A Test of Resolve: Article XV, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and a Crusade for National Recognition (RCAF Journal - SPRING 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 2)

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By Dr. Richard Oliver Mayne, CD

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was one of Canada’s greatest contributions to the Second World War. It was a massive undertaking that would require new and upgraded airfields, tens of thousands of instructors and support workers, the acquisition of thousands of aircraft and the mobilizing of many national resources—all of which would result in the training of 131,553 Allied aircrew.[1] For a country that had only gained control over its own foreign policy from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1931, the BCATP was a test of Canadian resolve as well as a measure of its sense of nationalism and direction as an independent state. Nowhere was this more evident than in the intense negotiations that took place, particularly between the Canadian and British representatives, to formalize an agreement that would make the BCATP possible.

Given the importance of the BCATP, most individuals would understand why the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) would want to commemorate the 75th anniversary of an agreement that helped turn it into the professional force that it is today. What is perhaps less certain is why the RCAF is marking this event in 2016, rather than two years earlier when the 75th would have corresponded with the signing of the agreement on 17 December 1939. The answer, quite simply, is Article XV. The importance of this clause for both Canada and its air force cannot be overstated. It read:

The United Kingdom Government undertakes that pupils of Canada, Australia and New Zealand shall, after training is completed, be identified with their respective Dominion, 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 Government considered. The United Kingdom Government will initiate inter-governmental discussions to this end.[2]

What this meant was that rather than belonging to British units, as had been done during the First World War, many Canadians serving overseas would do so in national squadrons under their own commanders. As such, it not only led to a greater sense of identity and independence for the RCAF as a national organization, but it also allowed Canada to make a significant and direct contribution to the air war.

Perhaps nothing demonstrated this more than the establishment in March 1941 of the first of the famous 400-series squadrons, which—thanks to Article XV—were the identifiers that signified a Canadian overseas squadron.[3] Given that a number of the 400-series squadrons are active today and will be celebrating their 75th anniversaries over the next three years, it seems only natural that the article that made this all possible would be remembered. Much has been written on the BCATP and Article XV for that matter, yet no one has explored the negotiations surrounding the latter in the type of detail that can yield new insights into the importance of this clause to Canada and the RCAF.[4] Therefore, this piece is aimed at telling the remarkable story of how Article XV became an important part of the BCATP as well as how its negotiation was symbolic of Canada’s growing maturity, confidence and sense of nationalism.

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While the roots of the BCATP can be traced to before the Second World War, the official start of the negotiations began when the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, proposed the idea of an air training plan to Canada, Australia and New Zealand on 26 September 1939.[5] The concept was immediately popular with Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The First World War had cost Canada dearly, not only in terms of citizens lost in combat, but also the stress that controversial issues such as conscription had taken on the national fabric. As one renowned historian observed:

an air effort had more physical appeal than “great expeditionary forces of infantry” … [which] seemed to hold out the hope of smaller forces, fewer casualties, less pressure on manpower and a reduction of the danger of conscription. The Air Training Plan project was particularly attractive, presumably, in that it would be largely carried on within Canada and held out the prospect of a considerable portion of the RCAF being employed on training at home instead of in operations abroad. … Chamberlain may not have realized it, but it is scarcely too much to say that in 1939 the Air Training Plan must have seemed the answer to any Canadian politician’s prayer.[6]

Australia and New Zealand were equally receptive to the concept, and it did not take long before officials began to arrive in Canada to hash out a deal. That Canada was selected as the location to host this plan was understandable. Free from enemy air activity while remaining relatively close to the UK, Canada was the ideal location to prepare pilots, navigators, observers and air gunners for the Allied cause. Yet while that cause may have represented a common effort, it did not mean that each participating country was going to ignore their national interests during the negotiations.

The British delegation was led by Lord Riverdale (Arthur Balfour), a prominent steel manufacturer who arrived on 15 October, and was later reinforced by Captain Harold Balfour, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air, as well as Sir Gerald Campbell, the High Commissioner for the UK in Ottawa and Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. The main Canadian participants were the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King; the Minister of National Defence, Norman Rogers; the Minister of Finance, James Layton Ralston; and the Minister of Transport (and later Munitions and Supply), Clarence Decatur Howe. The Canadian delegation would prove formidable, particularly when it came to Article XV, as it was clear that it “seems likely that First World War Royal Flying Corps (RFC) / Royal Air Force (RAF) Canadian training precedent was never far from the minds of [British] Air Ministry officials in 1939” and that incorporating Dominion airmen into RAF squadrons “was in purely military terms probably the most convenient, efficient, and economical way to build a large air force.”[7] If this truly was the British position upon arriving in Ottawa, they would soon find that this assumption was gravely mistaken.

The desire to have Canadians serving in their own national units was strong among King and his cabinet members. Even before the negotiations had begun, King had made it clear to the British High Commissioner in Ottawa that while his nation was more than willing to help, “it is the desire of this Government that Canadian Air Force units be formed as soon as sufficient trained personnel are available overseas for this purpose, such squadrons to be manned by and maintained with Canadian personnel at the expense of the Canadian Government.” [8] This was a concept that the British seemed, at first, to understand as King was told that Canadian personnel lent to the RAF would later have the option of joining RCAF units should their government decide to form distinctive overseas air units.[9]

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Despite such reassurances, King was suspicious of British intentions. Almost from the onset, King went to great pains to emphasize that the BCATP was not a Canadian scheme. Instead, King wanted to make it perfectly clear that it was the British who were asking for Canadian assistance. It was an important point. Even before the negotiations began, King was concerned that the mother country would take a condescending and dictatorial approach with its former colonies. The British did not disappoint. After meeting with the Canadians on 31 October, in which Riverdale and Balfour explained what was being requested from Canada, King later confided in his diary how they had lived up to his expectations:

This was blindly set forth as to what Canada was expected to do … . There was nothing in what Riverdale or Balfour said which was in the least appreciative of Canada’s readiness to co-operate. It was a sort of taken-for-granted attitude that it was our duty and obligation, and that the part of the mission was only to tell us what we would be expected to do.[10]

The Prime Minister realized that such an approach would not be necessarily in Canada’s best interest, and he, therefore, laid the groundwork for future negotiations by taking a position of strength and emphasizing his country’s status as an independent nation.

