by Peter C. Conrad
After long difficult negotiations between New Zealand, Australia, Britain, and Canada, the agreement that brought the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan into being was to be signed on December 16, 1939, over three months after the Second World War had broken out. With the final agreement before Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the British delegation was summoned to his office late in the day. The delegations from New Zealand and Australia had already left Canada and would have to sign the document later.
Mackenzie King greeted the British delegation as the hands of the clock ticked past midnight. The prime minister remarked that December 17 was his birthday. After he received a round of congratulations, King said there was one small issue that had to be resolved: the date on the document they had gathered to sign was December 16, but, at the moment of the signing, it was December 17. King thought that the agreement would be luckier if it was signed and dated on his birthday. After a moment of consideration, the British delegation agreed to the change. With the date changed to December 17,1939, the Air Training Plan came into existence.1
Over sixty years after the signing of an agreement that made Canada the most significant centre for air training during the Second World War, few Canadians know about it. Fewer know why Canada became the centre for air training for the Allies. Many would be surprised to know that Canada was already highly respected as an air training centre on the eve of the Second World War.
Private Schools for Fighter Pilots
Canada’s air training history began in the First World War. From the very beginning of the Great War, Canadians were active in supplying trained aircrew to the Allied cause as businesses built private schools for those who wished to train for one of the two flying services of Great Britain.
Any Canadian interested in joining the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Corps in 1914 and 1915 had to go to the regular recruitment centres of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, ask for a transfer to the flying service of their choice, and hope for the best. Often this led to service in the trenches of France instead of the skies overhead. The only way anyone could be assured of easy entry into the flying services was to already be a trained pilot.2
In Canada in 1915 there were only two places to obtain pilot training: the Curtiss Aviation School in Toronto, or the Aero Club of British Columbia, which became the British Columbia Aviation School late in 1915, in Vancouver.
The Royal Flying Corps Comes to Canada
To meet the need for large numbers of pilots, more money, government support, and organization of recruitment and training was called for in 1917. The need was fulfilled that year when the Royal Flying Corps arrived in Canada to establish a school the same year it established a school in Egypt.
The Canadian government supported the training project, but the commander in charge was responsible only to the War Office and later to the Air Ministry in London.
The Canadian air training program of the Great War was very successful. Of 9,200 cadets who enlisted, 3,135 completed their pilot training. Over 2,500 pilots went overseas. The remainder were either instructors or were waiting to be transported when the Armistice was signed. Of the pilots who went overseas, 838 were killed. As well, 137 air observers were trained and 85 were sent overseas.
The Royal Canadian Air Force Emerges
The different military offices in Canada were unified into the Department of National Defence in 1922-23. In 1924, the Royal Canadian Air Force emerged from this organization as a permanent force that remained in the control of the army until 1938, when the RCAF gained its full independence.37 From the beginning the Air Force had been granted its own commissions. The Royal Canadian Air Force had their own light blue uniforms, and granted ranks that paralleled the Royal Air Force.3
During the early years, the RCAF carried out civilian and military roles. The work of the air force included forest patrolling, forest fire fighting, aerial surveying, exploratory flights, medical rescue, aerial policing, and crop dusting. The RCAF found itself responsible for civilian aviation. The force registered civilian aircraft, controlled Canadian air space and supervised the design and construction of aircraft to stimulate the domestic air industry.
Canada’s air training efforts of the First World War set the foundations of the air industry that helped bring the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan to Canada during the Second World War. It was the birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The air training effort gave Canadian’s the confidence they needed to aggressively embrace air travel that was imperative to the economic developments that followed in the nation.
