Canada in the Second World War

Arms & Weapons

Home Defence

The Creation of the Home War Establishment (HWE)

Long before WWII broke out, the Canadian government, concerned by the development of hostile naval and air forces in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, had considered organizing the defence of Canada’s territory. In the 1930s, as tension grew between Japan and the U.S., a naval war in the Pacific became a definite possibility for many observers. As an ally of the U.S., Canada was relying on the U.S. Navy to fight off a Japanese attack on its western seashore. The Department of National Defence believed the Air Force, on account of its speed and range, was best suited to counter armed raids against the vast and sparely populated territory of British Columbia. As a result, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) established Western Air Command (WAC) on March 1st, 1938, and started building facilities to support a Pacific Coast-based air force.

A Canso crew serving on maritime patrols along the Atlantic seaboard. In blister, Sergeant A. Skee, next to Leading Aircraftman L.D. Allgood. Standing from left to right, Warrant Officer Class 2 C.C. Hogleth, Flying Officer E.C. Snider, Flight Lieutenant J.W. Langmuir, Captain, and Flight Sergeant M.W. Paul.

A Canso crew serving on maritime patrols along the Atlantic seaboard. In blister, Sergeant A. Skee, next to Leading Aircraftman L.D. Allgood. Standing from left to right, Warrant Officer Class 2 C.C. Hogleth, Flying Officer E.C. Snider, Flight Lieutenant J.W. Langmuir, Captain, and Flight Sergeant M.W. Paul.
National Defence Image Library, PL 16700.

The September 1938 Munich crisis was evidence enough that war in Europe was as serious a threat. To be ready, the RCAF set up its Eastern Air Command (EAC) on September 15th, 1938, and prepared a new defence plan that included building bases and deploying squadrons in the Maritimes. Both the western and eastern commands were placed under the Home War Establishment (HWE).

At the end of 1939, the HWE was comprised of 14 active squadrons, including No 110 (Army Cooperation) Squadron soon to be detached to serve overseas with the First Infantry Division. Only two of the other squadrons had the airplanes to carry out their mission: No 1 (Fighter) Squadron with seven Hawker Hurricanes, and No 11 (Bomber-Reconnaissance) Squadron with ten Lockheed Hudson. A far cry from the 16 squadrons and 574 aircraft allotted to the HWE in the air defence plan.

An enemy attack against Canadian territory was a definite threat in 1939; this became even more likely in the summer of 1940, if ever Great Britain were to fall. The fear of an air or naval assault reached its peak in 1941 when Japan dealt a mighty blow to the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. In March 1942, Air Vice-Marshal L.S. Breadner summarized the dangers that Canada was facing in those words:

The changing war situation makes it expedient that Canada increase Air Defences to deal more effectively with the following dangers to Supply Life Line to the United Kingdom and our own existence as a nation:

  1. greatly increased enemy U-boat sinkings of our merchant shipping in the Western Atlantic;
  2. possible enemy aircraft attacks on vital targets in East and West Coast regions;
  3. possible bombardment of East and West Coast ports by enemy naval ships; and
  4. possible invasion of Canadian Pacific Coast by enemy seaborne and air-borne forces.

— The Air Defence of Canada (National Archives of Canada, MG 26 J 4, vol. 424)

To face those challenges, Breadner drafted a revised plan. He asked that the HWE be increased to 49 squadrons, which meant Canada had to buy 380 Hurricane fighters, 244 Mosquito bombers, 144 Canso flying boats, 40 Vultee Vengeance light bombers, plus transport aircraft: the total price tag was estimated at CAN$151 million. This also meant adding 989 officers and 11,347 airmen, for an additional cost of CAN$216 million.

The 49-squadron plan was approved by the Canadian government but never completed. From the beginning the HWE was plagued by difficulties and unable to secure the men, aircraft and bases that its objectives demanded. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) did provide training grounds and air crews, but Article 15 of the agreement signed with Great Britain specified what percentage of Canadian crews were to be sent overseas and what percentage were to serve with territorial defence, and that quota did not allow the HWE to secure the men it needed.

