As early as 1938, American
and Canadian aircraft manufacturers started
working on meeting British war requirements,
building fighters, bombers, reconnaissance
planes and other types of aircraft. In the
summer of 1940, North American companies
already had orders for some 26,000 planes,
to be delivered overseas at a pace of a
thousand a month. Once built, the planes
could be taken apart, put into crates and
shipped by sea. But shipping was an increasingly
uncertain business on account of U-boat
attacks. In addition, a plane on board of
a ship uses up cargo space that could be
filled by other essential supplies. The
logistics for the transportation of so many
planes rapidly became a major undertaking.
Mitchells and Liberators waiting
at Dorval before flying over to
Great Britain, Dorval, Quebec,
May 13th, 1942.
by Nicholas Morant. Department
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-114759.
Nowadays, we would go for the obvious solution:
let the larger planes, the twin-engine and
four-engine aircraft fly overseas on their
own power. This, however, was not “natural”
in 1940: the distance, inadequate navigation
instruments and frequent bad weather over
the Atlantic were just considered too much
of a risk. In England, press tycoon Lord
Beaverbrook, who was Minister of Aircraft
Production and a Canadian by origin, believed
in air transport. Beaverbrook approached
a friend of his, Sir Edward Beatty, Chairman
of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company
(CPR); an agreement was signed on August
16th, 1940. The CPR would provide ground
personnel, supplies and administrative support,
while the Ministry was to be responsible
for management and crews, and would reimburse
all expenses other than salaries, the whole
operation remaining a purely civilian undertaking.
cat on patrol on the Dorval tarmac;
in the background Liberators and
Hudsons are lined up. Cats were
used to destroy rodents that could
damage the canvas-covered airframes.
by Nicholas Morant. Department
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-114767.
A first ferry route was established, from
the Saint-Hubert airport near Montreal,
up to Gander, Newfoundland. After a re-fuelling
stop at Gander, planes would fly across
the ocean, headed for Prestwick in Great
Britain. The Canadian government helped
by building a new airport and headquarters
facilities at Dorval, west of Montreal.
The programme was launched on November
10th, 1940, as seven Lockheed Hudsons took
off from Gander airport, under the command
of D.C.T. Bennett. They had to fly in formation
and remain within sight of each other as
only one crew had a navigator. Unfortunately
weather conditions deteriorated towards
the end and three planes got lost. The first
four arrived without harm at Aldergrove,
Ireland, after an 11-hour flight. The last
three landed an hour later. The demonstration
was successful: ferrying to Great Britain
Feasible but dangerous. Soon accidents
happened and it became obvious that every
plane needed a navigator if it was to make
it safely to the other side. Among the first
such accidents, one must mention the crash
of Sir Frederick Banting’s plane near
Gander in the night of 20th to 21st February
1941. Banting, Nobel Prize laureate for
the part he took in the discovery of insulin,
was on his way to England as a passenger.
The acceleration of the delivery pace
and the departure of some of the founders
of the original programme resulted in a
first restructuring. In May 1941, the Ministry
of Aircraft Production cancelled the contract
with CPR and took full control by creating
the Atlantic Ferry organization (ATFERO).
But planes kept piling up in Dorval and
Gander, a situation that created much displeasure
in the U.S. The ATFERO was unable to recruit
enough pilots to meet the demand. As a result,
the operation passed under the control of
the Royal Air Force (RAF) Ferry Command.
Despite being under military supervision,
most of the operations were conducted by
A few good ideas helped solve the pilot
shortage. Pilots, navigators and wireless
operators recently graduated from the British
Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) were
called upon and offered a possibility of
gaining some transatlantic flight experience
before joining their squadrons. Experienced
RCAF airmen also helped out by ferrying
planes as they were assigned to overseas
postings. Finally, some civilians who worked
as BCATP trainers offered their services
to Ferry Command.
routes used by Ferry Command for
The programme was so successful that in
1941 a second route was created for smaller-range
airplanes, such as Douglas DB-7 Bostons
and Martin B-26 Marauders. This second route
called for re-fuelling airports in Goose
Bay, Labrador, as well as in Greenland,
in addition to the use of the Reykjavik
air base in Iceland. A third route, the
South Route, linked the U.S. to Egypt, via
the West Indies, South America, Ascension
Island and Africa.
As time went by, the planes ferried over
to the British Isles were increasingly used
to carry passengers, mail, and essential
cargo such as medical or technical supplies,
even ammunition. This resulted in a final
reorganization in March 1943, when all ferrying
functions were grouped under a single command:
the Ferry Command became No 45 Group of
the RAF’s Transport Command, with
its HQ still in Dorval.
Ferry Command crews returning
to Nassau on a cargo plane,
October 1943. During the long
journey in the Liberator’s
hold, everyone signs his name
on the “short-snorter”,
a strip of banknotes from all
the different countries over
which they flew.
by Ronny Jacques. Department of
National Defence / National Archives
of Canada, PA-114612.
As ferrying activities developed, Canadians
played a more active role in the organization,
which otherwise remained essentially a British
outfit. In June 1944, there were 634 RCAF
personnel out of 1,330 military members
of No 45 Group, plus some 200 civilians,
mostly pilots and wireless operators from
the Canadian Department of Transportation.
In 1944, with the U.S. aircraft production
at its peak, and Canada starting to supply
Avro Lancasters and de Havilland Mosquitos
as well, No 45 Group delivered 3,726 planes
to Great Britain.
In addition to immediate benefits to the
war effort, the ferry system was the basis
of a Canadian transatlantic air network.
Once the planes were delivered, the crew
had to get back home… to do that,
Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA), Air Canada’s
forerunner, bought in 1943 and 1944 a few
Lancasters and modified them to carry passengers
and freight. This was the company’s
first transatlantic link.
During the war, 9,027 airplanes were ferried
across the Atlantic to Allied fighter, bomber,
maritime patrol and transportation squadrons.
In September 1945, transatlantic flights
had become routine operations.