Royal Canadian Air Force

Royal Canadian Air Force

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was the air force of Canada from 1924 until 1968 when the three branches of the Canadian military were merged into the Canadian Forces. The modern Canadian air force has been known as Canadian Forces Air Command (AIRCOM) since 1975, but still refers to itself as the "Air Force" and maintains many of the traditions of the RCAF.


The formative years and the First World War

The aviation age came to Canada on 23 February, 1909, when Alexander Graham Bell's "Silver Dart" took off from the ice of Bras d'Or Lake at Baddeck, Nova Scotia with J.D. McCurdy at the controls. This flight was the first "controlled powered flight" (also the first flight of a "heavier than air craft") in Canada and the British Empire. [Roberts 1959, p. 3.] [Milberry 1984, p. 11.] The craft also set other firsts with a 10 March, 1909 flight of over 20 miles around Baddeck and on 2 August, 1909, the "Silver Dart" made the first passenger flight in Canada and the British Empire.

It was hoped that the Canadian Army be interested in buying the aircraft. The general impression of the time was that airplanes would never amount to much in actual warfare. One official felt otherwise, and the group was finally invited to Camp Petawawa to demonstrate their machine. The sandy terrain of the Ottawa River valley proved to be the wrong thing for an aircraft with landing wheels about 2 inches in width, and there was great difficulty taking off. Worse still, on the fifth flight McCurdy wrecked the craft on landing when one wheel struck a rise in the ground. The Silver Dart never flew again. [Roberts 1959, p. 6.]

Several years later, the beginning of the First World War on 4 August, 1914, found Canada embroiled in the conflict by virtue of Britain's declaration. Some European nations were using airplanes for military purposes and Canada's Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, who was organizing the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), enquired if London had any need for aviators. London answered with a request for six experienced pilots immediately, but Hughes was unable to fill the requirement.

Hughes did authorize the creation of a small aviation unit to accompany the CEF to Britain and on 16 September, 1914, the Canadian Aviation Corps was formed with two officers, one mechanic, and $5000 to purchase an aircraft from the Burgess Company in Massachusetts company for delivery to Quebec City. The Burgess-Dunne biplane was delivered on 1 October, 1914, and was shipped immediately to England. On arrival, the biplane was transported to Salisbury Plain where the CEF was marshalled for training. The craft never flew. It quickly deteriorated in the damp winter climate and was written off. On 7 May, 1915, the Canadian Aviation Corps was decommissioned.

Many Canadians served with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service. These British units produced such aces as William Barker, W.A. "Billy" Bishop, Naval Pilot Raymond Collishaw, Roy Brown, and Wilfrid "Wop" May. Since Britain desperately needed recruits and Canadians were anxious to fly with the RFC, training airfields operated by the RFC were opened in Canada in 1917 to recruit and train Canadian airmen.In 1915, Britain suggested that Canada should consider raising its own air units. However, it wasn't until spring 1918, that the Canadian government proposed forming a wing of eight squadrons for service with the Canadian Corps in France. Rather than the proposed eight squadrons, the British Air Ministry formed two Canadian squadrons (one bomber, one fighter). On 19 September, 1918, the Canadian government authorized the creation of the Canadian Air Force (CAF) to take control of these two squadrons under the command of Canada's Lieutenant-Colonel W.A. Bishop, the leading ace of the British Empire and the first Canadian aviator awarded the Victoria Cross.

The infant Canadian Air Force had planned to form six additional squadrons in Europe, but the Armistice disrupted these plans and in late November, the existing two squadrons were merely upgraded with new aircraft. On 19 June, 1919, the Canadian government decided against a permanent, peacetime air force and on 5 February, 1920, the Canadian Air Force in Europe was disbanded, never having flown any operations.

The inter-war years

After the war, Britain committed Canada to the International Convention for Air Navigation, part of the Peace Convention signed by Britain in Paris in 1919. Canada was required to control air navigation and traffic within its borders. To accomplish this, Canada instituted the Air Board, whose task was mainly regulatory but it was also responsible for controlling civil aviation and handling air defence.

One of the Air Board's first responsibilities was managing the operation of over 100 surplus aircraft that been given to Canada by the British Government to be used in the event of another war. However, the Air Board decided to operate the gift aircraft in support of civil operations such as forestry and photographic surveying. The Air Board's venture into air defence consisted of providing refresher training to former wartime pilots via a small part-time air militia known as the Canadian Air Force (CAF) at the old Royal Flying Corps air station, Camp Borden. This training scheme began in July 1920, and ended in March 1922. By January 1923, the Air Board was incorporated into the newly-formed Department of National Defence, and the CAF became responsible for all flying operations in Canada, including civil aviation.