A number of King’s cabinet members shared his concern. Certainly his minister of finance understood all too well what was being asked, as he let his Prime Minister know that, while everyone knew that Canada wanted to “pull her full weight and more in the conflict,”[11] the country could not come “within shooting distance”[12] of the type of money that it would take to finance the plan, especially because Canada did not have an Empire to mortgage as collateral. King agreed and would later tell the British delegation that Canada would not go beyond its resources in terms of what it could commit. Yet in fairness to the British, it is important to note that King and his ministers wanted something from the deal as well. At a 31 October Emergency Council meeting (later renamed War Cabinet meetings), King laid out how it had been suggested that Canada should busy itself with the financing and training of the plan, whereas, he felt that popular opinion would insist that Canadian squadrons be created overseas to serve in combat roles. In an assumption that would later come back to haunt him, King figured that—given that Canada would make a considerable contribution to the Air Training Plan—it was only natural that the UK would cover the cost of equipping and maintaining the RCAF overseas squadrons once they were formed.[13]

King was not alone in this assumption. Certainly Ralston observed that he had personally discussed the idea with the UK delegation, going so far as suggesting that such payments could be offset against credits provided by British purchases in Canada. Yet it was Rogers who was quick to point out that, while this subject may have been broached with the UK delegation, the fact remained that there was no reference or provision for crediting British purchases in the proposal that they had prepared on the scheme. As such, when they first met with the British delegation, King and his team were quick to emphasize their position and rationale for the requirement of establishing overseas Canadian squadrons that would be maintained by the UK. Whether the British delegation fully understood what the Canadians were proposing is not entirely clear because King’s diary makes it obvious that this first encounter was less of a negotiation and more of a heated debate, confiding to his diary that “Lord Riverdale saw that he had gone a little too far in his railroading.”[14]

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If this first meeting was indeed something akin to a sparring match, it appears that the first round went to the Canadians. At least that was King’s interpretation, as he thought Riverdale looked “deflated” by the end of a session where “it was quite clear that the [British] plan of approach had been one of steam-rolling, just the very thing we complain about Hitler in his method of proceeding.”[15] While there was no knockout blow, King did land some powerful jabs that let the British know that Canada was its own master. His attitude, along with his cabinet ministers involved, left no doubt that the Canadians intended to negotiate from a position of strength.

It appeared to King that the British were intimating that they were the ones who were making a “free contribution” to the plan.  Therefore, he emphasized that such thinking was “the wrong way around” and that it was “Canada that was making [the] contribution,” which “should be kept in mind.” King had no problem hitting the British hard, as he felt that the negotiations would get nowhere if “it was assumed that the central part of the Empire tells the outlying parts what to do,” particularly since “the worst part of the whole business is that this scheme is, in reality, a recruiting scheme for the British air force rather than any genuine attempt for co-operation.”[16]

Although King and his ministers thought that they had made their position clear on the need for the UK to support Canadian overseas squadrons as part of the air training scheme, time would soon prove that the British either did not understand this assumption or simply ignored it. Yet for the Canadians, it was a potential deal breaker, and no one captured the importance of the concept better than the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal G. M. Croil. When asked for his opinion, Croil was blunt. Turning to history to prove his point, Croil reminded his political masters that Canadian squadrons were being formed at the end of the First World War, which, he emphasized, were the product of public pressure.[17] This was certainly true. Beginning with newspaper articles in the national press, the desire to form some type of distinctive Canadian air identity was so strong that it eventually led the prime minister of the time, Robert Borden, to reverse his earlier position that air power was an imperial responsibility. In fact, Borden, having personally witnessed how the identities of Canadians were being buried within the RFC, was so concerned that he had come to the conclusion that “I am inclined to believe that the time for organizing an independent Canadian Air Service has come.”[18]

For Croil, however, the issue was more than just a question of identity. As essential as that was, he also made his political bosses aware that he considered it pivotal that the RCAF would have to do more than provide for the training of the Empire. In a telling memorandum, Croil explained how:

  1. It would be detrimental to Canadian prestige as a nation to restrict its official air effort to Home Defence and Training.
  2. The training scheme will prepare Canadians for combat duties in the air but if Canada has no squadrons overseas, the work of the individual will be merged in the RAF. We have every reason to expect that Canadians will do well in the air. If they can serve in Canadian squadrons they will bring credit to Canada as a nation, and build up tradition for the RCAF and their squadrons.
  3. The training scheme involves the employment of 26,000 Canadians, on training work in Canada. This is not in keeping with the temperament of Canadians who prefer to be at the front and they would be dissatisfied unless some provision is made for them to have a chance of getting overseas.[19]

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Croil’s words perfectly capture the spirit of the RCAF and the government’s desire for national recognition throughout a war that was promising to be as long and costly as the last one. This time, Canadian achievements were not going to get lost by the fact that its airmen were included exclusively in British units. It is clear from Croil’s comments above that Article XV was the manifestation (and codification) of this patriotic thinking, and it was one that the CAS fully supported.

