The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, BCATP, was one of Canada’s major contributions to the Second World War.
This ambitious plan directed Canada to provide the facilities to train aircrew from every corner of the Commonwealth to serve in the Allied War effort. Although still in its infancy, the Royal Canadian Air Force was given the task of training thousands of personnel. It was a formidable challenge that Canada undertook.
By the end of the war, this astoundingly successful plan had graduated over 130,000 pilots, observers, air gunners, navigators, wireless operators and other aircrew.
Early in 1937, Britain proposed the Empire Air Training Scheme to begin training pilots and aircrew in response to the growing threat they felt rising from reports of German rearmament. Australia and New Zealand readily joined this plan, but the Canadian government was at first reluctant since Prime Minister Mackenzie King was not willing to commit Canada to such an expensive proposition while the threat of war remained uncertain.
However, the invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 changed public opinion on the matter overnight. Britain declared war on Germany two days later and Canada joined the conflict at Britain’s side on September 10th, 1939. A few weeks later, Neville Chamberlain, Britain's Prime Minister, received a proposal put forth by Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain, for Canada to contribute to the war effort by training Commonwealth pilots and aircrew.
Neville Chamberlain approached Mackenzie King with the idea, which King approved of. Mackenzie King believed this proposal would allow Canada to make a significant contribution to the Allied war effort, while at the same time reducing the possibility of incurring the unprecedented casualties seen during the First World War.
The final British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreement was signed on December 17th, 1939 by Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The agreement stipulated the percentage of trainees each country would send, the percentage of costs payable by each country, the training schedule and the aerodrome construction.
Canada was the ideal location for an air training plan for many reasons. It was far enough from the fighting to be protected from hostile attack, but still close enough to Britain for easier transportation of men and equipment. Canada had lots of wide-open spaces to accommodate operational and training facilities and a substantial population to provide ample recruits for the program.
Canada also had a large capacity to manufacture aircraft along with easy access to the US market for aircraft parts and supplies. Last of all, Canada’s climate produced good year-round flying conditions.
Aerodrome of Democracy
With less than a dozen airports of its own, the young RCAF was met with an enormous challenge of recruiting instructors, building air bases, acquiring aircraft and developing training schools for different specialties including pilots, navigators and wireless operators / air gunners and instructors.
By September 1941, all 16 Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS) proposed by the BCATP were in operation in Canada. By December of that same year, the remaining schools opened, 13 Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS), 10 Air Observer Schools, 10 Bombing and Gunnery Schools, 4 Wireless Schools, and numerous Air Navigation Schools, Flying Instructor Schools and Operational Training Units.
These training schools were spread from coast-to-coast with BCATP installations built in every province of the country. The Canadian government built over 7,000 hangars, barracks and drill halls for the air bases and training schools and employed over 33,000 air force personnel and 6,000 civilians.
One of many challenges that arose was during 1940 when Britain had to stop delivery of Avro Anson trainer planes to Canada. The Battle of Britain had begun, and required all of Britains energies and materiel to fight off the German attempt to gain mastery of the air over England.
Canada responded with plans to build its own version of the Avro Anson, modified to fit a U.S. made engine. Eventually Canada produced over 2,800 Ansons, 750 Harvards and over 2,000 Fairchild Cornells, Tiger Moths and Fleet Finch aircraft. Victory Aircraft in Ontario also built over 400 four-engine Lancaster bombers for the war effort.
By wars end, there were over 150 training schools across the country and BCATP installations in every province. Enough concrete was used in creating runways for all the BCATP air bases across Canada to pave a 20-foot wide road from Vancouver to Ottawa. It’s no wonder that U.S. President Roosevelt called Canada: "The Aerodrome of Democracy".
The program was challenging and rigorous with students spending months training at specialized schools. To begin with, recruits were posted to a Manning Depot for four weeks where they learned the basics of military life.
They proceeded to an Initial Training School where they studied mathematics, navigation, aerodynamics and other subjects. Their results here determined their next posting. Some went on to flight training while others were sent to navigation or wireless schools.
Pilot training was the longest and most difficult. Pilot trainees were posted to an Elementary Training Flying School (ETFS) to take an eight week course learning all aspects of the basics of flying and navigation. They spent about fifty hours flying in the single engine “primary” training aircraft.
Successful graduates were posted to a Service Training Flying School (SFTS) where they were expected to improve their navigational skills, master instrument and night flying, and participate in formation flying exercises. Trainees were separated into fighter or bomber pilots.
Once graduated from the STFS the pilots were considered ready to continue their training at an Operational Training Unit (OTU), usually out of Britain.
Other aircrew were assigned to BCATP schools devoted to their specialty such as navigation, wireless, and bombing and gunnery schools where a variety of aircraft were used in their training.
Apart from this training scheme, Canada also put her training facilities at the disposal of the Royal Air Force. Several RAF Training Schools were transferred to Canada which graduated tens of thousands British airmen. There were also would-be pilots outside the Commonwealth empire who trained in Canada and joined either the RCAF or RAF.
Commonwealth graduates of the BCATP included 42,000 British, 9,600 Australians, 7,000 New Zealanders and over 72,800 Canadian airmen. Canada’s First World War Flying Ace, Billy Bishop, presented many pilots with their “Wings” at graduation.
The BCATP trained personnel from all over the world. The program also graduated about 450 Poles, 680 Norwegians, 800 Belgian and Dutch, 900 Czechslovakians and 2,600 Free French personnel. Graduates also included several thousand Americans who joined the program while the United States was still neutral.
By the end of the war, the phenomenally successful BCATP program had graduated over 131,000 pilots, flight engineers, observers, and other aircrew for commonwealth air forces.
Role of Civilians
The success of the BCATP program had a lot to do with the support of the Canadian community. The presence of a BCATP base was an economic boost to nearby communities which had still not recovered from the depression of the thirties. Airmen were generally made welcome. In fact, over 3,700 girls married members of foreign forces by the conclusion of the program.
Bush and commercial pilots worked side by side with military personnel. Initially, Canadian flying clubs were entrusted by the government to organize and operate the EFTSs. Club members were often First World War Veterans and therefore a ready source of skilled manpower. Some flying clubs funded the entire cost of a training school through private or community donations.
In the barracks, women’s organizations ran the canteens and dances. Community sports organizations supplied athletic equipment and service organizations provided items such as pianos. Trainees were often invited into people’s own homes as civilians sought to support the airman so far away from home.
The legacy of the BCATP in Canada was a strong post-war aviation sector and many new or improved airports across the country. Many are still in use today.
More than 100 aerodromes and landing fields had been built by war’s end and a aircraft construction industry developed to provide the necessary services and maintenance for the new aircraft.
This meant jobs for the civilian population in the manufacturing and supply sectors, which became a long and enduring factor in the economic revitalization of many communities who were near flight training schools throughout Canada.
Interesting Facts about the BCATP
- The BCATP operated in Canada from 1940 until March 1945
- 70% of BCATP trainees were Canadian
- 3,000 trainees were graduated each month at the program's peak
- The BCATP employed over 33,000 air force personnel and 6,000 civilians
- A Welshman named Richard Burton and a British author named Arthur Hailey were BCATP trainees
- 850 BCATP aircrew were killed in training accidents
- Over 130,000 pilots, observers and flight engineers graduated from the program
- The BCATP remains the single largest aviation training program in history