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Western Air Command: Air Force, Part 30

A Supermarine Stranraer at Alliford Bay, B.C., 1941. [PHOTO: DEPT. OF NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA136890]

A Supermarine Stranraer at Alliford Bay, B.C., 1941.

In 1920, the newly formed Canadian Air Board, controlling both civil and military aviation, established a base at Jericho Beach, Vancouver, which became the principal air force base on the Pacific coast. Operations elsewhere, including Victoria and Prince Rupert, B.C., were carried out by temporary detachments performing one or two specific jobs. The diversity of these tasks is demonstrated when one looks at the work reported by the Vancouver Air Station for the week of Sept. 5-11, 1921. The station’s work record shows 19 hours, 26 minutes flown, including three forestry reconnaissance sorties to Kamloops, Sicamous and Shuswap lakes; four geodetic survey reconnaissance flights; three photographic flights; two fishery protection patrols.

Increasing international tensions, both in Europe and the Far East, led Canada to look at its own defences. In 1936, the Royal Canadian Air Force commenced a survey of the West Coast, looking for new base sites. This task initially fell to No. 4 (Flying Boat) Squadron. The British Columbia Reconnaissance Detachment, commanded by Flight Lieutenant F.J. Mawdesley, operated from December 1936 onwards from Patricia Bay in Victoria. It had at its disposal one Vickers Vancouver flying boat, one Fairchild FC-2W float plane, one seaplane tender (virtually a floating repair shop), a motor boat and a truck. By April 1937 it had completed a general survey to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Among the potential bases visited was Sproat Lake, now home of the famous Martin Mars water bombers (The Rainmakers, March/ April). The detachment then began to study the northern mainland coast.

Recommendations were submitted that, initially, water-borne aircraft alone should be allocated to northern British Columbia, while both land and water-based resources should be used in the south. These findings were the genesis of a permanent service base at Patricia Bay. Other bases were proposed up the west coast of Vancouver Island. An “outer perimeter” base was suggested for Alliford Bay in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

To co-ordinate base expansion and the units that would occupy them, Western Air Command was formed on March 15, 1938, with Group Captain G.O. Johnson as its first commander. Nevertheless, its duties were only vaguely defined. Pacific coast threats were more nebulous than those in Europe. There was also the knowledge that the United States would react immediately to any hostile activity in the eastern Pacific; neutrality would not be an American option. This confidence that American rather than Canadian territory would attract Japanese attention was repeated on Sept. 11, 1941, when Air Vice-Marshal G.M. Croil wrote, “It appears unlikely that any major attack upon Canada will be made so long as present Canadian-American relations remain unchanged, unless the United States Navy is seriously defeated or loses its northern bases.”

Personnel occupy an air raid shelter at Patricia Bay, B.C. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9605]

Personnel occupy an air raid shelter at Patricia Bay, B.C.

Initially the task of base expansion was held back by costs, estimated at $300 to $400 per acre to clear and level land. These restraints were thrown to the wind when war broke out. Even so, construction took time, especially when runways rather than anchorages had to be prepared. Seaplane bases needed items as simple as sentry boxes and as complex as armouries. The Patricia Bay base (mixed land and seaplane usage) was not operational until May 1940, the same month No. 6 Sqdn. took up residence at Alliford Bay, which was a water-borne site only. Construction of a land base at Tofino began in February 1942 and the first fighters based there arrived on Oct. 15, 1942.

The main and almost insurmountable obstacle to Western Air Command expansion was the fact that prewar British Columbia was still in its primeval state. North of Vancouver, transportation was limited to coastal steamships, the CPR line connecting Jasper, Alta., with Prince Rupert, B.C., and the Pacific Great Eastern railway from Squamish to Quesnel. The telephone system was inadequate and was more of an aggravation than a help. In short, the Department of National Defence had to pioneer wherever it went outside the urban south.

Each base had a different history, but Bella Bella may stand as an example of one site’s development. The RCAF established a presence in September 1938 through an anchored scow whose crew set up some aerials and began reporting sea and weather conditions. Late in 1939 the decision was made to create a base. A year passed before construction materials arrived and blasting operations began. The first building was a radio shack, followed by barracks, mess buildings, a slipway, hangars and a hospital. All the while, weather reporting continued. Various aircraft passed through the site, proceeding to or from Alliford Bay or Prince Rupert. From August 1941 onwards the Veterans Guard of Canada provided security. Finally, on Dec. 9, 1941, No. 9 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqdn. arrived with Supermarine Stranraers that became the first aircraft permanently based there.

Three months before the war, Canadian forces were deployed with all possible pomp and ceremony accompanying the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada. Honour guards rehearsed in Stanley Park a week in advance of the visitors’ arrival. On May 29, 1939, apart from ceremonial duties, Western Air Command personnel were engaged in such work as street-lining and mounting a special guard on the royal luggage. That evening, Vancouver, Stranraer, Shark and Hurricane aircraft escorted the steamer Prince Robert to Victoria and repeated these tasks on May 31 as the royal party returned to the mainland.

Among those lining the streets were hundreds of youth wearing vintage air force uniforms. A year earlier, Wing Commander A.B. Bell-Irving, commanding RCAF Auxiliary units in the area, had conceived the idea of forming an air cadet corps to be affiliated with No. 111 (Auxiliary) Sqdn. The first reaction to a report in the Vancouver press on this was little short of astonishing when approximately 1,400 youngsters reported to the squadron to join up. Negotiations with the Honourable Ian Mackenzie, then Minister of National Defence, produced a number of obsolete high collar air force uniforms. Squadron Leader Nick Carter was persuaded to take on the task of organizing the corps. The Vancouver Air Cadet Movement was the inspiration for the future Air Cadet League of Canada.

When Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 10, 1939, WAC was already on alert with its few units—No. 4 Sqdn. (now designated a Bomber Reconnaissance unit), No. 6 (Torpedo-Bomber) Sqdn. and No. 111 (Coastal Artillery Cooperation) Sqdn. A Regina-based unit, No. 120 Sqdn., was quickly transferred to the coast. In succeeding years there would be considerable changes to units in response to wartime events.

For the first three years of its exist­ence, Western Air Command was a formation where old aircraft types went to die. Elderly Vickers Vancouver and Vickers Vedette biplane flying boats remained on the strength of WAC units until August 1939 and May 1940, respectively. Stranraer flying boats continued to operate in WAC squadrons until April 1944 (30 months after they had been retired from east coast service). Blackburn Shark torpedo bombers—obsolete even when bought in 1937—soldiered on in the command until September 1943. While old types lived on in WAC, newer aircraft were slow to arrive. Lockheed Hudson patrol bombers appeared in Eastern Air Command service in October 1939 while Consolidated Catalina and Canso flying boats were operational from Nova Scotia as early as June 1941. Western Air Command waited until March 1941 for its first Hudsons and until December 1942 for its first Cansos.

An aircraft of No. 8 Sqdn. on patrol over snow-capped mountains. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—RE20468]

An aircraft of No. 8 Sqdn. on patrol over snow-capped mountains.

On Sept. 13, 1939, the WAC diary carried a dramatic entry: “Aircraft 902 sighted submarine in position 049 degrees 09 minutes North 123 degrees 39 minutes west at 15:58 today Wednesday. Minesweeper being dispatched immediately.” On Sept. 18 the diary noted, “Two fishing boats report seeing submarine near Cape Scott about one week ago; were close enough to see hand rails but no marks of identification observed.” There were, of course, no submarines about. These were but the first of hundreds of false reports that would plague the command throughout its history.

Although the perceived submarine threat was false, there were real concerns about German surface raiders which prowled the oceans. On Sept. 25, 1940, 40 airmen of the Royal Australian Air Force arrived in Vancouver, destined for training in Canada. They were the vanguard of 16,600 Australians and New Zealanders whose paths to war led them through Canadian flying schools and operational training units. The ships bringing them to Canada would have been ripe targets for the enemy; consequently, WAC aircrews took a particular interest in shepherding them to port in the final stages of their voyages.

Meanwhile, WAC infrastructure continued to evolve. Apart from completion of various bases, the command headquarters was transferred from Vancouver to Victoria in November 1939, although it subsequently moved back to Vancouver in February 1943. A civilian Aircraft Detection Corps was organized in May 1940; gradual introduction of radar sites made the corps redundant and it was disbanded on Nov. 15, 1944. On Aug. 19, 1940, a met­eo­rological service was established within the command to co-ordinate information gathered from far-flung sites. Poor communications and a lack of weather ships hampered its effectiveness, and the imposition of radio silence after December 1941 complicated the process.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, galvanized WAC although it took a day for the full impact of events to register. On Dec. 8 all bases were placed on high alert; most had already taken this step in response to news broadcasts. Commercial radio stations were shut down from dusk to dawn that night and a coastal blackout ordered. On Dec. 9, apart from numerous seaward patrols, RCAF aircraft were transporting RCN personnel to coastal points to assume their own duties. Soon WAC headquarters was deluged with spurious “sighting reports” of Japanese aircraft and ships. The RCN asked that virtually everything afloat be photographed; this was in response to reports of submarines camouflaging their superstructures to resemble fishing boats.

