Shortly after the Battle of Britain Sir Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, is quoted as exclaiming, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The few that Churchill was referring to were the brave aircrew that undertook the daunting task of repelling the massive offensive by the dreaded German air corps, the Luftwaffe. In the year 1940 Adolf Hitler ordered an offensive in coordination with an attempted invasion of the isle of Britain. The only way Hitler was going to accomplish this great feat was the assert the power of his Air Force. In November of 1940 after months of constant bombardment of the English coastal cities, the Royal Air Force of Britain was ordered to begin attack on Germany. This rather inexperienced group of rookie pilots was successfully able to repel the German attacks and force Hitler into a direct attack upon London. It was this major flaw in the German invasion plan that caused the defeat of Germany just a few years later. The unknown story is that of the pilots that defeated the German squadrons. Of these pilots roughly sixty percent were Canadian born pilots and over seventy-five percent were Canadian trained. Without the contribution of the Canadian Royal Air Force contingent, the British would not have been able to affectively defend England from the attack of the German Luftwaffe.
In order to completely understand the involvement by Canadian forces one must first discover what exactly the Canucks were doing in the war. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) played three roles throughout World War II. The first of these roles was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan; they would erect training school for aircrew. The second facet of the RCAF was involvement in overseas war theatres. Lastly, the least know function of the RCAF was the defense and institution of the Canadian Home War Establishment. These three roles of the RCAF were the basis for the Allied forces air corps.
The British Commonwealth Training Plan (BLATP) was the program started in a joint effort by the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The agreement was signed in 1939 to form what Roosevelt would call, “the aerodrome of democracy.” In April of 1940 the first air school opened in Canada. The task of opening this school fell to four thousand aircrew that needed to form dozens of schools to train airmen. The original school was able to produce 520 pilots with elementary education in air combat. Out of every hundred pilots that graduated from the school anywhere between sixty and sixty-five were Canadian.ii When the program ended at the conclusion of the war they had opened a total of ninety-seven schools and had successfully trained 82,000 airmen in three years. The Canadian trained pilots were the backbone of the Allied offensive battles and defensive support of World War II.
The defense of Canada fell under the command of two division of the RCAF, the Eastern Air Command and the Western Air Command. The purpose of the Eastern Air Command was to defend the Canadian and American coasts against German U-Boat. The first 18 months of the war were relatively quiet, but from the spring of 1941, the resources of EAC were taxed to their utmost limits in the grim Battle of the Atlantic. Enemy U-boats were sighted and attacked in Canadian coastal waters. The enemy even penetrated into the St. Lawrence River to sink vessels.The most critical period was in 1942 and the first six months of 1943 when submarine activity in the North Atlantic reached its peak. Then the tide turned, and although the introduction of the acoustic torpedo and later the “Schnorkel” breathing-tube presented new serious defense problems, the sea and air forces of Britain, US and Canada retained the upper hand until the last U-boats surrendered in May 1945. Aircraft of EAC sank six submarines. This figure is not full measure of the Command’s contribution, nor would the total number of sightings and attacks express it. A better indication is to be found in the thousands upon thousands of hours flown by the aircrew, through weather that was often appalling, while they carefully searched the gray expanse of water, forced the enemy to crash-dive or remain submerged, drove them away from our convoys and permitted the ships to continue on their way unmolested. It was weary and unglamorous work but its importance cannot be over-emphasized. The battle lines of Western Europe were fed by the long Atlantic sea-lanes. Although there was much less submarine activity on the Pacific coast, the aircraft of Western Air Command (WAC) were not unrewarded for their long hours of hunting. One venturesome Japanese submarine was sent to the bottom near Prince Rupert by two US naval vessels after it had been so badly damaged by an RCAF Bolingbrook that it was unable to escape. In addition the RCAF and American navy ships helped escort materials to the Soviet Union. This heavily defended area was known as the North West Staging Route. It was during a holiday when the RCAF and navy were on leave that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Towards the end of the war it became apparent that the pilots were needed more along the European front then to defend the coast so the end of the war left only a sparse few air squadrons to defend Canada.
The most important role of the RCAF was its involvement in the European theatre. The original RCAF only made up three squadrons of the British Royal Air Force. Each squadron was made up of fifteen bombers, eleven day-bombers, three fighter-bombers, three recon-fighters, four night-fighters, six coastal-fighters, three transports, and three AOP. The fall of France and the cessation of land operations in Western Europe relegated the two Army Co-operation squadrons to a long period of waiting, but No. 1 Fighter Squadron saw action in the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940. It was not until the end of 1940 that the first few graduates of the BCATP began to filter into the European forces. In March of 1941 the first war formed squadrons began to take flight. The 400-449 block of numbers designated the newly formed RAF squadrons and at the completion of the war a total of forty-four squadrons had been established. The most known air mle during World War II was the Battle of Britain where on August 26 the RAF No. 1 Fighter Squadron under the command of S/L E. A. McNab encountered a formation of German planes. This was the beginning of the Battle of Britain.
The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
July 1940, the German war machine had overrun France and was now poised at the English Channel. Britain anticipated that they would be the next to be invaded. The German army and the Luftwaffe had made short work of Poland, before turning their attention north and then west. The British Norwegian Campaign had ended ignominiously while the British Expeditionary Force had been whipped in France. The successful evacuation of over 335,000 British and French soldiers from Dunkirk hid the apparent failure against the Blitzkrieg. The Germans appeared unbeatable.
