The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

Introduction

In 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King had a dream which he believed was a sign of "the power of the airplane in determining ultimate victory" for the war effort. That dream became a reality in the form of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP).

BCATP stamp

BCATP stamp

Across the country, Canadians mobilized to take part in this gigantic undertaking—an army of experts had to be assembled, airfields developed and equipment, including airplanes, had to be obtained. Between 1940 and 1945, some 151 schools had been established across Canada with a ground organization of 104,113 men and women. Thousands of members of the Royal Canadian Air Force–Women’s Division trained and worked at BCATP facilities, learning ground trades and doing important support work for the program and the operation of the air bases.

By the end of the Second World War, the BCATP had produced 131,553 aircrew, including pilots, wireless operators, air gunners, and navigators for the Air Forces of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The challenge was formidable. But when the free world needed a champion, Canada answered the call.

Creation of the Plan

At the start of the Second World War, the British Government looked to the Dominions for air training help because the United Kingdom did not have the space to accommodate training and operational facilities, and because aerodromes in the United Kingdom were vulnerable to enemy attack. In comparison with Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, Canada offered particular advantages: its proximity to Britain allowed for easier transportation of men and equipment; Canada had a larger capacity to manufacture aircraft; and Canadian industries had easy access to the U.S. market for aircraft parts.

Upon considering the United Kingdom's September 1939 proposal, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King believed the training plan would be "the most essential military action that Canada could undertake. " It was an opportunity for the Canadian government to make a significant commitment to the Allied war effort without repeating the dark legacies of the First World War: stalemated trench warfare, unprecedented casualties, and conscription to replace the depleted troops. According to King's initial conception of the BCATP, volunteers for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) would remain in Canada, training recruits from other parts of the Commonwealth (namely the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand). King could keep his no conscription promise and still help the Allies.

1. Granatstein, J.L. Canada's War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government 1939-1945 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 43.

2. Telegram dated November 28, 1939, from Secretary of State for External Affairs to Dominions Secretary, RG 25, Volume 1858, File 72-T-38C (Library and Archives Canada).

The Agreement

The final agreement—signed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand on 17 December 1939—listed the percentage of trainees each country would send, the percentage of costs each would take on, the training schedule, and the aerodrome opening schedule. To accommodate its shortage of foreign currency, the United Kingdom paid its portion by supplying and transporting necessary materials that Canada could not provide, such as aircraft, spare parts, airframes, and engines.

When the BCATP came to a close on 31 March 1945, the four participating governments had spent $2.2 billion on the training plan, $1.6 billion of which was Canada's share. After the war, the Canadian government calculated that the United Kingdom owed Canada over $425 million for running British schools transferred to Canada and for purchasing aircraft and other equipment when Britain could not provide the necessary numbers. By March 1946, the Canadian government canceled Britain's debt, absorbing the cost itself.

Nationality of BCATP Graduates (1940-1945)
Nationality No. of Graduates
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) 72,835
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 9,606
Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) 7,002
Royal Air Force (RAF) which included
- Poles (448)
- Norwegians (677)
- Belgian and Dutch (800)
- Czechs (900)
- Free French (2,600)
42,110
Naval Fleet Air Arm also trained at BCATP schools 5,296

Source: Douglas, W.A.B. The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume II: The Creation of a National Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), p. 293.

A Demanding Training Regime

The BCATP expected a lot from its recruits. The exhaustive curriculum and intensive schedule of classroom and flight training turned out air crew members at a dizzying pace, ready to serve overseas.

Elementary training took approximately eight weeks, which included at least 50 hours of flying. Aircraft commonly used at Elementary Flying Training Schools were de Havilland Tiger Moths, Fleet Finches, and Fairchild Cornells.

