Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
Canada 150 Vignette – 149 of 150
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

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The world was at war!... In 1939, Germany led by the fascist madman Adolph Hitler and his Nazi (National Socialist) Party was invading and taking European countries one by one, easily overcoming whatever resistance they could bolster.

Countries fighting Germany’s imperialism had not prepared for war with the same vigor as their foe. Great Britain, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, was counting on appeasement of the Nazis with a negotiated peace. Britain got the peace agreement on September 30, 1938, which Hitler violated less then 12 months later by invading Poland, another Allied country. Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939. Not only did Britain and its Commonwealth Allies enter the war, but found themselves in a battle to quickly and adequately equip their armed forces to beat Germany.

World War II would become a highly-mobile and mechanized war which required among other things, air forces with modern equipment and the best-trained personnel. A scheme was required to provide the training for the Commonwealth Air Forces. It would have to be an enormous effort to recruit and train a highly skilled workforce. The countries of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and
New Zealand banded together to create such a training scheme.

Representatives from these countries, after months of negotiations, came together in Ottawa, Ontario on December 17, 1939 to sign the Riverdale Agreement, the document which gave birth to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). They agreed that the BCATP should be built and operated in Canada. It was the logical choice for a number of reasons. Canada was a safe distance from wartime hostilities. It had an abundance of wide-open spaces and a favourable climate, both of which made for productive and unfettered aircrew training. Canada also, was capable of producing and delivering the goods and services and had a pool of skilled labour needed build and operate the BCATP.

Originally, the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force planned for the BCATP to generate sufficient numbers of aircrew for the war effort with three Initial Training School (ITS), 13 Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS), 16 Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS), 10 Air Observer Schools (AOS), 10 Bombing & Gunnery Schools (BGS), two Navigation Schools (ANS) and four Wireless (Radio Operation) Schools. The plan for the Plan was to train 50.000 aircrew each year – 22,000 British, 13,000 Canadian, 11,000 Australians and 3,300 New Zealanders.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan came close to meeting this objective by providing over 130,000 pilots, observers, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, flight engineers, air gunners. There were over 150 schools located in all of Canada’s nine provinces. Not only were students from the four Commonwealth Countries trained in the BCATP, but others from the United States, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Free France and Finland were also trained in the Plan. Canada’s BCATP was responsible for training one-half of the aircrew which fought for the Commonwealth Air Forces in World War II. It had become, and continues to be, the largest air crew training scheme in the history of the world.

To make the BCATP work, the RCAF divided Canada into four regions with individual Air Training Commands located in each of the regions. The objective of  each Training Command was to oversee BCATP operations and deploy human and material resources as needed to provide appropriate training in their region. The schools were set up to train three major groups of air force personnel – aircrew, ground crew and ground support workers. Aircrew were those who flew and operated the aircraft – pilots, navigators, gunners, etc. Ground crew were those who prepared and repaired aircraft with all of the associated flying and combat accessories for missions. Ground crew included mechanics, riggers, radio technicians, armorers, etc. Without the ground crew, the aircrew didn’t fly. Ground support workers were those who kept all of the non-aircraft things and processes going. Ground support included a multitude of other types of jobs. There were cooks, drivers, administrators, telephone operators, photographers, etc. etc. etc.  All of Canada’s provinces provided space and resources to build and maintain schools for the three types of workers. When the BCATP reached its end in 1945, it had trained an equal amount of airmen and airwomen for ground positions as had been trained for air crew  positions.

The Process of Training – Schools and Trades of the BCATP

Aircrew received training for seven trades – pilot, air observer, navigator, flight engineer, aid gunner, bomb aimer and wireless operator. Ground crew and ground support workers represented dozens of other trades. The following is a summary of the schools of the BCATP.

1 - Recruiting and Manning

Recruiting Depot – civilians applied to become members of the Royal Canadian Air Force at Recruiting Centres located in 16 cities across Canada. Enlistees would be subjected to academic, medical, psychological and social testing to determine their suitability for service in the RCAF. If they were accepted, they would be sent on to one of seven Manning Depots.

Manning Depot – the first stop for all newly enlisted airmen and airwomen would be one of seven Manning Depots located in Toronto, Brandon (Swift Current) , Edmonton, Quebec City, Lachine, Toronto (Women’s Division) and Rockcliffe (Women’s Division). Here they received an orientation to the RCAF and learned the basics of life in the air force. They were taught how to march, dress appropriately, recognize and communicate senior ranks properly, etc. At the end of four or five weeks training, a selection committee would determine what job in the RCAF would be appropriate for the airman or airwoman. If acceptable, they would be sent on for training as aircrew, ground  
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crew or other ground support jobs. Only Royal Canadian Air Fore personnel attended training at the Manning Depots.

