Check Six! Looking back at the Royal Flying Corps Canada

News Article / April 3, 2017

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By Major Bill March

By the end of 1916, the aircraft had proven itself a key instrument of modern warfare. The bloody battles of the Somme (July to November 1916) and Verdun (February to December 1916) demonstrated the utility of airpower for reconnaissance, cooperation with the artillery and infantry, and bombing. As well, there was a need for more and more fighters, or “scouts”, to deny these capabilities to the enemy. And, as with any crucial “piece of kit”, there were never enough to meet ongoing or future demands.

As the British Expeditionary Force, of which the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was part, prepared for yet another year of war, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) undertook a massive expansion both to meet the demands of new offensives and to replace past losses. The flight training organization in England had reached its limit in terms of available space and resources, so hopeful eyes turned to the Dominion of Canada, anticipating large, untapped pools of budding young airmen supported by the industrial strength of the Dominion and the United States.

On December 21, 1916, after months of discussions between Imperial and Dominion authorities, the decision was made to establish a flying training operation in Canada and the Royal Flying Corps Canada (RFCC) was born.

The person chosen to head this endeavour was 33-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Cuthbert G. Hoare, a cavalry officer who had learned to fly in 1911. An experienced commander, he had led both a squadron and wing in France. He had the rare gift of both exceptional executive abilities and diplomatic skills. Given a virtual free hand in North America, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare, who would be a brigadier by the end of the war, built the RFCC literally from the ground up.

Successfully navigating the quagmire of Dominion politics, he seems never to have run afoul of either politicians or senior bureaucrats within the Department of Militia and Defence. Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare also took creative liberties in dealing with the United States, thereby ensuring a steady flow of American recruits, and negotiating bi-lateral training agreements in support of the RFCC’s mission.

As an indication of Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare’s ability, by the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Royal Air Force Canada (RAFC)—as the training establishment was called after the amalgamation of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service to create the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918—had enlisted 9,200 cadets, of whom 3,135 had completed their pilot training. About 2,500 had already gone overseas, and another 300 were ready to depart when fighting ended. Added to this number were 187 observers who completed their training, of whom 85 had been sent to Europe. Had the war dragged on into 1919, as most expected it would, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare’s organization alone would have accounted for about one-fifth of the aircrew reinforcements needed for both the Western and Italian fronts.

This was an impressive achievement, especially given that when he stepped off the ship in New Brunswick on January 19, 1917, virtually no aviation infrastructure existed in Canada. A mere nine days later, contracts were let to build a major aerodrome at Camp Borden, Ontario (flying would begin there in March), and a new factory, Canadian Aeroplanes Limited (CAL) which would build the necessary training aircraft.

Although it was not his first choice, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare settled on the Curtiss JN-4 (Canadian) as the RFCC’s training aircraft. The U.S. version of the JN-4 was known as the “Jenny” while the Canadian variant was nicknamed the “Canuck”. Eventually, CAL would build an estimated 1,210 of this two-seater bi-plane, and spare parts equivalent to a further 1,600, for use as trainers.

Industrial and governmental support was provided by the Aviation Department of the Imperial Munitions Board. The Board –  the Public Services and Procurement Canada of its day –  oversaw the construction of suitable airfield facilities to house 15 Canadian training squadrons and a host of specialized schools and agencies. Grouped together into 42 Wing (Borden), 43 Wing (Deseronto) and 44 Wing (North Toronto), the training organization was centred in southern Ontario for logistical and administrative reasons.

42 Wing’s Borden airfield was purpose built on a site owned by the Canadian government that already had some infrastructure available as troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had camped there in 1916. 43 Wing was divided between new airfields built at Camp Rathbun and Camp Mohawk. 44 Wing’s airfields were built at Armour Heights and Leaside; the existing Long Branch air field had been used by the privately-owned Curtiss Aviation School. As well as these locations, by the end of the war there were facilities at Hamilton, Toronto (including the University of Toronto) and Beamsville.

By November 1918, manning at these facilities reached almost 12,000 uniformed personnel, broken down into 600 officers, 4,777 cadets under instruction as pilots or observers, and 6,158 other ranks.

Although Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare had the dedicated and efficient support of a host of individuals, there is no doubt that his single-minded focus and force of will shaped the organization.