Canada and the Peacetime Air Training Scheme
A Canadian member of the Royal Air Force, Group Capt. Robert Leckie, DSO, ASC, DFC, was the first to suggest, early in the summer of 1936, the advantages of training schools in Canada. Leckie was in a good position to make a proposal for a Canadian air training plan. During his long career in the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force, Leckie had been superintendent of RAF reserves from 1933 to 1936. The Royal Air Force Reserves, commanded by Group Capt. Arthur Tedder (later he became marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder), formed an important part of the training branch. Leckie drew up a memorandum demonstrating the strategic advantage of Canada as a training center for the RAF. The memorandum illustrated the closeness of Canada to the United Kingdom and to the United States of America. Another point emphasized in the memorandum was that a training plan on Canadian soil would attract many Canadians to the RAF.4
Leckie’s idea struck a sympathetic chord with his superiors at the air ministry who remembered the training efforts of Canada during the Great War. In August 1936, Tedder and the British secretary of state for air, Lord Swinton, approached Ian Mackenzie, the Canadian minister of national defence, about the possibility of a scheme for air training in Canada; but, at this early stage, the federal cabinet rejected the proposal, since there was no immediate crisis. The issue of British air training in Canada went dormant again for almost two years.
The question was opened again in May 1938 when the government of the United Kingdom sent a mission, headed by the British industrialist J. G. Weir, to Ottawa to assess the Canadian aircraft industry. When the opportunity arose, Weir was to put forward the air training question. The opportunity came in a meeting between Sir Frances Floud, the British high commissioner in Ottawa, Weir, and Prime Minister King. King emphasized that he was opposed to British schools being established in Canada. In an account by the prime minister of the meeting, he told the British visitors that Canada “would agree to cooperate to the extent of all the [air training] space they might wish, but that was not what was wanted.” King’s memorandum also stated the reasons why there could not be any British control. King saw making a decision that committed Canada to enter any future European war on the side of Britain as politically dangerous, with the potential rejection of such a commitment to England by Quebec.5
Although King warned the British delegation that disclosing the content of their meeting to the press would do more harm than good, the information appeared in newspapers soon afterwards. This led to criticism by Arthur Meighen, Conservative leader in the Senate, and by R. B. Bennett, the leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons. The attitude of the King government, according to the Opposition, was unacceptable. Political pressure was mounting in many sectors of Canadian society that felt close to Britain and the Empire and wanted Canada’s unconditional support of British initiatives. After he had been hard-pressed in the House of Commons, King replied: “We … are prepared to have our own establishment here and to give in those establishments facilities [opportunities] to British pilots to come and train here. But they must come and train in establishments, which are under the control of the government of Canada and for which the Minister of National Defence will be able to answer in this Parliament with respect to everything concerning them.”6 This ended the issue and became the basis for discussions on the air training question.
Four days later, on July 5, King drafted and sent to the United Kingdom a proposal including an invitation to the British government to send officials to Canada to negotiate an acceptable air training scheme.7
Sir Kingsley Wood, the new British secretary of state for air, stated on July 7, in the British House of Commons, that a reply had already been sent “expressing warm appreciation for the offer,” and that arrangements had been made “for an officer to be sent immediately to Canada to explore … the possibility of working out such a scheme for training facilities in Canada.” It was soon found, however, that British expectations were too high and that King’s offer had been misinterpreted. King was prepared to discuss the scheme, but was not prepared to commit Canada to train Canadian pilots for Britain. He would have accepted limited numbers of British men to come to Canada to train.8
Discussion continued as Britain pressed for a Canadian commitment to train Canadian aircrew for the RAF. Although the negotiations did not achieve such a commitment, the negotiations demonstrated the weakness of Canada’s training facilities.