The situation was even worse when it came to planes and spare parts. Until the U.S. went to war in December 1941, their neutrality act forbade exporting military planes to belligerent nations. In addition, within the Commonwealth, the RAF and the BCATP had precedence over the HWE and received all the planes manufactured in Great Britain. During the first months of WWII, the squadrons that defended Canada’s seashores were unable to obtain the modern aircraft they required.

And things did not really improve. On April 22nd, 1941, the Anglo-American Joint Aircraft Committee was created to oversee aircraft production in all Allied countries, and supervise the distribution of planes and spare parts in agreement with war priorities. Great Britain and the U.S. denied Canada a seat on the committee, which never was very amenable to RCAF requests. As a result, Canadian squadrons conducting anti-submarine warfare were severely handicapped by the lack of planes and lagged behind their British counterparts from a technical point of view.

The HWE also had to face difficulties inherent to the sheer size of the territory under its protection, to its sparse population and to its climate. It had to cover barely inhabited, godforsaken coasts that stretched for miles on end. Transporting crews and equipment to those locations in order to build bases and airfields was a titanic challenge. Morale and efficiency suffered in those isolated, remote locations. Moreover, the unpredictable weather of coastal areas, especially as one goes up north, with their strong winds and pervasive fog often rendered surveillance missions perilous, if not impossible.

In 1939 it would have been easy for enemy aircraft to reach Canada’s Atlantic or Pacific shores and to enter its air space without being detected. Canada had no radar alert system. To counter such possibility, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) established the Aircraft Detection Corps (ADC) in May 1940. The principle was quite straightforward and inexpensive: unpaid civilians were enlisted to monitor the air space and to warn the RCAF of any suspicious activity. 

The Air Detection Corps

On the West Coast

In the area under WAC, the Sea Island airfield, where the Vancouver civilian airport is located, became the RCAF’s first base. Aerodromes and flying boat bases were multiplied to ensure coastal surveillance: Patricia Bay, Ucluelet, Tofino, Coal Harbour and Port Hardy on Vancouver Island; Bella Coola and Prince Rupert in the more remote areas; Alliford Bay on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, heralded the extension of the war to the Pacific. When Japan declared war on the U.S. and Great Britain, Canada had to reinforce its protective measures on the West Coast. That alert, however, was short-lived: the likelihood of an invasion or even of armed raids decreased significantly after the U.S. victory at Midway on June 4th, 1942. But the population of British Columbia remained traumatized by the possibility of a Japanese attack and worried over the presence of many Canadians of Japanese descent in its midst. To address the concerns expressed by the local population and its politicians, the federal government maintained on the West Coast a more powerful air force than what was actually called for, despite the fact that the threat posed by U-boat attacks on the Atlantic seashore was increasing.

HWE airmen did not expect to serve beyond Canadian borders. Yet, this is what happened in 1942. At the height of the Pacific war, fearing a Japanese assault against the northernmost areas of the Pacific Coast, the U.S. requested Canada’s help. 

The Kiska Air Battle

By 1943, Western Air Command had gained significant power and found its balance. Squadrons assigned to the protection of the northern sector formed No 4 Group, with headquarters in Prince-Rupert. No 2 Group’s HQ at Jericho Bay (Vancouver) was in charge of the southern sector of the B.C. coast. New fighter squadrons were created: Nos. 132, 133 and 135 at Patricia Bay, No 163 at Sea Island. New planes were available: Canso A flying boats to replace the aging and increasingly unreliable Stanraers, twin-engine Lockheed-Vega Venturas in place of the old Bolingbrokes of Nos. 8, 115 and 149 Squadrons.

