War on the homefront - Commonwealth Air Training Plan

Brian McFadden with the new display at the Vancouver Island Military Museum

The Vancouver Island Military Museum has added a now display about the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Brian McFadden of the military museum has provided the background for the exhibit.

The exhibit includes many photos from that period as well as aircraft models which were built by museaum volunteer Pat Murphy. 

By Brian McFadden
Vancouver Island Military Museum  

Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand created the Commonwealth Air training Plan in 1939 to train Allied aircrews in Canada for the Second World War. There is little doubt that this training contributed greatly to Allied air superiority during the war. Many of the trainees were from countries that had been overrun by the Nazis. In addition, hundreds of Americans crossed the border from the United States (which was neutral in the early years of the war) to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

More than 140,000 air crew were trained between 1939 and 1945 making this one of Canada's greatest contributions to the Allied victory in the air war. It led U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt to call Canada the “Aerodrome of Democracy.” 

Canada had an abundance of air training space as well as excellent climatic conditions for flying, with easy access to industries for replacement aircraft and spare parts.

The construction of training schools and airfields across the country was a massive undertaking which involved transforming farmers' fields on the prairies, in a matter of months, into operational training schools. Suddenly, runways, aircraft hangars, and dozens of buildings for accommodation sprang up all cross the land.

The BCATP brought thousands of trainees from all over the world to small communities coast to coast. These communities organized recreational activities, welcomed trainees into their homes, and helped furnish small luxuries such as games' rooms and libraries on the training bases. Locals also hosted sports days, carnivals, concerts, and dances in local church halls and community centres 

Training began in April 1940 but was hampered at first by a shortage of aircraft, instructors, and completed airfields. Air crew training was carried out mostly by RCAF personnel, however, in 1941 RAF training staff were being transferred from Britain to assist as the number of recruits increased and training aircraft became more plentiful. The risks associated with flight training were high with injuries and fatal accidents resulting in the deaths of more than 1,240 trainee air crew and instructors.

The first step for those who qualified for pilot training was a posting to a Flight Training School for an eight-week course involving all aspects of basic flying, navigation, and at least fifty hours at the controls of a single-engined Tiger Moth training aircraft. Successful graduates had to also master instrumentation, night and formation flying before graduating to an Operational Training Unit in Britain.

Specialized training units graduated aircrews as navigators-observers, wireless operators, bomb-aimers, flight engineers, and air gunners, although many had dual roles during operational flying. 

At the plan's peak there were 107 flying schools, 184 ancillary units, and more than 10,000 aircraft at 231 sites across Canada. The schools and airfields were staffed by 104,000 men and woman including just over 17,000 from the RCAF/Women's Division which provided support services for the program.  By war's end in 1945 the BCATP had graduated 131,553 airmen from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. Graduates also came from Nazi-occupied European countries including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.                                                                                                                     

Almost half the total aircrew personnel who served in British and Commonwealth flying operations during the Second World War were trained at the BCATP in Canada. The majority of graduates, almost 73,000, were Canadians who went on to provide air crews for 45 Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) overseas squadrons and 40 Home Defence squadrons. The enormous commitment to the air war overseas and particularly to air crews for Bomber Command exacted a heavy toll. Canadian airmen made up more than 25 per cent of the overall strength of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during WW II.

In 2014 a memorial was unveiled at the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) museum in Brandon, Manitoba to the 19,256 airmen and women from Canada and the Commonwealth who died in the Second World War.