2 - The Aircrew Schools

Initial Training School (ITS) – those airmen found suitable for duties as aircrew (pilot, air observer or  navigator) would spend four to five weeks in ITS for introductory training in a number of subjects important to flying and performance of duties on an aircraft. Students would take courses in navigation, theory of flight, meteorology, algebra, trigonometry, air force administration etc. ITS was all ground school training – there was no flying. Students also undertook  further health, education and mental health testing. The ITS gave staff a further chance to determine qualifications of a student for specific aircrew positions. Students did not always get the aircrew position they desired and some washed out of aircrew training completely, to be sent for ground school or ground support positions. There were seven Initial Training Schools in the BCATP. Only RCAF airmen attended training at the ITS.

Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) – students successfully chosen to become pilots at the ITS,  would attend the EFTS for approximately eight weeks training and received a minimum of 50 hours flying training. The remainder of their time was spent with substantial ground school training. If the student successfully soloed in an aircraft and demonstrated an appropriate level of flying knowledge, they were sent for advanced flying training at a Service Flying Training School. The EFTS used de Havilland Tiger Moth, Fleet Finch and Westland Cornell aircraft for instruction. There were 26 RCAF and six Royal Air Force (RAF) Elementary schools in the BCATP. They were privately run with civilian instructors and RCAF or RAF management. Generally, pilots for the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Forces, qualified as elementary pilots before coming to Canada. They would start their BCATP experience at the Service Flying Training School.

Service Flying Training School – students would attend 10 to 16 weeks of training with 75 to 100 hours flying time and more ground school training. The purpose of the SFTS was to build skills and knowledge in pilots to enable them to transition from flying simple aircraft like the Tiger Moth to something closer to actual combat aircraft like Spitfires and Lancasters.  Pilots selected for fighter aircraft attended schools where they flew single-engine trainers like the North American Harvard. Pilots selected to fly bombers or transport aircraft attended schools where they learned to fly multi-engine aircraft like the Cessna Crane or Airspeed Oxford aircraft.  There were 19 RCAF and 10 RAF Service Flying Training Schools in the BCATP.

Air Observer School – students selected to become air observers or navigators would attend 12 weeks of training to learn navigation, aerial photography and reconnaissance techniques. Their AOS training was a mix of ground school and 60 to 70 hours of training in an Avro Anson aircraft. This training would be followed up with 10 weeks of training at a Bombing & Gunnery School and four weeks at an Air Navigation School.

In 1942, training for Air Observers was eliminated when it was decided by Bomber Command that the duties of the overworked Observers was to be split between a number new aircrew positions. Air Observer responsibilities were assumed by three aircrew trades:  

Navigator B (Bomb Aimer) –eight weeks at Bombing & Gunnery School, 12 weeks at Air  Observer School to qualify for navigation and bomb-aiming duties. Graduates were deployed to heavy, multi-engine aircraft such as the Lancaster and Halifax bombers.
Navigator W (Wireless/Radio Operator) – 28 weeks at Wireless School and 22 weeks at Air Observer School. Graduates were deployed to two engine fighter/bombers such as the Mosquito aircraft.
Air Bombers – 8-12 weeks at Bombing & Gunnery School, six weeks at AOS learning bombing, map reading and observation to assist the Navigator with his job. Air Gunners were deployed to heavy multi-engine aircraft.

There were 10 Air Observer Schools in the BCATP. Although the new Air Observers were no longer being trained, the Air Observer Schools retained their title and adapted training to meet the needs of the new aircrew positions. The Air Observer  schools utilized the Avro Anson for training.

Bombing & Gunnery Schools (BGS) – Air Observers, Navigators,  Bomb Aimers and Wireless Air Gunners took Bombing & Gunnery Training as a component of their air trade training. Air Gunners qualified for this position after six weeks of training at the BGS.  Bombing & Gunnery Schools were located in 11 locations in Canada. The schools utilized the Avro Anson, Bristol Bolingbroke, Fairey Battle and Westland Lysander.

Wireless School – Wireless Air Gunners spent 24 to 28 weeks at Wireless Training School learning the use of wireless (radio) and land based communications. A certain level of proficiency with the Morse Code was essential to pass. WAGs were taught to pass on signals and messages via lights, flags and radio. Training would be completed with the WAG completing four weeks of training at a Bombing & Gunnery School. There were four Wireless schools in Canada which utilized extensive ground school training with training in flight with the Avro Anson.

Naval Air Gunner School (NAV) – there was one Naval Air Gunner school in Canada located at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The Fairey Swordfish aircraft was utilized for training. Although it fell under the prevue of the BCATP, only Royal Canadian Navy air crew were trained at the naval school.

Flight Engineer – received training as an aero engine technician responsible for monitoring and adjusting electrical and fuel systems and engines on multi-engine aircraft. Engineers were given enough pilot training to take over flying if the aircraft pilot became incapacitated. Most of the RCAF Engineers were trained in Britain but 1,900 were trained at Flight Engineer School in Aylmer, Ontario.