By the end of 1943, radar stations recently built along the coast ensured an almost complete coverage of the seashore’s air space. In that same year, the air base and airfield construction programme was now focusing on the hinterland to improve the staging route network.
Well-organized but without a specific enemy threat to deal with, Western Air Command in the war’s last years emphasized mobility and speed of tactical response to any potential attack.

The East Coast and the Battle of the Atlantic

In the East, Eastern Air Command (EAC) was tasked with coordinating air defence in the Atlantic region. The Dominion of Newfoundland – not yet a part of Canada – was placed under Canadian military protection so that EAC territory included Eastern Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.

EAC headquarters were located in Halifax, next to those of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), since maritime protection entails close cooperation between navy and air force. A network of air force bases expanded rapidly: Halifax, Dartmouth, Yarmouth, Sydney, Gander, Torbay, Bagotville. Flying boat bases were built in Gaspé, Shelburne, and Botwood.

The Air Force’s role on the East Coast was to be worked out as early as September 1939 when the first transatlantic convoy, HX-1, left Halifax. The Stanraer flying boats of No 5 (Bomber-Reconnaissance) Squadron patrolled the approaches of Halifax Harbour to locate possible enemy submarines; as the convoy put out to sea, they ensured aerial protection within a 400-km radius. This was only about one-third of the plane’s actual range but one had to take into account the trip back to the base and adverse winds.

Starting in November 1939, the Dartmouth-based 11 Squadron’s Lockheed Hudson made it possible to extend the range of patrols to 550 km. Bolingbroke and Digby bombers were also used. During the war’s early years the best performing plane for naval escort duty remained the Consolidated Catalina flying boat (or Canso under its Canadian version), with an effective range of 960 km. Unfortunately, EAC’s squadrons did not receive those aircraft before June 1941, as U-boat attacks against Allied convoys got as close as 1000 km off the coats of Newfoundland.

A Lockheed Hudson Mk I bomber and reconnaissance aircraft flying over a minesweeper, August 15th, 1940.

A Lockheed Hudson Mk I bomber and reconnaissance aircraft flying over a minesweeper, August 15th, 1940.
National Defence Image Library, PL 1186.

Until 1942, RCAF air patrols were no serious threat to U-boats: insufficient training, lack of experience, inadequate equipment, all those factors prevented Canadian airmen from getting significant results against German submarines. In Great Britain, Coastal Command aircraft were equipped with radar systems and Torpex depth charges, set to explode in shallow waters. It would be month before their Canadian counterparts could get such equipment.

The technical progress made by the British finally reached Canada. For instance, RAF-sponsored research showed that lookout men tended to watch the horizon rather than straight above, simply because it was less tiring. An aircraft painted white under and dark grey above disappears against the sky’s brightness. It can therefore get much closer to a U-boat before being detected, drop down on it and launch its depth charges before the submarine can dive. RCAF Squadron Leader N.E. Small, 113 (BR) Squadron, must be credited for introducing white camouflage and raising flight altitude from 1,200 to 1,500 metres, a strategy that earned him a kill against U-754.

The U-Boat was on the surface heading 240° moving at 8-10 knots. Pilot throttled back fully and dove, manoeuvering to attack from astern dead along track of U-Boat.
Attack on U-754 by Hudson 625 of 113 (BR) Squadron, July 31st, 1942

Then coming so unexpected the excited voice of the co-pilot F/S Duncan “Submarine” immediately I jumped to my feet and opened the blister, the white wash of the submarine was very attracting against the green ocean as it darted threw the water like a ball out of hell. I quickly unfastened the gun…
Attack on U-604 by Canso of 5 (BR) Squadron, February 24th, 1943

Despite the presence of RCAF squadrons along the eastern seashore, there remained in the middle of the Atlantic a weak spot, too far from the shore to be covered by the Canso. The RCAF’s repeated requests for very-long range bombers were not met before the summer of 1943. No 10 (Bomber-Reconnaissance) Squadron was then provided with four-engine Lockheed B-24 Liberator bombers modified to be able cross the Atlantic and equipped with U.S.-made ASG radars. 10 Squadron’s Liberators were to play a key role in the September 1943 campaign launched by U-boats against transatlantic convoys.

