by Peter C. Conrad
With the political patronage that was seen across western Canada, it was not surprising when Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s riding of Prince Albert received both an elementary flying training school and an air observer school. What was extraordinary was that the air observer school never received the paved runways that it required. Because of the lack of these runways, the school was closed in 1942. King found himself powerless; at the late stage he intervened, to change the decision.
Mackenzie King had been representing Prince Albert since shortly after the 1925 federal election, when the Liberal party had been returned to office but King suffered a personal defeat in the North York constituency. The Liberal Member of Parliament for Prince Albert, Charles Macdonald, stepped aside to allow King to be elected in a by-election.
Civilian companies operated air observer schools, like elementary flying training schools. Often, the air observer schools were established at the same airports as elementary schools. Prince Albert was not an exception when, in 1940, it won the right to operate Number Six Air Observer School together with Number Six Elementary Flying Training School. The elementary school, which was run by a joint venture of the flying clubs of Prince Albert and Saskatoon, opened on July 22, 1940. The observer school was to open in September. While the hangars and other buildings needed for the air observer school were under construction, a search was underway for a civilian company to operate it. There was a great deal of support among city leaders for a local company, M. and C. Aviation, to win the contract.
Keeping It Local
The company had been operated for nearly ten years by Richard Mayson, a fighter pilot in the Great War, and Angus Campbell, an engineer and one of Mayson’s pupils from the Saskatoon Flying Club. The two men formed M. and C. Aviation that offered scheduled flights to northern destinations such as Fond du Lac, Ile a la Crosse, and Yellowknife. They also fought fires and flew emergency flights when required. The company had been successful in its northern service even with competition from the largest air transport company in Canada, Canadian Airways, which provided service to the north as well.1
However, the air observer schools required administrative abilities and facilities of a larger airline. M. and C. had only five aircraft compared to thirty-five aircraft of Canadian Airways. Another competitor was the larger Prairie Airways of Moose Jaw. At the same time, M. and C. was busy with a contract to operate a repair depot for the de Havilland Tiger Moths used by Number Six Elementary Flying Training School.2
For these reasons, the authorities in Ottawa were actively looking to companies like Canadian Airways. It was strongly rumoured in May 1940 that the contract would be given to Yukon Southern Air Transport, a company owned and operated by Grant McConnachie of Edmonton. This possibility was strongly opposed by Mayson and Campbell and the business community of Prince Albert, which believed the local company should operate the school. The city council and the board of trade wrote letters to the prime minister while Mayson and Prince Albert’s mayor traveled to Ottawa to put pressure on their Member of Parliament, Prime Minister King, to win the observer school for M. and C. Aviation. The effectiveness of this lobbying was seen when a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office to the secretary of the RCAF noted that: “Mr. Henry of the Prime Minister’s Office has drawn my attention to the fact that information has been received from Prince Albert to the effect that Number Six Air Observer School Prince Albert, is likely to be operated by a company with headquarters at Edmonton (McConnachie?) whereas the M. & C. Company and Canadian Airways are already located at Prince Albert.” The letter concluded that, “It is noted that the McConnachie Co. is extra provincial and that the public interest would be better served by having the contract in the hands of local companies preferred, or at least a company of [the] Province of Saskatchewan origin.”3
Tiger Moths lined up outside the hangers at Prince Albert, where there were no paved runways. (RA 9616)
At the same time, the competition was being drawn away by other wartime contracts. The central competitor, McConnachie, received an offer to work on the North-West Staging Route with the American Army Air Corps. Canadian Airways won a contract to operate Number Two Air Observer School at Edmonton. The last competitor, Prairie Airways, based in Moose Jaw, was given the contract to operate Number Three Air Observer School in Regina. Therefore, the only company left to operate the air observer school was M. and C.4
Mayson and Campbell were given the contract to operate the Air Observer School after they reorganized their company as a Crown corporation and provided fifty thousand dollars capital. Because of the lobbying that had been carried out, relations between the new observer school and the training command administering the schools in northern Saskatchewan were strained. Those in the Winnipeg training command headquarters who had been against a small company operating the observer school had been overruled.