On 1 April, 1924, the title "Royal" was extended to the CAF by royal proclamation and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was formed. The RCAF continued civil tasks such as anti-smuggling patrols, forest fire watches, aerial forest spraying, and surveying/aerial photography.

On 25 May, 1925, the following squadrons were authorized for civil duties:

* No. 1 Flying Training Station — Camp Borden, Ontario
* No. 1 (Operations) Wing — Winnipeg, Manitoba
* No. 1 (Operations) Squadron — Vancouver, British Columbia
* No. 2 (Operations) Squadron — High River, Alberta
* No. 3 (Operations) Squadron — Ottawa, Ontario
* No. 4 (Operations) Squadron — Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

The RCAF replaced the Air Board and the CAF as the regulator of Canadian civil aviation. Disagreement arising in government about having the RCAF manage civil air operations led to the 1927 creation of the "Directorate of Civil Government Air Operations (DCGAO)", and RCAF operations squadrons were transferred to DCGAO, leaving the RCAF with a headquarters, two training stations, and five training squadrons. Following the decision to remove civil duties from the Royal Canadian Navy in the mid-1930s and return that organization to a purely military operation, in 1936, it was decided the RCAF should follow suit. The Department of Transport (Canada) was formed to handle the federal government's civil aviation and marine policies (and operations), although RCAF maintained control of aerial photography.

During the late 1930s, the RCAF undertook to create military squadrons with an authorized peacetime strength of 23 squadrons (11 operational, the remainder being training). Training took place at the following locations:

* RCAF Station Borden (landplane training)
* RCAF Station Vancouver (seaplane training)

The Second World War

The outbreak of the Second World War saw the RCAF only fielding eight of its eleven permanent operational squadrons but by October 1939, 15 squadrons were available (12 for homeland defence, three for overseas service). There were over 20 different types of aircraft at this point, over half being for training or transport, and the RCAF started the war with only 29 front-line fighter and bomber aircraft. By the end of the war, the RCAF would be the fourth largest allied air force. [Milberry 1984, p. 97.]

On 15 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron became the first RCAF unit to see action. [Roberts 1959, p. 134.]

During the war, the RCAF had the following three key responsibilities:
* "British Commonwealth Air Training Plan" (BCATP), Canada's massive contribution to training military aviators would see the RCAF expand to a ubiquitous presence across the country
* "Home War Establishment" (HWE), fielding 37 squadrons for coastal defence, protection of shipping, air defence and other duties in Canada
* "Overseas War Establishment" (OWE), headquartered in London, fielding 48 squadrons serving with the Royal Air Force in Western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far EastThe RCAF played key roles in the Battle of Britain, antisubmarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic, the bombing campaigns against German industries (particularly with No. 6 Group, RAF Bomber Command), and close support of Allied forces during the Battle of Normandy and subsequent land campaigns in northwest Europe.

The RCAF reached peak strength of 215,000 (all ranks) in January 1944 (including 15,000 women). Of that total, 100,000 were training air and ground personnel in the BCATP, 65,000 with HWE, and 46,000 with OWE. At that time there were 78 squadrons, 43 at home, 35 overseas. Approximately 13,000 RCAF personnel were either killed or died as prisoners of war, and another 4000 died during training or from other causes.Greenhous 1999, p. 120.]

Women of the RCAF Women's Division ("WD"s) took over many wartime responsibilities from men, who were made available for combat and other operational duties and to instruct in British Commonwealth Air Training Plan schools across Canada. Many WDs also served overseas. Thirty WDs would die during the Second World War.

On the homefront, the RCAF developed a volunteer organization called the Aircraft Identity Corps to assist in the early detection of enemy aircraft.

The Cold War era

By spring 1945, the BCATP was discontinued and the RCAF was reduced to 165,000 (all ranks) and by VJ Day on 2 September, 1945, it was proposed that the RCAF maintain a peacetime strength of 16,000 (all ranks). By the end of 1947 the RCAF had five squadrons and close to 12,000 personnel (all ranks). Peacetime activities resumed and the RCAF participated in such pursuits as aerial photography, mapping and surveying, transportation, search and rescue, and mercy missions. Interest in the Arctic led to several northern military expeditions supported by the RCAF.

