Overseas

Medium Range Mitchell Bomber.

Medium Range Mitchell Bomber.

In the early months of the war, the heavy commitments to Canadian air defence and to the development of the BCATP meant that only three RCAF squadrons could be spared for overseas service. This number was steadily increased so that by war's end there were 48 RCAF squadrons serving in the Western European, Mediterranean and Far Eastern theatres.

In addition to those who served in the RCAF, thousands of young Canadians crossed the Atlantic to join the Royal Air Force. In Coastal Command, Bomber command, Fighter Command and other units of the RAF, they took part in all aspects of the air war over Europe. This Canadian contribution was recognized early in the war when the first all-Canadian unit with the RAF, the 242 (Canadian) Squadron, was set up. The squadron was in action from the very beginning conducting patrols across the Channel to protect the evacuation of Dunkirk, and participating in the struggle for the survival of Britain.

RCAF squadrons were engaged extensively in both fighter and bomber operations. As we have seen, No. 1 Fighter Squadron, after only a few weeks of training, had joined the Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Then, as the Luftwaffe was repulsed and the German invasion prevented, Fighter Command quickly moved to the offensive. Separately, or in conjunction with Bomber Command, fighters struck into Nazi-occupied France and Belgium to attack enemy troop movements, ammunition factories, airfields and gun positions.

At first the Canadian squadrons flew in formation with the RAF units, but as their numbers increased, all-Canadian wings were formed. By D-Day 1944, there were three RCAF Spitfire wings, a wing flying dive-bombing Typhoons, and a reconnaissance wing of Spitfires and Mustangs. On August 19, 1942, eight of the 74 Allied squadrons which gave aerial support to the raid on Dieppe belonged to the RCAF.

By the spring of 1944, with the Luftwaffe virtually driven from the coastal area, preparations began for the Allied invasion of the continent. The Spitfires became fighter-bombers carrying a 500-pound bomb under each wing and, together with a wing of Typhoons, engaged in bombing bridges, railways, radar posts and coastal defences. The RCAF Reconnaissance Wing, equipped for ground attack as well as for taking photographs, made regular sorties across the Channel.

The RCAF Fighters were also to work in close support of the invading armies when the Allies returned to the Continent. For the invasion of Europe two complete groups of air support organizations were formed. The fighters, fighter-bombers, and reconnaissance squadrons would keep in touch with the front-line troops and help develop ground attack. It was hoped that the RCAF would support the Canadian ground forces when the time came to go into battle. In June 1943 No. 83 Group, to which the RCAF reconnaissance and fighter squadrons were transferred, was assigned to the First Canadian Army. Six home-defence squadrons were also sent overseas to join it. While No. 83 Group was not an all-Canadian formation, 15 of its 29 squadrons and half its ground establishment of 10,000 were Canadian. The expectation that Canadian land and air forces would go into battle together came to a disappointing end when on D-Day the highly experienced No. 83 Group was transferred to support the Second British Army which had been designated to manage the actual landing. The (all RAF) 84 Group was assigned to the Canadians.

The biggest and costliest Canadian air commitment was in Bomber Command. In 1940, as hundreds of Nazi bombers ravaged Britain, the RAF had only limited aircraft with which to fight back. The situation was desperate. However during the winter of 1940-41, the RAF bomber force was reinforced with young fliers from the air-training schools of Canada and by new aircraft from British and Canadian factories. These aircraft included the large four-engined bombers—Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters—each capable of carrying from five to seven tons of bombs.

Throughout 1941 and 1942 raids of steadily mounting intensity battered the industrial cities of Germany and struck U-boat bases, docks and railway centres from Norway to France. By the end of 1942 new radar devices enabled "Pathfinder" bombers with fire bombs and brilliant flares to guide the heavy bombers to their targets at night. In 1943 "saturation" bombing reached an appalling new level as German cities were subjected to massive bombing attacks.

Canada's responsibility in bomber operations also expanded dramatically. The first Canadian bomber mission was carried out on the night of June 12, 1941. A year later 68 RCAF aircraft took part in the first 1000-bomber raid, and by the end of the war Canadian squadrons were sending out more than 200 heavy bombers in single raids carrying 900 tons of bombs.

At the beginning of 1943, 11 Canadian bomber squadrons were brought together to form an all-Canadian Bomber Group, No. 6, under the command of Air Vice-Marshal G.E. Brooks, who was succeeded a year later by Air Vice-Marshal C.M. McEwen. In the beginning No. 6 Group suffered a grim casualty rate. Between March 5 and June 24, 1943, the group lost 100 aircraft, seven per cent of its strength. However, by mid-1944 with better equipment and training, more experience, a reprieve from bombing missions into Germany, and fighter protection up to the targets, the situation was reversed. At the end of 1944 No. 6 Group could boast the lowest casualties of any group in Bomber Command.

The value of the Bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly controversial. The aim was to destroy military and industrial installations and, by destroying the means to war, to force Germany to surrender. However, war production was only minimally reduced in the bombing raids while thousands of civilians died, and great cultural centres were ruined. This was a terrible example of total war. Yet, as democracies were fighting for survival, the mass bombing of civilians, rightly or wrongly, appeared justified.

As well, the death toll in Bomber Command was tragically high. It took a special kind of courage to fly night after night across enemy territory in the face of German defences. Many of the big planes failed to return. Enemy night fighters and dense "flak" (anti-aircraft ground-fire) often inflicted heavy losses. A total of 9,980 Canadians lost their lives in Bomber Command.

When the Allies finally returned to the European Continent on June 6, 1944, the RCAF was there to provide support. Bombers of No. 6 Group dropped over 870 tons of bombs on gun positions overlooking the beaches of Normandy, and fighter wings dive-bombed enemy strongholds and guarded the Allied landings. During the bitter fighting which followed around Caen, the RCAF gave air support to the Canadian and British forces, and when enemy troops were caught in the Falaise pocket, Spitfires and Typhoons attacked the long columns of vehicles with deadly machine-gun fire. The RCAF then helped cover the advance of the armies across northern France and Belgium, into the Netherlands, and finally across the Rhine and into Germany itself.

Outstanding exploits were performed by RCAF pilots as they drove the German Air Force from the sky and prepared the way for advancing armies. The Reconnaissance Wing carried out photographic and tactical reconnaissance to gather information, first for planning the operation itself and then in aid of the advance. This wing was to end the war deeper in Germany than any other RCAF unit. Canada also supplied a transport squadron for duties in northwestern Europe. Formed in the late summer of 1944, it towed gliders for the airborne landing at Arnhem in September and for the crossing of the Rhine at Wesel in March 1945. Its Dakotas dropped supplies and transported troops, equipment and ammunition, returning loaded with casualties.

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