The CAF and the RCAF – 1918 to 1939

Canadian Air Force in formation

In 1918, the various British formations amalgamated as the Royal Flying Corps. Almost a third of the personnel who served therein were Canadian. In the spring of 1918 it was agreed that all-Canadian squadrons be formed. Soon, growing pride and nationalism aroused by Canadian military accomplishments brought forth a call for a distinctive Canadian army, navy and air force.

In Canada, a Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was established in the summer of l9l8. It was quickly disbanded at war’s end and the Canadian Air Force overseas remained in existence only until February 1920.

A new Canadian Air Force, in Canada, was authorized on the 18th of February 1920 with a provisional establishment of 1,340 officers and 3,905 airmen. Their uniform was navy blue in colour. Rank was indicated with silver stars and crowns and both Air Force and Army designations were used. The cap badge was a maple leaf with the monogram “CAF”, flanked by two wings and surrounded by a crown, over the scroll bearing the motto “Sic Itur ad Astra’ “Such is the path of the stars”.

A small headquarters was set up in Ottawa, and Camp Borden was taken over to serve as the CAF training -centre. Operations began in October 1920.

On February 15, 1923, King George V approved the designation Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and on April 1, 1924 the RCAF became a permanent component of the Department of National Defence. This date remains the official birthday of the RCAF. The authorized establishment was 68 officers and 307 airmen. The actual strength was 61 officers and 262 airmen. The dark blue uniform gave way to the Royal Air Force pattern. “Sic ltur ad Astra” was replaced by the Royal Air Force motto “Per Ardua ad Astra” (Through adversity to the stars). Several new air stations opened. Trenton replaced Camp Borden as the major air base.

In May 1923, the first course of Provisional Pilot Officers began training at Camp Borden. They were the first aircrew recruits to be trained since November 1918. The RCAF was unique among the air forces of the world during the Twenties and early Thirties in that its main tasks were primarily nonmilitary. The RCAF was tasked with air photography, opening new air routes, patrolling forests and fisheries and experimenting in airmail services. Quite often it flew the sick and injured from remote outposts to medical attention.

In the 1930s the RCAF was almost wiped out by the worldwide depression. In the spring of 1932 its strength was slashed to 103 officers and 591 airmen.

On November 1st 1936, the Civil Aviation Branch of the Department of National Defence was transferred to the new Department of Transport. The RCAF reorganized into a truly military Air Force while maintaining a limited civilian role of aerial photography.

The Aircraft. Approximately sixty types of aircraft were brought on strength and then retired at various times during this part of the Airforce history. Some even lasted into World War 2.

AM C.R. “Larry” Dunlap, CBE,CD, began his flying career in 1928 operating Vedettes and Vancouver flying boats. During WW II he commanded #331 Wing (420,424,425 Sqdns) as part of the West African Strategic Air Force. Post war he served in NORAD, SHAPE and was the seventh and final Chief of the Air Staff, prior to integration.

On November 19th 1938, the RCAF became a separate arm reporting directly to the Minister of National Defence. The first Chief of the Air Staff, appointed on the 15th of December 1938 was Air Vice Marshall G.M. Cril. The RCAF had two Air Commands, Eastern and Western which were to co-operate with the Army and the Navy in the defence of Canada’s coastline.