By the end of 1948, the Soviet bloc was perceived as a serious threat to security in Europe. Peacetime activities were no longer a priority and the Canadian government began preparing to meet the Cold War threat. In December 1948 the government decided to increase the number of RCAF establishments, increase the size of and recondition existing air stations, recruit additional personnel, and obtain and produce new (jet) aircraft. Although the RCAF had a jet fighter in 1948, the British de Havilland Vampire, it would be replaced, beginning in 1951 by the more effective Sabre, built under licence by Canadair. The new Avro CF-100 "Canuck" was also built and entered squadron service in April 1953. [Milberry 1984, p. 282.] The RCAF was the first air force to operate jet transportation aircraft with two Comets entering service in 1953. [Milberry 1984, p. 89.]

In August 1949 Canada joined NATO, and as part of its military commitment, established an Air Division (No. 1 Air Division) in Europe consisting of four wings. The first wing to form, No.1 Fighter Wing, was established at North Luffenham, England in 1951, but later moved to Marville, France. Other RCAF wings quickly followed, with bases established at Grostenquin, France; Zweibrücken, West Germany; and Baden-Soellingen, West Germany. Each of these wings consisted of three fighter squadrons each. The backbone of RCAF support to NATO's air forces in Europe in the 1950s were the CF-100 and the Sabre. Until 1958 the RCAF also trained aircrew from other NATO countries under the NATO Air Training Plan.

In 1950, the RCAF was heavily involved with the transportation of personnel and supplies in support of the Korean War. The RCAF was not involved with a combat role since no jet fighter squadrons capable of the type of combat required in Korea were yet in service. Twenty-two RCAF fighter pilots, however, flew on exchange duty with the USAF in Korea. [Milberry 1984, p. 259.]

The Soviet nuclear threat posed by a growing bomber fleet in the early 1950s saw the USAF and RCAF partner to build the Pinetree Line network of early warning radar stations across Canada at roughly the 50° north parallel of latitude with additional stations along the east and west coasts. This was expanded in the mid-1950s with the building of the Mid-Canada Line at roughly the 55° north parallel and finally in the late-1950s and into the early 1960s the DEW Line was built across the Arctic regions of North America. The nature of the Soviet bomber threat and of other hostile incursions into North American airspace saw an RCAF and USAF partnership in the creation of the North American Air (Aerospace, after 1981) Defence Command (NORAD) which was formed on 1 August, 1957.

The Soviet bomber threat posed to North America also saw the RCAF begin the development of Canada's most famous (and infamous) military aircraft, the Avro CF-105 Arrow fighter-interceptor. The changing nature of the Soviet threat from bombers to ICBMs in the late 1950s, and pressure from the United States, saw the CF-105 program scrapped in favour of Bomarc nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles.

To improve its abilities, the RCAF began replacing its 1950s-era aircraft with smaller numbers of second-generation aircraft. For instance the CF-101 Voodoo armed with the AIR-2 Genie nuclear-armed air-to-air missile replaced the CF-100 in some roles, and the CF-104 Starfighter replaced the aging Sabres.

Coastal defence and peacekeeping support were also important. Maritime patrol squadrons stationed on Canada's east and west coasts were provided with Lancasters, and later Neptune, and Argus aircraft to carry on anti-submarine operations. The RCAF's peacekeeping role mainly included the transportation of troops, supplies, and truce observers to troubled areas of the world.

Many RCAF aerobatic or flight demonstration teams existed during this period. These include the Blue Devils (flying Vampires), the Fireballs (an Air Division team flying Sabres), the Sky Lancers (an Air Division team flying Sabres), the Golden Hawks (flying Sabres), the Goldilocks (flying Harvards), and the Golden Centennaires (flying Tutors).

Because of the Cold War and the Korean War, the RCAF grew to a strength of 54,000 personnel (all ranks) by 1954 and reached a 1955 peak of 41 squadrons.


In 1964 the Canadian government decided to merge the RCAF with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army to form the unified Canadian Forces. The aim of the merger was to reduce costs and increase operating efficiency. [Milberry 1984, p. 366.] The Minister of National Defence, Paul Hellyer stated on 4 November 1966 that "the amalgamation...will provide the flexibility to enable Canada to meet in the most effective manner the military requirements of the future. It will also establish Canada as an unquestionable leader in the field of military organization." [Milberry 1984, p. 367.] On 1 February, 1968, unification was completed and the RCAF ceased to exist.

