Canada had been the home of a major recruiting and training organization in WORLD WAR I, and the British again looked to it for aviators when the international situation worsened in the 1930s. Prime Minister W.L.M. KING's peacetime caution about such schemes evaporated after the declaration of war in 1939: a training program would keep Canadians at home, ward off demands for a large expeditionary force and bury the politically divisive issue of overseas CONSCRIPTION.
Negotiating the agreement was difficult. Canada agreed to accept most of the plan's costs but insisted that the British consent to a public pronouncement that air training would take precedence over all other aspects of the Canadian war effort. The British expected that the Royal Air Force would absorb Canadian air training graduates without restrictions, as in WWI. The King government demanded that Canadians be identified as members of the RCAF by their shoulder badge.
Nevertheless, Article 15 of the agreement, providing for the possible organization of Canadian "units and formations" overseas, was vague and unsatisfactory, the more so because of Ottawa's understandable reluctance to pay both for training and for the maintenance of an operational force abroad. Most RCAF personnel overseas served with the RAF, not with their national air force, and the process of creating distinctly Canadian squadrons was slow and painful.
Canada administered and controlled the plan in accordance with standards and overall policy set by the RAF. The training program was carried out by the RCAF, supported by the Canadian Flying Clubs Association, commercial aviation companies and the federal Department of Transport. Training began on 29 April 1940, but was hampered by a shortage of aircraft, instructors and completed airfields.
After the fall of France in June 1940, the plan was accelerated, and the first of a series of transfers of RAF aircrew schools to Canada took place. In 1942, after renewal of the agreement and reorganization of the plan, all British units in Canada were integrated formally into the BCATP.
At the plan's peak, there were 107 schools and 184 ancillary units at 231 sites. The aircraft establishment stood at 10 906 and the ground organization at 104 113 men and women. The Canadian government paid more than $1.6 billion, three-quarters of the total cost. Graduates totalled 131 553 pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, air gunners and flight engineers from the 4 founding partners, other parts of the COMMONWEALTH, the US and countries of occupied Europe.
Almost half the total aircrew employed on British and Commonwealth flying operations were products of the BCATP. Canadian graduates numbered 72 835, providing crews for 40 RCAF home defence and 45 overseas RCAF squadrons, as well as constituting about 25% of the overall strength of RAF squadrons. This major commitment to the air war overseas, and particularly to Bomber Command, inevitably exacted a very heavy toll in Canadian casualties, a result very different from Mackenzie King's original aim.
Author F.J. HATCH AND NORMAN HILLMER
Links to Other Sites
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
Read a fascinating account about this Second World War training program for air force recruits from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. From the Juno Beach Centre website.
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
An informative feature about the history of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. From Veterans Affairs Canada.
Wilfrid R. "Wop" May
This family website is dedicated to the memory of Canadian aviator Wilfrid R. "Wop" May. Features audio clips, photos, and articles related to May’s experiences as a First World War fighter pilot, bush pilot, community leader, and humanitarian.
Vintage Wings of Canada
Explore this extensively illustrated site that highlights the heroes, heritage, and history of Canadian aviation.
The Memory Project: British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
Listen to interviews with Canadian veterans about their wartime military service. See also related digitized artefacts and memorabilia. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.