost navigators wallowing all over the skies of Canada. Civilians quickly went from being unable to sleep because of the racaus sound of night flying ops, to being lulled to sleep by the familiar drone of aero engines. It was beginning to work.

I cannot even begin to relate the myriad stories, or convey the spirit of cooperation (with the exception of one ugly incident in Moose Jaw) involved in the BCATP. If you are interested in details of this program, I highly recommend two books to you.
The first is 'Training for Victory - The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West' by Peter C. Conrad, 1989 Western Producer Prairie Books ISBN: 0-88833-302-1.
The second is 'The Long and the Short and the Tall' by Robert Collins, 1986 Western Producer Prarie Books. No, I don't own stock in Western Producer Publishing, but you will notice that they both represent the western Canadian view of things.

All together, at their peak, the schools were producing an average of 3,000 personel a month and shipping them off to the European and Asian theatres of war. But it, thankfully, couldn't last. In February of 1944, in view of a large surplus of trained personel and the obvious winding down of hostilities in Europe, it was agreed to begin a gradual reduction of trainees and staff. In June of the same year recruiting of aircrew and ground personnel for the RCAF was suspended, and by October school closure was stepped up. On March 31, 1945 the BCATP was deemed no longer needed and was ended, and military acitivity soon ceased on most of the bases. Buildings were abandoned, personel mustered out, and surplus equipment sold or scrapped. But the program left a legacy and many old BCATP sites are civilian airports and manufacturing areas that add value to the local community even today.

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Mossbank, Saskatchewan - A Typical BCATP Training Base Layout

I have skydived (skydove? skydiven? I could never get that one right) at several of these old, triangulated, airdromes and have spent many hours walking through them and imagining them in their heyday. At one of these bases in particular - Claresholm, Alberta - the past literally reached out and grabbed my attention on several occasions. When Claresholm was shut down several unserviceable aircraft (Ansons, I think) were chopped up and bulldozed into a pit on the south-west corner of the base. Occasionally bits and pieces of this debris worked its way up through the dirt... to cause havoc as it surfaced into what had become our landing/packing area. A piece of control cable or aluminum stringer hidden in the grass works just dandy as a foot arrestor device and will shorten your landing run by, oh... several feet at least.


The following is a list of the four Training Command Units and a thumbnail of their histories:

No. 1 Training Command


No. 2 Training Command


No. 3 Training Command


No. 4 Training Command


References:
'RCAF Squadrons and Aircraft' (S. Kostenuk and J. Griffin - Canadian War Museum
and Alberta Aviation Museum Archives

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The Alberta Aviation Museum O
11410 Kingsway Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, T5G 0X4
Tel: (403) 453-1078
Fax: (403) 453-1885