The Second World War – RCAF

Royal Canadian Air Force flying in loose formation

On the 1st of September 1939, the Royal Canadian Air Force strength was 4,061 officers and airmen. They were scattered throughout eight regular squadrons flying a total of 270 aircraft of twenty different types. 146 of these machines were designated as training or transport aircraft and only 19 Hurricanes and 10 Battles could be called first line service types.

The BCATP Era – 1940 to 1945.

During the Second World War the RCAF expanded into the fourth largest air force of the Allied nations. In July 1941 a Women’s Division (WD) was formed in Canada. 17,000 WDs were enlisted and trained in over 40 trades. Also, in Canada, in the Spring of 1940 the RCAF set up and operated the largest aircrew-training scheme in world history. With a total of 131,553 graduates the renowned British Commonwealth Air Training Plan earned for Canada the title of “The Aerodrome of Democracy.” RCAF Station Trenton was home to 1 Air Navigation School and Central Flying School. Nearby, RCAF Mountain View housed the Bombing and Gunnery School.

In addition, over 40 operational squadrons flew coastal defence, shipping protection and other duties. During the war aircraft of Eastern Air Command sank six submarines. The Pacific coast had much less submarine activity. But one Japanese submarine was sunk near Prince Rupert by U.S. Navy ships after an RCAF Bolingbroke had damaged it so badly that escape was impossible. Thousands upon thousands of hours were flown on patrol, forcing the enemy to remain submerged away from convoys, permitting the ships to continue unmolested. It was weary and unglamorous work.

Overseas

The heavy commitment to the BCATP and home defence meant that only three squadrons were originally detached to overseas service. Number 110 Army Co-operation Squadron arrived in Britain in February of 1940. Four months later Number 112 Army Cooperation Squadron and Number 1 Fighter Squadron also went overseas. No. 1 Squadron, under the command of S/L E.A. McNab, began operations on the 19th of August 1940 during the Battle of Britain as attacks on southern England by the Luftwaffe increased in intensity. Eight weeks later, the squadron score was 31 enemy aircraft definitely destroyed and 43 probables. Three pilots had been killed in action, the first air combat deaths of the RCAF. S/L McNab, F/L G.R. McGregor and F/0 B.D. Russel were awarded the first Distinguished Flying Crosses of the RCAF.

Expansion of the RCAF overseas in the spring of 1941, and a new policy of Canadianization created a new system of squadron numbering to avoid confusion with RAF squadrons. The 400-449 block was allocated to the RCAF. Number 110 became Number 400, Number 1 became Number 401 and Number 112 became Number 402.

The first RCAF unit formed overseas was Number 403 Fighter Squadron on the 1st of March 1941. During 1941 seventeen more squadrons were formed and, in 1942 ten, in 1943 four and in 1944 nine, so that by the end of the war the number of squadrons in the 400 series totaled 44. Number 162 Squadron was detached from Eastern Air Command for operations with Coastal Command from bases in Iceland and Northern Scotland. In addition, three Air Observation Post Squadrons (664, 665 and 666) were overseas making the total number of squadrons 48. RCAF squadrons operated with the Royal Air Force in the Northwest European, Central Mediterranean and Far Eastern theatres. Thousands of RCAF men and women served in the air and on the ground with the RAF throughout the world.

In the fall of 1941, 406, 409 and 410 Squadrons became night fighters. Prior to D-Day, their score was 55 enemy aircraft destroyed, 100 probables and 27 damaged.

417 Squadron, attached to the Desert Air Force, flew operations from the Nile Valley to Northern Italy.

The Bomber Offensive

The first Canadian Bomber squadrons were 405 (Wellington) which later became the only Canadian Pathfinder squadron, and 408 (Hampden) born in the spring of 1941. 419 and 420 Squadrons were organized in December that year. W/C Johnny Fauquier was the first RCAF officer to lead a bomber squadron. Awarded the DFC and three times the DSO, he became the RCAF’s outstanding bomber leader of the war. With the addition of No. 415 (‘Alouette’) and six more Wellington squadrons, on the 1st of January, an all-RCAF bomber group, Number 6, was formed. 433 was the 14th and last bomber squadron formed overseas.

Three RCAF bomber squadrons were deployed to the Mediterranean theatre. In mid 1943, 420, 424 and 425 Squadrons under G/C C.R. Dunlap, making an all-Canadian Wing, moved from Yorkshire to Tunisia.

In 1944 all RCAF squadrons had been equipped with Lancasters or Halifaxes and Number 6 Group gained 415 Squadron for a total of 14 heavy bomber squadrons.

P/0 A.C. Mynarski won a posthumous Victoria Cross during a night mission in June 1944. A mid-upper gunner in a 419 Squadron Lancaster, he went to the aid of the rear gunner when his aircraft was shot down in flames. Unable to free his comrade, and with his own clothing and parachute on fire, he reluctantly bailed out. His burns were so severe that he died shortly after reaching the ground. The rear gunner survived the crash to report Mynarski’s heroism.