King replied to the proposed air training plan in a letter to the British high commissioner to Canada on September 6, 1938. He stalled the process by asking for more detailed information. This was the end of the issue until December 9 when the British government moved to make the air training plan more acceptable by scaling it down. The new plan called for 135 Canadian pilots without any mention of sending any British recruits.9
Prime Minister King’s reply of December 31, 1938 again rejected the British proposal, making three points, which were essential to Canadian acceptance of the scheme. The first was that only British pilots were to be trained. The second issue was that the numbers were too large. Finally, the schools in Canada must be under the control of the Canadian Department of National Defence.10
The negotiations that followed were difficult but an agreement was made two months later. The new plan involved training fifty British candidates for the RAF along with another seventy-five Canadians for the RCAF. King accepted this plan because it would train British and not Canadian airmen for the RAF. More important, the plan appeared to be a simple exchange of personnel for air training rather than a commitment to Britain.11
The main benefit of the agreement was that it brought a realization of how inadequate the air training facilities were in Canada. Expansion and upgrading of facilities for the eventual British Commonwealth Air Training Plan were already underway. Furthermore, the negotiations that began in July 1938 and continued until April 1939 had brought about an understanding between the RAF and the RCAF on training issues.12
The Birth of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
On September 10,1939, the day Canada declared war, there was a meeting at the Air Ministry with Wing Commander H. V. Hickes, the Canadian air liaison officer in London, and RCAF Group Capt. A. F. Godfrey. In the end, it was confirmed that the control over the air training plans would remain with the RCAF.13
A message from British Prime Minister Chamberlain to King was the result of the Canadian and Australian high commissioners and was in part written by Vincent Massey, Canada’s high commissioner in London. It emphasized the urgency and importance the British government placed on the Plan. The main point of the message was a call for assistance “to counter German air strength and, in combination with other military measures and economic pressure, to bring ultimate victory.”14 The British called for a minimum of fifty thousand aircrew annually. The closing statement made clear the dramatic need of the training plan:
We hope that you will agree as to the immense influence, which the development and realization of such a great project as that outlined in this telegram may have upon the whole course of the war; it might even prove decisive. We trust therefore that this cooperation method of approach to the problem will appeal to your Government. The knowledge that a vast air potential was being built up in the Dominion where no German air activity could interfere with expansion, might well have a psychological effect on the German equal to that produced by the intervention of the United States in the last war with its vast resources.15
William Lyon Mackenzie King received the message after dinner on September 26, 1939. The prime minister was satisfied with the magnitude and importance that Chamberlain appeared to attach to aviation. More important, King observed that, “with concentration of Canadian energies on air training and air power and therefore less pressure for a large army, there would also be less risk of agitation for conscription.” The Air Training Plan in Canada as the nation’s major contribution to the war effort would minimize the political risks of conscription because the Canadians in the RCAF were to be volunteers.16
The proposal came before cabinet on September 28. The result was an agreement in principle and a call for more information and negotiations. This view was outlined in a telegram sent the same day to Chamberlain. King would not allow the RAF to have the same control it had had during the Great War.17
The chiefs of staff estimated that Canadian defence would cost $491,689,000 and $150,364,000 would be the cost for air defence. The costs would be too high with the large expenditures on air training. As a result, the industrialized dominions of the Commonwealth—New Zealand, Australia, and Canada—would have to pay their share. The financing of the Plan became an issue when the leaders of the dominions, who had become conditioned by the Great Depression, did not understand and were unprepared for the massive expenditures of modern warfare. The Canadian cabinet war committee felt it was doing enough. The cost figures put them in a defensive state of mind when the British negotiator, Lord Riverdale, an industrialist and an adviser on the purchase of war materials, arrived in Ottawa on October 14, 1939.18
Two days after Riverdale’s arrival, a preliminary meeting was held during which the basic proposal was outlined. Almost 29,000 aircrew were to be trained a year. The elementary flying training was to be carried out in the three dominions, and then the airmen were to be transferred to Canada for advanced flying training. The entire course of training for air observers, wireless operators, and air gunners was to be carried out in Canada. The Plan proposed twelve elementary flying training schools, twenty-five advanced or service flying training schools, fifteen air observer schools, fifteen bombing and gunnery schools, three air navigation schools, and one large wireless school in Canada. To operate the plan, 54,000 air force personnel and five thousand aircraft would be required.19