King had other demands, aside from the creation of overseas RCAF squadrons. Realizing the domestic value of the scheme, the Prime Minister insisted that the British officially recognize that the training programme was the single greatest contribution that Canada could make to the war effort (known as the primacy of effort issue). King had more practical political purposes for making this request, especially since a Canadian Army division was about to land in the UK. Put simply, the Prime Minister needed this statement about the primacy of the Air Training Plan for domestic consumption so as to pacify parts of the country, particularly in Quebec, that were nervous about a repeat of the heavy casualties taken during the First World War and the policy of conscription which, while required to replace those losses, nearly tore the country apart.

King’s demands did not end there. To further give Canada control over its own destiny, the Prime Minister also wanted an assurance that the plan would be administered and controlled by the RCAF and Canadian government. While the negotiations had been proceeding fairly smoothly throughout November, the clarification of these provisions did start to slow things down by the end of the month. To make matters worse, the British were mounting pressure on the Canadians to have a deal signed before the Australian and New Zealand delegations had to go home.[20]

Despite encouraging words from several camps that a deal was close at hand, the British and Canadian positions were actually further apart than anyone imagined.[21] King was not going to back down on his conditions, and after telling his ministers that he had received a message from Chamberlain, he noted that it:

did not, however, give us the conditions which we had said would be essential. I thought the telegram dissembling in the way in which it worded with respect to the British attitude for our request. I felt very strongly, and the other Ministers agreed with me, that it was essential to have all matters thoroughly understood before any agreement was reached—all liability and obligations fully understood; particularly did I feel it was important to have the question of administration properly settled. … By standing firm on this point, which is all important from the point of view of responsible government, and Canada’s status before initialing the agreement, I feel we should get that feature satisfactorily settled.[22]

King was playing hardball. As far as he was concerned, such a direct approach was the only way that the British would ever let a Canadian minister run the programme or “get the question of identity of commands satisfactorily settled as well as the conditions we are asking for.”[23] King’s tactics were leading to delays, but he showed little remorse whatsoever as he wrote that:

I confess as to the agreement itself that a pretty heavy load has been handed over on the back of Canada by the British Government. They can well be thankful that they have so loyal a Dominion to take on this burden at this time. I feel, of course, that Britain is fighting for freedom and that we owe all that we are doing and more to the course.[24]

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It was at this juncture that matters were more or less left to Rogers and Balfour to settle. Some progress was obviously made between these two men, as it did not take long before the British accepted the “primacy of effort” issue. This, of course, was premised on a British counter request that King’s Government emphasize the arrival of Canadian troops in the UK, which in itself was a political request aimed at British public consumption.[25] Ground was also gained on the question of control over the plan. Here, too, the British were willing to let the RCAF and government run the plan—a concession that undoubtedly was made easier by the agreement to create a multinational board that would give all participating nations a voice and some sense of authority over the BCATP.[26]

That left the issue of establishing Canadian overseas squadrons. On the surface at least, it appeared that things were going well with this question too. Realizing that the complexity of forming the squadrons with British assistance would likely require its own agreement, King was only after an assurance from the UK government that it supported the concept.[27] The British delegation was not in a position to do that, but the Canadians were optimistic, as it was observed that “the question of identity and command of formations and units in the field have been discussed by the Minister of National Defence with Captain Balfour and we have every reason to believe that agreement will be reached on these points.”[28] The Canadians then told the British they would be more than happy to sign the agreement. And that was where matters stood when Balfour returned to the UK to present the Canadian case directly to his superiors.[29]

It was not until 7 December that King finally received word from Chamberlain confirming what earlier communications had already suggested, namely that the British were willing to concede the issue of priority of effort. King was delighted and recorded that this assurance “practically settles the agreement,” especially since his defence minister was meeting with Riverdale in an effort to finally put the question of Canadian overseas squadrons to rest. It was not to be. The results of the Rogers-to-Riverdale discussion led to a letter, which, once sent overseas, would bust the entire negotiations open again.[30] In itself, Rogers’s letter was inoffensive, as it simply provided the proposed wording of what he called “Paragraph 15.” Presumably, this was the product of the discussion that the two men had had the day before because Riverdale responded with the optimistic message that he believed his government would readily accept this interpretation.[31] He was wrong.

It did not take long before King started to realize that there was still a potential problem with the deal. For instance, having become aware that there was a good possibility that Riverdale’s response was actually drafted by another junior member of the British delegation, King ensured that “Lord Riverdale [was made] definitely to understand that I would not sign [the] agreement until Mission or British Government agreed to interpretation given paragraph on this subject in agreement as set out in Rogers letter.”[32] For his part, Riverdale personally confirmed that he did, in fact, support the Canadian position, but this did little to ease the Canadian Prime Minister’s concerns, particularly when he discovered that Balfour was not so convinced that Article XV should be approved, since he actually had “some difficulty” with the concept. That was all King needed to persuade him that the negotiations were not over, interpreting this fact as evidence that the “Air Ministry in England, is trying to keep Canadian squadrons at its disposal, merged into British forces, creating all the trouble in the air field that was created on land with the army in the last war. This must be avoided at all costs and will be by my standing firm on this matter as I did on the one priority re contribution of services.”[33]

