Not everyone knows that aircraft manufacturing can be a contact sport: Clarence Decatur Howe, Harvey Reginald MacMillan and the production of Avro Anson advances training aircraft in Canada, Part 2

The first production example of the Canadian-made Avro Anson advanced training aircraft fitted with the moulded plywood fuselage, location unknown, 1943. CASM, 23290.

Hello there, my reading friend. Yours truly dares to hope that you are ready to see (read?) the exciting conclusion of this first August 2021 topic of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

At the end of January 1941, the director of the Wartime Requirements Board, Harvey Reginald “H.R.” MacMillan, submitted a report to the Minister of Finance of Canada, James Lorimer Ilsley. And yes, this was indeed the famous report on aircraft production in Canada mentioned in the first part of this article.

That same day, the Minister of Munitions and Supply, Clarence Decatur “C.D.” Howe, met his great rival. Yes, that was MacMillan. The atmosphere was very tense. Howe categorically refused to fire Ralph Pickard Bell, Director General of Aircraft Production, Frank Ray Lawson, President of Federal Aircraft Limited of Montréal, Québec, or some of his close collaborators. Building on this momentum, the minister said he was seriously considering disbanding the Wartime Requirements Board. Howe did not want to resign. That was out of the question. He wanted to fight.

MacMillan was stunned. While waiting to see more clearly, he decreased the intensity of his attacks. Howe, meanwhile, did not sit idly by. He already had a strategy: avoid any brutal confrontation as much as possible, and then discredit MacMillan and his press campaign.

Howe first asked Bell to stop dealing with Federal Aircraft. Lawson had enough problems as it was. Indeed, the situation was so critical that many experts of the firm, concerned about their future, had preferred to resign.

Once his rear was secured, Howe appeared before his peers on the Cabinet War Committee. At the start of this meeting, which took place at the end of January, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie “Rex” King underlined the gravity of the situation prevailing throughout the Canadian aircraft industry. All programs were in trouble, and especially that of the Anson advanced training aircraft. The committee wanted explanations.

Howe readily admitted that there were big problems. No one had foreseen the tragic events of 1940: France defeated in 5 weeks, and the United Kingdom bombarded day after day by a Germany at the height of its power. The experts from the Department of Munitions and Supply had made many mistakes, this was undeniable. They had wanted to do too much, too quickly, but the industry also had to bear some blame. Let us not forget, most aircraft manufacturers did not produce on schedule. All of these issues existed and had to be taken into account, but there was no reason to be alarmed, stated Howe. Deliveries everywhere tended to increase.

Lawson and Federal Aircraft were also making great strides, and despite the circumstances, the Anson production program was going as well as it could. Experts now predicted that the first aircraft built in Canada would take to the air before the end of July. Starting over and abolishing Federal Aircraft would be pointless. One had to move onward. There was no turning back.

King was very impressed. Howe had responded to his critics, point by point, without getting worked up. He was also thinking about defending his point of view in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister placed his trust in him. Howe was saved.

Once this matter was settled, the Cabinet War Committee considered another, equally delicate matter, the MacMillan situation, at that January 1941 meeting. King, being a prudent human, wanted to settle this matter very quickly, calmly and without confrontation. He discussed this with Howe and some of his colleagues. At least one of them, the aforementioned Ilsley, supported MacMillan’s ideas. King was quick to form an opinion. MacMillan, he said, had conspired with those elements of the official opposition which, since September 1939, had wanted to create a coalition government. He was “a rather dangerous man to have on the job.” King went even further. By violating his oath of secrecy, MacMillan had become a traitor. All ministers present shared this opinion, including Ilsley. Howe now had free rein. MacMillan was doomed.

Howe’s return, linked to King’s silence, caused a stir in the official opposition. The government was vulnerable, stated its strategists. Now was the time to go on the offensive. In February 1941, during question period, the leader of said official opposition, Richard Burpee Hanson, began to attack the King government’s war effort. Deemed out of order by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Hanson protested. He tried to continue, but said Speaker, James Allison Glen, a member of the party in power, immediately cut him off. Hanson was really, really annoyed. Refusing to be silenced, Hanson left the House of Commons. The leader of the official opposition immediately called a press conference to denounce the chaos in the Canadian aircraft industry. Journalists were delighted, but the government maintained its position.

Days later, Hanson and his members of parliament sought to resume their offensive. Howe was ready for them. He recognised, in some cases, the merits of their attacks. There had been mistakes, that was a fact. His department had thought too big, but the aircraft industry had nonetheless made great strides. Deliveries were increasing and the first Anson made in Canada would soon be delivered.