A tractor pulls a Fairey Battle from its hangar

A tractor pulls a Fairey Battle from its hangar, Trenton, Ontario, February 1940.
Library and Archives Canada PA-143898

Successful trainees then progressed to Service Flying Training Schools for more advanced instruction. Because syllabus revisions were made throughout the war, the course length varied from 10 to 16 weeks, and flying time varied from 75 to 100 hours. Potential fighter pilots trained on single-engine North American Harvards while pilots selected for bomber, coastal, and transport operations received training on twin-engine Avro Ansons, Cessna Cranes, or Airspeed Oxfords.

After five weeks of theoretical training at Initial Training Schools, air observers would move to Air Observer Schools for a 12-week course on aerial photography, reconnaissance, and air navigation. This also included 60 to 70 hours of practical experience in the air. Observers learned the science of bombing during their 10-week stay at a Bombing and Gunnery School. With an additional four weeks at an Air Navigation School, recruits were then ready for posting overseas. After June 1942, the duties of the air observer were divided between navigators and air bombers, thus replacing the observer category.

Pilot descends from a Fleet Finch

Pilot descends from a Fleet Finch at #7 Elementary Flying Training School, Windsor, Ontario, July 1940. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PL-1025

Navigators specializing in bombing spent eight weeks at a Bombing and Gunnery School and 12 weeks at an Air Observer School. These men were then qualified as both navigators and bomb aimers. Navigators specializing as wireless operators trained for 28 weeks at a Wireless Training School and 22 weeks at an Air Observer School. Airmen studying to be air bombers spent five weeks at an Initial Training School, 8 to 12 weeks at a Bombing and Gunnery School, and six weeks at an Air Observer School. Besides learning how to drop bombs accurately, air bombers learned the map-reading and observations skills necessary for assisting navigators.

Wireless operator-air gunners spent 28 weeks at a Wireless Training School where they became proficient in radio work. Gunnery training took six weeks at a Bombing and Gunnery School. Straight air gunners, also taught at Bombing and Gunnery Schools, underwent a 12-week program involving ground training and actual air firing practice. Later in the war, a flight engineer was added to heavy bomber crews. Besides being an aero-engine technician, flight engineers received enough training to be able to replace a pilot who was killed or injured. Most engineers were trained in the United Kingdom, but about 1,900 engineers eventually graduated from the Flight Engineers School in Aylmer, Ontario, once it opened in July 1944

Cornell aircraft

A Cornell from #5 Elementary Flying Training School, Lethbridge, Alberta. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PMR-81-270

Categories of 131,553 Air Crew Graduates
(October 1940 - March 1945)
  Pilot Nav B Nav W Nav AB WO/AG AG Naval AG FE
RCAF
25,747
5,154
421
7,280
6,659
12,744
12,917
0
1,913
RAF
17,796
3,113
3,847
6,922
7,581
755
1,392
704
0
RAAF
4 045
699
0
944
799
2 875
244
0
0
RNZF
2 220
829
30
724
634
2 122
443
0
0
Total RAF
49,808
9,795
4,298
15,870
15,673
18,496
14,996
704
1,913

Legend

Nav B: Navigator Bomber

Nav W: Navigator Wireless

Nav: Navigator

AB: Air Bomber

WO/AG: Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

AG: Air Gunner

Naval AG: Naval Air Gunner

FE: Flight Engineer

Source: Hatch, F. J. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945 (Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1983), p. 206.

Community Connections

Although the BCATP was only in operation for five years and ended decades ago, its widespread impact can still be felt today. All provinces except Newfoundland (which had not joined Confederation yet) hosted schools, and many current-day communities can trace connections to the BCATP. Often, local residents joined the RCAF and attended these schools, while scores of communities hosted a main BCATP airport, relief aerodrome, or emergency landing field.

An Economic Boom

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression, the economic benefits of the BCATP were warmly welcomed by Canadian communities. Even before the final BCATP agreement was signed, local officials began lobbying the government to build an aerodrome in their community.