Not enough recruits from Canadian sources? No problem; he recruited Americans.

The training capacity of the RFCC will outstrip the number of trainees? No problem; he instituted longer advanced courses in gunnery and aerial combat, providing a better product.

Upon the formation of the RAF, individuals in the RFC could chose not to serve in the new service? No problem; Hoare stopped the hemorrhage of air personnel by arranging for their immediate induction into the Canadian Expeditionary Force if they chose to leave.

Even cultural norms did not seem to have stood in his way. Almost from the beginning, Canadian women had been employed by the RFCC, albeit almost entirely in clerical positions. However, by 1918, manpower shortages were such that, despite local objections, the scope of their employment was expanded to include transport driving. Nearly 1,200 women were recruited and given technical training. By November 1918, there were an estimated 600 women working as mechanics at the various aerodromes, with a further 135 overhauling engines at repair facilities.

In May 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoare went so far as to obtain agreement from London to form a Dominion Branch of the Women’s Royal Air Force. However, always conscious of costs involved, English bureaucracy balked at the added expense of housing women in uniform—$430 per woman as compared to $235 per man—and the initiative came to naught.

When the First World War came to a close on November 11, 1918, so did the raison d’être of the RFCC. Within days the discharge of staff and cadets had begun, and facilities were either disposed of or, as at Borden, placed on caretaker status. Although vestiges of the organization remained until December 1919, by the following year military aviation in Canada had, for all practicable purposes, ceased to exist.

So why it is important for Canadians, in and out of uniform, to remember and commemorate what was a British military establishment?

First and foremost, we need to do so because of the estimated 22,000 Canadians and American volunteers who served in the Imperial flying services, and the more than 1,500 who gave their lives. Most of these individuals served in, or were trained by, the RFCC/RAFC. Their record of service was second to none, bringing great credit to Canada and forming the basis of Canada’s aviation culture.

Secondly, although initially an all-British undertaking, by the end of the war it was Canadian in all but name. Canadians commanded two of the three wings and twelve of the sixteen training squadrons. As well, the School of Aerial Gunnery and each of its four flying units were commanded by Canadians. Some 70 per cent of all flying positions were manned by Canadians. Adding in groundcrew, support personnel and cadets, the RFCC was very much a home-grown undertaking.

Furthermore, by November 1918, virtually all of the aircraft produced by CAL were, from rudder to propeller, built using Canadian- or North American-supplied components.

Thirdly, the legacy of the RFCC/RAFC strongly influenced the next generation of senior air personnel and politicians who rose to prominence before the onset of the Second World War.

Not only did advocates of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), arguably Canada’s most important contribution to the Second World War, point to the previous training scheme, but, to protect national interests, the BCATP would be developed, administered and commanded by Canadians. Furthermore where possible, any industrial and regional benefits stemming from the BCATP, unlike the RFCC/RAFC would serve the needs of the country beyond the cessation of hostilities.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the RFCC/RAFC had let the “aviation genie” out of the bottle in Canada.

The Dominion had demonstrated that it was capable – on industrial and organizational levels – of undertaking a complex aviation project. And although the training activity was located in southern Ontario, instructors and trainees came from throughout the Dominion which, when combined with individuals who flew exclusively overseas, ensured a wide-spread “airmindedness” across the country. Not only would the remnant facilities of the RFCC/RAFC serve to nurture a nascent Canadian Air Force and Air Board, but surplus Jenny aircraft would make their presence known in countless barnstorming and business ventures for years to come.

As Syd Wise, historian and author of the first volume of the official history of the RCAF, wrote: “It is hardly too much to say that RFC/RAF Canada was the single most powerful influence in bringing the air age to Canada.”

’Nuff said!     

Major Bill March is a senior RCAF historian.

Further reading

Camp Borden: Birthplace of the RCAF – RCAF 80th Anniversary Edition. Edited by Normand Marion.

Canadian Airmen and the First World War: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume I (chapter 4) by S.F. Wise. (PDF)

Dancing in the Sky: The Royal Flying Corps in Canada by C.W. Hunt.

Royal Flying Corps: Borden to Texas to Beamsville by William E. Chajkowsky.

“Into the Blue: Pilot Training in Canada, 1917-18” by Hugh A. Halliday and Dr. Laura Brandon.

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