Air Commodore E. W. Stedman, head of engineering and supply branch of the RAF, was appointed to draw up an estimate of the cost for the Plan for a hypothetical three-year period. His estimate was $989,859,904. After Riverdale adjusted the figures, an estimate of $888.5 million was presented to the members of the Canadian cabinet war committee. This total was further reduced when Riverdale explained that the United Kingdom would supply aircraft, engines, spare parts, and accessories at a value of $140 million. The total then stood at $748.5 million. This total would be split among the three participating countries. Canada was expected to supply half the trainees at half the cost, which would be $374,230,000. Australia and New Zealand were to supply the rest.20
Prime Minister King believed Canada’s share was far too great. He argued that it was “a scheme suggested by the British government and for which the British must be mainly responsible.” King was not alone in his belief. Finance Minister J. L. Ralston agreed that the British contribution had to be higher; otherwise Canada would be bled to death.21
The talks became more complicated, including issues of Commonwealth trade. Canada presented two essential conditions for financing the Training Plan. One was that Britain had to buy more Canadian wheat. Second, the amount of Canadian credit given to the United Kingdom had to be restricted. The British government, after deciding that the Air Training Plan was important enough to grant Canada these two conditions, requested that the Plan receive top priority in Canada.22
The cost of the Plan was reduced to $607,271,210, with an agreed termination date of March 31, 1943. The United Kingdom would pay $185 million. Canada would pay for initial and elementary flying training at a cost of $66,146,048. The pooled expenditures of the three dominions would be $356,125,162, with 80.64 percent coming from Canada, 11.28 percent from Australia, and 8.08 percent from New Zealand. Canada would pay $287,179,331, Australia $40,170,918, and New Zealand $28,774,913.23
The negotiations were completed by the end of November. The selection of air fields was already underway. The British government wanted to proceed immediately with the initialling of the agreement “so that we may … take this essential step forward in our joint war effort.” Prime Minister King, however, refused to initial the agreement until the earlier Canadian conditions were met, including British purchases of Canadian wheat and the agreement that the Air Training Plan had priority over all other military commitments by Canada. Chamberlain agreed with the trade condition, but was silent on the priority statement. Conscious that a priority statement would help minimize the risks of conscription in Canada, King remained firm, making it clear he wanted a statement suggesting that, “participation in the Air Training Scheme would provide more effective assistance than any other form of co-operation which Canada could give.”24
This was the group of men that negotiated the agreement that brought about the BCATP in December 1939. Front row, left to right: Air Chief Marshal Sir R. Brooke Popham, RAF; Col. J.L. Ralston, minister of finance, Canada; Group Capt. H. W. L. Saunders, chief of the air staff , New Zealand; Senator R. Dandurand, Canada; Lord Riverdale, United Kingdom; Prime Minister W. L. M. King, Canada; J. V. Fairbairn, minister of air, Australia; E. Lapointe, minister of justice, Canada; Captain H. H. Balfour, undersecretary for air, United Kingdom; N. Mc L. Rogers, minister of national defence, Canada; Air Marshal Sir C. Courtney, RAF. (PMR 81-152)
After further negotiations, a reply arrived on December 1, 1939: “The United Kingdom Government have informed us that, considering present and future requirements, they feel that participation in the Air Training Scheme would provide for more effective assistance toward our ultimate victory than any other form of cooperation which Canada can give. At the same time they would wish it to be clearly understood that they would welcome no less heartily the presence of Canadian land forces in the theatre of war.”25 Mackenzie King accepted the statement but edited it for his own purpose. The passage used in King’s broadcast of December 17 announcing the creation of the Training Plan was: “The United Kingdom Government has informed us that… the Plan … would provide… more effective assistance … than any other form of military cooperation which Canada can give. At the same time, the United Kingdom Government wished it to be clearly understood that it would welcome no less heartily the presence of Canadian land forces in the theatre of war at the earliest possible moment.”26 The timing of the announcement and the addition of the last sentiment were very significant. As the broadcast was taking place, Canada’s first division was on its way to Britain. The statement suggested that Canada was fulfilling its obligations for land forces at that moment, that the fast arrival of troops rather than large numbers of troops was what mattered the most.27
Taking the Plan to the Polls
When Prime Minister King signed the agreement that brought the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan into being, he had won for Canada a role he wanted. With the statement from the United Kingdom suggesting that Canada’s central role was implementing the Air Training Plan and not providing an unlimited supply of land forces, as well as the fact that all aircrew had to be volunteers, King had avoided, for the moment, the divisive issue of conscription,
With the agreement for the Air Training Plan signed, King called an election for March 26, 1940. Canada was now at war, and the nation’s role in that war was the central issue of the election. The Opposition called for more commitment to the war effort. The mood of the Canadian public was very different from what it had been during the Great War, when Canadians had little experience of war and no experience in modern wars. They had been certain the war would be over quickly and had wanted every able-bodied man to go overseas to help the Empire win. But the massive losses of that war and the economic stresses it brought had been a shock. No one wanted to experience that again.
