The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan: Canada’s most important homefront contribution

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An aircrew of BCATP graduates in front of a Vickers Wellington bomber, England, 1942.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum reflects on the BCATP and Canada’s important role in training Allied air crews for victory.

In May of 2020, many Canadians will be marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe (or VE) Day. On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied forces, bringing an end to the Second World War in the European theatre. Along with remembering the sacrifices of service people and civilians, VE Day also presents the opportunity to reflect on the many different ways that Canada was shaped by its wartime involvement.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is in the process of refreshing the Second World War section of its Main Exhibition Hall. Earlier this year, the interpretation panels for each combat aircraft was updated with new structures, texts, and images. Thematic panels will be added in the coming months, along with a special exhibit focussing on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (or BCATP). The BCATP is perhaps Canada’s most significant homefront contribution to Allied victory, and yet the topic is often unfamiliar beyond military and aviation history circles. This article shares some of the insights that will be presented in the museum’s renewed BCATP exhibit.

Mobilizing the homefront

It takes more than military might to win a war. Countries also need to mobilize internally, preparing their industries and people to fully support the war effort. Canadians supported the war in many ways. In addition to military service, Canadians volunteered, recycled household waste, and purchased savings bonds. Canadians also worked in war-related industries in unprecedented numbers. Before the Second World War, agriculture, forestry, and mining were among Canada’s largest industries. As the war progressed, Canada’s manufacturing industries and public service outpaced these resource sectors. New factories and highways were built, and people were trained for new types of jobs. Many of these developments were in support of the BCATP, as well as Canada’s growing aviation industry. By the end of the war, Canada had become a major industrial power. 

A Canadian wartime propaganda poster, printed in French. The poster shows nine different types of hats, which would be worn by people in each military service as well as by farmers and factory workers, with hands at attention.

“It if fits, wear it!” This National Film Board poster encouraged Canadians to work within all sectors that supported the war effort — from the armed forces to industry and agriculture. 

A large group of children, mostly young boys, and a man, are gathered in a semi-circle on a suburban sidewalk, surrounding a pile of car and bicycle tires, and rubber boots which they had collected.

Children in Montreal’s Rosemont area collect rubber — old tires and shoes — to help Canada’s armed forces. April 1942 

Preparing for an air war

During the Second World War, more than ever before, Allied success relied upon victory in the air. Military aviation was coming of age, and the rapid development of ever more powerful fighters and bombers made aircrew training all the more vital. Military mobilization began before the formal onset of war. As the United Kingdom prepared for the impending conflict, the Royal Air Force realized that it would not be able to train enough aircrews on British soil. The United Kingdom is a small, rainy land mass — not ideal for large-scale flight training. Schools in the UK were also certain to become targets for enemy attack. Looking for solutions, the British government proposed building RAF-controlled flying schools in Canada — which offered vast, safe skies. Although Canada initially held out, it finally agreed — alongside Australia and New Zealand — once war was declared in 1939. 

A group of men in air force uniforms surround the detached cockpit section of a Spitfire, looking at how its controls operate.

Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots inspect a Spitfire’s cockpit at a bombing and gunnery school in Canada, ca 1941. 

Setting the plan in motion

The BCATP was the largest construction project Canada had ever seen. Soon after the Plan was signed in December 1939, construction of BCATP schools began in all nine provinces. The schools were often built in isolated rural locations. This was an enormous undertaking which sparked the construction of a network of new roads — connecting the country as never before. Coming on the heels of the Great Depression, extensive construction projects like these stimulated the economy by creating much-needed jobs in communities across Canada.

In a large room, men sit at tables working on building blueprints. In the foreground, a large table is heaped with blueprints — some sitting flat and others loosely rolled.

Preparing plans and blueprints for BCATP schools across Canada, May 1940 

Keeping up with demand

Before 1939, there was only a handful of military air training schools within Canada. Over the next five years, their number would increase to about 120 schools. Initially, the BCATP focused on recruitment, ground training, and basic air training. Canada’s flying clubs were pulled into the Plan to serve as basic flight training schools. The Plan soon expanded to include advanced flight training, as well as specialized schools for non-pilot crewmen such as navigators and gunners. Between 1939 and 1945, under the BCATP, roughly 40% of all Commonwealth crewmembers received their training in Canada — far from the front lines. The success of the Allied air campaign was due in significant part to the training provided at BCATP schools across Canada. This, in turn, helped to pave the way for Allied victory in Europe.

A group of men are gathered around the inner wooden structure of an airplane wing.

Students at the École d’avionnerie de Cartierville in Cartierville, Quebec, inspect the inner structure of an airplane wing. 

Author(s)
Profile picture for user Erin Poulton
Erin Poulton

Erin Poulton is the Exhibition Interpretation Officer (or interpretive planner) at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. She graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2006 after having completed her Bachelor of Arts in English and History, her Master of Arts in Canadian History, and then her Bachelor of Education respectively. Erin has been working in the museum field since 2000, and enjoys finding fun and effective ways to share Canada’s aviation and space stories with the public.