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The Northwest Staging Route

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Carl A. Christie

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

For King and CountryFor lack of better machinery, the work was co-ordinated through the Permanent Joint Board on Defence and, eventually, by the Special Commissioner for Defence Projects in Northwestern Canada, Major-General W.W. Foster, who reported to the Cabinet War Committee.11 With responsibility for supervising and co-ordinating the expanded construction programme, he succeeded in introducing a degree of harmony and order.

While the contractors managed to make the airway usable fairly quickly, it was not until the end of August 1943 that the monthly Progress Report on Canada-¬United States Joint Projects was able finally to report:

The initial building programme, representing the minimum requirements at main staging units, has been completed with the exception of a few minor items. This initial plan of development ... has been carried out by Canadian contractors. A considerable expansion of existing facilities ... is now being initiated. This further development will be undertaken by United States contractors and is designed to provide additional facilities to meet the requirements of the United States staging programme. Any additional construction which may be required specifically for R.C.A.F. will, however, be carried out by the R.C.A.F. Construction Unit. 12

The dominant feature of the Northwest Staging Route was the preponderance of American aircraft and American personnel, civilian and military, referred to only half in jest as the "American Army of Occupation". It seemed to many Canadian observers, as it did to Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, that the Americans "have apparently walked in and taken possession in many cases as if Canada were unclaimed territory inhabited by a docile race of aborigines".13

By June 1942 the USAAF had a detachment established at Edmonton's municipal airport. Air Transport Command planes passed through each day with men and materials for points north. This created a housing problem.14 Near the end of August 1942, the Canadian Army Area Commandant reported: "Six hundred, all ranks, have arrived and all have been accommodated in tents on the airport. Permanent hutments are being erected for the U.S. army personnel."15 In 1944, the reduced intake of trainees at No.2 Air Observers School permitted a number of men working on or passing through the route to be housed there.16

Six civilian airlines supported US operations in Canada and Alaska, giving some indication of the scale of American air activity. By contrast, Canadian Pacific Airlines was the only Canadian company operating over the Northwest Staging Route. It prospered on war-priority orders and apparently enjoyed a good relationship with the Americans who made it possible for CPA to obtain transport aircraft.17

In granting authority for the US companies to use Canadian facilities, the government specified that the arrangement was strictly a war measure that would be terminated at the end of hostilities and refused permission for the aircraft to carry fare-paying passengers or otherwise engage in commercial enterprises. Only one, Northwest Airlines, caused any real concern.

The trouble began at the end of February 1942 when Northwest, recently contracted to the USAAF's Air Transport Command to carry men and materials to Alaska, made its first flight before the Canadian government had granted official approval. Lieutenant-Colonel E. Brown, Area Commandant, wrote from Prince of Wales Armoury in Edmonton:

Some excitement caused over week-end when large American plane grounded here on authority Director of Civil Aviation, Ottawa. Plane had fourteen civilians who claimed to have authority to proceed over route from Washington. 18

Even the American Consul had been unaware that the C-47 was on its way.19 C.D. Howe, the Minister of Munitions and Supply, who happened to be going to Washington, made personal inquiries to find out "what this was all about". Subsequently, he was able to report to the House of Commons that the difficulty was no more than a misunderstanding:

I found that everybody there had assumed that someone had asked Canada for permission for this plane to fly, and it was explained that the army wished to engage this airline to do certain transport work. The necessary permission was given that very day. I telephoned back to Ottawa and was able to convey full permission to the army to use this civilian transport company. 20

This verbal authorization, reflecting the dominant role played by Howe in the formulation and administration of Canadian policy, was followed by a letter to Major-General Robert Olds of the USAAF's Air Transport Command in which Howe requested that Northwest Airlines and other civilian carriers involved in military projects in Canada be brought completely under military control. Their pilots should either be enlisted in the service or replaced by air force personnel.21

For the next year little attention was paid to this part of the bargain either by Air Transport Command, preoccupied with the rapid expansion of its operations in Canada and Alaska, or by Northwest Airlines, whose president believed that the United States should get its airlines firmly established in Canada. Periodic concerned memoranda, letters, and signals appear in Canadian Army and Air Force files about American personnel and aircraft passing through the Northwest Staging Route.22 Stanley Dziuban, in the American official history of Second World War Canada-United States defence relations, admits:

Notes

11. PC 3758, 6 May 1943, Stacey, op. cit., p. 386. For a copy of foster's instructions from the Prime Minister, as communicated to MD 13 in May 1943, see DHist 169.009[D106].

12. “Progress Report, Canada-United States Joint Projects”, 31 August 1943, DHist 181.003[D4823].

13. Vincent Massey, What's Past is Prologue: The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Vincent Massey [Toronto 1963], p. 371.

14. Lieutenant-Colonel E. Brown, Area Commandant, Prince of Wales Armoury, Edmonton, to AA & QMG [Quartermaster-General] MD 13, 19 June 1942, Major-General J.P. Mackenzie QMG, Ottawa, to DOC MD 13, 14 July 1942, QMG to DOC MD 13, 20 July 1942, DOC MD 13 to Secretary, Department of National Defence [DND], Ottawa, 22 July 1942, QMG to DOC MD 13, 11 August 1942, DHist 169.009[D106].

15. Brown to DAA & QMG MD 13, 25 August 1942, DHist 169.009[D106].

16. W/C C.G. Durham, for AOC No. 4 Training Command, to AOC Western Air Command [WAC], 14 March 1944, and related correspondence, RCAF file S.202-1-173 Vol. 1, “Organization - North West Staging Route”, DHist 181.009[D1315].

17. Ronald A. Keith, Bush Pilot with a Briefcase: the Happy-go-lucky Story of Grant McConachie [Toronto 1972], 234-5. CPA ultimately became Canadian airlines International.

18. Brown to Harvey, 2 March 1942, DHist 169.009[D106].

19. Ibid. Hale to Harvey, 3 March 1942.

20. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1942, Vol. 3, 2486.

21. Dziuban, op. cit., p. 308.

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