As bases were being built, local companies expected to win contracts for labour, gravel, and lumber supplies. Residents hoped to be employed on construction crews, while merchants anticipated that construction workers would spend their pay cheques on housing, food, clothing, and recreation.

Aerial view of #5 Bombing and Gunnery School

Aerial view of #5 Bombing and Gunnery School, Dafoe, Saskatchewan.
Canadian Forces Photo Unit REA-107-119

Construction was not the only economic benefit of the BCATP aerodromes—large numbers of students, instructors, and their families brought business to local merchants. Host communities also benefited when local companies secured contracts for supplying electricity, water, natural gas, coal, and food to the base. Once in operation, the airport needed to fill many civilian positions, from clerical posts to aerodromes and aircraft maintenance.

Newspapers in Saskatoon noted how "Jarvis [Ontario], with a normal population of less than 600, has been transformed into a thriving town since preparations for the training centre [a Bombing and Gunnery School] began."Footnote3 As Yorkton, Saskatchewan, waited for construction of its aerodrome to be completed, the local newspaper projected the Service Flying Training School to be staffed "with personnel of one thousand with a monthly payroll of $100,000."Footnote4 In addition, the town estimated that "fifty percent of the officers will be married and will require furnished quarters."Footnote5

Australian pilots making snowballs

Australian pilots making snowballs at #2 Service Flying Training School, Ottawa, Ontario, November 1940. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PL-1831

Civilians Doing Their Part

Besides gaining employment as mechanics, cooks, clerks, engineers, and labourers at BCATP aerodromes, civilians also contributed to the training plan by instructing and operating schools. Twenty-nine Elementary Flying Training Schools and all 10 Air Observer Schools were run by local companies, airlines, and flying clubs. Incorporating civilians into the early stages of air crew training allowed the RCAF to take advantage of qualified instructors and already-built aerodromes as early as the spring of 1940. This civilian participation kick-started the BCATP even as the aerodrome infrastructure was being expanded and recruits were being trained as instructors for advanced pilot courses.

Snow rollers compacting the snow

Snow rollers compacting the snow into a hard icy surface several inches thick, at #36 Service Flying Training School, Penhold, Alberta. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PMA-84-978

Shaping Canada's Social Fabric

While lobbying for BCATP construction, Canadian communities were also eager for the social benefits of interaction with the air force. The Secretary-Treasurer of Mossbank, Saskatchewan, believed that a training school would bolster national pride in the citizens of his town: "The work and presence amongst us of many members of the Air Force would give our people a new spirit, make them conscious they are directly interested in the successful issue of the war, stimulate recruiting, [and] arouse their national feelings."Footnote6

Canadians took great pride in making the trainees feel a part of their communities, and the air force personnel warmly welcomed the morale-boosting recreation that came from meeting with local civilians, who were often invited to station parties and dances. Local residents attended wings presentations and graduation ceremonies, and bases were often open for the public to view and participate in sports competitions. Communities provided recreational diversions for airmen with summer fairs and winter carnivals, while station bands frequently provided the entertainment for community events. At some schools, airmen helped civilians bring in fall harvests.

Woman refueling a Tiger Mother—made

Residents of St. Catherines, Ontario—including this woman refueling a Tiger Mother—made #9 Elementary Flying Training School their special war effort. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PMA-75-361

The mingling of residents and trainees often permanently altered the demographics of a community. When local women married airmen from Britain, Australia, or New Zealand, the new wives would leave their community and move to her husband's country. Conversely, many grooms relocated to Canada after the war, bringing with them different cultures and customs. By the end of the war, more than 3,750 RAF, RAAF, and RNZF members found Canadian wives.

A de Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft

A de Havilland Tiger Moth. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PL-3581

Present-Day Reminders

Many reminders of the BCATP can be seen across Canada today. The airports of many cities and towns were once part of the BCATP aerodrome infrastructure. Some of these civilian aerodromes may have already existed in 1939, but they received significant upgrading and modernization such as paved runways and runway extensions to meet BCATP requirements. Many other communities entered the world of commercial aviation for the first time by taking over the RCAF training aerodromes in their areas once the schools closed. Numerous military bases in use today were once BCATP schools, and even Canada's participation in NATO air training stems from the BCATP legacy of the Second World War.

