Tag Archives: British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

For the moment

For the moment movie posterFor the Moment is a 1993 film written and directed by Aaron Kim Johnston and starring Russell Crowe and Christianne Hirt. The plot revolves around airmen training in rural Manitoba, Canada, with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The main focus of the story is the wartime romance between Russell Crowe’s character and a local girl.

Johnson was inspired to write the screenplay based on the stories of his father who was an instructor and bomber pilot in the war, and his mother’s experiences as a young woman on the home front.

With principal photography taking place over August–September 1992, one of the first jobs for the production was to scout possible locations. The film was shot at former Royal Canadian Air Force stations in Manitoba used during the War, including Brandon Airport and Rivers itself.

Although there isn’t much flying in the movie, it gives a good sense of the locations. It’s possible to watch clips and match them against images from the bases. The brightly painted barracks at Rivers still feature on the town’s website.  It probably falls under the category of a ‘romance’ more than anything else, but the beautiful scenery and the yellow Harvards and Ansons offer an emotive glimpse into Earle’s world.

Watch the trailer.


Flying in Rivers

Train station at Rivers ManitobaEarle Britton was born on the Canadian prairies in a bleak little town called  Rivers, Manitoba.

The Town of Rivers, named in honour of The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s president Sir Charles Rivers-Wilson, was conceived when the railway was being planned and a division point was required. Construction of the roundhouse, coal shed, water system and repair shops began in 1907. The needs of the 350 railworkers and their families were met by the construction of houses and businesses. In 1911 the settlement had grown to village size and was incorporated as a town in 1913. Earle’s father worked as a locomotive foreman for the railway.

Earle’s logbook doesn’t include any mention of his earliest training (his first entries date after his transfer to High River, Alberta), but perhaps it was inevitable that he would be drawn into the air. In reading records of Rivers, it seems that there were two definitive forces that shaped the town: the railway and the RCAF.

The Federal Government established a Central Navigational School known as #1 CNS just south of Rivers, near the city of Brandon.  It was opened under the British Commonwealth Air Training plan. It quickly grew and with the construction of runways became an air-training base. Closed at the end of hostilities, it was reopened in the late 1940’s and became a Joint Training base with all three of the military branches represented. This base was considered redundant in 1968 and closed in 1969/70.

The base didn’t officially open until 1942, so it’s unlikely that it was the location of Earle’s initial training (as we pick up his log book in 1941). I suspect he may have made his start at Brandon itself before moving further West to Alberta. However, I think about his family, left behind in Rivers, watching aircraft come and go, wondering if their youngest son would ever make it home.


A Canadian training

A first-hand account of training in the depths of a Canadian winter, extracted from the Bomber Command website:

‘There was a great response in Western Canada to the British Empire Air Training scheme. All the flying schools in Canada became training centres under the supervision of the airforce. There was a big manning pool opened in Edmonton where I lived. We stayed there a few weeks, but they didn’t have any stores or uniforms. We finally got kitted out and we had to go to different stations on what they called Tarmac Duty, or guard duty. I went to a service flying school in southern Alberta, where I was driving a tractor. Then they opened an Initial Training School at Saskatoon and we went over there on one of the coldest days of the winter. I had not been issued with a great coat, and we had to march 2 or 3 miles up the road to the training station.

Most of the navigation instructors were ex-schoolteachers, recruited from schools. Some of us who didn’t have as great an education as others had to learn logarithms and so forth. We were billeted in this old school and there were blackboards up all over the place. At night those who understood navigation and logarithms, and I didn’t know a logarithm from a hole, taught us our classes. One was a mathematical genius, and he used to stand up and pound the blackboard because we were all so dumb. “Don’t you guys get it?” he would say and he would bang the board until chalk came out of the cracks. That is where we were selected as pilot or navigator or wireless operator.’

Wilkie Wanless,
Bomber Command rear gunner


Wings over Alberta

On December 17, 1939, two months after joining World War II, Canada signed on to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Far from Europe and destructive German attacks, yet closer to Britain than Australia or New Zealand, Canada was the ideal training ground for Commonwealth air force recruits.

