Juno Beach Centre | Canada in WWII
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Ferrying Aircrafts Overseas

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.

Venturas, Mitchells and Liberators waiting at Dorval before flying over to Great Britain, Dorval, Quebec, May 13th, 1942.
Photograph 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.

A 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.
Photograph 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 was feasible.

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 civilians.

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.

The routes used by Ferry Command for transporting airplanes.

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.
Photograph 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.