By the outbreak of the Second World War military aviation had been developed to a point where it would play a decisive role in how that war was fought.
Canada helped meet the demand for trained airmen and technicians needed to crew and service the thousands of aircraft needed for that conflict by creating the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, a massive air training school system that between 1940 and 1945 graduated more than 131,500 air crew.
The story of the BCATP is one of Vancouver Island Military Museum’s newest displays created for the museum’s War on the Home Front exhibit section.
Compared with modern conflicts, the numbers of personnel and equipment brought to bear in the Second World War can seem staggering. At the height of its operations the BCATP employed more than 104,000 men and women at 107 flying schools and nearly 190 ancillary units that taught other aircrew specialties that included navigation, bombardiers, air gunners and radio operators.
More than 10,000 aircraft, that included single-engine de Havilland Tiger Moth bi-planes, North American Harvards and twin-engine Avro Anson aircraft were used at 231 training bases across Canada. Some of those bases evolved to become major Canadian airports.
Trainees came from Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand as well as airmen from France, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway and other countries that had been overrun by German forces. Americans, who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force when the U.S. was still neutral during the early years of the war, trained with BCATP as well.
“They were given a special clearance … because it was illegal for them to do it … they wanted to join the air force. The U.S. wasn’t in the war yet, but some of these guys, their families were from all over Europe and so they felt they had to go and they crossed the border,” said Brian McFadden, Vancouver Island Military Museum vice-president.
“Roosevelt, justified it by saying, ‘Well, it’s part of lend-lease,’ which it wasn’t. Another reason, of course, that [BCATP] came here, it was so close to spare parts. The United States was supplying thousands of spare parts for the aircraft.”
McFadden said pilots who graduated from the program went to operational training bases to train with actual fighter aircraft.
“In Victoria they had [Hawker] Hurricanes and they had [Curtiss] Kittyhawks because, by the time the pilots got there that was their last posting, so it was called an operational training base as opposed to a basic flying base,” McFadden said. “So you would train in Moose Jaw, then if you were good enough, they said you’re going to be a fighter pilot, you’re going to Victoria and you’re going to be on Hurricanes and Kittyhawks and then you’re overseas.”
B.C.’s four main operational training bases were in Patricia Bay, Abbotsford, Boundary Bay and Sea Island.
Women, civilians from the communities where BCATP bases set up, and from the Royal Canadian Air Force women’s division played a major role in the training program in technical a non-technical support positions needed to keep the bases and equipment operating.
The bases also had major economic and social impacts on the communities they operated in.
The BCATP supplied more than 73,000 Canadian pilots and thousands more air crew to the war effort, but meeting that task extracted its toll as well. More than 1,200 trainees and training staff lost their lives during the course of the war.
“That number’s low because … every country sort of kept their own data, so that probably didn’t include Czechs or Poles or anybody that had got out early on, but wanted to fight and maybe they had experience as pilots,” McFadden said. “A lot of the instructors came from the commercial [airline] industry.”
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