The German invasion plan was strategically sound but it was the hubris of Hitler that led to the downfall of his plan. During the pre-invasion of Britain Hitler explains, “Since, England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, show no signs of being ready to come to a compromise, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and, if necessary to carry it out.”The German invasion plan was divided into three parts. First, the Luftwaffe was to try and remove the threat of the RAF within three weeks of deployment. Secondly, amphibious craft would make a night landing across the channel. Lastly, to support the landing paratroopers and armed gliders would attack across enemy lines.
With the Germans almost at their doorstep, all England looked to the Royal Air Force. Both the English and the Germans realized that before the German armies could invade, the RAF would have to be eliminated. With this in mind, the Luftwaffe first probed for weaknesses by attacking targets in southern England and shipping. This was followed by attacks against RAF airfields and radar stations.
The RAF, already badly weakened through having sent squadrons to France, was suffering heavily in the daily attacks on their airfields. Although fighting valiantly, losses of men and machines mounted, nearing a critical level. Relief came from an unexpected source. A German bomber accidentally bombed London prompting the RAF to attack Berlin. Hitler was incensed, ordering that the Luftwaffe now turn their attention to leveling London.
With the Luftwaffe’s attention now turned to London and other British cities, the heat was still not off the RAF. The elimination of Britain’s still developing war industry could have dealt Britain a grave blow. Day after day the Luftwaffe came to bomb the docks, factories and infrastructure of the last bastion in Europe. Daily the RAF met the challenge. The stalwart defense during the day forced the Luftwaffe to attack at night. By the end of October, the Luftwaffe had exhausted itself. With it went the last chance of an invasion of Britain by the German army.
Canadian airmen played their part in the Battle of Britain. Over one hundred Canadian pilots flew on fighter operations during the Battle of Britain. Another two hundred fought with the RAF’s Bomber and Coastal Commands. An untold number served as ground crew, keeping the fighters, bombers and patrol aircraft flying.
These Canadian pilots distinguished themselves, not only in the Battle of Britain, but also in later battles. They were not alone however. Joining the British and Canadians, were pilots from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, from Czechoslovakia, France and Poland, and from the United States. It was an international effort to defend democracy. Few of them recognized the significance of their actions at the time.
The significance of the Battle of Britain is more than just a matter of aircraft kills and medals. It was the first time that air power saved a nation. Not only was it a military victory, but it also gave a somber nation hope for the future. For Canada, the leadership provided by these experienced fliers was to be instrumental in the development of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Battle of Britain was also the first occasion in which Canadian airmen flew in Canadian units in a sustained battle.
The Battle of Britain was the most important battle for the Canadian air squadrons in World War II; the second most important campaign by the air corps was its support during D-Day and the ensuing invasion. At dawn, June 6, 1944, the Canadian fighter wings were sent over the beaches to stand guard while the Allied Forces poured ashore. Then, when the beachheads were firmly established, they gave air support to the British and Canadian Forces during the long and bitter fighting around Caen. The Luftwaffe did not often appear over the battle area and on the few occasions when it did come out in strength it lost heavily. On, June 28, 1944, RCAF Spitfires shot down 26 enemy aircraft and crippled a dozen others. Four days later they bagged 20 more, plus 11 damaged.
Ground strafing on armed reconnaissance, which steadily nibbled at the Wehrmacht’s armored fighting vehicles and motor transport, reached a climax in the four days in mid- August when the Nazi Seventh Army, caught in a pocket between Falaise and Argentan, sought to escape eastward. From dawn to dark, Spitfires and Typhoons raked the long columns of vehicles with cannon and machine-gun fire and left the roads strewn with blazing, smoking, shattered wrecks. The RCAF Wings alone estimated that they had destroyed or damaged over 2,600 enemy vehicles. Then began the long pursuit across northern France and Belgium into the Netherlands and finally through the West Wall, across the Rhine River and into the plains of north- western Germany. The fighter wings covered the advance of the Armies, drove the enemy air force out of the sky, blasted bridges and strong points, and paralyzed movement by road or rail.Within a few short weeks the war would be at an end.
The impact on the airmen of the Royal Canadian Air Force cannot be denied but the largest contribution was the selfless way that the airmen gave their lives to help protect people living half way around the world from them. At the conclusion of the war a single squadron 126 had participated in 22,372 sorties, killed 361 enemy aircraft, destroyed sixteen bridges, two lock gates, 1,210 rail lines, and 3600 vehicles. The RCAF, in addition to being the training ground for Allied aircrew, was the first air force to accept women among their ranks. By the end of World War II over 45,000 women had volunteered into the RCAF and Canada finished the war the fourth strongest air power in the world.
The quiet strength of the British army lay in the support from its largest commonwealth country, Canada. Without the contribution of the Canadian air corps England would have easily been invaded and seized by the German army. In addition to the pilots that flew missions in Europe the aviation schools founded and run by the people of Canada at home help to train seventy-five percent of all allied forces.Canada made the largest contribution by any commonwealth towards the allied forces during World War II. Without the BCATP and the insurgence of thousands of aircrew it would have been extremely difficult for the Allied powers to stand much of a chance against the might of Germany.
“Air Battle Over London, 1940,” EyeWitness – history through the eyes of those who lived it, www.ibiscom.com (2000).