My grandfather was 26 years old when Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King recommended the country declare war on Germany in a radio speech on Sunday, September 3, 1939. Seven days later, Canada officially declared war on Germany and created the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Special Reserve, which was placed on active service.
I’m not sure what Grandpa Joseph Isidore Alfred Gabriel Arial was doing that year, but he probably lived in Edmonton after his last known job as a radio inspector ended in February 1936. He may have built and renovated houses with his cousins.
Eventually, he would contribute to what would become the world’s largest flight training program, although like many military volunteers, he never considered his contribution worthwhile. I remember standing in his garage as a 12-year old hearing him tell me how he regretted not doing his part during World War II. It never occurred to me that he had actively served in the RCAF until decades later when I found his release papers. It turns out that he honourably served for from February 20, 1941 to September 5, 1945.
It turns out that he’s among a great many men who volunteered to go to Europe to fight and ended up staying in Canada to keep the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) operational.
Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand officially created the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on December 17, 1939, King’s 65th birthday but efforts to get it going began even earlier than that.
According to Dunmore, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan began just after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. “The Air Ministry suggested a scheme whereby Canadian, South African, and New Zealand air force cadets could be granted short-service commissions, serve five years in the RAF, then return home for reserve services.”1
Shortly thereafter, in 1936, Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain presented British Air Minister Lord Swinton’s suggestion that some airmen be trained in Canada prior to joining the RAF.
Later in 1936, Scottish pilot RAF Group Captain Robert Leckie described a plan to create “a Flying Training School formed in Canada” in a memo to Air Commodore Arthur W. Tedder. In this memo, he pointed out that more than a third of the RAF officers in WWI had been Canadian. The idea was proposed, but the Canadian Cabinet rejected the plan in favour of a Canadian-run training school instead. 2
In 1937, 15 Canadians were trained under the plan.
When Germany annexed Austria to the Third Reich in 1938, the Canadian government increased the number of Canadians able to join the RAF to 120 per year and later it went up to 138. That plan attracted a total of 400 Canadian pilots to the RAF.
It took from May 1938 until April 1939 to convince the Canadian Government to train up to 50 British pilots and 75 Canadian pilots. Eight flying clubs, in Calgary, Hamilton, Montreal, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg were recruited to do the training. In August 1939, five RAF officers (Ken McDonald, Dick Waterhouse, Jackie Mellor, Desmond McGlinn and Leslie Smallman) crossed the Atlantic by ship from Southhampton, England to Montreal and then to Trenton to help set up navigation training in Canada.
By April 29, 1940 the first 168 RCAF recruits entered No. 1 Initial Training School in Toronto getting the BCATP air training plan fully underway. Just in time too. By June that year, France fell to the Nazis.
Over the next four years, Canada built more than 100 pilot training facilities in every province and territory.
“Looking back it is difficult to grasp the BCATP in all its dimensions,” wrote J.F. Hatch, in his 1983 book describing the project. “In themselves, the statistics are impressive: 131,553 [plus 5,296 RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel trained prior to July 1, 1942] aircrew trained for battle, through a ground structure embracing 105 flying training schools of various kinds, 184 support units and a staff numbering 104,000. When war was declared the RCAF had less than two hundred aircraft suitable for training, many of them obsolete. In December 1943 there were 11,000 aircraft on strength of the BCATP.”3
I suspect that my grandfather kept many of those planes flying as an air mechanic in Fort William. Clearly this work contributed greatly to the allied war effort, but most of the stats about its importance talked about front-line combatants, not the 6,000 behind-the-scenes people who made the project operational.
The Canadian Government post about the project, for example says: “Of the Canadians trained in the BCATP, 25,747 would become pilots: 12,855 navigators; 6,659 air bombers; 12,744 wireless operators; 12,917 air gunners, and 1,913 flight engineers.”4
Also, several of the daily diaries for this period include the arrival of billiard tables, the building of skating rinks, sports tournaments and multiple leisure activities,5 so perhaps it’s no wonder that volunteer soldiers who served on these bases felt like they sat out the war.
1 Dunmore, Spencer. Wings for Victory: The Remarkable Story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, p10.
2 Dunmore, Spencer. Wings for Victory: The Remarkable Story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1994, pp24,25,26.
3 Hatch, F. J. The Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945. Ottawa: Directorate of History, Dept. of National Defence, 1983, 222 pages.
4Veterans Affairs Canada, Historical Sheets, The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/classroom/fact-sheets/britcom, accessed March 7, 2023.
5Daily Diary – Links – No. 2 Elementary Flying Training School, https://rcaf.info/rcaf-stations/ontario-rcaf-stations/rcaf-station-fort-william/, accessed March 7, 2023.