Canadian communities have been left with other permanent reminders of the BCATP's impact on their history. Some airmen paid the supreme sacrifice – losing their lives in training accidents, other mishaps or due to illness without even leaving Canadian soil. Of the 856 BCATP participants who either died or were seriously injured while at training schools, 469 were RCAF, 291 RAF, 65 RAAF, and 31 RNZF. Sadly, some Royal Canadian Air Force–Women’s Division members also lost their lives while serving at BCATP bases during the war. Although the bodies of the fallen Canadians were usually returned to their hometowns, Commonwealth recruits who died were buried in cemeteries of nearby communities. Usually one town was chosen as the official burial site, and these graves can still be found today. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the graves of those members of the Commonwealth Forces who died in Canada.

The BCATP was a tremendous feat in itself: more than 100 aerodromes and emergency landing fields were built and more than 130,000 airmen were trained—all in only five years. The BCATP and its contribution to the Second World War air effort and the Allied victory should be remembered not only because it was an important chapter in Canada's history, but also because of its lasting legacy.

This legacy can still be seen today in the museums and memorials to this important chapter of Canada’s Second World War heritage. Perhaps the most visible of these is the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon, Manitoba. This large museum, on the site of a former BCATP base, preserves a number of original buildings as they were during the conflict, numerous war-era aircraft (some of which are still flying), ground vehicles and thousands of other smaller artifacts.

Also on the site is the beautiful Royal Canadian Air Force Second World War British Commonwealth Air Training Program Memorial which lists the names and dates of death for the more than 18,000 men and women who gave their lives in service to the RCAF, as well as the Canadians who died while serving in the Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm and Ferry Command during the Second World War.

Other military museums and memorials that pay tribute to the BCATP can also be found across the country in places like Middleton, NS, Oshawa, ON, Regina, SK, and Sidney, BC, to name just a few.

Suggested Reading

  • British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Agreement, 17 December 1939, RG 25 Volume 1858A, File 72-T-38 (Library and Archives Canada)
  • Conrad, Peter, Saskatchewan in War: The Social Impact of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on Saskatchewan (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Masters Thesis, 1987).
  • Conrad, Peter, Training for Victory: The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989).
  • Douglas, W.A.B. The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume II: The Creation of a National Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986).
  • Granatstein, J. L. Canada's War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government 1939-1945 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  • Greenhous, Brereton, et. al., The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume III: The Crucible of War, 1939-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994)
  • Hatch, F.J. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945 (Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1983).
  • Heide, Rachel Lea, Fallen Planes: The Cause of Training Accidents at #5 Bombing and Gunnery School, Dafoe, Saskatchewan, (Ottawa: Carleton University BA Honours Research Paper, 1998).
  • Heide, Rachel Lea, The Politics of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Base Selection in Western Canada, (Ottawa: Carleton University Masters Thesis, 2000).
  • Smith, Norman I. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1941).
  • Turner, Ken, I Never Met An Airplane I Didn't Like (Baltimore: PublishAmerica Book Publishers, 2002)

How Canada's Contribution to the Second World War Affects Us Today

Described by historian J. L. Granatstein (former CEO of the Canadian War Museum) as "the major Canadian military contribution to the Allied [Second World] War effort,"1 the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was an ambitious program to train air crew members in Canada for the Allied war effort. When the plan wrapped up with the end of the war, more than 130,000 air crew members had been trained, and more than 100 aerodromes and landing fields had been built in Canada.

By Rachel Lea Heide BA (Honours), MA

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada represented by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2000.

Catalogue No. V32-90/2000 ISBN 0-662-65275-4

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