The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)
Advances in technology during the 1920s and 1930s and Nazi Germany’s military successes during the early stages of the Second World War completely changed how Allied leaders thought about and planned for war. One of the most significant changes was the recognition of the importance of integrating and coordinating the use of aircraft in any future military plans.
The use and adoption of aircraft during the First World War came late. The impact of aircraft on individual battles and on the overall outcome of that war was limited. This changed with Germany’s Blitzkrieg style attacks on Poland in 1939 and on western and central Europe throughout 1940–41. The Luftwaffe (German air force) was an integral part of the “lightning” attacks launched by the Nazis. The Luftwaffe’s role was to destroy vital infrastructure and to “soften up” the enemy’s frontline troops, making it much easier for their own ground troops to capture their appointed targets.
As ill-prepared as the Allies were to defend against Germany’s Blitzkrieg style attacks, they quickly understood the importance of gaining air superiority. This fact was made all the more apparent between 1939 and 1941, when Germany launched an unrelenting aerial bombardment of Britain, a prelude to invasion. These aerial attacks reached a peak during the summer and fall of 1940—a period of the war referred to as the Battle of Britain. Britain ’s Royal Air Force (RAF) is credited with thwarting Hitler’s plans to invade the island nation by fighting Germany’s numerically superior Luftwaffe to a draw.
The use and adoption of aircraft during the First World War
Britain ’s Royal Flying Corps was founded in 1912; it was reconstituted and renamed the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918. The outbreak of the Second World War precipitated a massive expansion of the RAF, as well as all other Allied air forces. During the Second World War, the RAF consisted of four commands: Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, and Ferry. Its greatest accomplishments during the war were fighting Germany’s Luftwaffe to a stalemate during the Battle of Britain and spearheading the development of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) in Canada and other Commonwealth countries (e.g., Australia and New Zealand).
The Canadian military’s first foray into the world of aviation was the establishment of the short-lived (one year) Canadian Aviation Corps in September 1914. The Canadian Air Force, the predecessor of Canada’s current air command, began operations in September 1918. The title “Royal” was extended to this fledgling service in 1924.
Aviation between the wars
The interwar period was a difficult time for the military in Canada. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) consisted of roughly 3,000 members—300 officers and 2,700 non-commissioned officers and other air personnel. The service made do with a paltry 270 aircraft, of which 37 were combat ready, and these were distributed among eight squadrons across the country. By 1939, the number of RCAF personnel had grown marginally to 4,000, but the number of aircraft had actually declined to 195 and most of these were obsolete.
The Royal Canadian Air Force
Many young Alberta men were keen to join the RCAF and become pilots, navigators, gunners, and so forth. The adventure, prestige, and “glamour” associated with flying lured thousands from routine and mundane jobs. Better living conditions (proper bedding and better food) and more time between missions for leisure activities than that offered by the Army or Navy attracted many. The fact that the Air Force experienced a higher per capita rate of casualties and serious injuries than the other services did not seem to dissuade many.
Operational Bomber Command squadrons were made up of two flights of eight to ten aircraft each, with four to six planes held in reserve. Two noted heavy bombers belonging to the RCAF arsenal were the Lancaster and Halifax. Both aircraft could withstand a great deal of aerial punishment. Each aircraft operated with crews of seven men: a pilot and flight engineer sat in the cockpit; the navigator, radio operator, and bomb aimer were positioned immediately below; two gunners were positioned at the front and rear of the aircraft. The two-man de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber was a favourite of RCAF pilots. Comparable in speed to the Spitfire (approximately 660 km/h or 400 mph), the "Mossie" had a greater range and could carry a 1,800-kilogram (3,968-pound) munitions payload.
Canada produced a number of top flight pilots during the First World War. Among the ranks of those early wartime aviators were Wilfrid “Wop” May, William Avery “Billy” Bishop, and Arthur “Roy” Brown, all of whom enjoyed considerable post-war fame and helped pioneer civilian aviation across the country. This tradition continued during the Second World War. Alberta pilots and aviators participated in thousands of operations that targeted German forces, infrastructure, and large urban centres. Flight Lieutenant Richard Audet of Milk River, piloting a Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft for the No. 411 Squadron, destroyed five German fighters in the remarkably short span of five minutes during a single sortie. Flight Sergeant Thomas Templeman of Edmonton was involved in the mission that destroyed the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and Pilot Officer Ian Colquhoun, also of Edmonton, participated in the bombing of the Augsburg U-boat (submarine) building and service yard.
Royal Air Force. Battle of Britain (accessed September 2007).
Byfield, Ted, ed. Alberta in the 20th Century: The War That United the Province. Edmonton: United Western Communications, 2000. See Paul Willcocks, “The outstanding Alberta pilots who fought the Battle of Britian”, 32–41.