The official opposition, a bit surprised, changed its tactics. It gradually left alone the performance of the Department of Munitions and Supplies. Hanson tried to shed light on the conflicts between manufacturers and department experts. He was obviously thinking of Federal Aircraft and the firms participating in the Anson production program. Hanson summarised a case that he had found interesting.

In January 1941, these aircraft manufacturers, at the end of their patience, managed to meet the Deputy Minister of Munitions and Supply, George Kingsley Sheils. After criticising the performance of Federal Aircraft, these industry leaders came up with a few proposals. According to them, that crown corporation should be dissolved and control of this production program then transferred to a private firm, in this case de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited of Downsview, Ontario.

Howe refused to be intimidated by Hanson. He answered tit for tat. He readily admitted having written to the firms participating in the Anson production program at the end of January, shortly after his return. As a first step, the minister undertook to carry out a thorough study of the situation. That sort of thing hurt no-one. Howe also wanted to know how much suggestions from aircraft manufacturers could help increase production. He was really skeptical.

Aircraft manufacturers, he said, were interfering in matters that did not concern them. Dissolving Federal Aircraft and handing over power to a private firm would actually delay deliveries. De Havilland of Canada was not even meeting its deadlines and it was to it that the entire Anson production program should be entrusted? That was ridiculous, stated Howe.

The replies from the aircraft manufacturers, which reached him in February, confirmed Howe’s suspicions. They demanded but explained anything. They committed to nothing. These industry leaders simply asked for a blank check. Howe refused. Federal Aircraft would continue its mission, despite all oppositions.

The leader of the Canadian social democratic party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Major James William Coldwell, chose a slightly different line of attack. He mentioned some rumours which related to a report prepared by Ernest R. Breech, vice president and director of the board of directors of the aeronautical division of an American industrial giant, General Motors Company. According to these rumours, the businessman was severely critical of the performance of the Canadian aircraft industry and, therefore, of the role played by the Minister of Munitions and Supply. Breech reportedly even recommended that control of the Anson production program be taken away from Federal Aircraft.

Howe rejected all of this. During his stay in Canada, Breech had talked with federal officials and submitted a few proposals, nothing more. No one ever thought of shutting down Federal Aircraft’s operations. Hanson continued to doubt.

Before I forget, General Motors was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018.

At this point, the very confident Howe pointed out that information on the Anson program was in a very important report, prepared by an expert, the aforementioned MacMillan. Hanson was stunned. From this document, originally designed to ensure his downfall, Howe drew the final element which enshrined his triumph.

MacMillan, Howe stated, had made an in-depth study of the state of war materiel production in Canada. Some details had to be kept confidential, but the minister was happy to read the paragraphs where MacMillan examined the aircraft industry. Its conclusions could be summed up in a few lines. Management and productivity, along with technology and wages, remained well below the American average. These difficulties in terms of performance mainly affected firms which manufactured combat aircraft, fighters or bombers. The report was not overly critical of Federal Aircraft’s performance; some of its ideas were already being considered.

MacMillan also concluded that, from mid-1941 onward, annual demand would stabilise at around 750 aircraft, distributed as follows: training, 450 aircraft, and combat, at least 300 aircraft. These equipment requirements were well below the production potential of the industry, which was of great concern.

More and more, Howe was riding high. He began to attack his opponents and in particular the press. Journalists, according to Howe, tended to criticise too much. They unnecessarily sowed doubt in the population. The minister lost his temper. There were saboteurs in Canada. Some of them worked in Toronto for the financial weekly The Financial Post.

Keeping the momentum, Howe stated he had not quarreled with MacMillan. Journalists spread gossip. A loyal public servant did not criticise his superiors in the newspapers. Those who tried were quick to lose their jobs, but MacMillan was not in that situation. He was continuing to work. He was therefore loyal. The journalists had undoubtedly misinterpreted some of his remarks.

Why that look of horror, my reading friend? Ministers have lied, lie and will continue to lie in the House of Commons, but I digress.

Howe’s brilliant speech calmed the situation and ended MacMillan’s hopes of going up in the world. Howe himself made no secret of it. In a conversation with reporter Alexander Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press of Winnipeg, Manitoba, he pronounced the following words: “You know why I published his report? I did it to ruin him and I think I did a pretty fair job of it.”

Sometime later, MacMillan left Ottawa for Montréal, where he became president of Wartime Merchant Shipping Limited, a crown corporation which oversaw the construction of merchant ships in Canada.

