Air power was still a new technology during the Second World War. The Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903. Scarcely a decade later, during the First World War, aircraft revolutionized how wars were fought. They could be used for observation and reconnaissance, to direct artillery so long range gunfire could become more accurate, and perhaps most importantly, to bomb targets far behind the front lines. This new type of warfare, known as strategic bombing, was intended to destroy weapons and munitions factories and undermine civilian morale so as to increase demands for peace.
Between the two world wars, strategic bombing was seen by air warfare theorists as a better way to wage war. What if the terrible fighting in the trenches could be avoided by using bombers to directly attack the enemy’s cities? A lightning strike could potentially end a conflict before it evolved into a world war. As events in the Second World War showed, these theories didn’t plan out, but the British, Germans, and Americans all devoted considerable resources between the wars to develop this new type of warfare.
When Canada declared war against Germany on 10 September 1939, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) consisted of eight regular and 12 auxiliary squadrons with a total strength of approximately 4,000 men at all ranks. From these humble beginnings, the RCAF would rapidly expand to become the world’s fourth largest air force, peak at a strength of 215,000 personnel (including 17,000 women) and field 80 operational squadrons.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Canada debated the form of its participation in the conflict. In 1914 Canada was a self-governing Dominion but did not control its own foreign affairs. Thus, when Britain declared war, Canada too was automatically at war. Full independence followed the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, so Canada’s Parliament now controlled the country’s destiny. Following a vigorous debate, Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September, a week after the British decision. While the government went to war to support its traditional allies, Prime Minister Mackenzie King remembered all too well the cost of fighting on the Western Front and sought to limit Canadian losses. His alternative was to support a flight training program in Canada. He hoped this gesture would limit the number of soldiers Canada had to commit to the fighting in Europe. King’s thinking was sound, but, as it turned out, pressure from Canadians and requests from Britain expanded the country’s commitment to the war beyond the flight training program. Canada eventually sent a large army to fight in Europe while the pilots and aircrew trained for the air war would suffer very high casualties.
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was one of Canada’s major contributions to victory in the Second World War. It was first established as the British Empire Air Training Scheme (BEATS) in December 1939, with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as the major signatories. During the war, 131,553 aircrew (pilots, navigators, bombardiers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers) were trained through the BCATP, approximately a third of the entire strength of the Royal Air Force’s main fighting commands. Of these trainees, 72,835 were Canadians, meaning that Canadians accounted for just under a quarter of the total RAF aircrew strength in its main combat commands. The scale of the contribution was remarkable for a small country like Canada.
Service in the air force was the first choice of many young Canadians. During the First World War, pilots were seen as the new knights of the air – handsome, dashing, and an honorable profession. Also, it was much better to fight the war from the cockpit of a plane than to crawl through mud on a cold and wet battlefield.
Cliff White recalled that his father was disgusted that the Germans had started another war, so Cliff wanted to do his part. He settled on the air force after rejecting the army and the navy: “I wasn’t near the ocean, I didn’t have any idea of that and I thought soldiers walked too much. I heard about all the mud in the First World War, so I didn’t want to get too muddy. So, I joined the air force.”
Agnes Ward joined the RCAF Women’s Division in 1942. Her brother was already in the air force and she recalled that when he came home on leave, “he looked so sharp and I just felt that I wanted to get involved. I didn’t want to go into munitions, which a lot of the ladies in Toronto [did] because they were paying great money. I just felt that I wanted to join the forces and the air force, I would have liked the navy, but at that time, the navy [was] not recruiting women, and the air force were the first to recruit women. So I decided to join.”
Cliff and Agnes were among the thousands of young Canadians who rushed to wear air force blue.
The RCAF performed many roles during the Second World War. There were 40 squadrons committed to home defense, mainly flying out of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. The main job of the East Coast squadrons, each composed of 12 to 16 aircraft, was to fly out over the North Atlantic to look for German U-boats (submarines) and protect the important convoys of ships traveling between North American and the UK.
The RCAF also deployed some 40 squadrons for service in Northwest Europe. No. 1 Squadron was the first to arrive in England in June 1940, and participated in the Battle of Britain. This pivotal air campaign saw the German air force, known as the Luftwaffe, defeated in the skies over England as they sought to destroy the British Royal Air Force in advance of a planned invasion of the British Isles. Largely due to the actions of the RCAF, this invasion never took place.
As the BCATP schools graduated trained pilots and aircrews, the RCAF grew and added additional squadrons overseas. These included the fighter, fighter-bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, the bomber squadrons of No. 6 Group RCAF, and the squadrons assigned to RAF Coastal Command.
For D-Day, the invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944, the RCAF committed 37 squadrons in support of the landings. These included fighter and reconnaissance squadrons directly supporting the landings, coastal patrol squadrons looking for German U-boats and warships, and bomber squadrons attacking German coastal defences and lines of communication. During the Battle of Normandy, Canadian squadrons continued to play an important role, supporting the soldiers by attacking German tanks and troops, disrupting supplies lines, and conducting reconnaissance flights to learn what the enemy was doing.