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King was determined to win this battle and immediately went on the offensive. A request from Campbell to come out to Canada to discuss the matter was declined—likely designed to show the British how serious King was on this matter—and was followed up by a reiteration that Canada would not sign the entire agreement without an acceptance of Article XV. It was an effective tactic, but one that was not entirely based on cold, calculating logic. That certainly was apparent when King let his emotions show in a daily diary entry:

It is really shameful the way in which the British Government in these matters seeks to evade and undo and to change the meaning of the most definitely understood obligations. No wonder the Germans and others find it difficult to deal with governments that behave in that fashion towards those that are of their own with kith and kin in doing what they can to help them. … The British want to be on top in everything, not even to go 50-50 with those who are helping to save their very existence.[34]

Yet King was not done with the British. In an effort to place some pressure on them, a message was sent to the UK on 11 December, noting that Article XV was the only point that was holding up the agreement which, in Canada’s opinion, was the product of the “unwillingness of the United Kingdom Government to accept our proviso that Canadian personnel from the air training plan will … be organized in RCAF formations in the field.” And to further put the British under the gun, the British High Commissioner for Canada in the UK was instructed that “It might save some time if you would let the British Government know how strongly the [Canadian] Government feels on this point.”[35]

King’s bluster effectively brought the British back to the table and drew the battle lines for what would be the last set of negotiations before the agreement was signed. It was not an easy process, as the following six days were filled with drama, intrigue and diplomatic gamesmanship. As such, they are worth describing in some detail, as they clearly illustrate how important Article XV was to Canada as a whole and the RCAF specifically.

In many ways, it is easy to see why the British took issue with Article XV. From their perspective, and with more than a little justification, Article XV was setting up a situation where British taxpayers would be the ones who ultimately paid for the Canadian squadrons overseas. They had a point. Even if Canada’s contribution to the scheme was devoted to maintaining and equipping separate squadrons, it still would not be enough to cover the costs of all the Canadians trained by the scheme, and it was clear that King and his team were expecting the UK to pick up the remainder of the bill. Understandably, this was something that the British government did not favour, but they were willing to welcome as many Canadian squadrons as the RCAF cared to send—that was, of course, if Canada was willing to pay for them. How Canada was expected to find the funds to both support the training plan and pay for these operational squadrons—which as King identified would place a tremendous burden on his country—was not explained.[36] Yet, while the British were sympathetic and acknowledged that it appeared impossible for Canada to find sufficient funds for the training scheme and overseas squadrons, it nevertheless appeared that their former colony was trying to get its proverbial cake and eat it too. More to the point, as one Canadian scholar would correctly argue, “the demands of finances and national identification pulled in opposite directions.”[37] Nor was this the only place where the British had trouble following Canada’s apparently self-serving logic.

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Money was one aspect; personnel was another. For instance, one British observer was quick to point out that if all the Canadian pilots trained by the plan were suddenly formed into RCAF units, it would mean that half of the current squadrons in France would be Canadian—despite the fact that they would consist of only one tenth of the total number of personnel stationed there.[38] This concept became even more intriguing when the numbers were crunched within the individual squadrons. The nature by which squadrons operated always ensured that the supporting ground crew would greatly outnumber the aircrew and that begged the question whether it was right to call a squadron “Canadian” when the vast majority of its personnel came from another country. Adding weight to this British counterpoint, Charles “Chubby” Power, who would go on to become the Minister of National Defence for Air, was forced later in life to admit that: “to call a Canadian squadron, when the personnel attached to it were British in the ratio of about ten to one, would be somewhat an anomaly.”[39]

These arguments, as valid as they were, did not convince King. In his view, Canada was assuming a tremendous burden with the plan, and as such, it was not unreasonable to expect the British to yield to this particular demand. After all, it was Canada that was coming to the aid of the UK and not the other way around. When viewed through this prism, King had a point. Much was being asked from Canada, and as such, the British should not have been unsympathetic to Canada’s growing sense of nationalism and desire to control the fate of its airmen by having them serve in their own national squadrons. Certainly, this was a point that Ralston, who was probably the most ardent advocate for Article XV, made very clear to the British delegation as King recalled how:

Ralston kept coming back to [the] point of command and care of our own men. That when enlisting large numbers of pilots in Canada, the first thing that they would ask would be whether they would be under Canadian Command. Whether they could look to being in Canadian squadrons rather than in squadrons commanded by British officers. Ralston pointed out quite clearly that unless there was very clear understanding on these matters in the say Canada would have, there would be a fear among our men that they would be sent into such places as Passchendaele in the last war, and their lives unnecessarily sacrificed. I stated that I would have to give parliament assurance that we had guarded against this kind of thing. I made clear it was only reasonable that we should ask this when we were contributing the lives we were.[40]

And it was that fact, namely that many Canadians soon would be making the ultimate sacrifice to assist the British in the war effort, which served as the strongest argument that the UK should do whatever it could to create as many Canadian overseas squadrons as was feasible.

