By David MacLellan
The creation of Royal Canadian Air Force No. 6 Group in Bomber Command in 1942 was a very important “landmark” for the RCAF and it did play a major role in Bomber Command’s efforts for the remainder of the war. The adaptation from Larry Rose’s Ten Decisions: Canada’s Best, Worst and Most Far-Reaching Decisions of the Second World War (Volume 24 Issue 10, November 2017) doesn’t, however, properly deal with the real issue of “Canadianization” of the RCAF … there was a huge “elephant in the room” that was not addressed in the article at all.
Not one single aircraft on strength of the RCAF squadrons that formed the group in 1942 actually belonged to Canada, and the RCAF and that situation would continue for years. The aircraft were supplied by the RAF, bought and paid for by the British government. No wonder the British resisted Canadianization — they were just protecting their assets.
How did this situation come to be? You cannot really blame the British; failings in the Canadian government and specifically the policies, or lack thereof, of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King are at the core of this “problem.” King totally failed to insist that the clause in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) ensuring graduates “be identified with their respective Dominions” be followed. This failure would have consequences, not just for the issue of Canadianization. This was very much rooted in the underfunding of the RCAF in the 1930s, King’s initial vision of a “limited liability” war for Canada, and just a general failure of the King government to defend Canadian interests.
A little background. There were no Canadianization issues with the Royal Canadian Navy or the Canadian Army because previous Canadian governments had dealt with British pressure to create “imperial forces” and had owned up to the responsibilities of a sovereign Canadian nation. In 1911, instead of giving money to the British government to build warships for the RN as asked, the Wilfrid Laurier government created the Royal Canadian Navy and, in 1914, the Robert Borden government resisted British pressure to incorporate Canadian soldiers as replacements in British Army regiments, thus Canadians served in Canadian regiments in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and eventually a Canadian Corps was created under a Canadian general, Sir Arthur Currie. The RCAF in the Second World War would be the least Canadian branch of the armed forces because the King government allowed it to happen.
There was an anomaly in this as well. In Canada, the Canadian government / RCAF bought and owned all BCATP aircraft as well as all the aircraft flown and operated by the RCAF’s “home squadrons” — those numbered in the No. 1 to No. 170 block. These squadrons included fighter, army co-operation, bomber, flying boat, torpedo bomber, general purpose, bomber reconnaissance, communications, seaplane, coastal artillery co-operation, composite, ferry, transport, heavy transport, etc. — in other words, what you would expect to find on strength of a “balanced” air force component. The operational squadrons fought and engaged the enemy on both coasts, but primarily the Atlantic where a number of squadrons, No. 10 and No. 162 for example, had major success engaging German forces in battle. There was never a Canadianization issue with the BCATP or RCAF squadrons at home.
When RCAF No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron arrived in England in August 1940, its Hawker Hurricanes came from Canada, bought and paid for by Canada; this was the only truly “modern” war-ready squadron in the RCAF. But this would not be the standard pattern. The squadrons that followed — such as the No. 400 block of squadrons serving overseas — would have no aircraft to bring and the Canadian government would not buy or supply any. The renumbering of No. 1 as No. 401 and all subsequent squadrons formed made sense as a command and control issue. During the Battle of Britain, having RAF No. 1 and RCAF No. 1 in the air at the same did time did lead to some confusion in the heat of battle.
As the number of RCAF No. 400 block squadrons was increased, all were equipped with RAF-owned aircraft. The RAF was totally responsible for the initial supply of aircraft and for replacement/upgraded marks and types as required, not Canada or the RCAF.
The consequences of Canadian government policy meant that:
Thousands of RCAF personnel were assigned to RAF squadrons and not RCAF. (As pointed out and supported by my own research, many RCAF crew in this category didn’t mind at all flying with a mixed Commonwealth crew on RAF squadrons as it made for an all-the-more interesting experience, Empire and “all that” and, of course, they were still getting the job done.)
Often the No. 400 block of squadrons received older, used, less state-of-the-art RAF aircraft. Highly decorated RCAF No. 406 Squadron commander W/C R.C. (Moose) Fumerton DFC and Bar got in a bit of trouble for complaining publicly about “being sick of receiving clapped-out RAF Beaufighters” while RAF night fighter squadrons seemed to always be first in line for better radar and, more importantly, DH Mosquitoes. No. 406 didn’t get Mosquitoes until 1944, even though there was Canadian production. Until the Canadian-produced Avro Lancaster B. Mk. Xs started to arrive, most RCAF bomber squadrons flew on with increasingly aged Halifax bombers with RAF units getting Lancasters much earlier.
There is some evidence that the RCAF’s use of older aircraft (see point 2 above) lead to higher aircraft losses and casualty rates on the No. 400 block of squadrons.
The RCAF overseas was not a balanced force (unlike the RCAF home squadrons) — too many bomber squadrons and higher casualties.
So, what we really have with the RCAF overseas is the King government’s total failure to articulate and support an RCAF policy that truly represented Canadian interests as a sovereign nation. King abdicated his responsibility and thus created an overseas air force that was not what it could have been, doing a disservice to Canada.
This, of course, is a political discussion and in no way diminishes the enormous contribution to victory made by all of those who served in the RCAF.
Ten Decisions author Larry Rose responds: My article, according to Mr. MacLellan, does not deal with the “real issue” of why Canadianization was delayed in the RCAF. He notes that the Canadian aircraft in the UK were British-owned so the British were “just protecting their assets.” Throughout the war, planes, ships, tanks and artillery pieces were transferred wholesale back and forth between the British and Canadian forces. By 1945, thousands of British army trucks were Canadian-made but no Canadian officer went to British army supply depots to “protect their assets.” A much more important issue in the early years was that the British paid salaries for Canadian RCAF members posted to Britain.
Mr. MacLellan is right in pointing out that in 1939 Prime Minister Mackenzie King utterly failed to ensure Canadian control of RCAF air training graduates. This point is made in the book TEN DECISIONS although not in the much shorter Esprit de Corps article. However, subsequently King, Air Minister Charles “Chubby” Power and top officers such as Air Marshal Gus Edwards put enormous pressure on the RAF to Canadianize the RCAF. Ultimately they were successful.
Mr. MacLellan argues that “you cannot really blame the British” for delays in Canadianization. But, as Tim Cook has pointed out, the colonial mindset of many top RAF officers, including Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur “Bomber” Harris, delayed Canadianization for years.