There were many heroic feats during this period but some stand out, including the day Flight Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Audet shot down five German aircraft within a few minutes. Audet was from Lethbridge, Alberta, and joined the RCAF in August 1941. In training, he ranked “above average” and soon found himself flying Supermarine Spitfires with No. 421 Squadron from Airfield B88 at Heesch near ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. On 29 December 1944, Audet was taking part in a fighter mission when the pilots spotted Messerschmitt 109s and Focke Wulf 190s near Osnabruck, Germany. The citation for his Distinguished Flying Cross provides an excellent description of what ensued:
“He immediately led his section into attack, picking a 109 which was the last aircraft in the formation. He gave a short burst and the 109 went down in flames. After the first attack he went round in a defensive circle and spotting a 190 slightly below he went in to attack, another short burst and this aircraft too went down in flames. The third attack followed almost immediately; this time the target was another 190 which was going down in a slight dive and which then pulled up in a sharp climb. Flight Lieutenant Audet opened fire at 300 yards and at this juncture the pilot unsuccessfully attempted to bale out and the aircraft crashed in flames. Immediately after this combat had taken place Flight Lieutenant Audet saw a Spitfire being pursued by a FW.190; instantly he closed in on the enemy aircraft and shot it down in flames, thus probably saving the life of a fellow pilot. Then, as he was reforming his section, he saw a FW.190 below. Diving down he carried out a head-on attack and had the satisfaction of seeing this aircraft spin and crash to the ground…. In a short period, Flight Lieutenant Audet has proved himself to be a pilot of exceptional skill, aggressiveness and determination.”
Audet would be in the air again three days later on New Year’s Day when the Luftwaffe staged a massive surprise attack on Allied airfields in Belgium and the Netherlands. The goal was to destroy the Allied air forces but in reality, the Germans ended up crippling themselves. Some Allied aircraft took off to meet the threat. Audet was one of those pilots and he shot down two FW.190s. During the attack, at least 40 British personnel were killed while British, Canadian, and American aircraft losses were substantial, with estimates of some 305 planes destroyed and another 190 damaged. Within a week, however, all these Allied aircraft had been replaced thanks to the strong industrial production system in North America. The Luftwaffe, however, suffered their worst single day loss of the war – 271 aircraft destroyed, 169 pilots killed or missing, 21 wounded, and 70 prisoners of war. It would never recover from these losses.
Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command, believed that the quickest way to end the war, and in the process, liberate the Netherlands, was to force Germany to surrender by destroying the people’s will to fight. The British had been bombed in the First World War, and again during the Blitz of London in 1940 and 1941. John Pavey, who emigrated to Canada after the war, grew up in Brighton, on England’s southern coast. He remembered the German bombers flying over “night after night.” “We would, as a family, generally in the early days, leave our beds and go down to the kitchen and we would sleep under the kitchen table, which was a very sturdy table and therefore, assumed to be quite safe.” British morale wavered under the German bombs but never broke. Allied leaders hoped that a heavier bombing campaign against Germany would do the trick.
The strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War has received mixed reviews. Critics regard the bombing of German cities, especially Dresden, as war crimes. They point out that German industrial output continued to increase throughout the war, indicating that the air offensive was not terribly effective. Supporters counter by arguing that early in the war, the only way the fight could be taken to Germany was by strategic bombing. Later in the war, the bombing campaign proved to be a major contributor to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. The truth, doubtless, lies somewhere in between, but through it all, Bomber Command, and the Canadian squadrons of 6 Group, continued to take the war to the German state.
By the end of the war, 6 Group had flown 41,000 sorties and dropped 126,000 tons of bombs. The price was high – 814 aircraft were lost and 3,500 aircrew were killed in action. In total, over 10,600 Canadians were killed while serving with RAF Bomber Command. (The total included the RAF and RCAF squadrons, operational losses, and those killed in accidents and while training.)
The bombing of Dresden, in February 1945, was one of the most controversial attacks by RAF Bomber Command in the war. Critics, many inspired by Soviet Cold War animosities, argued that the war was over by that point and the city was attacked for no military reason. Historian David Bashow, however, argues that the city was a valid target which produced war supplies and served as a transportation hub which supported the German war against the Soviet Union on the eastern front.
The RCAF’s 6 Group took part in the Dresden raids on the night of 13/14 February. Sergeant Frank Bramley was the mid-upper turret gunner in No. 431 (Iroquois) Squadron. He recalled that Dresden was already burning when his Canadian-built Lancaster arrived over the target. “When we left, the fires were more intense than ever. I doubt if any of the Nazis below will need much anti-war education when this is over.” It was clear the war was winding down, but it was far from over. As a point of reference, on the same day Dresden was bombed, the Canadian army was enduring some of its most intense and costly battles in the heart of the German Rhineland. Anything that could be done to shorten the war, not just for the Canadians, but for the Soviets advancing from the east, needed to be done.
The RCAF and air power in general made a great contribution to final victory, but it came at a terrible price. Some 13,000 Canadians were killed as a result of air operations or while held in prisoner of war camps. A further 4,000 air crew were lost during training missions. Mackenzie King may have sought to limit the number of Canadians killed in Second World War, but he could not know how air operations would change over the course of the war. His attempt to save Canadian lives by funnelled resources away from a large army that would fight in Europe and opting to support a major air campaign, did not achieve his aim.
Though many Canadians lost their lives serving the RCAF, they made an essential contribution to victory. The Bomber Offensive undoubtably shortened the war by destroying the German ability to continue to fight. As well, the tactical air force provided important support to the armies as they fought their way across France and Belgium and into Germany and the Netherlands. For the Dutch one of their fondest memories of the Canadian bombers was their missions after the fighting stopped. Instead of a load of high explosives, the bombers were filled with food and other essential supplies which they dropped to the starving Dutch. Arie de Jong, a Dutch teenager in 1945, fondly remembered:
“There are no words to describe the emotions experienced on that Sunday afternoon. More than 300 four-engined Lancasters, flying exceptionally low, suddenly filled the western horizon…. One could see the gunners waving in their turrets. A marvellous sight. One Lancaster roared over the town at 70 feet. I saw the aircraft tacking between church steeples and drop its bags in the South. Everywhere we looked, bombers could be seen. No one remained inside and everybody dared to wave cloths and flags. What a feast! Everyone is excited with joy. The war must be over soon now.”
This was a great legacy for the former weapons of mass destruction.