How the BCATP was
Canada has wide-open spaces, well protected
by their remoteness from possible hostile
intrusions. Its population, among the largest
in the British Commonwealth, can provide
many recruits. Canada’s industrial
infrastructure can produce airframes for
training planes, with U.S. manufacturers,
not too far away, supplying the engines,
or even complete aircraft if the need arise.
Towards the end of the 1930s, Canada met
all the requirements to become the training
ground for the air force that the defence
of the British Empire demanded.
The Canadian government was not too receptive,
however, to the first British proposals
for setting up air training schools on its
Minister King did not want Canada to
get involved in the war by supplying pilots.
In addition, he was concerned that the interference
of imperial armed forces would not allow
Canada to develop its own national air force.
Riverdale (on the left) and W.L.
Mackenzie King (on the right)
signing the BCATP Agreement on
December 17th, 1939.
Archives of Canada, C-016761.
But the proclamation of the state of war
on September 10th, 1939, changed the situation
entirely. The Canadian Parliament, having
voted to support Britain’s war effort,
had now to decide what form that support
would take. Large-scale airmen training
on Canadian soil seemed to be a significant
contribution, and also one that would keep
to a minimum the number of soldiers serving
overseas. The government agreed, therefore,
with a new proposal to that effect submitted
PM Neville Chamberlain on September
26th, 1939. Developed by Vincent Massey
and Stanley Bruce, respectively Canadian
and Australian High Commissioners in London,
the project called for the establishment
of 90 schools, that would train some 50,000
men for the air force, among which 20,000
pilots. A British delegation headed by Lord
Riverdale visited Ottawa in October to finalize
To Lord Riverdale’s surprise, his
statement to the House of Commons on the
cost of the programme was received with
dismay: he asked that Canada pay some CAN$370
million out of a total budget of CAN$888.5
million. For the MPs this was an astronomical
amount: in 1939, the whole federal budget
was CAN$500 million!
In the following weeks, negotiations were
conducted at a frantic pace and in a climate
of extreme tension. The patronizing and
centralizing attitude of the British party
was a source of irritation for the Canadian
negotiators who were intent on preserving
their country’s sovereignty. “Amazing
how these people from the Old Country seem
to think that all they have to do is tell
us what is to be done” wrote King
in his diary. Among contentious issues,
besides the sharing of the costs between
Great Britain and the Dominions –
Canada, Australia and New Zealand –,
was the difficult matter of Article 15:
what proportion of trained pilots were to
join national air forces, such as the Royal
Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Royal Australian
Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air
The agreement was signed in the early hours
of December 17th, 1939. The official announcement
was made later that day, on the 65th birthday
of the Canadian PM. King, an outstanding
negotiator with years of experience in labour
disputes, had decided he would celebrate
the agreement on that date.
The Objectives of
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
was an ambitious programme. The 1939 agreement
stated that the training was to be similar
to that of the RAF: three Initial Training
Schools, thirteen Elementary Flying Training
Schools, sixteen Service Flying Training
Schools, ten Air Observer Schools, ten Bombing
and Gunnery Schools, two Air Navigation
Schools and four Wireless Schools were to
For each four-week period, 544 pilots,
340 navigators, 580 wireless operators /
gunners were to be trained. Canada was to
supply 80.64% of recruits, Australia 11.28%
and New Zealand 8.08%. For her part, Great
Britain was to supply up to 10% of Elementary
Flying Training Schools and Navigation Schools
recruits, that number including trainees
To reach those ambitious goals, Canada
had to recruit 1,536 men per four-week period,
i.e., 19,968 men every year. It would be
allowed to retain every month 136 pilots,
34 navigators and 58 wireless operators
/ gunners from the graduates, to man the
Home War Establishment (HWE) squadrons.
The first Canadian graduates were to stay
in Canada and serve as BCATP trainers rather
than be assigned to overseas theatres.
To provide adequate flight training, 3,540
aircraft were needed: 702 Tiger Moths and
Fleet Finches, 720 North American Harvards,
1,368 Avro Ansons and 750 Fairey Battles.
Great Britain made a commitment to supply
a significant proportion of those planes.
Some 33,000 military personnel and 6,000
civilians were required as teachers, administrative,
or maintenance staff in the different BCATP
The agreement signed in December 1939 was
to expire in March 1943. The total cost
for implementing the plan was estimated
at CAN$607,271,210. Great Britain agreed
to provide CAN$165 million worth of equipment.
Canada was to pay for the initial training
schools, i.e., CAN$66,146,048. The balance,
CAN$356,125,162, was to be divided between
the dominions according to the number of
trainees provided. For Canada that amounted
Was Canada up to a challenge of such magnitude,
with the help of Great Britain and allied
dominions? Indeed, not only those objectives
were met, they were exceeded!
On October 3rd, 1939, the RCAF and the
Department of Transport reached a key agreement
for the accelerated development of the infrastructure
required by the BCATP. The Department of
Transport was responsible for selecting
the sites and – after approval by
the RCAF – preparing the airfields.
The RCAF was responsible for designing and
building the facilities. Site identification
and surveying had started even before the
BCATP was signed.
draftsmen working feverishly
on the plans for new BCATP facilities
at the RCAF HQ in Ottawa.
Defence Image Library, PL 522.
The BCATP required buildings and airfields
for 64 schools. The sites had to provide
a secure approach, be large enough, well
drained and with easy access to utilities,
as well as with a good supply of drinkable
water. BCATP airfields usually included
a main airstrip and two secondary ones.