During 28 months on operations, Number 6 Group flew 271,981 hours on 40,822 sorties and dropped 126,122 tons of bombs and mines. It lost 814 crews.

Bomber Squadron Aircraft Types: 405: Wellington, Halifax, Lancaster. 408: Hampden, Halifax, Lancaster. 415: Hampden, Wellington, Albacore, Halifax. 419: Wellington, Halifax, Lancaster. 420: Hampden, Wellington, Halifax. 424: Wellington, Halifax, Lancaster. 425 ( a designated French language squadron):Wellington, Halifax. 426, 427, 428, 429, 431, 432: Wellington, Halifax, Lancaster. 433, 434: Halifax, Lancaster. Other Units – 1659 Heavy Conversion Unit, Topcliffe: 1664 HCU, Dishforth, 166 HCU Wombleton: Halifaxes.

Anti-Submarine Warfare

Seven RCAF squadrons served with Coastal Command in Great Britain. 404, 407 and 415 were equipped with land planes. 413, 422 and 423 had flying boats and 162 flew the amphibious Canso.

404 spent most of the war in the Shetland Isles and Northern Scotland as a coastal fighter unit. 407 was the most successful strike squadron in Coastal Command during 1941 and 1942. It then converted to anti-submarine warfare and its crews scored four definite kills. 415 was very successful in night attacks over the North Sea and English Channel before joining Bomber Command in 1944.

422 and 423 Squadrons were continuously employed as convoy escorts and in anti-submarine warfare from Iceland to Gibraltar. They sent six submarines to the bottom. 162 Squadron also killed six U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, five in less than a month.

One of these latter six was the result of actions by a crew captained by F/L D.E. Hornell. Despite one engine and the starboard wing on fire, Hornell’s depth charges sank the U-Boat. But his Canso, blazing and holed, became highly unairworthy. One engine fell off into the sea. He ditched the aircraft and the crew of eight took turns huddling in the single dinghy for 21 hours. Two died of exposure. Hornell did much to keep the others alive until rescue arrived. By then he was completely exhausted and blind, and he died shortly after. For “valour and devotion to duty of the highest order” F/L Dave Hornell was awarded the Victoria Cross.

413 (Catalina) Squadron carried out coastal duties over the Indian Ocean. On one of their first patrols, S/L L.J. Birchall and his crew detected a Japanese invasion fleet approaching Ceylon. The Catalina was shot down, but its wireless operator’s signals ensured the island’s defences were ready and Birchall gained the title “Saviour of Ceylon”.

D Day

On the 6th of June, 1944, three Canadian fighter wings were airborne over the beaches of Normandy when Allied forces raced ashore. The Luftwaffe took heavy losses. RCAF Spitfires, on the 28th of June, shot down 26 German aircraft. Four days later twenty more were destroyed and eleven damaged.

During ground strafing between Falaise and Argentan from the 17th to the 20th of August, RCAF wings estimated that they had destroyed or damaged over 2,600 enemy vehicles. They were also airborne covering the long pursuit across France and Belgium into Holland, across the Rhine and into Northwestern Germany.

No. 39 (Reconnaissance) carried out photo and tactical reconnaissance from the beaches of Normandy to the banks of the Elbe. It was the first RCAF formation across the Rhine and at war’s end was the Canadian unit deepest in Germany.

To the Air Forces of Occupation in Germany, the RCAF contributed a Disarmament Wing and a Fighter Wing of four squadrons, as well as one Air Observation Post unit.

We Shall Remember Them!

More than eight thousand officers, airmen and airwomen received decorations from the British and Allied governments. They include two Victoria Crosses, over 4,000 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 515 Distinguished Flying Medals, 427 Air Force Crosses, and 42 Air Force Medals. In the Memorial Chamber of the Houses of Parliament lie the Books of Remembrance wherein are recorded the names of 17,000 men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force who gave their lives during the second World War.

Not all Canadians overseas flew with RCAF units. About 60% were assigned to duties with the Royal Air Force and served with honour and distinction. F/0 G.F. Beurling, H.W. (Wally) McLeod and R.W. (Buck) McNair all received decorations for their prowess as fighter pilots.

Bomber Command had W/C Guy Gibson, who led 617 Squadron to smash the Mohne and Eder dams. 29 of his 133 aircrew were RCAF. In Number 8 Pathfinder Group and all other Groups of Bomber Command “Canada” badges were conspicuous. S/L I.W. Bazalgette received a posthumous Victoria Cross for an heroic act of self-sacrifice while flying as a Master Bomber.

In Coastal Command, F/0 K.O. Moore sank two U-Boats in 22 minutes early in D-Plus Two. F/0 R.B. Gray received a posthumous George Cross for his gallant conduct after a German submarine shot down his aircraft.