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Blatchford Field: The War Years, 1939 - 1945

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Mark Hopkins

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryDuring its peak Aircraft Repair would employ 3000 civilian workers, many of whom were women. For the first time Edmonton had large numbers of women working in traditional male jobs, in a plant that was regarded as the most active repair facility in the Commonwealth.

At war's end Aircraft Repair had successfully completed 1,597 government contracts, worked on over thirty varieties of aircraft, including Ansons, Oxfords, Airacobras as well as various types of transport and passenger aircraft. On 27 February 1945, the company was reorganized into Northwest Industries Limited and today continues to service the aviation industry and the armed forces.

One account of this period notes that "[in] the final analysis, Brintnell and his staff may be counted as leaders amid one of the most important logistic and support service programmes of the war and were major contributors to the Allied victory."2 Wilfred Leigh Brintnell was awarded the Order of the British Empire [OBE] for his work with Aircraft Repair.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

In October 1939 discussions began between Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia concerning the implementation of a joint air-training plan in Canada. On 17 December 1939, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [BCATP] was officially established. By March 1945, when the Plan came to an end, it had graduated 131,553 of the 159,340 students who had begun training.3 The RCAF would graduate 72,835; 25,547 would be pilots, 12,855 navigators, 6659 air bombers, 12,744 wireless operators [air gunners], 12,917 air gunners, and 1,913 flight engineers.4 Included in the total were 42,110 RAF and Allied nationals, including 9606 Australians, 7000 New Zealanders, 2000 French, 900 Czechoslovakians, 677 Norwegians, 450 Poles, 450 Belgians and 400 Dutch.

At the outbreak of the war it quickly became apparent that Canada had taken on a tremendous responsibility considering the size and existing strength of the RCAF. Combining the permanent and Auxiliary Force would provide a total strength of 4061 personnel and aircraft totalling 270, of which many were obsolete. Early estimates indicated 40,000 personnel would be required to operate the Plan, and this did not include manning Canada's operational squadrons. Fortunately, the concept of a strategically located, comprehensive training plan had been discussed as early as 1936. Even before the official outbreak of hostilities the Department of National Defence had initiated steps to facilitate a quick response to the implementation of the plan. In early 1939 the Department of National Defence, in cooperation with the Department of Transport, already had begun a programme of facility planning; the Department of Transport would locate suitable airfields, while Defence would plan the construction of its facilities.

As the search for suitable training bases began, various cities began to lobby for BCATP facilities. The intense rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary had existed in sports since the Great War, and would now extend into the Plan. Since Ottawa's acceptance of Edmonton's offer of Blatchford Field, great things had been forecast for the city. Edmonton would house the largest and best of the BCATP programmes. By the spring of 1940 Mayor John Fry was becoming frustrated; despite the two promised schools, Blatchford Field seemed to be in the centre of a "sitzkrieg" while Calgary was a virtual hub of activity. Mayor Fry poured out his frustration in a letter to the Minister of Commerce. He wrote that "we are slighted for Calgary, Lethbridge, McLeod and Medicine Hat, who are all getting much larger programmes than we are, in spite of the fact that our airport more nearly meets the specifications than any other."5 Ottawa's reply indicated that although progress appeared slow, improvements would continue in the near future.

While the implementation of the Plan seemed slow to some, several of its programmes had been operating since the summer of 1939. The Edmonton Flying Club had been offering combat flying courses to experienced pilots, before Canada's actual involvement in the war. By the summer of 1940 Edmonton had learned that Blatchford Field and the Edmonton area would host four of the Plan's schools. Located on the field would be No.2 Air Observers School and No. 16 Elementary Flying School, with the No.4 Initial Training School located at the University of Alberta and No.3 Manning Depot located at the Exhibition Grounds. Plans also called for fifteen new buildings, including three hangars, as well as extension of the airport runways and airport boundaries. Under the plan 107 schools would eventually operate from 231 sites, with 23 schools operating between Edmonton and Lethbridge.

The BCATP was developed to maximize the resources available in the military and to utilize as much of the experienced civilian sector as possible. Schools such as No.2 AOS were contracted to various civilian airlines. Each school operated under the Plan would receive certain government and RCAF assistance. The government would provide buildings, aircraft, certain equipment and operating expenses with each school allowed a five per cent profit - except AOS schools. The RCAF would contribute instructors in navigation, bombing, and other technical skills, as well as conduct the required courses. The operating company would supply pilots, mechanics, radio operators, guards, and aircraft service as well as all personnel, including storekeepers, clerks, parachute packers and stenographers.6 On 19 July 1940 Canadian Airways [Training] Ltd. was registered in Alberta as a company with Wilfred R. May as manager.7 Four months later, on 5 October 1940, the No.2 Air Observers School officially opened in Edmonton.8

While the prairies had the highest percentage of recruitment in the country, the experience of joining the forces is one memory that few seem to cherish. Having met the required academic standards or having completed wartime emergency training, the recruits would find themselves at a manning pool. In Edmonton it was designated No.3 Manning Depot and officially opened 21 July 1941. By 31 August this depot already consisted of 19 officers, 156 staff, 1643 trainees and 45 civilians. No.3 Manning Depot officially closed on 15 August 1944.9

Notes

2. William Paul Ferguson, The Snowbird Decades. [Vancouver: Butterworth & Co., 1979], p. 73.

3. W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force. The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume II. [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986], p. 293.

4. Ibid p. 293.

5. Frank Dolphin, History of the Municipal Airport. [Unpublished manuscript: Alberta Aviation Museum, Archives Division, 1993] Ch. 4, p. 3.

6. Department of Defence, Directorate of History, Record Group 24 [RG24]/D6771, 181.009, Vol. I, 1940, “Standard Form of Agreement for Operation of an Air Observer School at an Aerodrome Maintained by the Department of Transport.” See also: “Schedule 11 to Foregoing Agreement”, “Estimate of costs upon which Remuneration under Schedule II is Based”, and “Schedule of Wages.”

7. J.A. Villa-Arce, op. cit., p. 23.

8. K.M. Molson, Pioneering in Canadian Air Transport. [Altona, Man.: D.W. Friesen & Sons Ltd., 2nd ed., 1975], p. 234.

9. DND, DHist, RG24, Microfilm Reel 12380, “Manning Depot #3.”

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