Shearwater: the birthplace of maritime aviation in Canada

News Article / February 7, 2018

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The Royal Canadian Air Force’s 12 Wing Shearwater, Nova Scotia, celebrates its centennial this year.

By Colonel (retired) Ernie Cable

The Shearwater air station at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is second only to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden as the oldest military airfield in Canada and, since its inception in 1918, has been home to Canada’s naval or Royal Canadian Air Force maritime air squadrons. Shearwater’s varied and colourful history includes the births of Canada’s naval and maritime patrol air forces and, indeed, reflects our nation’s naval and maritime aviation heritage more so than any other base.

Shearwater was created originally as a seaplane base in August 1918, when the small promontory in Halifax harbour’s Eastern Passage, known as Baker Point, became United States Naval Air Station Halifax. Subsequently, it became an air station for the Canadian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The basing of American and British naval air forces at Shearwater during two world wars enriches the air station’s naval aviation heritage. With the integration of the armed forces in 1968, Shearwater became a Canadian Forces base and finally, today, 12 Wing, an RCAF lodger unit supported by CFB Halifax. By virtue of its coastal location, Shearwater has been inextricably linked to the defence of the air and sea approaches of Canada’s Atlantic coast. In fact, it was the threat by sea that provided the original raison d'être for the base that continues today.

The beginning

During the First World War, German submarines (U-Boats) operated between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and particularly in the waters off the eastern and southern shores of the latter province. In peace and even more so in war, the amount of shipping entering and leaving the Gulf of St. Lawrence and using the harbours of Nova Scotia was enormous. Vessels sailing singly or banded together in convoys were departing in rapid succession from ports in eastern Canada, especially from Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, laden with troops and supplies to support the British in Europe. Moreover, many transatlantic ships bound for or departing from Boston, New York and other harbours in the northeastern United States passed through the outer fringes of these waters. Therefore, both the Canadian and U.S. governments were vitally interested in protecting these shipping lanes.

By 1917, the success of east-bound convoys sailing from Halifax and Sydney enticed the Germans. Suddenly, the Canadian coast became a desirable target area. The Admiralty warned Ottawa of these latest developments, and the Naval Service immediately attempted to strengthen its patrol force. However, no additional vessels were available, and it was decided that aircraft operating from shore bases could protect merchant shipping in Canadian waters.

But where were the aircraft to come from? The Admiralty had no surplus, and the only possibility seemed to be the U.S. Navy (USN), which was expanding its ability to patrol its home waters. The possibility of building and operating an air station in the vicinity of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, offered a means of solving the problem for both nations.

Meanwhile, the German threat was so acute that the Admiralty renewed its warning and offered a preliminary plan for aircraft patrols. The plan proposed that Canada not only create an air service but also the seaplane, airship and kite balloon factories to support it. It was recommended that Canada seek U.S. assistance and, in the interim, ask the U.S. to extend its coastal seaplane organization northward to protect Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Two air stations should be established, at Halifax and Sydney, and the U.S. would supply these stations with pilots, seaplanes, airships and kite balloons until Canada was ready to take over.

On April 23, 1918, Rear Admiral Spencer Shepard Wood, USN, Commandant First Naval District, and Admiral Charles Edmund Kingsmill, Director Canadian Naval Service, agreed that the U.S. would take responsibility for coastal patrol and anti-submarine work as far to the east as Lockport, Nova Scotia, and that assigned U.S. forces would be placed under operational control of the RCN. Because Canada had no officers experienced in maritime air operations, the Admiralty appointed Lieutenant-Colonel J.T. Cull, of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and formerly a wing commander in the Royal Navy Air Service, to overall command of the air patrols.

Canadian authorities finally approved establishment of two air stations on June 5, 1918. Lieutenant-Colonel Cull arrived from England in July and approved the initially-selected Halifax sites; the seaplane base was to be just south of Dartmouth at Eastern Passage, while the airship site was also to be on the Dartmouth side of Halifax harbour. He selected Kelly Beach on the western side of North Sydney for the seaplanes and balloons and a site for airships on the opposite side of town. The Canadian government was to furnish, at its expense, the site and buildings and all ground equipment, while the U.S. government was to provide the aircraft and the personnel to operate them until Canadian personnel had been trained and could staff the stations. Operating expenses were to be borne by the U.S. government during the period when U.S. personnel were conducting the air patrols.

