Battle of Britain, British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and Canada’s Veterans

News Article / November 10, 2014

By Ruthanne Urquhart

Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) personnel, veterans, their families and members of the general public took over the Canada Aviation and Space Museum on September 21, 2014, for the annual Battle of Britain Ceremony.

As retired Colonel Dutch Holland read High Flight, and Cadet Sergeant Riley Carson offered The Airmen’s Prayer, what were moving words to many became heartfelt utterances as Air Force veterans mouthed the words with them in silent homage to the pilots, aircrew and ground crew who waged the Battle of Britain. Who were the contemporaries of the older veterans at the ceremony, and certainly heroes to them all.

Before and after the ceremony, some of the veterans talked about why they attend the Battle of Britain Ceremony every year and what it means to them, and about their careers in the RCAF.

John R. Newell

At the beginning of the Second World War, John Newell trained in Western Canada and graduated as fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). But he never saw a day of service overseas.

“When I graduated as a single-engine fighter pilot, apparently I came within the top five of the course,” he said. “And apparently, if you were in that top five, you automatically became a flying instructor. So, I never got overseas; I spent my career as an instructor for the Air Force.”

There is a twinge of regret in his voice even now. “I was the only one in my family who never got overseas.”

But then, pride kicks in – pride in a job well done.

“I did my duty,” said Mr. Newell. “We trained people for 135 air crews – and the WDs [Women’s Division, RCAF] and the ground crew, too, all under that Commonwealth Air Training Plan.”

Canada and Great Britain signed the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) agreement because Canada had the space for flying training well away from the theatres of war.

Candidates from the RCAF, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the Royal Air Force (whose trainees included Belgians, Czechs, Dutch, Free French, Norwegians, and Poles), and members of the Naval Fleet Air Arm, arrived at BCATP airfields, many of them located in small communities in the Prairie Provinces. They trained as navigator bombers, navigator wireless operators, navigators, bombers, wireless operators/air gunners, gunners, naval air gunners, flight engineers, and pilots.

Between 1940 and 1945, BCATP schools throughout Canada graduated 136,849 battle-ready air crew members.

“I was in the Air Force only for the war,” Mr. Newell said. “I came to Ottawa, went into the printing business, and stayed there for 47 years.” 

There is another affiliation Mr. Newell is proud of. “I’ve only missed about three parades since I got out of the Air Force and joined the Air Force Association,” he said. “I’m a member for 62 years now.”

Mr. Newell and his wife, Lois, remain staunch supporters of the RCAF and the Canadian Armed Forces, and he is content that the two institutions have moved back to their historical names.

“It’s all just words in the end, though,” he said. “What matters is the training, and the spirit of the men in training. And the women,” he added with a smile. “Doing your duty for Canada. That’s what matters.”

Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison was pleased to see so many people at the Battle of Britain Ceremony. “Especially so many families,” he said. “You see so many veterans here with their children and grandchildren, and they’re really what it was all about… keeping a way of life – a good way of life – for then and for the future.”

After starting in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at “boot camp” in West Kirby, U.K., he advanced to Number 3 Radio School Compton Bassett, in Wiltshire, and then Special Radio School at RAF Wythall, near Birmingham. From there, he was posted to 477 Signals Unit (SU) at RAF Butzweilerhof, in Germany, and then back to RAF Digby, Lincolnshire.

“A year later, I went off to RAF Little Sai Wan in Hong Kong, 367 SU,” Mr. Harrison said. “That was most interesting. And when I came back, I went to RAF Cheadle, in Lincolnshire.”

And then he got out. For a moment.

“I went down to Canada House, and talked to the recruiting officer; he was very interested,” he said, laughing. “From there, I joined the RCAF. I did all my medicals in 1966, and I did not go to boot camp. My first posting was Royal Canadian Air Force Station North Bay [Ontario].”

Mr. Harrison saw a lot of Canada through subsequent years in the RCAF. He did courses across the Prairie Provinces and British Columbia, and a stint in Winnipeg.

He also did another tour in Germany, with the Canadian Forces, and then a Middle East United Nations tour, at the UN Headquarters at Ismailiyyah, near the mouth of the Suez Canal.

“That was actually quite interesting; I enjoyed that,” he said. “And then, I spent five years down The Hole in North Bay.”

The Hole was an underground North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command complex built over four years in Ontario during the Cold War. Because Canada lay directly between the Cold War’s central protagonists – the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – the air space over Canada would become the initial battlefield should the Cold War become hot. The Hole could sustain 400 personnel for four months with no contact with the outside. With the highest-tech tools available, they monitored, and advised on, the activities of the U.S.S.R. in the far North, and could launch a counter-offensive strike in case of Soviet aggression via the Canadian Arctic.

“Meanwhile,” Mr. Harrison said with a generous helping of irony, “we were still using the Lee-Enfield rifle.”

His first parade in North Bay was for Haile Selassie. The Emperor of Ethiopia was one of many international dignitaries who toured the complex over the years.

“That was my second-last tour,” Mr. Harrison said. “When I got out of The Hole, I was posted to Ottawa.”

He went to work in computers, working at and then supervising new computer installations for National Defence in federal buildings in the National Capital Region. He retired at 55, after careers in two air forces.

“The food was a lot better [here] than it was in the RAF,” Mr. Harrison said. “I was in barracks, of course; I was single then. I didn’t get married till I got to Canada. I was just wandering the world at that time.

“But I know I had never been as cold as when I was in Winnipeg,” he said, “and I had never seen so much snow until I got to North Bay.”

Everyone started to move to the mustering area in preparation for the ceremony. “We always did work very well together,” he said, looking around with a smile, and then joined his friends.

Don Pitman

Don Pitman looked around the Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s Bush Theatre, a mustering area for men and a few women dressed as he is, in navy blue blazers and grey trousers, in honour of the Battle of Britain Ceremony.

“This means a lot,” he said. “I’ve always participated in the Battle of Britain ceremony when I was somewhere where there was one, though the smaller places sometimes don’t have one. It’s just the pride about being part of the RCAF.”

He grins. “And it is the RCAF again. That was surprising, when that happened. Most people in uniform today have only been in the Canadian Forces. Being part of it, of the RCAF, is about the history, and the mutual interests and experiences. It’s the pride of the organization.”

Mr. Pitman enrolled in the RCAF in 1955 in St. Hubert, Quebec, and ended up 21 years later at Canadian Forces Base Uplands, near Ottawa, Ontario, as a flight simulator technician. In between, he served at Zweibrücken Air Base in Germany in 1957; at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Eastern Ontario in 1961; and then at Canadian Forces Station Falconbridge Radar Base, near Sudbury, Ontario.

“Those were the Cold War years. I didn’t think it could get much colder than Falconbridge – until I was sent to Winnipeg,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Pitman steps aside to exchange a few words and a hearty laugh with two new arrivals.

“I’m part of the RCAF Association now,” he said on his return. “And most of the guys here are part of it. It was formed to get together and, as an organization, provide some input for the government.

 “Speaking of – we got an email about the rank structure and insignia last night,” he said before turning away once again to greet friends. “I guess we’ll see it when we see it, but I’ll be glad to see it.”

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