photo: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA–C-086058
At the outbreak of World War II, the Royal Canadian Air Force had 4,061 personnel, including 512 pilots. Overseas, Royal Air Force ranks included roughly 900 Canadians who had previously joined that force; approximately 700 of them were pilots or pilot/navigators. The Canadians who enrolled directly in the RAF became known as CAN/RAF personnel, and they have a curious and complex history.
Defining them is difficult because until 1947 there was no distinct Canadian citizenship. Squadron Leader Percival S. Turner is generally accepted to have been CAN/RAF because, while he was born in England, he was raised and educated in Canada.
A handful of Canadians had been members of the RAF from its inception. WW I veterans like John Baker, Raymond Collishaw, Harold Kerby and James Rankin had chosen to remain in the RAF rather than return to Canada. They flew in British colonial campaigns, watched the force struggle through lean years and were part of its eventual modernization. However, the overwhelming majority of Canadians came later, and by very different means.
The RAF college was established in 1920 at Cranwell to train a new generation of air force officers. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were invited to recommend two candidates per year; more limited numbers would be entertained for protectorates and colonies with less autonomy. Potential cadets were to be between 17 1/2 and 19 years of age, physically fit, unmarried and “of unmixed European” descent.
The RCAF itself had a prolonged gestation between 1920-24, and offered no one to the RAF until 1926. John F. Griffiths of Niagara Falls, Ont., had taken three summers of flying instruction at Camp Borden as an RCAF provisional pilot officer and even though he was not proposed as a Cranwell cadet, he sought an RAF career and sailed for Britain where he was granted a permanent commission. He thus became the first new CAN/RAF member since WW I. Others followed Griffiths’ example, training with the RCAF before joining the RAF.
Paul Davoud, who was awarded the Sword of Honour at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., took an RAF commission in 1932 and served with that force until 1935. He then returned to Canada to become a bush pilot. When he resumed military flying in 1939, it was with the RCAF. Over the years barely a dozen Canadians were nominated as Cranwell cadets.
The vast majority of CAN/RAF personnel took a different route. Commencing in 1933, the RAF gradually expanded to meet the Nazi threat. This included training more Short Service commission pilots who did not go through Cranwell channels. Recruits from the Dominions were welcomed, although initially they were expected to have a private pilot’s licence and pay their own way to Britain. Travel expenses were reimbursed if the men were recruited, but there was no guarantee they would be accepted upon their arrival. This phase of CAN/RAF recruitment has been vividly and humorously described by John A. Kent in his 1971 book One of the Few and by Alfred Bocking’s Memoirs of a Canadian in the RAF. A more recent and sombre CAN/RAF story has been related by Colin Castle in his book Lucky Alex, which concerns itself with Alex M. Jardine.
Expansion was slow, as was the growth of a CAN/RAF presence. A 1934 intake of 52 short-service commission candidates included only three Canadians, and a similar intake in 1935 had six in a group of 67. A batch of 71 short-service officers gazetted on Aug. 24, 1936 included 10 Canadians. Of 104 newly minted pilot officers on probation on Sept. 17, 1938, 19 were Canadian. Similar trends brought others to the RAF; as of the outbreak of war some 375 New Zealanders and 450 Australians were in RAF uniform.
The circumstances of CAN/RAF enrolment evolved and eventually the requirement for a private pilot’s licence was waived. From 1935 onwards the RCAF screened applicants on behalf of the RAF through medical examinations and interviews. Even so, many young men sailed to England with unrealistic expectations of speedy acceptance. Dozens found themselves dependent on British family members and charities. In 1937, the RCAF agreed to give preliminary flying training to some who had been conditionally accepted by the RAF. This system might have fed ever more young men into the RAF had not hostilities erupted and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) been created.
Several Canadians died in RAF service before the war. Robert V. Rolph, one of the few Canadians to attend the RAF College, Cranwell, was killed Feb. 28, 1933, when his Hawker Fury fighter collided with another Fury. Geoffrey Supple, who had acquired a short-service commission in 1930, died of malaria on May 28, 1934, serving with 84 Squadron at Basra, Iraq. Harry H. Peck, an RMC graduate with a permanent RAF commission, was killed in a flying accident at Stansted Park, Hants, on Dec. 17, 1937. Carlton A. Ross was killed at 2 Flying Training School, Brize Norton, on Feb. 15, 1939. Adam E. de Pencier was performing gunnery exercises when his Hawker Audax failed to pull out of a dive and crashed at Chesil Beach on March 13, 1939.
The flow of Canadians to the RAF diminished after August 1939, but it did not cease immediately. Canadians already in Britain, visiting family, attending school or working, found it easier to join the RAF than to return home to enlist. One man, who survived the sinking of the passenger liner Athenia, was landed in England and promptly joined the force.
