RCAF Fighter Squadrons Overseas
Fighter squadrons dispatched or created overseas by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had to respond to changing priorities and needs, as defined by Royal Air force (RAF) military planners. In the preparatory phase preceding the war, the British military doctrine viewed fighter squadrons as a defensive weapon, to be used in case Great Britain were to be attacked, while bombers were to serve the offensive. It is only after the successes of the Battle of Britain that the RAF used fighters in offensive operations. For the Army, fighters had a support role to play in both defensive and offensive ground actions. It was in that capacity that RAF and RCAF fighter squadrons were to take part in the invasion of North-Western Europe in 1944 and 1945.
The Canadian government took all possible measures to ensure that RCAF units stationed overseas remain truly Canadian. Towards that purpose, a majority of officers, pilots and non-flying personnel had to be Canadian and under Canadian command. Great Britain respected Canadian concerns as much as possible despite staff and material shortage issues; this difficult situation was compounded by cultural differences between British and Canadian airmen and officers. The RCAF managed to remain a truly national force but achieved this only through constant efforts and negotiations between the government and military authorities of both countries.
Army Co-operation Command
While putting together the 1st Infantry Division for service overseas, the Canadian government also prepared a support squadron, No. 110 (Army Co-operation) under Squadron Leader W.D. Van Vliet. The squadron was dispatched to Great Britain in February 1940 with its 12 Westland Lysanders. Pilots and gunners immediately started specialized training at the School of Army Co-operation, near Salisbury, then operational training in Oldham, Hampshire.
On account of their being assigned to the Army Co-operation Command, No 110 airmen did not take part in the Battle of Britain which was happening under their very eyes from July to October 1940; certainly a frustrating experience for young men eager to fly and fight. It may have been a good thing, though, as the Luftwaffe Messerschmitts 109 would have ripped through their outdated Lysanders. The squadron, on the other hand, was getting ready to support VII Army Corps under Lt Gen McNaughton. Which would be facing the German invasion that seemed then to be imminent. But the Battle of Britain proved the Luftwaffe unable to take control of the sky, and Hitler cancelled the invasion, which had been planned for October 12th, 1940. Once again, No 110 Squadron was to remain untested. Later on, in March 1941, it became No 400 (Army Co-operation) Squadron and was equipped with the better Curtiss Tomahawks.
When dispatched overseas, RCAF squadrons received new designations to avoid any possible confusion with RAF units. Numbers 400 to 449 were reserved for the Canadians, while numbers 450 to 499 were for squadrons from other Commonwealth countries. The RCAF’s No 1 Squadron thus became No 401, No 110 became No 400, and so on.
No 112 (Army Co-operation) Squadron left for Great Britain in June 1940; it did not take part in defence operations either, except for a few members of its flying personnel who were transferred to No 1 (Fighter) Squadron. No 112 became a fighter squadron in December 1940 under the designation of No 2 Squadron (402) and was equipped with Hawker Hurricanes.
No 414 and 430 squadrons were assigned to Army Co-operation Command in 1941 and in early 1943 respectively. Equipped with Curtiss Tomahawks, and later with North American Mustangs, all three RCAF Army Co-operation squadrons took part in the air defence of Great Britain between 1941 and 1943. That year, they were assigned to the 2nd Tactical Air Force.
Fighter Command’s role was to protect Great Britain by intercepting enemy intruders. The Chain Home, a series of radar stations built along the coast, and an extensive network of observers and ground controllers provided early warning of approaching aircraft. This allowed the RAF to detect enemy bombers and fighters and direct fighter squadrons to intercept them. This detection and interception-based system demonstrated its efficiency during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940).
During the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command pilots flew Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires. Those aircraft performed in an outstanding manner against Luftwaffe bombers (Heinkels 111, Dorniers 17, Messerschmitts 110 and Junkers 88). The Hurricane, however was no match for the Messerschmitt 109 fighter that was faster, more flexible and, able to reach higher altitudes. The Me 109 was also a formidable foe for the Spitfire Mark II that the RAF used as of July 1940. Allied fighter pilots had to be extremely skilful to make the best possible use of their manoeuvrability during those merciless encounters with the Luftwaffe.
Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons normally had 12 aircraft each; when the squadron attacked, the planes split up into groups of three or four. Fighter formations
The RCAF’s No 1 (Fighter) Squadron is the only Canadian squadron that took part in the Battle of Britain. Transferred overseas in June 1940, the pilots went through intensive training to be up to the level of their RAF counterparts before being sent to the front. In their Hurricanes, the pilots of No 1 Squadron had their first encounter with the enemy on August 23rd, 1940, and took part in the action until October 8th. Three pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC): Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, Flight Lieutenant G.R. McGregor and Flight Officer B.D. Russel.
In the fall of 1940, Luftwaffe bombers, unable to escape Allied fighters by day, started flying night missions, where they would encounter much less opposition. Immediately, the Allies prepared their response: the improvement of interception radars used in ground controls, the use of twin-engine Bristol Beaufighters as night-fighter aircraft, and the development of the Mark IV airborne interception radar. Faster than a Junker 88, the Beaufighter displayed impressive firepower. Three RCAF squadrons were involved in night fighter operations, Nos 406, 409 and 410, created in the spring and summer of 1941.
At approximately 2209 hrs, at about 9,000 ft. and about 45 miles East of Tynemouth Beaufighter attacked from level and dead astern. Pilot saw flashes in enemy aircraft fuselage. One flash very brilliant.
— Wing Commander D.G. Morris, 406 Squadron, Combat Report, 30 September 1941
The success of fighter operations during the Battle of Britain encouraged Fighter Command to initiate offensive operations over enemy territories that were within the range of its aircraft, i.e., all of North-Western Europe. This was a reversal from what had happened during the Battle of Britain: Allied fighter pilots found themselves at a disadvantage against German interception aircraft warned of their arrival through their own radar network. The Luftwaffe could also count on better aircraft, especially the Focke-Wulf 190, that outperformed the RAF’s Spitfire Mark V. Several RCAF squadrons – Nos 401, 402, 403, 411, 412 – participated in what were called “Rodeo” operations (fighter raids over enemy territory), “Circus” operations (medium bomber escort), and “Ramrod” operations (heavy bomber protection). Those were dangerous missions and both RAF and RCAF squadrons suffered heavy casualties.
I was yellow 4, 403 (Canadian) Squadron, on Circus 81. When at 26,000 ft. North of St. Omer I sighted 15/20 enemy aircraft heading Northwest below at 15,000 ft. and Squadron Commander ordered us to attack.
— Pilot Officer N.R.D. Dick, 403 Squadron, Combat Report, 19 August 1941
On August 19th, 1942, the RAF was called upon to provide air support to the most important offensive of the year, Operation Jubilee, the Allied raid on Dieppe. Fighter Command provided 48 Spitfire squadrons (including several RCAF squadrons: Nos 401, 402, 403, 411, 412 and 416), eight Hurricane squadrons, and three Hawker Typhoon squadrons. Army Co-operation Command contributed four Mustang squadrons (including the RCAF’s Nos 400 and 414) and two squadrons of Blenheim light bombers. Bomber Command, for its part, supplied three light bomber squadrons. The order of battle was completed by a few Boston fighter-bombers, among which two from the RCAF’s No 600 Squadron, and by two USAAF B-17 heavy bomber squadrons. The nine RCAF squadrons that took part in the raid lost 14 aircraft and 9 pilots; in addition, 10 planes were damaged and 3 pilots wounded. Enemy losses amounted to 10 aircraft downed, 14 damaged and 2 presumed downed. Although the raid’s air component was not such a catastrophe as the ground operation, it evidenced similar weaknesses in planning and communications.
The Mediterranean Theatre
The RCAF’s No 417 Squadron saw action on a completely different theatre, the Mediterranean. The squadron was transferred from Fighter Command to the Desert Air Force and sent to the Middle East in June 1942. In February 1943, after a few months of drudgery work and uneventful patrols over the Nile, No 417 was moved to Tripoli and incorporated into No 244 Wing. That unit was later stationed in Malta, some 96 km off the coast of Sicily, from where it provide air support to the British 8th Army – which included the 1st Canadian Corps – during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily by the Allies on July 10th, 1943. No 417 Squadron later took part in the fighting for the liberation of Italy.
The 2nd Tactical Air Force
As D-Day was approaching, Fighter Command and Army Co-operation Command squadrons were integrated into the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) and both were dissolved as such, the latter being replaced by the British Air Defence. In preparation for Operation Overlord, the Allies put together an immense air force by combining the British 2nd TAF and the U.S. 9th TAF, as well as many squadrons from Coastal Command, Bomber Command and the U.S. 8th Army Air Force.
All RCAF fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons, including the six territorial defence squadrons that were sent overseas in 1943 and 1944, were assigned to the 2nd TAF, except for No 402, which served with the British Air Defence. Each squadron prepared for the very specific role it was to play. Those that were to ensure air superiority by attacking enemy aircraft used Spitfires IX or XXI. Fighter-bomber squadrons specialized in ground attacks flew Typhoons. Night fighters were equipped with Mosquitos or sometimes Beaufighters, obsolete by then. Reconnaissance and photography units were supplied with Mosquitos, Mustangs and non-armed versions of the Spitfire, their role being to provide the army with data on the terrain and on enemy positions.
On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, when the Allies set foot on the beaches of Normandy, the Luftwaffe put up almost no resistance to the massive invasion. Fighter squadrons escorted invading troops and attacked enemy ground positions; air superiority was easily established over the bridgehead. Later, as ground forces forged ahead, that superiority was easily maintained over an area that now reached some 100 km behind enemy lines. Allied ground forces could then move freely while German troops, whether they used roads or railways, or moved across fields could not do so without being targeted by RAF and RCAF fighters.
No. 438 Squadron was assigned the task of dive bombing two concrete block houses overlooking the beach on which the 50th British Division was to land tanks. This operation had to be performed just as the tanks landing craft lowered their ramps.
438 Squadron Operations Record Book, June 1944
Two days after D-Day, maintenance and construction commando squadrons arrived in Normandy to build airstrips. Ground crews of No 144 Wing (including Nos 441, 442 and 443 Squadrons) were deployed near Banville as early as June 9th, 1944. Both air and ground crews had to get used to the dust and lack of comfort of their temporary facilities. The bases and support personnel of the other Spitfire and Typhoon squadrons were also transferred to Normandy, as the bridgehead became more solid.
As the campaign unfolded, encounters between RCAF fighters and the Luftwaffe became less and less frequent. Fighter attacks were mostly directed at ground targets: trucks, tanks, and artillery positions. When German troops in the Falaise Pocket were surrounded, on August 18th, 1944, fighters of all types were thrown into the battle. On that single day, No 127 Wing (Nos 403, 416 and 421 Squadrons) destroyed or put out of commission over 500 military vehicles, totalling some 290 hours of flight and firing 30,000 20-mm rounds.
This job turned out to be the Christmas package of the day. The enemy were reported to have dug in at Jean Blanc, and created what promised to be a very troublesome foremost defended locality. Our squadron, led by F/L Scharff, took-off at 19:15 hours carrying 500 lb. bombs to blast this foremost defended locality into submission.
439 Squadron Operations Record Book, August 9, 1944
Weather clear and warm, visibility very good. Squadron took part in front line patrols again today without incident. This airfield was subjected to an attack by enemy anti-personnel bombs at approximately 1100 hrs.
443 Squadron Operations Record Book, October 1944
When the Campaign of Normandy was over, fighter units moved up their bases to remain close to the front. Their role did not change much as the Allies moved ahead slowly through North-Western Europe: support to the ground forces, bomber escort missions, attacking bridges, canals and enemy vehicles, road and rail convoys. The Luftwaffe, as weakened as it was, put up a bitter resistance as the Allies came closer to Germany. It still had a secret weapon, the Me 262, the first jet-propelled fighter plane. Much faster than the British Spitfire, it came in too late, the Third Reich was doomed.
- For a description of the aircraft used by Canadian airmen, see the “Collection” section on theNational Aviation Museum website
- For medals and citations awarded to Canadian airmen, see the Air Force Association of Canadawebsite
- Brereton Greenhous et al., The crucible of war, 1939-1945: History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III, 1994.
- Larry Milberry, Hugh Halliday, The Royal Canadian Air Force At War 1939-1945, 1990.