The ill feeling was clear in a memorandum written to defend the school’s management in June 1942:
“We have had happy relations with all officers of the RCAF Supervisory staff at our school, and also with those of No. 2 Training Command with the exception of Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore Shearer. He has never even been pleased, and has made his dislike of us evident in many ways. In fifteen months of operations he has visited us only twice—once on the occasion of the Prime Minister’s visit and the other time on the official visit of the Inspector General. It is most difficult to get an interview with him to discuss the school’s business. On the occasion of his meeting with the Prime Minister interview with the AOC, here he was jumped on and very rudely dealt with.”5
It was this animosity between training command and the air observer school that brought about many of the problems that led to its closing.6
One Too Many Schools for Prince Albert?
Early in 1942, the RCAF was considering the expansion of the Air Training Plan. Because the war effort required more navigators, existing schools were being prepared for expansions and, where necessary, observer schools were being separated from elementary flying schools. In June, it was announced that the observer school at Prince Albert, like many of the others, was to be expanded. But this decision was not final; the decision to close the school was quickly announced.
To justify closing the observer school, the RCAF pointed out that it had lost flying time because of wet weather in spring. This loss of flying time was obviously caused by the absence of hard-surfaced runways at the school, the only observer school without them. Although it was possible to fly the small Tiger Moths used at the elementary flying school off sod fields, it was more difficult to fly the larger two-engine Ansons required for the observers. Mayson argued, “Poor aircraft serviceability has nothing to do with the difference in flying hours. Our shortage of flying hours in April is solely due to lack of hard-surfaced runways, melting snows and a muddy field. We are handicapped, because after melting snows and rains, we have to wait anywhere from half a day to three weeks for the aerodrome to dry before we can use it, and the consequent shortage of flying hours, which under such circumstances we can do nothing about.”7 It was almost impossible to get airplanes off the muddy field. When heavy aircraft like the Anson used such a soft field, they broke down more often.8
Mayson put the blame for the lack of hard-surfaced runways directly at the door of the commanding officer of training command, Air Commodore Shearer. It is difficult to determine who made the decision not to construct hard-surfaced runways at Prince Albert but it was routine to have them built at all schools. There should have been no question that an aviation centre as important as Prince Albert, with two schools, should have had hard-surfaced runways. In a meeting of the Aerodrome Development Committee, the organization, which supervised all airport construction of the Air Training Plan, on May 5, 1942, the lack of paved runways at Prince Albert was discussed. It was pointed out that the construction of the runways was delayed due to confusion over the direction of the prevailing winds at the airport site. Because the sod field appeared to be adequate at that time, nothing was done.
Mayson, thinking the decision not to pave the runways may have been related to his management, said he was prepared to resign if that would keep the air observer school in Prince Albert. The suggestion, however, made no difference to those who made the decision.9
The Political Dimension
Another political element was added to the picture when the intention of opening an air observer school at the village of Davidson, Saskatchewan, a part of the federal constituency of Lake Centre, was also announced. John G. Diefenbaker, a well-known Progressive Conservative lawyer who lived in Prince Albert and had run against King unsuccessfully in the election of 1926, represented Lake Centre in Parliament. Diefenbaker, who was sitting in his first session of Parliament, had become a loud critic of the way the contracts had been granted to construct the facilities of the Air Training Plan. He had also targeted the allowances granted to the observer and elementary flying schools as being too high. He argued that too many businessmen were benefiting from the war effort. Added to these criticisms in Ottawa, Diefenbaker had traveled to Prince Albert, where he had criticized Mayson’s management of the observer school. Diefenbaker’s criticisms brought about much concern in Prince Albert.10
Prime Minister Mackenzie King inspects troops at the Tuxedo wireless school at Winnipeg. (FPA 128138352)
With the concerns of the war, King did not have time to pay close attention to what had happened at Prince Albert until he was visited by Mayson and Mr. Sanderson, the president of the observer school, in Ottawa on June 18,1942. That night, King recorded in his diary that “Some time was taken up tonight discussing … the question of the Air Training School. It is hard to tell the right and the wrong of the situation.”11 Following this, King wrote to C. G. Power, chairman of the air council, on June 23:
“The management does not deny that operating costs are high or that flying time is too low. They contend that both these circumstances result from a single cause, namely, that the Prince Albert Air Observer School is the only school without hard-surfaced runways…. It is further contended by the management of the school that the development of hard-surfaced run-ways which would have eliminated both of these difficulties has been consistently obstructed by responsible officers who have given no good reason for such obstruction….