After a while, MacMillan and Howe were reconciled. The latter would even endorse MacMillan’s choice as director of the Wartime Requisition Board. That human, Harry John Carmichael, vice-president of General Motors of Canada Limited, later became one of Howe’s right-hand persons at the Department of Munitions and Supply.

And yes, General Motors of Canada was mentioned many times in our yadda yadda, since March 2018.

The debate over aircraft production ended in early March 1941. Howe had resisted all attacks. He was the big winner. The rather disappointed press nonetheless continued to criticise his administration. Its success remained very limited. The government reigned supreme in Ottawa. Hanson was simply no match for it. King, his great rival, has succeeded in re-establishing his leadership within his party and in the rest of the country. In early May 1941, and then again in June, Hanson tried to rekindle debate in the House of Commons. Howe foiled each of these attacks.

The MacMillan affair marked a pivotal moment for the Department of Munitions and Supply. From the spring of 1941 onward, the scale of the attacks declined rapidly and markedly. Potential sources of information dried up. Who could forget what had happened to MacMillan? Worse still, the loyalty of the businessmen who worked in the department under Howe was no longer in doubt. Many of them, if not the majority of them, being generally in favour of the official opposition, the latter no longer received juicy reports on the weaknesses and blunders of the Department of Munitions and Supply. Howe and his helpers could work in peace.

Lawson left his post in the fall of 1942 to become chairman of the board of directors of Federal Aircraft. Director general of the firm William Arthur Newman became chief executive officer of the crown corporation, but let us retrace our steps to pick up on our story.

The first Canadian Anson flew in August 1941.

The firms involved produced approximately 1 830 aircraft between that date and May 1943: approximately 1 400 intended for the service flying training schools of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), of which 50 Avro / Federal AT-20 Ansons were transferred to the United States Army Air Forces, and approximately 430 intended for Royal Air Force schools based in Canada.

Each aircraft manufacturer made a varied number of aircraft:

- Canadian Car & Foundry Company Limited, approx. 340

- de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, approximately 375

- Federal Aircraft, 1

- Macdonald Brothers Aircraft Limited, approximately 320

- National Steel Car Corporation / Victory Aircraft Limited, approximately 745

- Ottawa Car & Aircraft Company Limited, 60

If the limited number of Anson ordered from Ottawa Car & Aircraft came as a surprise, the fact was that this company, known as Ottawa Car & Manufacturing Company Limited until September 1939, was a subsidiary of Ottawa Electric Railway Company, itself a subsidiary of Ahearn & Soper Limited, a firm owned by the Ahearn family, favourable to the party in power in Ottawa.

Intrigued by the possibility of replacing the fabric-covered welded steel tubes fuselage of the Anson by another, made of moulded wood, the Department of Munitions and Supply asked, in September 1940, a small American firm, Aircraft Research Corporation, later known as Vidal Corporation, to manufacture a pair of fuselages. The small Canadian firm who had made the introductions, Vancouver Sales & Appraisals Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia, was quickly squeezed out of the file.

A modified Anson flew around July 1941. The new fuselage having a lot to offer (aerodynamics, comfort, etc.), the Department of Munitions and Supply ordered 100 additional fuselages from the United States.

In 1942, Federal Aircraft prepared plans for 2 improved versions of the Anson, one intended for training navigators and ordered in 2 300 examples, and the other intended for gunnery training and ordered in 500 examples.

An Anson modified to reproduce the first version flew in January 1943. The prototype of the second version followed in September. The weapon system of this aircraft leaving something to be desired, the federal government canceled its order but signed other contracts with the affected firms, namely Canadian Car & Foundry, MacDonald Brothers Aircraft and Cockshutt Molded Aircraft Limited of Brantford, Ontario, the Canadian fuselage manufacturer and a subsidiary of Cockshutt Plow Company Limited of Brantford, a leading manufacturer of Canadian agricultural equipment. That respite was short-lived.

With Allied successes multiplying on all fronts, the federal government reduced the scale of the very imposing British Commonwealth Air Training Plan as early as 1944. The RCAF ultimately received only about 1 050 of the 2 800 aircraft ordered, 300 delivered by Canadian Car & Foundry and approximately 750 by MacDonald Brothers Aircraft.

With approximately 2 890 aircraft completed between 1941 and 1945, the Anson production program was the largest aircraft production program in Canada during the Second World War. Of all the aircraft used by the Canadian armed forces, none has been used in greater numbers (more than 4 400, including close to 1 950 British-made aircraft) than the Anson.

The Anson was / is one of the most successful advanced training aircraft of the 20th century.

See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier