This Week in History


Canada's War Effort Takes Flight

For the week of Monday December 18, 2000

On December 17, 1939, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was approved. With the signing of this agreement, Canada became the most significant centre for air training during the Second World War.

Shortly after war was declared, ministers from Australia, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand assembled in Ottawa. They agreed that Canada would provide a practice ground for Commonwealth aircrew, where training could take place away from the fighting in Europe. It had an abundance of air space beyond the range of enemy aircraft, excellent climatic conditions for flying and immediate access to American industry. Canada was the ideal location for the establishment of the BCATP. 

CATP trainees in Ottawa, 1940

CATP trainees in Ottawa, 1940
© Department of National Defence

Canada took on most of the costs of the BCATP, which, at the time, took precedence over other Canadian war efforts. The plan approved the establishment of 12 Elementary Flying Training Schools, 25 Advanced/Service Flying Training Schools, 15 Air Observer Schools, 15 Bombing and Gunnery Schools, and one large Wireless School. The original agreement deemed that the schools would operate between May 1940 and March 1943. By May 1942, Commonwealth and American aircrew graduates numbered 22,410. But the Allied forces believed that many more were needed and extended the plan. As the war effort intensified, aerodromes and training centres sprouted up all across Canada, with a total of 360 schools on 231 sites. The plan operated successfully for five years, averaging 3000 graduates a month!

BCATP instructors at Lethbridge, AB, 1940

BCATP instructors at Lethbridge, AB, 1940
© LAC / 3277-25

Toward the end of the war, the BCATP was deemed unnecessary and came to an end on March 31, 1945. Buildings were abandoned; equipment was sold or scrapped. Traces of old BCATP sites are still evident in many civilian airports and manufacturing areas across the country. At a cost of over $1.6 billion, 131,553 pilots, navigators, air bombers, wireless operators, air gunners and flight engineers graduated from schools founded by the BCATP. Of these, 55 percent were Canadian.

Canada made a major contribution to the Allied air superiority during the Second World War. The schools established to prepare Commonwealth airmen were essential to the war effort, and helped make Canada's airforce the fourth largest in the world. In 1983, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was designated of National Historic Significance. Federal commemorative plaques have since been erected at Trenton, Ontario, and Brandon, Manitoba.

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