Initially air force and naval aviation personnel were scattered among five commands of the new force, but in 1975, Canadian Forces Air Command (AIRCOM) was created, and most aviation units were placed under it. AIRCOM preserves many traditions of the RCAF, such as the RCAF tartan and the command march, "RCAF March Past." In 1988, Canadian air force personnel returned to the traditional blue uniform colour used by the RCAF, and in 1993 air force formations called wings were reintroduced within AIRCOM, echoing the similar structure of the RCAF thirty years previously. The army-style ranks which were instituted upon unification, however, were retained and the RAF-derived RCAF ranks and insignia were not re-adopted.

The first successful attempt at unification of a Canadian military unit occurred on 9 December, 1944, with the creation of No. 664 Squadron RCAF. Although command was maintained by a Major of the Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA), an RCAF Adjutant conducted squadron administration; all pilots were officers of the RCA, while RCAF riggers and fitters (in army uniform) maintained squadron aircraft. Operational command of the three Canadian '600-series' squadrons was governed by both RCAF Overseas Headquarters and Canadian Military Headquarters in London, under the overall command of 70 Group, RAF Fighter Command.


This chart illustrates the rank structure of the RCAF (1924–1968) compared to the rank structure of the modern Canadian Air Force (Canadian Forces Air Command).

Victoria Cross recipients

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest award given to British and Commonwealth armed forces personnel of any rank in any service, and civilians under military command for bravery in the presence of the enemy. This honour has been granted to two members of the Royal Canadian Air Force since its inception in 1924.
*P/O Andrew Charles Mynarski, for valour during action over Cambrai, France, 12 June 1944.
*F/L David Ernest Hornell, for valour during action near the Shetland Islands, UK, 24 June 1944.

ymbols and insignia

The ensign of the Royal Canadian Air Force was based on the ensign of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), a light (sky) blue ensign, but with the Canadian roundel. The roundel was a version of the British roundel which has a red inner circle. The maple leaf replaces the inner circle to give it a distinctive Canadian character. Although the maple leaf roundel was approved for use by the RCAF in 1924, it wasn't until after the war that it began to be used on the ensign. This roundel, however, was used during the war as a vehicle identification insignia.

The RCAF used British roundels and other markings until 1946, when Canada began using its own insignia identity. Indeed, Canada was the first Commonwealth country to dispense with the RAF system. [ [ Canadian Military Aircraft Markings] ] The realistic-looking "silver maple" style of leaf (referred to as the "RCAF" roundel) was replaced with the eleven-point stylized leaf of the new Canadian flag in February 1965 (referred to as the "CAF" roundel). [ [ Canada's Air Force - The Roundel] ] A slightly-modified standardized version of this roundel (referred to as the "CAF revision E" roundel) continues to be used by Air Command. An all-red "unification roundel" was used on a few aircraft from 1967-1968. Some versions of the RCAF roundel included a white or yellow outline, which was used on certain aircraft.

The badge of the RCAF was similar to that used by the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. It consists of the Imperial Crown (Tudor/King's or St. Edward's/Queen's crown), an "eagle volant", a circle inscribed with the RCAF's motto "per ardua ad astra" (which is usually translated as "Through Adversity to the Stars"), and a scroll inscribed with "Royal Canadian Air Force".

The RCAF tartan, based on the Anderson tartan, was registered in 1942. It was originally designed for use with an RCAF pipe band. The tartan remains as the officially approved tartan of the modern Canadian Forces Air Command and is worn by Air Command pipe bands.

ee also

*List of Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons
*List of Royal Canadian Air Force stations
*List of aircraft of the RCAF
*Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division
*Royal Canadian Air Force Police
*No. 6 Group RCAF
*RCAF March Past
*List of F-104 Starfighter operators
*Royal Air Force roundels


* Fromow, Dave L. " Canada's Flying Gunners ". Ottawa: Air Observation Post Pilot's Association, 2002. ISBN 0973005505
* Greenhous, Brereton; Halliday, Hugh A. "Canada's Air Forces, 1914–1999". Montreal: Editions Art Global and the Department of National Defence, 1999. ISBN 2-920718-72-X.
*Milberry, Larry, ed. "Sixty Years—The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924–1984". Toronto: Canav Books, 1984. ISBN 0-9690703-4-9.
* Roberts, Leslie. "There Shall Be Wings". Toronto: Clark, Irwin and Co. Ltd., 1959. No ISBN.

External links

* [ Air Force Association of Canada]
* [ — The History & Heritage]
* [ National Air Force Museum of Canada, Trenton, Ontario, Canada]
* [ The Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association]
* [ Sabre Pilot's Association of the Air Division (SPAADS)]
* [ Canadian Starfighter Association]
* [ Experiences of RCAF Bomber Crews]

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