Of course, the British were not against using personnel from the plan to form Canadian overseas squadrons, as long as it was fairly done. Their first attempt at a compromise was less than satisfactory to King. In effect, the British suggested that the Canadian contribution to the scheme should be the key factor that determined how many overseas squadrons would be formed. According to this formula, therefore, Canada would be able to field approximately 15 national squadrons. Oddly enough, this calculation was almost identical to one that Rogers had proposed on 6 November when he suggested that if 15 RCAF squadrons were maintained by the UK overseas then it would be only reasonable for Canada to assume 15 per cent of the cost of the air training scheme.[41] The problem, however, was that the current British formula was assuming a much higher financial contribution from Canada than 15 per cent.[42]

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It was at this juncture that the Article XV negotiations took a turn for the worse. Based on a suggestion from Campbell, a group—consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel K. S. MacLachlan (the deputy minister of national defence for navy and air) and Croil representing the Canadians on the one hand and Brooke-Popham and another junior member of the British delegation on the other—was formed in the hopes that they could devise a formula that would be satisfactory to all. Their solution differed from the earlier formula in that it did not take financial factors into consideration, but instead suggested that the organization of RCAF squadrons in the field should be dependent on whether there were sufficient Canadian ground personnel. King was livid, arguing as he did that “this is quite a new suggestion” which he was surprised was being raised at the end of the negotiations, particularly since neither the proposed Article XV, nor the rest of the plan itself, had ever made any mention of ground crew. That his own CAS had agreed to this formula did not surprise King, who believed “it was clear the Air Force men were favourable to the formula as it would mean complete Canadian formations both in the air and on the ground.”[43] Exactly what Croil’s logic was is not certain—although it could be surmised that he felt that purely Canadian-manned squadrons would have more permanency and, therefore, would be more likely to survive the peace after the war—but in King’s view the CAS did not understand the bigger political picture.

The trouble with this formula was that it was based on the premise that British ground crews could replace Canadians assigned to the plan so that the latter could be sent overseas to their own national squadrons. According to Riverdale, the British had proposed this idea purely as a means to give the Canadians what they wanted. However, King and his ministers were not impressed, as the Prime Minister felt that it “would result in public criticism that Canadians were being substituted for UK personnel in zones of danger,” or even worse that Canada was “sending our men to the front to be killed.” Howe was equally critical, arguing that the British proposal “offended common sense and was inefficient.”[44]

This reference to inefficiency was likely the product of the fact that all Canadian financial estimates regarding the plan were done on the assumption that the British would provide the ground crew for overseas squadrons, which, both King and Ralston emphasized, had been their understanding from the outset of the negotiations. But while for Ralston this British concept would render Article XV meaningless, King was quick to point out that the RAF was getting all the Canadian pilots it wanted and that the UK could easily offset “their expenditures on ground men [for overseas squadrons] by our expenditure on ground men required for training schools here.” For the Canadians, however, the bottom line was quite simple, the British formula was “quite unsatisfactory,” as it would limit the number of squadrons in the field overseas, which for King’s cabinet “would not satisfy public sentiment in Canada.”[45]

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With King digging his heels in over Article XV, an incident occurred which he believed was a deliberate tactic to force his hand to sign the larger agreement immediately.[46] Much to his surprise, King learned on the morning of 15 December that the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, had announced that his nation and the UK had entered into an agreement regarding the Air Training Plan. It is important to note that, despite King’s suspicions and belief that this was “an outrageous violation of understanding,”[47] there is currently no evidence that the British specifically used the Australians to put pressure on Canada. Yet this was exactly what Menzies’ statement did. The fact that Canada was still negotiating with the British after a deal had been reached with Australia could easily be interpreted that it was King and his government that were delaying the larger agreement. Nor was Australia the only Commonwealth partner to annoy King over Article XV, as New Zealand’s representative had placed earlier pressure on the Canadian Prime Minister by noting that there was an immediate need to sign the agreement and that “we should trust the British and not raise the issue [Article XV] at this time.”[48] Isolated and alone in his desire to give the Commonwealth nations some autonomy over their own overseas squadrons, King was now under tremendous pressure to get his own statement out in the press. How he was going to do that without the Article XV negotiations being settled was anything but certain.[49] However, he knew two things: that his cause was just and that Article XV was a principle that was worth the fight. King was not going to back down, as in his view

it is really a question of the British wanting to have their numbers count and getting all the dollars from us that they possibly can. It is a rather mean attitude in the face of the enormous outlay we are making and the generous line we are taking throughout. I am glad I held firm last week, as this question [Article XV] raises an issue even larger than the one [primacy of effort] we thought was at stake.[50]

King’s determination carried him through. Instead of cowering from what he saw as British gamesmanship and, to some extent, dirty tactics, the Prime Minister went on the offensive. His first step was to meet with Riverdale who, King rightly concluded, was the most reasonable and approachable member of the British delegation. In the process of doing so, King emphasized that Menzies’ statement was a great embarrassment to Canada and that matters had to be settled at once. In reality, if the British had indeed used Menzies to pressure Canada, they had severely underestimated King, as his political cunning was about to totally undermine their position.

King immediately went to work with Riverdale, as he believed that “our minds were fairly close together.” Later admitting that “he had a lot of trouble with his own people”—a reference which seemed aimed at Campbell and Brooke-Popham—Riverdale wanted the agreement signed as badly as King did. He, therefore, showed King a draft response to Roger’s letter of 8 December 1939 that more or less stated that the British were willing to accept Article XV as the Canadians had defined it.[51] Had Riverdale been able to act alone, the crisis would have ended there. Having shaken hands “on getting matters settled,” Riverdale stated to King that he would have to show his response to Campbell and Brooke-Popham, after which he hoped to return shortly. Riverdale never came back. Instead, with the matter being referred to Campbell and Brooke-Popham, King should not have been surprised that the entire matter was now suddenly being referred to London. By the next day, 16 December, King was reluctant to call Riverdale for fear that it might be interpreted that he was anxious, or worse yet scared, and send the wrong message at a pivotal moment of the negotiation. He instructed Ralston to make contact with Riverdale and Brooke-Popham. Ralston’s response was less than satisfactory, as he noted that both men had wanted some time to think about what was said. King was not satisfied, and in the end, he did contact Riverdale, only to be told that it was impossible to reassemble the British team, as some were out for dinner and others were attending a hockey game.[52]

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It is hard to escape the conclusion that the British were stalling in the hopes that the pressure from the Menzies statement would finally get to King. This was certainly evident when King told the British representatives that he felt that he personally should call London for a response. Claims from Campbell that “it was too late to call,” or that the chance that King’s conversation could be intercepted and provide aid and comfort to the enemy, reeked of desperation and served as a signal that the British position was not as strong as they were letting on.[53] King was right to be suspicious. When the British response finally came, it was a jaw dropper.