General Reconnaissance School (GRS) – pilots, air observers and navigators were taught the techniques required to fly ocean patrol missions. The GRS was an advanced school equivalent to the Operational Training Unit (OTU) which were `finishing’ schools for aircrew prior to assignment to an operational squadron. Students were schooled in dead-reckoning navigation, astro-navigation, compasses  and other instrument operation, meteorology, signals, codes, ship recognition, aerial photography and reconnaissance. There were two GRS schools located in Canada. Air crew trained on actual combat aircraft at the GRS.

Operational Training Unit – like the GRS schools, the Operational Training Unit was where air crew received finishing training on operational aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane. Fairey Swordfish and Consolidated Liberator. There were seven OTUs in Canada including three that were open for Royal Air Force aircrews.  

3 - Flying Related Training (non-combat)

Central Flying School (CFS) was located at Trenton, Ontario. The objective of the CFS was to maintain consistent, high-standards of training among the flying schools. Flying instructors received advanced  training at the CFS. The three Flying Instructor Schools came under the supervision of the CFS.

Central Navigation School (CNS) was located at Rivers, Manitoba. It was an advanced navigational school with the purpose of maintaining top standards in navigational training. Most of the graduates went on to be instructors at various other BCATP schools. The Avro Anson was utilized for training at the CNS.

Instrument Navigation School (INS) was located at Deseronto, Ontario.

Flying Instructor Schools were located at Trenton, Ontario, Vulcan, Alberta and Arnprior, Ontario. Generally speaking, flying instructors were selected from the best graduates from the Service Flying Training Schools. At Flying Instructor School, students were taught the techniques of teaching others to fly aircraft and then were sent on to the SFTS schools to teach other pilots advanced flying techniques. 

4 - The Ground Crew and Ground Support Schools.

Dozens of air force jobs directly supporting air operations or operations of BCATP facilities required training at a number of ground schools located across Canada. Some of the trades taught at ground school were administration, cooking, aero-engine mechanic, air-frame mechanic, police services,  photography and dozens of other trades.

Information about the ground schools is limited. The following is a list of some, but not all, of the ground schools in the BCATP:

Air Armament School, Radio Direction Finding School, Radio Direction Finding (Radar) School, Composite Training, School of Aeronautical Engineering, School of Aviation Medicine, School of Cookery, Technical Training School, Equipment and Accounting School, Code and Cypher School.

BCATP Facts and Numbers

Summary of BCATP Students by Trade and Country

              Pilot       Navigator B    Navigator W   Navigator    Air Bomber    Wireless Operator     Air Gunner    Naval Air Gunner   Flight Engineer        Total
                                                                                                                             Operator/Air Gunner 

RCAF    25,747       5,154                  421                7,280              6,659                       12,744                  12,917                     0                              1,913          72,835

RAF      17,796       3,113                3,847               6,922               7,581                            755                    1,392                 704                                     0          42,110

RAAF     4 045           699                       0                   944                 799                          2 875                       244                     0                                     0            9,606

RNZF     2 220          829                      30                   724                 634                          2,122                       443                     0                                     0            7.002

Total    49,808       9,795                4,298              15,870            15,673                       18,496                  14,996                 704                              1,913        131,553  

Royal Air Force (RAF) included 448 Poles, 677 Norwegians, 800 Belgian and Dutch, 900 Czechs and 2,600 Free French airmen.
Total cost of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan as of March 31, 1945 was $2.2 billion.

Canada was responsible for $1.6 billion of the total cost.

Canada assumed a large portion of Great Britain’s debt - $425 million.

On the 3rd anniversary of the plan, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to the BCATP as the Aerodrome of Democracy.

At the peak of training in late 1943 – 231 training sites (schools, relief landing fields, other facilities) were operating with 10,000 aircraft and 100,000 military personnel.

Eight hundred and sixty-five airmen and airwomen were killed while in service to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan – RCAF 469, RAF 291, RAAF 65 and RNZAF 31

Eight thousand buildings were constructed for the Plan. Seven hundred were hangars.

Fuel storage capabilities – 26,000,000 gallons

Three hundred miles of water lines and 300 miles of sewer lines were installed at BCATP facilities requiring the movement of 2,000,000 cubic yards of spoil. One hundred sewage treatment and disposal plants were built. One hundred and twenty water pumping stations were built.

Two thousand miles of power lines and 535 miles of underground electrical cable were installed at BCATP facilities.

Cause and Effect

As a result of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan:

Hundreds of communities in Canada enjoyed significant financial and social gains where a BCATP facility was built:
Merchants provided all kinds of items to BCATP facilities under construction including gravel and lumber.
Laborers and tradesmen received payment for labor to build BCATP facilities.

Employees, students and instructors at the schools brought with them a demand for housing, clothing, groceries, recreation to the local city or town.

Many locations had ongoing needs for local goods and services such as electricity, water, natural gas, coal and food to BCATP facilities.

Civilians drew wages as employees of the BCATP

Social benefits came to citizens living near the schools through interaction with those living at the schools. Both shared parties, dances, open houses, graduations, sporting events bars, pubs and cafes. While in Canada, 3,750 Royal Air Force, Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel met and married Canadian Women.