King helped his bid for re-election by refusing to announce which communities would receive an air training school, explaining that might be interpreted as interference in the election to the advantage of the Liberal party. With all the schools appearing to be still available, the Liberal party was a logical choice for many voters. With a local Member of Parliament who belonged to the Liberal government, there was an increased chance of a community being given a school, along with the accompanying economic development and the opportunity to demonstrate patriotism. Across the Prairies, where the memories of the Great Depression were vivid, the promise of a school and local economic development was too much to ignore.28
Mackenzie King easily won the election, capturing 178 of the 245 seats, and he settled into governing Canada through the war years.
Notes for Chapter 1
1 F. J. Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945 (Ottawa: Directorate of History, Department of National Defence, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1983), p. 1.
- 2. S.F. Wise, Canadian Airmen and the First World War: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Vol. I (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 7, 23-45.
- W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Vol. II (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986) pp. 35-36; F.J. Hatch, “The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945,” (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Ottawa, 1969), pp. 35-36.
- Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 8; Canada, Documents on Canadian External Relations, Vol. 6, 1936-1939 (hereafter DCER), (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1972), p. 208. Memorandum by the Prime Minister to O. D. Skelton.
- Canada, House of Commons, Debates, July, 1, 1938, cols. 4523-4532. See also, Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force, p. 194.
- DCER, Vol. 6, 1936-1939, p. 218. British High Commissioner to Prime Minister, July 7, 1938.
- The United Kingdom, House of Commons, Debates, July 7, 1938, Col. 595.
- DCER, Vol. 6, 1936-1939, p. 225. Prime Minister to British High Commissioner, September 6, 1938, pp. 225, 227-230. British High Commissioner to Prime Minister, December 9, 1938, and Memorandum by British Government, December 9, 1938, pp. 227-230.
- Ibid., pp. 230-232. Prime Minister to British High Commissioner, December 31, 1938.
- National Archives of Canada, (NAC hereafter) Records of the RCAF, Record Group (hereafter RG) 24, Volume 3531, file HQ 898-6-41, “Memorandum of Agreement: Training of Short Service Commissioned Officers (General Duties Branch).”
- Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy, pp. 11-12.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- DCER, Vol. 7, Parti, 1939-1941, p. 551.
- J. W. Pickersgill, The Mackenzie King Record, Vol I, 1939-1944 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), p. 40.
- DCER, Vol. 7, Parti, 1939-1941, pp. 552-555. Minutes of Emergency Council (Committee on General Policy) of Cabinet, Sept. 28, 1939.
- Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 16.
- Ibid.; DCER, Vol. 7, Parti, 1939-1941, pp. 580-581. Memorandum from Chairman, Air Mission of Great Britain to Prime Minister, October 13, 1939; Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force, pp. 209-210.
- Douglas The Creation of a National Air Force, pp. 206-208; Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 16.
- Hatch, The Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 17.
- Ibid.; R. S. Sayers, Financial Policy: 1939-45 (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1956), pp. 324-333.
- Sayers, Financial Policy, pp. 324-333; see also, Canada, Agreement Relating to Training of Pilots and Aircraft Crews in Canada and Their Subsequent Service between the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand Signed at Ottawa, December 17, 1939, Printed in full in C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Government: The War Policies of Canada, 1939-1945, (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), Appendix “J”, pp. 565-578. (Cited as BCATP Agreement after this point).
- DCER, Vol. 7, Part I, 1939-1941, pp. 620-621, Rogers to Balfour, Nov. 27, 1939.
- Ibid., pp. 635-636, Secretary of State for External Affairs to Dominions Secretary, November 28, 1939; Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force, p. 212-213.
- DCER, Vol. 7, Parti, 1939-1941, p. 636, Secretary of State for External Affairs to Dominions Secretary, Nov. 28, 1939; p. 637, Dominions Secretary of State for External Affairs to Dominions Secretary, Dec. 1, 1939.
- W. L. M. King, The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Broadcast by Right Hon. W. L. Mackenzie King, M. P., Prime Minister of Canada, Sunday, December 17, 1939 (Ottawa: J. 0. Patenaude, 1939), p. 16. The emphasis is by the author.
- Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy, p. 23.
- Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, Book I, p. 150; Book II, Recommendations, en passim.