Having heard from London, Riverdale told King that he was now authorized to respond to Rogers’s original letter of 8 December. The British were willing to accept Article XV, but with one important proviso: namely, that the organization of Canadian overseas squadrons would be firmly tied to the amount of money that Canada contributed to the scheme. King was outraged, arguing that the British response was “cold” and completely disregarded “Canada’s heavy contribution of fighting men in the way of pilots, observers and gunners.” This was the final straw for the Prime Minister, as he believed that “the message implied what we have all along thought, that the Air Ministry was trying to exact more in the way of money out of the Government of Canada or make the position such as to render impossible command of Canadians where service crews were British.” His reaction was brilliant and was illustrative of the shrewd and cunning politician that he was.[54]

First, King was willing to abide by the terms that he and Riverdale had worked out that morning, and in the process of doing so, he was effectively ignoring the one he had just received.[55] Next, he drafted and sent a telegram direct to Neville Chamberlain that left no doubt about the Canadian Prime Minister’s resolve on this matter:

I fear there is grave danger of the whole Joint Training Plan being seriously imperilled unless agreement between our two Governments can be reached without further delay. … I cannot too strongly impress upon you the importance which the people of Canada will attach to the principle involved in the letter of the Minister of National Defence, of December 8th, affecting as it does Canadian fighting personnel in the field. We are most anxious to conclude the agreement and get under way with the plan as rapidly as possible.[56]

His final tactic was perhaps the most brilliant, as he went to see the Governor General. It was a bold move, as by going to King George V’s representative in Canada, the Prime Minister was effectively engaging that British monarchy. It worked. The Governor General was more than sympathetic, as King laid everything on the table, including his suspicion about the Menzies announcement involving the British Air Ministry and his fear that the UK was trying to extort more money from Canada in order to accept Article XV. The Governor General found this all “ridiculous” and “outrageous,” but it was what King said next that seemed to upset the King’s representative the most.[57]

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King’s most devastating comment came when he related certain derogatory comments Brooke-Popham had made towards Canadians during the negotiations associated with the creation of overseas squadrons. Here King had a powerful point. At first glance, Brooke-Popham’s arguments appeared to make sense, as he had earlier argued that units needed to be homogeneous.[58] Yet this statement did not account for the fact that there were already large numbers of Canadians serving in British squadrons and that led Howe to ask whether “the UK Mission means to suggest that while it was possible for RCAF air crews to join RAF squadrons, it was, on the other hand, impossible for RAF ground personnel to join RCAF Squadrons.”[59] It was a powerful point but even more salient was a comment that King overheard which suggested that the British Air Marshal could not accept Article XV because it would lead “to a large number of ‘Englishmen’ serving under Canadian command.”[60] This, in King’s view, had “let the cat out of the bag”[61] and reinforced the idea that:

As we thought, what is really in the minds of the British Air Force is to keep command in their own hands though they have been obliged to admit, on many occasions, that Canadian pilots have more skill and judgement than their own. In view of this remark, I made up my mind we would have to hold out more strongly than ever against any doubt as to what the position would be once our men were across the seas.[62]

King’s account that Article XV, and possibly the entire agreement, was going to fail on account of the British delegation’s unwillingness to let British personnel serve under Canadian commanders struck a deep cord with the Governor General who, the Prime Minister noted, “was 100% with me.”[63]

While King appeared intent on referring this matter to King George V, he first wanted the Governor General to go to Brooke-Popham who, himself, was a former colonial representative. King’s strategy could not have worked better. In an effort to frame that discussion, King noted that he was desperately trying to close an important deal and that in his view the Governor General was in the best position to explain the situation to Brooke-Popham. It would be unfortunate to “imagine it becoming known that this agreement … which should have been settled with the word ‘yes’ on the 8th of December … is to be held over for days longer because men cannot be brought together because they are at dinner parties, or hockey matches, etc.”[64] King was effectively shaming the British, and it set the stage for one final, and to some degree pathetic, showdown between the two delegations.

Just before midnight on 16 December, King met with the British delegation, and it was clear that his tactics with the Governor General had worked. A review of documentation related to the negotiations clearly show that Brooke-Popham was the greatest obstacle to Article XV, as he no doubt believed that it was operationally more efficient to assign Commonwealth aircrew to British squadrons. In many respects he was right. For the RCAF, the desire to create national squadrons, a policy that in time would gain notoriety as “Canadianization,” did lead to some issues that would not have emerged had the Commonwealth nations agreed to lump their personnel into what effectively would have been one large imperial air force. Yet this was where Brooke-Popham, and the British as a whole, had seriously underestimated the desire within the Commonwealth, and Canada in particular, to be recognized under the banner of their own nations rather than always being lumped into larger British units. Nowhere was this more evident than in a report that Campbell had written just days after the conclusion of the BCATP negotiations in which he observed that:

All things being equal, no doubt he [the Canadian] would prefer to be brigaded with his fellow Canadians … . The average Canadian well remembers the exploits of Canadian airmen in the last war. He knows that they did not suffer from serving in the Royal Air Force. He would undoubtedly say get me to the Front, put me in a machine, and send me up against the enemy: that is all I need to show the world of my Canadian identity.[65]

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It was a flattering comment, but it did not take into account that King and his ministers had a better sense of what their country wanted, and it was clear to them that the public would accept nothing less than the majority of Canadians serving in their own national squadrons.