The U-Boat began to fire flak, putting up a heavy curtain of fire with at times as many as fifty bursts in the air at one time. The aircraft returned fire intermittently for one hour and nine minutes, approximately at 1211/Z the U-Boat was observed to start crash dive and aircraft turned in for attack.
Attack on U-420 by Liberator “A” of 10 (BR) Squadron, October 26th, 1943

Liberator “P” of 10 (BR) Squadron patrolling over Newfoundland’s coast, spring 1943.

Liberator “P” of 10 (BR) Squadron patrolling over Newfoundland’s coast, spring 1943.
National Defence Image Library, PL 36938.

Allied successes against German submarines in 1943 led to changes in the doctrine on maritime patrols, such as conducted by Canso and Liberator squadrons. Warned of approaching U-boats by land-based radio-detection stations, by the decipherment of wireless communications and by British intelligence services, EAC would send out patrols to locate, and attack them. They were to maintain contact with the EAC at all times, in order to allow the RCAF and RCN enough time to dispatch a combined force to sustain the offensive effort.

Unfortunately, cooperation between the Air Force and the Navy, although it is essential to the success of anti-submarine operations, was often marred by an ancient and deeply rooted attitude of distrust among RCAF superior officers, wary that the RCN may take over air operations. This was, however, the way things worked in Great Britain, where the RAF’s Coastal Command was taking its orders from the Admiralty. In Canada, the situation did not improve after a first restructuring following the Anglo-American agreement signed in the fall of 1941 that placed the naval forces in the Atlantic under U.S. command. The RCN followed unwillingly the orders of the U.S. admiral based at Argentia; the RCAF, for its part, tried to maintain its autonomy by arguing that its responsibilities extended beyond escort and submarine warfare operations. It is only in the spring of 1943, following another reorganization of British, U.S, and Canadian forces involved in merchantmen protection, that better communications were made possible. With the creation of the Northwest Atlantic Operations Theatre on April 30th, 1945, which was placed under the command of Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray [can-pep-can-murray-e.doc]. RCAF anti-submarine operations came under the responsibility of the RCN, thus allowing for improved coordination. The EAC commanding officer remained, however, in charge of general operational control.

Indeed, the EAC had to face other requirements besides the fight against U-boats. It had a responsibility of protecting certain inland war-essential industrial facilities that could be targeted by special operations. In 1942 and 1943, the Canadian government set up a network of radar stations and deployed fighter and interception squadrons along the East Coast, to seal off any possibility of an enemy intrusion. It is quite unlikely that an enemy could reach central Canada without being detected as it crossed the coastal defence lines. This allowed Canada to resist U.S. pressure to shore up its aerial protection of Sault Ste Marie and Sudbury, in the heart of the Great Lakes industrial zone. In Quebec, a Hawker Hurricane squadron was posted permanently in Bagotville, an air base specially created to protect the Arvida aluminium production facilities.

In 1943, with Allied victories on all fronts, the RCAF started shifting resources destined for home defence towards more active theatres. Between September and December 1943, HWE fighter squadrons were dispatched overseas and restructured in preparation for the invasion of France. In December, two Canso squadrons, Nos. 117 (BR) and 162 (BR) were transferred to Iceland under the British Coastal Command. Similar transfers took place afterwards: as the Allies advanced through Northwestern Europe, the HWE reduced its resources in men and aircraft. Soon after Germany’s surrender, airmen were gradually demobilized. On September 15th, 1945, Eastern and Western Commands had no longer men on active duty.

Suggested Reading:

  • W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume II, Toronto : University of Toronto Press in co-operation with the Department of National Defence, 1986.