British and Canadian naval officers were ultimately responsible for control of the stations and for operations. The U.S. created the office of Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Air Forces, Canada, and detailed Lieutenant Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., USN, later an Admiral renowned for his polar exploits, to the new command. Additionally, Lieutenant Byrd was ordered to assume direct command of the station at Halifax and to act as liaison officer between the American and Canadian governments in naval aviation matters.

Although progress up to this point in establishing the air patrols was gratifying, it was not rapid enough to meet the alarming situation that developed in the first week of August 1918. U-Boat U-156 sank six vessels southeast of Nova Scotia. Other vessels were attacked during the same week in the same place. Numerous mines were discovered along the Nova Scotia coast. There was a compelling need to commission the Canadian air stations into operation as soon as possible.

Equipment and supplies indispensable to operations were hastily shipped to Halifax. Lieutenant Byrd arrived at his new base on August 15, 1918. Crates containing the first two Curtiss HS-2L flying boats arrived in Halifax by train on August 17. They were barged across the harbour to the Dartmouth air station and hauled up on the beach using logs for rollers. The first aircraft was assembled and successfully test-flown two days later and the first operational patrol was flown August 25, 1918. Thus, maritime patrol aviation in Canada was born.

Royal Canadian Naval Air Service formed

To implement the plan agreed to in April in Washington to have Canadians replace U.S. Navy airmen, Canadian Naval Service Headquarters drew up a recruiting scheme calling for 500 officers and men to be added to the strength of the RCN for air duties; ordinary rates of pay were to prevail, with a special air allowance. A Canadian Order-in-Council dated September 5, 1918, authorized the new force to be known as the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS), which was to be patterned after its British counterpart, the RNAS. Aircraft pilots recruited by the RCNAS would be trained in the U.S., while airship pilots were to be trained in England. By the beginning of November 1918, 81 cadets were recruited and the RCNAS was well established, with the high expectation of being a fully-fledged fighting force by the spring of 1919.

U.S. Navy operations at Halifax

During the first week of September 1918, no bombs had yet reached Dartmouth. However, the submarine situation was so serious that depth charges were substituted for bombs with the intention of dropping them by hand on any hostile submarine. Lieutenant Byrd eventually established a detachment of six HS-2L flying boats and several kite balloons to conduct anti-submarine patrols off the approaches to Halifax harbour, and a second detachment of six HS-2Ls at North Sydney. In forming the general operating policy for the aerial patrols, it was agreed not to attempt routine patrols at either Halifax or North Sydney, but to keep two seaplanes solely for escort work and one seaplane at each station for emergency anti-submarine duty. Without interfering with this schedule, as many supplementary patrol flights as possible were also to be flown at each station at the times and locations deemed most likely to produce results.

Operations began in earnest the week of September 7, during which seven escort flights and 10 patrol and other flights were made. Emergency flights were made whenever circumstances demanded, and all convoys were escorted for a distance of 60 to 75 miles [96.5 to 120.5 kilometres] out to sea. A total of 200 patrol and other flights were made during the U.S. Navy deployment, with a flying time of about 400 hours.

After only a few months of operations, the First World War came to an end and the USN personnel departed their bases at Dartmouth and North Sydney and returned home. The U.S. donated to Canada 12 HS-2L flying boats, 26 Liberty engines, and four kite balloons. Canada’s first venture into maritime patrol aviation had cost a total of $811,168 for bases, equipment and personnel. The American donation was valued at $600,000, and the flying boats were to give much valuable service in the years to come.

RCNAS demise

The federal government Cabinet attempted to keep the RCNAS as a post-war component of the RCN but the time was not ripe for naval aviation in Canada. On December 5, 1918, orders were issued to disband the RCNAS. The RCN, without money, had to put naval aviation on hold for more than 20 years. The former U.S. fleet of 12 HS-2L aircraft were among the first donations of aircraft that equipped the Canadian Air Board, Canada’s second home-based air force (the RCNAS being the first). The few buildings at Dartmouth that had been built by the Canadian government to support Lieutenant Byrd’s detachment became the nucleus of what was to become the RCAF’s largest maritime air base and Canada’s only naval air station.

Colonel (retired) Cable is a Shearwater Aviation Museum historian. He had a 35-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces, mainly associated with Argus and Aurora maritime patrol operations.

This article appeared in the January 8, 2018, edition of "Trident" newspaper, and is translated and reproduced with permission.


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