The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and Article XV squadrons

News Article / March 1, 2016

The first of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 400-series squadrons came into existence 75 years ago today – March 1, 1941 – as a direct result of Article XV of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The 400-series squadrons continue to make up the fabric of the RCAF to this very day

By Major Bill March

Negotiations between Canada and the United Kingdom regarding aircrew training had been in progress for many years before the start of the Second World War. However, when hostilities began in September 1939, the need to reach a satisfactory conclusion became more imperative.

As Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King approached the issue from a distinctly political point of view because he was concerned with national unity, finance and an acceptable level of Canadian contribution to the war. By late November, just when it appeared as if all of these areas had been addressed to his satisfaction, an unexpected problem arose out of the sheer size of the training scheme.

With the lion’s share of the graduates from the plan being Canadian, how would they be dealt with overseas?

To the British – and some Canadians –  Commonwealth air power was indivisible and best employed by the Royal Air Force (RAF). They envisaged a process similar to that used during the First World War, when the Dominions had provided aircrew, and eventually groundcrew, to serve within the RAF. 

The Minister of National Defence, Norman McLeod Rogers, and senior Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) officers argued that, unlike the previous war, Canada now had an established air force, and that Canadians would demand that RCAF units, manned by Canadian graduates of the plan, take part in the fighting overseas. 

Always leery of the possibility of casualties and the overall cost of RCAF overseas commitments, King was adamant that changes had to be made to the plan dealing with national units. Anything impinging on Canadian sovereignty, or that could be interpreted as being subservient to Great Britain, had to be dealt with before the plan was agreed to. 

A last-minute compromise led to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) Agreement being signed on December 17, 1939.

The compromise resulted in the inclusion of Article XV in the final document. Therein, the signatories agreed that,

“The United Kingdom Government undertakes that pupils of Canada, Australia and New Zealand shall, after training is completed, be identified with their respective Dominions, either by the method of organizing Dominion units and formations or in some other way, such methods to be agreed upon with the respective Dominion Governments concerned.  The United Kingdom Government will initiate inter-governmental discussions to this end.”

Great Britain agreed to cover the cost of national units generated through the plan, with Dominion governments responsible to make up any differences in pay or allowances. Although the wording of this article permitted the training agreement to be finalized, it merely delayed resolution of problems dealing with of national units and identification to a later date.

German successes in Europe during the summer of 1940 spurred an increase in the size and scope of the BCATP. The first of what would become a steady stream of aircrew began arriving in England by the end of the year. From the perspective of the Canadian government, with three RCAF squadrons already committed overseas (Nos. 1, 110 and 112), it was now time to sort out the details of how the graduates would be formed into national units. With firm direction from Prime Minister King, James Ralston, who had replaced Rogers as the Minister of National Defence in June 1940, went to England on November 18.

Understandably, the British were somewhat concerned that the Canadians would demand the formation of what would amount to a separate air force paid for primarily by British taxpayers.  The initial meeting took place at the Air Ministry on December 13, and Ralston, based on recommendations from Canadian diplomats at Canada House, sought the creation of at least 25 RCAF squadrons (although they would be paid for by the British and provided with RAF ground crews). The Canadian government would be consulted over major policy issues concerning the employment of these units, but for operational and routine administrative matters they would remain under the immediate control of the RAF. 

Ralston also sought the creation of a mechanism by which the Dominion would be informed when Canadians engaged in operations and that there would be some form of national supervision during major operations. Finally, he suggested that Canadian aircrew surplus to the requirements of the agreed-upon 25 squadrons be grouped together in RAF (Canada) units.

For the most part, the Canadian position was in line with what the British were hoping for.  Although they were unwilling to group excess Canadian aircrew into RAF (Canada) squadrons, citing operational flexibility, they readily agreed to the Canadian proposals with only minor changes. And on January 7, 1941, Ralston and Sir Archibald Sinclair, the British Secretary of State for Air, signed an agreement governing the formation of squadrons under the auspices of the BCATP.

In accordance with Article XV of the BCATP, the Ralston-Sinclair Agreement stipulated that pilots and aircrew would be incorporated into 25 RCAF squadrons to be formed over an 18-month period. This number was in addition to the three RCAF units already in England. The cost of these “Article XV squadrons” would be borne by the RAF, which would also provide groundcrew until they could be replaced by Canadians. 

Recognizing the limited number of experienced RCAF officers, it was agreed to that the RCAF squadrons might initially be commanded by RAF personnel until they could gradually be replaced by suitable Canadians. RCAF personnel in excess of these requirements would wear their national uniform, but be employed as required by the RAF.

Sporting a 400-series number – all RCAF squadrons overseas being renumbered to prevent confusion with existing RAF units – No. 403 (Army Cooperation) Squadron was formed at RAF Station Baginton, Warkwickshire. The first Article XV squadron formed overseas, No. 403 would be joined in time by RCAF squadrons serving in all of the major RAF commands. However, the issues of national identity, different treatment for Canadians serving in the RAF, and the complete manning of RCAF units with Canadians, so called “Canadianization,” would continue to be a source of friction between the two air forces and governments.

Nevertheless, cooperation with respect to the establishment of the Article XV squadrons enabled the RCAF to make a sizeable Canadian air power contribution to combat operations throughout the world.

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