In fact, Japanese submarine operations in the eastern Pacific were sporadic, opportunistic and inefficient, conducted with no strategic plan. Almost all navies employed submarines as commerce raiders, working singly or in loose packs. The Japanese navy used them as much for scouting and transportation. The enemy never attempted to lay mines in vulnerable areas such as Puget Sound. Small E14Y aircraft, brought by submarine, conducted a few hours of reconnaissance and started some forest fires. However, ingenious these probes may have been, they were a waste of scarce resources.

Most Japanese submarines frequented areas far removed from Western Air Command territory. Nine were deployed in December 1941 to reconnoitre the American coast, and on Dec. 20 the I-17 shelled, then torpedoed the SS Emidio north of San Francisco; nearby the I-23 attacked, but failed to damage the SS Agiworld. On Dec. 23, 1941, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the I-21 sank the SS Montebello with gunfire. I-19 damaged the SS Absaroka near Los Angeles on Dec. 25. By the end of 1941, all enemy submarines had returned to base.

If the services were tense and alert, civilian reaction was close to paranoid. Classes in first aid were filled and first aid posts established; air raid shelters were constructed. Buildings displayed signs directing occupants to protected rooms. The Vancouver Island Power Boat Sqdn. comprised of owners of small craft was formed to assist in evacuating the island in case of invasion. On April 5, 1942, reports were received that an enemy raiding party had landed at Neah Bay, inside Cape Flattery, Wash. Canadian and American forces were alerted, but there were no invaders. The “hostile forces” belonged to a United States Coast and Geodetic Survey work party.

With the opening of the Pacific war, it became imperative to buttress WAC defences. More Stranraers were moved from the Maritimes to British Columbia. This was no simple matter. An all-Canadian route offered water bases but ultimately entailed a dangerous mountain crossing which had claimed one “Stranie” and five lives on Nov. 4, 1941. Flying boat deliveries through the U.S. entailed longer hops between major water bases but also promised a less challenging mountain transit.

Inside the Operations Room at Patricia Bay, B.C., 1943. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9611]

Inside the Operations Room at Patricia Bay, B.C., 1943.

Canadian West Coast defence and domestic politics were closely intertwined during the war. In March 1942, the Vancouver Sun newspaper accused the government of unpreparedness. It also declared that both military and political leaders were indifferent and incompetent. The newspaper was charged under the Defence of Canada Act and fined $300. Defence Minister J.L. Ralston, accompanied by senior officers, made a hurried tour of Pacific coast defences.

Civilian fears were usually based on “worst case” scenarios, which envisaged Japanese ships and landing parties seizing coastal ports. They took no account of actual enemy capabilities. In December 1942, the Chiefs of Staff Committee dealt with requests for anti-aircraft guns to protect the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company plants in the Kootenays. The threat was deemed unrealistic, given that a carrier strike would have to be launched at least 200 miles offshore, penetrate a further 300 miles inland and cross three mountain ranges on what could only be a one-way mission. Nevertheless, civilian anxieties led the federal cabinet to reinforce Western Air Command out of proportion to the threat, and to maintain forces long after any dangers had passed.

The fall of Singapore in February 1942 shocked many, both civil and military, who had overestimated its strength. If such a fortress could be taken, and so quickly, what place was safe?  Questions were raised within WAC about the wisdom of building bases at isolated points on the western side of Vancouver Island. Would an airfield at Ucluelet be vulnerable to capture, and hence become an enemy facility rather than a Canadian one? Meanwhile, the loss of Singapore vested new importance on Esquimalt, which now possessed the only major Commonwealth drydock in the Pacific.

Even before that event, WAC and American authorities had recognized the need for radar sites. On Dec. 9, 1941, the U.S. War Department proposed establishment of two “aeroplane detection” sites in Canada. This was agreed upon. American construction crews were initially assigned to the task, but these were withdrawn in July 1942 as the RCAF itself became involved in building and manning a chain of “radio” detachments. The word “radar” was still very hush-hush. These detachments were integrated into a system that ran from Alaska to California.


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