Another source of CAN/RAF recruits was the Canadian Army. A number of soldiers applied to join the RAF soon after arriving in Britain. An example of this process was Private Felix C. Cryderman who went overseas with the Royal Cdn. Ordnance Corps. Almost as soon as he reached England, he asked for a transfer to the RAF. This was approved in August 1940. He trained as a pilot, eventually flying Spitfires and Typhoons, together with a one-year stint as a Hurricane pilot in the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit (Hurricats). Exactly how many Canadian soldiers joined the RAF is uncertain, but Cryderman’s case was not unique.
CAN/RAF aircrew were the first Canadians into battle, before an RCAF presence existed overseas. From the outset, Coastal Command aircraft hunted German submarines. One crew included pilot officer James G. Fleming of Calgary, second pilot of a Saunders-Roe London flying boat from 201 Sqdn. based at Sollum Voe. On the day Britain declared war, Flight Lieutenant Thomas C. Weir of Winnipeg piloted one of nine Hampdens from 44 Sqdn. that reconnoitered the North Sea, looking unsuccessfully for enemy warships. On the night of Sept. 3-4, 1939, pilot officer George E. Walker of Gleichen, Alta., became the first Canadian over Germany; he was acting as second pilot in a Whitley of 58 Sqdn. that was reconnoitering the Ruhr Valley. When RAF Blenheims executed the first attack on German warships on Sept. 4, 1939, the lead navigator was pilot officer Selby R. Henderson of Winnipeg, on loan from Coastal Command to Bomber Command.
Bomber Command’s most frequent operations in the winter of 1939-40 were leaflet drops over the Reich. Given the weather and primitive navigational aids, these were as dangerous as bombing raids later on. On the night of Sept. 9, 1939, 102 Sqdn. lost a leaflet-dropping Whitley; the second pilot, Flying Officer Allen B. Thompson of Penetanguishene, Ont., became the first Canadian prisoner of war.
The first Luftwaffe raids on Britain were directed at British warships at Scapa Flow and Rosyth in Scotland. Fighter Command registered its first victories on Oct. 16, 1939. Next day, as German aircraft sought British shipping and generally reconnoitered the North Sea, Flying Officer Howard P. Blatchford of Edmonton, piloting a Spitfire of 41 Sqdn., destroyed a He.111; his was the first Canadian aerial victory of the war.
On Jan. 2, 1940, the London Gazette reported several awards to RAF personnel; these included two Distinguished Flying Crosses to CAN/RAF pilots. Wing Commander J.F. Griffiths—whose 1926 enlistment had led the way for others—had been singled out for leading a Dec. 14, 1939, daylight raid on German warships by 12 Wellingtons of 99 Sqdn. The other DFC went to pilot officer S.R. Henderson for battling two Do.18 flying boats over the North Sea while flying an Avro Anson on Nov. 8, 1939.
The presence of many CAN/RAF personnel in Britain inspired authorities to create an exclusively Canadian unit. 242 Sqdn. was formed Oct. 30, 1939, with an RCAF commanding officer, a full slate of CAN/RAF pilots, and a significant number of CAN/RAF technical staff. The story of 242 Sqdn. is complex and fascinating; its “Canadian content” declined rapidly after initial losses; replacements were more often British than Canadian.
More significant were the CAN/RAF veterans who subsequently appeared as flight commanders and commanding officers of RCAF squadrons forming overseas. Among these were the following:
Christopher S. Bartlett, DFC, Qu’appelle, Sask.; RAF since July 12, 1937; a flight commander in 428 Sqdn. upon that unit’s formation in October 1942 and subsequently the second commanding officer, 434 Sqdn.
Robert C. Bisset, DFC, Edmonton, RAF since May 31, 1937; a flight commander in 405 Sqdn. upon its formation, May 1941.
Alan C. Brown, Distinguished Service Order, DFC, Winnipeg, RAF since Oct. 19, 1934; appointed second commanding officer, 407 Sqdn. in January 1942.
Royd M. Fenwick-Wilson, Air Force Cross, Rock Creek, B.C., RAF since Aug. 24, 1934; second commanding officer, 405 Sqdn., August 1941.
Mervyn M. Fleming, DSO, DFC, Ottawa, RAF since May 31, 1938; third commanding officer, 419 Sqdn., September 1942.
John Fulton, DSO, DFC, AFC, Kamloops, B.C., RAF since March 15, 1935; first commanding officer, 419 Sqdn., November 1941.
Peter A. Gilchrist, DFC, Fort Pelly, Sask., RAF since Oct. 7, 1935; first commanding officer, 405 Sqdn., May 1941.
Laurence W. Skey, DFC, London, Ont., RAF since Jan. 28, 1937; first commanding officer, 422 Sqdn., July 1942.
Nelles W. Timmerman, DSO, DFC, Kingston, Ont., RAF since Aug. 24, 1936; first commanding officer, 408 Sqdn., June 1941.
Percival S. Turner, DSO, DFC, Toronto, RAF since Jan. 14, 1939; second commanding officer, 411 Sqdn., December 1941.
Archibald P. Walsh, DFC, AFC, Toronto, RAF since 1936; second commanding officer, 419 Sqdn., August 1942.
Patrick H. Woodroff, DSO, DFC, Edmonton, RAF since May 31, 1937; first commanding officer, 404 Sqdn., May 1941.
Each name represents years of RAF experiences made available to RCAF personnel. Turner had fought in the Battles of France and Britain and had learned the art of leadership from Sqdn./Ldr. Douglas Bader after the famous British ace revitalized a battered 242 Sqdn. Using the same techniques of calculated inspiration, Turner rebuilt 417 Sqdn. in the summer of 1943 after the unit had faltered during the North African Campaign. John Fulton was such a charismatic leader of 419 Sqdn. that after his death the unit adopted his nickname, Moose, as its own.
Beyond the realm of RCAF units, CAN/RAF personnel made significant contributions to the development of tactics and doctrines. Techniques of high-speed, high-altitude photographic reconnaissance owed much to an Australian, Sydney Cotton, whose career included a stint of bush flying in Newfoundland. Three of the earliest pilots in his Photographic Development Unit were CAN/ RAF members, namely FO George P. Christie and flight lieutenants Robert H. Niven and Spencer L. Ring. Before the war, Kent had tested balloon cables and cable cutters in exceptionally dangerous experiments. Air Commodore John Whitford was a key administrative figure in the delivery of aircraft across central Africa and in the Desert Air Force.
Some CAN/RAF people had very unusual jobs. John J. Secter had gone to Britain in 1936, expecting to secure a short-service commission. He washed out of pilot training but found employment in Britain. He was on a Mediterranean holiday cruise when war was declared. He left the ship and enlisted in the RAF in Cairo as an administrative officer. But instead of “flying a desk”, he served with an RAF armoured car squadron throughout the North African Campaign. When the fighting ended there, Secter went to Palestine, performing orthodox administrative work at an RAF station.
Several CAN/RAF personnel found themselves posted back to Canada while still serving in the RAF, performing instructional and ferrying duties on this side of the water. Flt. Lt. John A. Millar of Melville, Sask., joined the RAF around 1938 but served in Canada from 1941-44. Flt. Lt. Karl Noel Stansfeld, a decorated veteran of the Battle of Britain, spent January 1941 to August 1943 instructing in Canada, before returning overseas for work with transport squadrons.
Counting ground crew trades, enlistments, and transfers and excluding Newfoundlanders, approximately 1,821 Canadians joined the RAF between 1919 and 1942. Of these, 1,106 are known to have been aircrew and 361 were in non-flying trades, leaving some 350 CAN/RAF personnel whose trades are not currently known. A total of 422 CAN/RAF personnel were decorated; 778 were killed or died on active service during the war. Some 245, including 20 women, transferred to the RCAF, while 54 remained to make the RAF their permanent, postwar careers.
The CAN/RAF experience reflected the state of the RCAF as opposed to the RAF; too small and too demanding of qualifications to accommodate the many young men who wanted to join. However, the RAF was almost equally restrictive until 1934. The RCAF, it should be remembered, did not choose to be small or overly demanding; these were forced upon it by politics and budgets of the day.
The CAN/RAF personnel perhaps represented a more adventurous element of Canadian youth. Even after the RCAF began to recover from the cuts of 1932-33, young men were unwilling to wait on events—were even prepared to take financial risks (though sometimes ill-informed ones) to reach Britain and join an air force that was clearly growing faster than the one at home.
For Canadian newspapers, the CAN/ RAF personnel were a gift from heaven. During 1939-40 there was little or no RCAF overseas combat to describe. Stories of Canadians in RAF units during the earliest campaigns gave the “home front” an injection of pride, interest and concern for “our boys over there” until significant numbers of RCAF personnel were committed to battle.
Statistically, CAN/RAF personnel constituted a small fraction of the RAF’s strength, and their numbers were ultimately dwarfed by their RCAF brethren. In a sense, they were anachronisms—like the Gurkhas—loyal soldier subjects of an empire about to vanish. Yet they were visionaries, prepared to fight for principles before others took up the same causes. They were, in short, both spear-bearers and standard bearers—and probably more significant in the latter role than the former.