“I understand that the training of observers is to be transferred to a large new air observer school to be located at Davidson, Saskatchewan. I am further informed that this new school is to be equipped with hard-surfaced runways. I think you will readily agree that the unwillingness to construct such runways at the existing school at Prince Albert and the readiness to construct them at Davidson demands some explanation. This is particularly true when it is realized that Prince Albert is a large community which, is a natural focus of civilian flying whereas Davidson is a mere village. . . . It is something of a coincidence that the Air Observer School at Prince Albert should be closed at the very time a large school is opened in the constituency of a member [Diefenbaker] who, during the present session, has shown particular zeal in his criticism of the organization of air observer schools.”12
Power had already made the decision to double the size of the elementary flying school at Prince Albert as well as to disband the city’s observer school. His difficult position was made worse because he had instituted guidelines that King himself had set down: no favours were to be given to anyone as a result of political patronage, (at least the appearance of patronage was to be avoided). Yet, King was now asking Power to act on a request that was very close to political patronage. In his reply, Power pointed out that when the Air Training Plan was established it was considered more economical to put the elementary flying training schools and the observer schools together. But, because no paved runways existed at that point at Prince Albert, and none would have to be constructed if the observer school was closed, the economics of the situation had changed. He also cited another problem: “The traffic control is further aggravated by the fact that the exercises at the Elementary Schools are totally different from those at the Air Observer Schools. … On the other hand, when the problem of eliminating one of them arose, [we] felt the proper procedure was to eliminate the least efficient, judged by the above standards.”13
Failure Against His Own Bureaucracy
Mackenzie King replied with a letter that made it obvious he was disappointed and irritated with his inability to change the situation. King wrote: “I do not feel that I would be justified in permitting the matter to rest at this stage. May I draw your attention to the fact that all of the points raised have been completely ignored in your reply. … It seems to me that there is nothing in your letter to support the decision to establish the observer school at Davidson while leaving the elementary school at Prince Albert which, could not equally be urged in support of the reverse arrangement.”14
In a letter of July 7, 1942, Power detailed each point that was taken into consideration when the decision was made to close the air observer school. He wrote that the flying hours had been lower than at other schools. Although this was caused by the fact that there were no hard-surfaced runways, again there was no explanation as to why the school had not received them. As the elementary school could continue without the construction of paved runways, he wrote, the decision would not be reversed.15
It was not until July 23 that King was able to reply to this letter because both King and Power were preoccupied with the important debate in the House of Commons over conscription in which the famous formula of “conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription” was coined.16
In his reply, King wrote: “You point out that the operational costs at Prince Albert have been high and the flying time poor. This was [because] … no hard-surfaced runways were provided. … I would also like to know what consideration was given to the point in my letter that all other things being equal, a community of the size of Prince Albert should be given the benefit of permanent aerodrome installations rather than a small village the size of Davidson.”17
J. L. Apedaile, the financial adviser for civilian schools, was asked by Power to prepare a reply to King’s letter. The letter he prepared simply indicated once again the reasons for closing the school, and was initialled “C. G. P.” King realized he was losing the battle.18 More importantly, the war effort required more of his time. He left the issue behind with a letter that blamed the whole problem on the fact that the school had no paved runways and concluded: “I would not be doing myself or the constituency of Prince Albert justice if I did not say that, with the failure to reply to the management on this point, it will be difficult to have the people of Prince Albert believe that there has been complete fairness in the matter and that a governing motive on the part of some official has not been a desire to appease one of the chief critics of the RCAF in its Air Observer School policy.”19