That King had finally won the battle over Article XV was soon evident when he saw Brooke-Popham for the last time before the treaty was signed:

I should say that I never saw a man look more deflated in a way that Sir Robert Brooke-Popham did. He looked indeed as if he had been spanked. His face was very red and his manner very crushed. I think having the GG [Governor General] speak to him was something he had never anticipated, and having been a Governor of a Crown Colony himself, he would realize the significance of the word of a Governor in a self-Governing Dominion, given in the name of the King.[66]

As one observer noted, the BCATP negotiations were “bitter at times and that was evident when Article XV was finally settled.[67] Rather than accepting that he had been outmanoeuvred by King, Brooke-Popham threw one last barrage at the Canadians. It was a ridiculous point that perfectly captured how low the negotiations over Article XV had sunk. After reading the text of the response that would finally settle the matter, Brooke-Popham had taken umbrage with a single sentence that noted:

On the understanding that the numbers to be incorporated or organized at any time will be the subject of discussion between the two governments, the United Kingdom government accepts in principle, as being consistent with the intention of Paragraph 15 of the Memorandum of Agreement that the United Kingdom Government, on the request of the Canadian Government, would arrange that the Canadian pupils, when passing out from the training scheme, will be incorporated in or organized as units and formations of the Royal Canadian Air Force in the field.[68] [emphasis added]

For Brooke-Popham the word “the” before Canadians had a sinister significance which suggested that all RCAF personnel trained through the plan would have to go to Canadian units. At such a late hour of the night, King was aghast that one single word was holding up the agreement, and he had a hard time trying to determine how it changed the meaning of Article XV one way or another. Perhaps realizing that this was Brooke-Popham’s way of saving some semblance of face from what was otherwise a Canadian victory in the negotiation, King gave in to this request and agreed that the offending “the” would be omitted. With that one seemingly insignificant alteration, the battle over Article XV was finally done.[69]

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The BCATP agreement was signed and dated on 17 December 1939, which also happened to be King’s birthday, and it was a suiting wish that he hoped that what had just been consummated would represent: “an instrument of peace [that would] hasten the day when peace would be restored and maintained. Just as we were signing, I turned to the others in the room and said my first prayer in this new year of my life was that this document, which we were signing, might hasten the peace of the world.”[70] That is exactly what the BCATP would do, as its graduates would become part of the Allied air effort that was essential to bringing victory and ending the war. However, thanks to King, his ministers and the CAS, Canada’s role in the air war would gain significantly more recognition than had its effort been solely lumped into the RAF. It was a monumental moment, as Article XV would result in the renumbering of three existing squadrons and the formation of no less than thirty other overseas 400-series squadrons. They would all fight bravely and build a proud tradition that has lasted to this day for those units that are still active. With 400, 401 and 402 carrying on lineages of existing squadrons, the creation of 403 Squadron in March 1941 was a pivotal moment for the RCAF. And since the establishment of these squadrons 75 years ago was a direct result of the Article XV negotiations, the RCAF is in an important position to recognize the BCATP that made it all possible.

Dr. Richard Oliver Mayne, CD, spent 17 years in the Canadian naval reserve and has worked as a historian for the Directorate of History and Heritage as well as a deputy section head for the Chief of Force Development’s Future Security Analysis Team. He earned his PhD from Queen’s University in the spring of 2008 and has authored numerous publications on Canadian military affairs. He now works for the RCAF as the Director of Air Force History and Heritage.

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BCATP―British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
CAS―Chief of the Air Staff
LAC―Library and Archives Canada
MG―manuscript group
RAF―Royal Air Force
RCAF― Royal Canadian Air Force
RFC―Royal Flying Corps
RG―record group
UK― United Kingdom

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[1]. F. J. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939–1945. (Ottawa: Directorate of History, 1983), 2.  (return)

[2]. British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Agreement, n.d., Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Record Group (RG) 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c.  (return)

[3]. The 400 series was created to avoid confusion between Commonwealth forces. For instance, during the Battle of Britain there was a No. 1 Squadron RCAF and a No. 1 Squadron RAF. To avoid these situations, Canada was assigned a block of numbers from 400 to 449. The astute observer may note that this does not account for 450 Squadron. The fact that Canada has a 450 Squadron was a post-war error, as it was not realized that 450 as a squadron designator was assigned to Australia. Fortunately, the Australians agreed to share the squadron number with Canada.  (return)

[4]. It should be noted that, while this article takes a close look at the Canadian side, no one has yet explored in detail the British records regarding Article XV.  (return)

[5]. C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 19.  (return)

[6]. C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 20.  (return)

[7]. W. A. B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 213.  (return)

[8]. C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 18.  (return)

[9]. C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 18.  (return)

[10]. William Lyon Mackenzie King Diary (hereafter cited as King Diary), 31 October 1939, LAC, accessed May 5, 2016, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/king/index-e.html, 1191–1195.  (return)

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[11]. Cabinet War Committee, 31 October 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[12]. C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 21.  (return)

[13]. Cabinet War Committee, 31 October 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[14]. King Diary, 31 October 1939, LAC, 1191–1195.  (return)