Among the sites selected, 24 were already
developed, needing only some additional
buildings. Eighteen of those were to be
the Plan’s first schools. On the other
sites, extensive construction work was required:
a colossal undertaking as 1.75 million blueprints
were made, 33,000 drawings selected and
8,300 buildings erected.
In February 1940, the BCATP was placed
Commodore Robert Leckie. Later, in November,
the Training Division, which was in charge
of implementing the BCATP, was raised to
Air Force HQ level. Four regional commands
were created to implement the plan: No 1
Training Command, with its HQ in Toronto,
for Central Ontario; No 2 Training Command,
based in Winnipeg, covering an area extending
from Northern Ontario to Northern Saskatchewan,
No 3 Training Command covering Eastern Ontario,
Quebec and the Maritimes with its HQ in
Montreal; No 4 Training Command was responsible
for Southern Saskatchewan, Alberta and British
Columbia with its HQ in Calgary. Each command
had its own recruiting offices and supply
Fairchild Cornell flying over
Elementary Flying Training School
No 19, Virden, Manitoba, October
by Nicholas Morant. Department
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-169141.
The BCATP was launched on April 29th,
1940, two weeks before Germany’s blitzkrieg
against the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
The first cohort of pilots, 39 men, received
their wings at Camp Borden, Ontario, on
September 30th, 1940. The first air observers
graduated on October 24th.
They are between 18
and 24 years of age. A majority is not 20
yet. They chose the Air Force over the Navy
and the Army. Most of them share a dream:
they picture themselves soaring through
the skies on mighty planes, engaging the
Fuehrer’s minions in mortal combat.
The BCATP’s task is to direct those
rookies towards a training that match their
skills, to provide discipline without hampering
their resolution, to impart the know-how
needed to conduct dangerous flight missions,
to teach the reflexes that may save their
lives and the lives of their crewmates.
BCATP training programme
On September 1st, 1941, the sixteen Service
Flying Training Schools called for by the
BCATP were in operation: seven months before
the scheduled date. At the end of 1941,
all the schools had been built – except
for one bomber/gunner school that was not
yet required. A total of 36,609 recruits
have enlisted in the BCATP, way above the
forecast figure of 25,120.
In the summer of 1940, Great Britain remained
alone to fight off a possible German invasion
and had to stop the delivery of Avro Anson
trainer planes. Canada was forced to find
immediately an alternate source of supply
if the BCATP is to be upheld. In Ottawa,
Minister of Munitions and Supply C.D. Howe
had a solution ready: Canada was to build
its own version of the Avro Anson, modified
to be fitted with a U.S.-made Jacobs engine:
quite a challenge for a country whose aeronautical
industry was still in its infancy. During
the six years that WWII lasted, Canada produced
a grand total of 8,076 Anson, Harvard, Tiger
Moth, Finch and Cornell trainer planes.
Wing Parade: pilot badges are
awarded to graduates of Service
Flying School No 2 in Uplands,
near Ottawa, around 1943.
Archives of Canada, PA-125993.
On June 5th, 1942, a new agreement was
signed between Great Britain, Canada and
their allies to extend the BCATP until March
31st, 1945. This renewed programme gave
Canada increased control over the training
and included revised trainee quotas for
participating countries. It also allowed
for some changes to the training as such,
changes made necessary by the evolution
of aerial combat in Great Britain and in
The Allies’ intensive air warfare
against Germany starting in 1940 came with
a heavy cost in lives and material. The
BCATP’s uninterrupted success ensured
that competent pilots, navigators, bombers,
wireless operators, gunners and engineers
were in sufficient numbers to take part
in the many fight, bombing and anti-submarine
missions. In 1944, the RAF and the Allied
air forces finally got the advantage over
the Luftwaffe and dominated European skies.
With fewer air force men killed or wounded
during missions, air force personnel needs
decreased and so did the number of BCATP
trainees. At the end of 1944, the Plan was
working on putting an end to its operations.
The BCATP ended on March 31st, 1945. It
had received 159,340 trainees, among which
131,553 (including 49,507 pilots) successfully
completed the course of study. They belonged
to the RAF (42,110), the RCAF (72,835),
the Royal Australian Air Force (9,606) and
the Royal New Zealand Air Force (7,002).
The 72,835 RCAF airmen comprised 25,747
pilots, 12,855 navigators, 6,657 bombers,
12,744 wireless operators / gunners, 12,917
gunners, and 1,913flight engineers. Newfoundland,
Free France, Poland and other nations at
war with Germany also benefited from BCATP
Through the BCATP, tens of thousands of young
men from different countries – Canadians,
Australians, New Zealanders, British –
settled throughout Canada for shorter or longer
stays, depending on the requirements of their
training programmes. Some trainees boarded
with families. Both military and civilian
trainees took part in local activities, frequenting
restaurants, dancing halls, churches and other
attractions in communities near their bases.
Friendships and romance followed: it is estimated
that some 3,750 Canadian women married foreign
The BCATP’s total cost reached CAN$
2,231 million, Canada’s share amounting
to CAN$ 1,589 million. Expenses incurred
for building facilities and airfields, manufacturing
aircraft, tools and vehicles, supplying
food and power, maintenance contracts meant
new jobs for the civilian population and
were a significant factor of economic revitalization
in communities near training schools and
From a military, social or economic perspective,
the BCATP produced impressive results. On
November 6th, 1941, U.S.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called
Canada “the aerodrome of Democracy”.
He was right.