This is a line of Tiger Moths from the elementary flying training school at Prince Albert on a cold morning at Emma Lake. (PMR 81-143)
Number Six Air Observer School was officially closed in September 1942, after eighteen months of training and the graduation of 615 navigators from several different countries. With the closing, Number Six Elementary Flying Training School was doubled in size. The school continued to operate until July 1944 when the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was reduced substantially. The elementary school had trained 2,647 pilots by that time.20
Mayson and Campbell continued to manage the repair depot for the elementary school until it closed. With the closure of the school, M. and C. turned to civilian commercial service with the surplus Anson Aircraft until 1947 when it was purchased by the newly formed Saskatchewan Government Airways.21
Davidson received an air school, but not the air observer school that King had objected to. It was a less prestigious elementary flying training school. Awarding an air observer school to Davidson would have been too much of a personal humiliation for the prime minister.22
As large as the issue of the observer school appeared to be, The Prince Albert Herald had no comment about it’s closing because its attention was turned to the dark events of war. Germany had successfully occupied France, appeared to have the upper hand in northern Africa, and repulsed the Allies at Dieppe. The German army had begun to threaten Stalingrad as the observer school closed in September.
After the Prince Albert air observer school closed, King did not return to the constituency until the 1945 election. He may not have been surprised when he lost the constituency by 129 votes, but he must have been disappointed. However, King had no trouble finding a safe seat in Glengarry, Ontario, in order to lead his new postwar Liberal government.23
Notes for Chapter 13
Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker, and the Struggle for a School
1. Fred Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School” High Flight, (March/April 1982)
3. Queen’s University Archives [hereafter QUA], Power Papers, file D1074, note initialed by H. R. Stewart, Air Secretary, Oct. 9, 1940.
4. Ibid., Power to Curror, Jan 8, 1941; Order in Council PC 1329, Feb. 24, 1941.
5. NAC MG 26, J4, King Papers, “Memorandum re Prince Albert Air Observer School,” June 1942.
6. Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School.”
7. NAC MG 26, J4, King Papers, “Memorandum re Prince Albert Air Observer School,” June 1942.
8. Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School.”
9. Ibid., NAC MG 26, J4, King Papers, “Memorandum re Prince Albert Air Observer School,” June 1942; QUA, Power Papers, Department of National Defense For Air Development Committee, Minutes, May 5, 1942, Paragraphs 36-38.
10. NAC MG 26, J4, King Papers, “Memorandum re Prince Albert Air Observer School,” June 1942; John A. Munroe and J.H. Archer, eds., One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker. The Crusading Years 1895-1956 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 145-167; Canada, House of Commons, Debates, April 30, 1942.
11. NAC MG 26, J4, King Papers, “Memorandum re Prince Albert Air Observer School,” June 1942.
12 QUA, Power Papers, King to Power, June 23, 1942.
13. Ibid, Power to King, June 24, 1942.
14. Ibid., King to Power, July 1, 1942.
15. Ibid., Power to King, July 7, 1942.
16. Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School.”
17. QUA, Power Papers, King to Power, July 23, 1942.
18. Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School.”
19. QUA, Power Papers, King to Power, Aug. 21, 1942.
20. Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School.”
21. Public Archives of Saskatchewan, R-73 Mayson Papers, file 4.
22. Department of National Defence, Directorate of History, File 73/1558 v. 6, Meetings of the Supervisory Board of the BCATP, Reports of the Chief of the Air Staff, Aug. 17, to Oct. 19, 1942, Appendix “A”; Hatch, “Mackenzie King And No. 6 Air Observer School,” p. 15.
23. Saskatoon, Star Phoenix, June 12, 1942.