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 Armed 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.
WWI and the formation years
Canada's first aircraft, the AEA Silver Dart, in flight
The aviation age came to Canada on February 23, 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 notable for being the first "controlled powered flight" (also the first flight of a "heavier than air craft") in the British Empire. The craft also set other firsts with a March 10, 1909 flight of over 20 miles around Baddeck and on August 2, 1909 the Silver Dart made the first passenger flight in Canada and the British Empire.
Despite these successes, the craft was similar to many early aircraft of the day and had poor control characteristics. "The Canadian Army was unimpressed at the headway made by the group. 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 the base at Petawawa to unveil their machine. The sandy terrain there proved to be the wrong thing for an aircraft with landing wheels about 2 inches in diameter, 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. Thus ended the career of the Silver Dart." (http://www.exn.ca/FlightDeck/Aircraft/Milestones/silverdart.cfm)
Several years later, the beginning of the First World War on August 4, 1914 found Canada immediately 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 required had any need for aviators. London answered with a request for 6 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 September 16, 1914 the Canadian Aviation Corps was formed with 2 officers, 1 mechanic, and $5000 to purchase a biplane from a Massachusetts company for delivery to Quebec City. The plane was delivered on October 1, 1914 and was shipped immediately with the CEF. On arrival in Britain, the biplane was transported to the 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 May 7, 1915, the Canadian Aviation Corps was decommissioned.
In 1915, Britain asked the Dominions to consider training crew to serve with the Royal Flying Corps but Canada did not act on the request until 1918 (likely owing to other war priorities). During this period, Canadians served with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service producing such greats as W.A. "Billy" Bishop, Roy Brown, and Wilfrid "Wop" May. In spring 1918, the Canadian government proposed forming a wing of 8 squadrons for service with the Canadian Corps in France but Britain felt the disruption to their war effort by relocating Canadian pilots and mechanics from their own air service was not worth the effort. Britain was short of groundcrew so Canadians filled this void for several months until August 5, 1918 when the British Air Ministry formed 2 Canadian squadrons (1 bomber, 1 fighter) and on September 19, 1918 the Canadian government authorized the creation of the Canadian Air Force to take control of these 2 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.
Several weeks previous, on September 5, 1918 the government authorized the Royal Canadian Navy to form the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS) with a main function to carry out anti-submarine operations using "flying boat" patrol aircraft. The U.S. Navy's Naval Air Station Halifax, located on the eastern shores of the harbour at Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, was acquired but following the November 11, 1918 Armistice, the RCNAS was decomissioned.
The infant Canadian Air Force had planned to form 6 additional squadrons in Europe but the Armistice also disrupted these plans and in late November the existing 2 squadrons were merely upgraded with new aircraft. The following spring on June 19, 1919 the Canadian government decided against a permanent peacetime air force and in January 1920 the 2 squadrons were disbanded and equipment shipped back to Canada. On February 5, 1920 the Canadian Air Force was disbanded.
Following the lead of using the Royal Canadian Navy for civilian purposes in aiding federal departments during the 1920s, it was decided to create an air service for the same purposes and on April 1, 1924 the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was formed to take on tasks of anti-smuggling patrols, forest fire watches, aerial forest spraying, and surveying/aerial photography. The birthplace of the RCAF was at Camp Borden in Ontario's Muskoka region north of Toronto but headquartered in Ottawa.
On May 25, 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
Disagreement arising in government about having the RCAF perform 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, 2 training stations, and 5 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)
World War II
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the RCAF only fielding 8 of its 11 permanent operational squadrons but by October 1939 15 squadrons were available (12 for homeland defence, 3 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.
RCAF Harvards were used as a trainer aircraft by thousands of commonwealth aviatiors from 1940 on.
During the war, the RCAF had the following 3 key responsibilities:
- 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 East
The RCAF played key roles in the Battle of Britain, antisubmarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic, the bombing campaigns against German industries, 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), 100,000 were training in the BCATP, 65,000 with HWE, and 46,000 with OWE. At that time there were 78 squadrons, 43 at home, 35 overseas. The RCAF suffered approximately 17,000 killed.
By spring 1945, the BCATP was discontinued and the RCAF was reduced to 165,000 (all ranks) and by VJ Day on September 2, 1945 it was proposed that the RCAF maintain a peacetime strength of 16,000 (all ranks). By the end of 1947 the RCAF had 5 squadrons and 12,000 personnel (all ranks). The RCAF, along with the RCNAS, also began fielding Canada's first front-line fighter jet aircraft during the latter half of the 1940s.
The CF-100 "Canuck" was the mainstay of Canada's interceptor
force early in the cold war.
The Cold War and the Korean War saw the peacetime plan disrupted and the RCAF grew to 54,000 (all ranks) by 1954 and reached a 1955 peak of 41 squadrons. 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 50º 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 55º 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 the RCAF and USAF partner in the creation of the North America Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) which was formed on August 1, 1957.
The Soviet threat to Europe also saw the RCAF filling a large part of NATO's air forces during the early-mid 1950s with the backbone being the Avro CF-100 Canuck fighter. 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 saw the CF-105 programme scrapped in favour of Bomarc nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles. The RCAF underwent further changes as its 1950s-era aircraft began to be retired and replaced with smaller numbers of 2nd generation aircraft (the CF-101 Voodoo and CF-104 Starfighter).
By the late 1960s, the RCAF was actively involved in the aerial defence of Canada, North America, and Europe, as well as performing maritime coastal patrols on Canada's east and west coasts as part of anti-submarine operations and finally the RCAF was heavily involved with the USAF in operating radar early warning stations across Canada.
On February 1, 1968 the Royal Canadian Air Force was merged with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army to form the Canadian Armed Forces.
Initially air force and naval aviation units 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 light-blue uniform colour of 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 Royal Canadian Air Force used a rank structure similar to the Royal Air Force's. The RCAF ranks, in English and French, were:
- RCAF.com - The History & Heritage (http://www.rcaf.com)
- Canadian World War II Newspaper Archives - The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) (http://warmuseum.ca/cwm/newspapers/canadawar/royalairforce_e.html)