[15]. King Diary, 31 October 1939, LAC, 1191–1195.  (return)

[16]. Cabinet War Committee, 31 October 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1; and King Diary, 31 October 1939, LAC, 1191–1195.  (return)

[17]. Cabinet War Committee, 6 November 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[18]. As quoted in Brereton Greenhous and Hugh Halliday, Canada’s Air Forces 1914–1999 (Montréal: Art Global, 1999), 19. For more information on this period see, Richard Oliver Mayne, “Royal Matters: Symbolism, History and the RCAF’s Name-Change, 1909–2011,” Royal Canadian Air Force Journal 1, no. 4 (Fall 2012).  (return)

[19]. CAS to minister, 23 November 1939, Directorate of History and Heritage, 180.009 (D12).  (return)

[20]. Minutes of the Emergency Council, 14 November 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

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[21]. Secretary of State for External Affairs to High Commissioner for Canada (London), 25 November 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1; Message 111 British Prime Minister to Canadian Prime Minister, 27 November 1939, LAC, King Papers, Manuscript Group (MG) 26 – J 13; and Message 118, Canadian Prime Minister to British Prime Minister, 27 November 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1.  (return)

[22]. King Diary, 27 November 1939, LAC, 1261–1262.  (return)

[23]. King Diary, 28 November 1939, LAC, 1265–1266.  (return)

[24]. King Diary, 28 November 1939, LAC, 1265–1266.  (return)

[25]. Secretary of State of Dominion Affairs to Secretary of State External Affairs, 1 December 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1.  (return)

[26]. Rogers to Balfour, 27 November 1939, LAC, King Papers, MG 26 – J 13, 234424.  (return)

[27]. Minutes of the Emergency Council, 27 November 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[28]. Secretary of State External Affairs to Secretary of State of Dominion Affairs, Response to telegram No. 111, 28 November 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1.  (return)

[29]. Balfour to Rogers, 27 November 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1; and King Diary, 28 November 1939, LAC, 1265–1266.  (return)

[30]. King Diary, 7 December 1939, LAC, 1296.  (return)

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[31]. Rogers to Riverdale, 8 December 1939, LAC, King Papers, MG 26 – J 13, 234432; and Riverdale to Rogers, 8 December 1939, LAC, King Papers, 234437.  (return)

[32]. King Diary, 9 December 1939, LAC, 1300.  (return)

[33]. King Diary, 9 December 1939, LAC, 1300.  (return)

[34]. King Diary, 10 December 1939, LAC, 1302–1303.  (return)

[35]. External Affairs Ottawa to High Commissioner for Canada in Great Britain, 11 December 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1.  (return)

[36]. Notes of a meeting at the Dominion office on December 13th to discuss the air training programme, 13 December 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1; and C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 26.  (return)

[37]. W. A. B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 215.  (return)

[38]. Notes of a meeting at the Dominion office on December 13th to discuss the air training programme, 13 December 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1.  (return)

[39]. Charles G. Power, A Party Politician (Toronto: Macmillan, 1966), 204.  (return)

[40]. King Diary, 15 December 1939, LAC, 1314, 1316–1318.  (return)

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[41]. Cabinet War Committee, 6 November 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[42]. Notes of a meeting at the Dominion office on December 13th to discuss the air training programme, 13 December 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c, part 1.  (return)

[43]. King Diary, 14 December 1939, 1310–1311; and CAS to minister, 23 November 1939, Directorate of History and Heritage, 180.009 (D12).  (return)

[44]. Cabinet War Committee, 14 December 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1; and King Diary, 14 December 1939, 1310–1311.  (return)

[45]. Cabinet War Committee, 14 December 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[46]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

[47]. King Diary, 15 December 1939, 1314, 1316–1318.  (return)

[48]. King Diary, 10 December 1939, 1302–1303.  (return)

[49]. King Diary, 15 December 1939, 1314, 1316–1318.  (return)

[50]. King Diary, 14 December 1939, 1310–1311.  (return)

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[51]. King to Riverdale, 15 December 1939, LAC, King Papers, MG 26 – J 13, 235648.  (return)

[52]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

[53]. King Diary, 15 December 1939, 1314, 1316–1318.  (return)

[54]. Riverdale to King, 15 December 1939, LAC, King Papers, MG 26 – J 13, 236642; and King Diary, 15 December 1939, 1314, 1316–1318.  (return)

[55]. King to Riverdale, 15 December 1939, LAC, King Papers, MG 26 – J 13, 235648.  (return)

[56]. King to Chamberlain, 16 December 1939, LAC, RG 25, vol. 1858A, file 72-T-38c.  (return)

[57]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

[58]. Cabinet War Committee, 14 December 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[59]. Cabinet War Committee, 14 December 1939, LAC, RG 2, 7 C, vol. 1.  (return)

[60]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

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[61]. King Diary, 15 December 1939, 1318.  (return)

[62]. King Diary, 15 December 1939, 1314, 1316–1318.  (return)

[63]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

[64]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

[65]. UK High Commissioner to Dominion Secretary, 19 December 1939, The National Archives (UK), Prem 1/397. As quoted in W. A. B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 214.  (return)

[66]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)

[67]. Charles G. Power, A Party Politician (Toronto: Macmillan, 1966), 204.  (return)

[68]. Riverdale to Rogers, 16 December 1939, LAC, King Papers, MG 26 – J 13, 234434.  (return)

[69]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319; and C. P. Stacey, Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada 1939–1945 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1970), 27.  (return)

[70]. King Diary, 16 December 1939, 1319.  (return)


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