Commander's Message (RCAF Journal - SPRING 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 2)

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Thoughts on the Battle of Britain: Commander, RCAF

In the fall of 1939, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was a mere 15 years old, and like a “teenage” organization, it was just beginning to grow and mature. Rapid expansion was geared to a mighty task—the planning, construction and running of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Yes, two army co-operation squadrons, Nos. 110 and 112, were planned to accompany the Canadian Army to Europe, but the bulk of the RCAF was needed at home to safeguard our shores and provide a much-needed training cadre. Then, in the spring of 1940, the unthinkable happened. Germany crushed Allied opposition in Europe and threatened England. Canada quickly dispatched its only squadron equipped with modern Hurricane fighters to aid the hard-pressed forces of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) Fighter Command. The men of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron, along with fellow countrymen who had joined the RAF in the 1930s, helped stem the onslaught of the Luftwaffe, ensuring the cancellation of the planned invasion of England. It was the summer of the fighter pilot, and the Battle of Britain was a strategic victory; everything else, as is said, is history.

Or is it? Is there relevance to be found in the actions of air and ground crews whose exploits can only be viewed via digitized grainy black-and-white images or discovered in the dusty pages of rarely read books? Of course there is! Canadian participation in the Battle of Britain is not merely a part of our history and heritage; it highlights ALL of the concepts that underpin the 21st-century RCAF.

Deliberate planning led to the dispatch of the army co-operation squadrons, but the RCAF demonstrated impressive organizational flexibility with the unanticipated speedy deployment overseas of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron. Well under wartime establishment, the unit was fleshed out with personnel from No. 115 Squadron and relatively new members of the RCAF from the manning depot. I can only contemplate in awe the host of challenges those individuals overcame as they took an ad hoc group of people and forged an effective combat-capable squadron. Failure was not a word in their vocabulary, but agility, integration, reach and power (AIRPower[1]) were key RCAF concepts that underscored the actions of these exceptional Canadians.

From a starting point of common doctrine and culture, reinforced by years of working and studying with their Allied counterparts, the squadron was rapidly integrated into the coalition air effort. From their arrival in the United Kingdom in July 1940 until the unit was declared operational on 16 August, the pilots and ground crew were drilled relentlessly until they were comfortable functioning as an integral air-power element of the RAF air campaign. All this training was necessary to ensure that when they responded to direction from group and sector control (the air operations centres of the day), they did so as part of a coherent effort against the enemy.

By its participation in the Battle of Britain, No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron demonstrated Canada’s AIRPower and resolve to stand with England in its hour of need. Although the dispatch of one fighter squadron pales in comparison to the size of the RCAF’s overseas’ commitment in later years, it demonstrated an air force–centric expeditionary capability that provided the government of the day the option to participate. Although acquired for home defence, the Hurricane-equipped squadron made a valuable contribution to Allied efforts an ocean away.

For 53 days, the pilots of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron fought in the skies over England. On the ground, the riggers, fitters, armourers and support personnel worked tirelessly, keeping as many of the aircraft combat ready as humanly possible. Their dedication and sacrifice were an important part of the struggle to deny the Luftwaffe the ability to operate over England unchallenged. The defeat they helped inflict upon an enemy, easily as capable as the RAF, highlights the focused power of an integrated air force that combines the elements of strategy, leadership, doctrine, tactics and purpose.

So when I look at Canada’s part in the Battle of Britain, I see the rapid dispatch overseas of a squadron-sized unit, augmented by RCAF personnel from other locations, able to quickly integrate into a coalition air operation and able to make a valuable contribution to the air-power requirements of the operational environment. If this does not sum up how we do business in the 21st century, I do not know what does. No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron in the Battle of Britain is the embodiment of “AIRPower in Formation,” as described in Air Force Vectors. As we honour—with parades and ceremonies across the country—the sacrifices of Canadians in both the RAF and RCAF who fought as part of “The Few,” always remember that they pioneered who and what we are today.

Lieutenant-General M. J. Hood, CD, MA
Commander, Royal Canadian Air Force

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Abbreviations

AIRPower―agility, integration, reach and power

RAF―Royal Air Force

RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force

 

Note

[1]. AIRPower is derived fundamentally from the RCAF vision articulated in the capstone publication, Air Force Vectors, which brings together the concepts and capabilities that position the RCAF as “an agile and integrated air force with the reach and power essential for CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] operations.” It has both a practical (air power) and intellectual (airpower) element. Both elements, from the tactical application of air power to strategic airpower mindedness, need to be mastered to ensure the comprehensive and integrated application of AIRPower (or “AIRPower in Formation,” which represents the Commander, RCAF’s central message for the airmen and airwomen of the RCAF).  (return)

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