Dozens of training schools opened across Canada, including 18 in Alberta. They impacted the economic, political and social life of dozens of communities and left a lasting impression on the Canadian landscape.

In small prairie cities and towns such as Vulcan, Claresholm and Medicine Hat, young airmen from around the world arrived to train for the battle that raged in the skies over Europe.

 A digital collection, including first hand recollections of those who trained in Alberta

Wings Over Alberta explores a unique period in the formation of the plan and the role that it played in Canada’s contribution to World War II.

Although no longer updated, the site is owned by the University of Alberta and includes links to original documents, photographs and stories.


British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: the Aerodrome of Democracy

Harvard airplane

Harvards were used as a trainer aircraft by thousands of Commonwealth aviators from 1940 onwards

In 1942 the RAF was fielding the most highly trained front-line fighters in the history of warfare.

By this time, most of the pre-war generation of regular aircrew had been killed off, were promoted to non-operational roles, or were languishing in German POW camps.

The need to advance technology and increase production was paramount for success, but so was replenishing the ever-depleting stock of qualified aircrew. An experienced pilot was a valuable commodity. So much so, that it became a grim reality of war that pilots would be shot at after they had baled out and were parachuting to the ground: one couldn’t afford the risk that the pilot would live, pick himself up and walk straight into the next available aircraft.

Training itself was a dangerous business. 5,327 men were killed and a further 3,113 were injured in RAF training accidents between 1939-45.

British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was a massive, joint military aircrew training program created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  It remains the single largest aviation training program in history and was responsible for training nearly half the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers who served with the RAF.

The United Kingdom was considered an unsuitable location for air training, due to the possibility of enemy attack, the strain caused by wartime traffic at airfields and the unpredictable climate, so the plan called for the facilities in the Dominions to train British and each others’ aircrews.

Negotiations regarding joint training, between the four governments concerned, took place in Ottawa during the first few months of the war. On 17 December 1939, they signed the Air Training Agreement – often referred to as the “Riverdale Agreement”, after the UK representative at the negotiations, Lord Riverdale.

The Agreement called for the training of nearly 50,000 aircrew each year, for as long as necessary: 22,000 aircrew from Great Britain, 13,000 from Canada, 11,000 from Australia and 3,300 from New Zealand. Under the agreement, air crews received elementary training in various Commonwealth countries before travelling to Canada for advanced courses.

Canada

Canada was chosen as the primary location for “The Plan” due to ample supplies of fuel, wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training, industrial facilities for the production of trainer aircraft, parts and supplies. It was also far from the frontline and was far beyone the reaches of the Luftwaffe.

Due to its prominence in the plan, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as “the Aerodrome of Democracy”, a play on his earlier description of the United States as “the Arsenal of Democracy.”

At its height, The Plan included 231 training sites and more than 10,000 aircraft and 100,000 military administrative personnel.

In late 1944, the Air Ministry announced the winding-up of the plan, since the Commonwealth air forces had long had a surplus of air crews. At the conclusion of the war, over 167,000 students, including over 50,000 pilots, trained in Canada under the programme from May 1940 to March 1945. While the majority of those who successfully completed the programme went on to serve in the RAF, over half (72,835) of the 131,553 graduates were Canadians.

List of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan facilities in Canada

Romantic young idealists

Our grandfather was obviously one of these graduates.

Why would a young man, living so far from the war, wish to sacrifice himself for this distant cause?

Hastings writes of the volunteers:

“Now, in the spirit of Kitchener’s New Armies of 1915, the first flower of volunteers of 1939 were reaching the squadrons. These were the romantic young idealists, almost to a man aspiring fighter pilots, many of them colonials who would make such an enormous contribution to Bomber Command- New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians. They had trained all over the world for two years or more- some in America, others in Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa. The pilots and navigators represented the highest skills” (173).