British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

Table BCATP-1. British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Schools in Saskatchewan
Canadian Plains Research Center
View PDF

Representatives from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand signed the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) on December 17, 1939. Canadian Prime Minister W.L.M. King supported the training of aircrew for allied air forces in the war against Germany, expecting this contribution to offset any further land force commitments by Canada to the war effort and thereby reduce the risk of having to implement national conscription. Canada agreed not only to provide approximately 80% of the pilot, observer, and wireless operator-air gunner recruits, but also to cover 80% of the training plan's costs. Canada also agreed to graduate 520 elementary pilots, 544 advanced pilots, 340 observers, and 580 wireless operator-air gunners each month. The BCATP in Canada was organized into four Training Commands: schools in Alberta and southern Saskatchewan were part of No. 4 Training Command, with headquarters originally in Regina and later in Calgary; schools in Manitoba and central Saskatchewan were under the jurisdiction of No. 2 TC, headquartered in Winnipeg. Each Command had its own recruiting, manning, supply, and repair depots.

Table BCATP-2. British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Graduates by Nationality
Canadian Plains Research Center
View PDF

From 1940 to 1945, 120 training schools were constructed across Canada, twenty of which were located in Saskatchewan (see Table BCATP-1). These schools trained aircrew for the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force (see Table BCATP-2). Many volunteers from the United States and from the occupied nations of Europe also participated in the aircrew training plan. Contrary to popular belief, held both during World War II and still by some, the selection of BCATP aerodrome sites was based solely on technical merit - not on the intensity of a community's lobbying effort or on the political affiliation of the constituency. Patronage played little role in the process: what was important in a location was a flat piece of land with few obstacles to be removed. Quick and economical developments were determining factors, as were the proximity of water and electricity supplies, gravel deposits, transportation routes (rail and highway), and communication lines (telephone and telegraph). The air training schools could not be built near forests, mountains, or densely populated areas. Saskatchewan's topography and demography made the province an excellent choice for BCATP bases: consequently, it had the second highest number of schools built in any province; only Ontario, with thirty-six, had more.

New recruits, enlisting at various air force recruiting centres such as those in Regina or Saskatoon, were introduced to air force life at a Manning Depot. There were seven main depots in Canada; No. 2 Manning Depot was transferred from Brandon to Swift Current in 1944. After about four weeks there, recruits moved to an Initial Training School (ITS). No. 2 ITS was located at Regina College and the adjacent Regina Normal School. Both buildings still stand on College Avenue: the former houses the Conservatory of Music, while the latter has been converted to a sound stage for the movie industry. No. 7 ITS had its living quarters and classrooms in the Saskatoon Normal School and Bedford Road Collegiate. ITS lectures covered theory of navigation, mathematics, armaments, meteorology, Morse code, aircraft recognition, aerodynamics, drill, and physical instruction.

Trainee pilots next joined an Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), where they began flying Tiger Moths, Fleet Finches, or Fairchild Cornells. Civilian staff, mostly from flying clubs, managed each EFTS; many of the instructors were former bush pilots, crop dusters, or World War I pilots. EFTS graduates then trained at a Service Flying Training School (SFTS) on more advanced aircraft such as twin-engine Ansons, Cranes, and Oxfords, or single-engine Harvards. Finally, SFTS graduates were posted to an Operational Training Unit (OTU), either in Britain or Canada, to gain operational experience. Only two SFTS in Canada exceeded the number of pilots trained at Saskatoon (2,966): No.1 SFTS Camp Borden (3,083) and No.2 SFTS Ottawa (3,156).

After ITS, student air observers spent two months at an Air Observer School, six weeks at a Bombing and Gunnery School (BGS), and four weeks at an Air Navigation School. The final stage was an OTU posting. In March 1942, air bomber and navigator specialties were created to separate the roles of navigating and bombing. Air gunners received twelve weeks of ground training and air-firing practice at a BGS. Wireless operator/air gunners went directly from Manning Depot to Wireless Training School for twelve weeks, followed by six weeks of gunnery training. Flight engineers on heavy bombers trained on aero engines, but also learned the rudiments of flying in case the bomber pilot was killed or injured. Most flight engineers trained in the United Kingdom, but 1,913 engineers trained in Canada under the BCATP.

Saskatchewan's contribution to World War II was significant. From a population of approximately 896,000, 23,070 men and 2,461 women joined the RCAF. Of the 131,533 Commonwealth aircrew graduating in Canada, 20,359 attended Saskatchewan schools.

Training aerodromes had a significant economic and social impact on Saskatchewan. Devastated by the Great Depression in the 1930s, Saskatchewan communities lobbied their provincial and federal representatives with great fervour: they wanted the financial benefits accruing from employment during the construction phase, employment in civilian jobs on the base, and the spending of pay cheques by construction workers and air force personnel in local businesses. Air force personnel and local residents intermingled at countless social events hosted by the training schools: open houses, sports days, dances, and graduation ceremonies. Local citizens welcomed visiting recruits into their homes, and communities put on variety shows and supplied books for unit libraries. Airmen even helped farmers during harvest. The romances between Canadian women and BCATP personnel - including recruits from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand - attest to the cordial integration of stations into local communities: approximately 3,750 Canadian women married members of visiting allied air forces; many of these airmen returned to live in Canada after the war.

Although most BCATP bases have been abandoned, leaving buildings and runways derelict, many structures were moved after the war to local communities and are still in use today. Regina's Turvey Centre uses a former Mossbank hangar; a hangar from Assiniboia serves as the Saskatchewan Transportation Company's Regina garage; and the nursing home in Leroy was formerly the Dafoe base hospital. The former No. 32 SFTS at Moose Jaw has been modernized, and is now home to 15 Wing Canadian Forces and the NATO Flying Training in Canada program.

Rachel Lea Heide, Ross Herrington

Further Reading

Douglas, W.A.B. 1986. The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume II: The Creation of a National Air Force. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Hatch, F.J. 1983. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945. Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre.