[A full version of this article appeared in the Round Table Journal in 2000 to mark the 60th anniversary of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Sir Peter Marshall, who has also served as a former Deputy Commonwealth Secretary-General (1983-88), a former British diplomat and as a Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was described in this article as “a career British diplomat and now chairman of the Joint Commonwealth Societies’ Council, [who] trained in Canada as a navigator under the BCATP”. The full article can be found in the Round Table Journal and the excerpts below have been taken from the archives as the Royal Air Force (RAF) marked its 100th anniversary in 2018.]
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary, has been described as one of the most significant contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. Anticipated demand for 20 000 pilots and 30 000 aircrew a year was far in excess of training capacity in the United Kingdom alone and the Royal Air Force recognized that large-scale Commonwealth assistance would be needed. The scheme principally involved Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, and—even before Pearl Harbor—the United States of America, playing a supporting role. The needs were far greater than the 1939 plans envisaged.
In conception and execution, as a noted historian put it, this vast scheme constituted one of the most telling Commonwealth contributions to ultimate Allied victory in World War II. The vital importance of air power, implying the need not only for aircraft of the best possible design, but also for aircrews trained to the highest pitch of efficiency to fly them, had of course been recognized well before the outbreak of war.
It was no less clear that training on the scale necessary in the case of the Royal Air Force could not be conducted in anything like its entirety within the crowded shores of the homeland. Much of it would have to take place overseas, most conveniently in Canada. Air Marshal Portal, Director of Organization of the Royal Air Force from 1937, and Air Member for Personnel from the beginning of 1939—and whose swift rise to the post of Chief of the Air Staff by the autumn of 1940 meant that there was at the helm for the rest of the war an officer from whom Churchill described as ‘the accepted star of the Royal Air Force’—had taken the lead in discussions to promote the idea. But progress had been limited.
The attitude of the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, was one of caution, no doubt reflecting the strong feeling in Canada against being tied to any form of Imperial Defence Organization. The outbreak of war itself however proved to be the agent for galvanizing the necessary collective effort and decision. Matters then moved with great speed. On 10 September 1939 Portal called a meeting ‘to go into the measures necessary to provide the flying personnel who would be required to man the maximum number of aircraft that could be produced in the second and third year of the war’. The estimate was that some three to four times the output of pilots and crews planned for 1939–40, that is something over 20 000 per year, would be needed. For any such numbers to be trained, large-scaled Dominion assistance would be essential, above all from Canada.
Indeed the effort involved would be such as to require readiness on the part of the Canadian authorities to accord flying training priority in the first instance over the building up of a Canadian Air Expeditionary Force. On 22 September 1939 a proposal was made by the Australian High Commissioner in London, S. M. Bruce, in a discussion with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Air, H. H. Balfour, which widened considerably the concept of training in Canada. Arising from earlier bilateral discussions between Australia and the UK, Bruce suggested that each Dominion should have its own Air Force in the field, but that training should be rationalized by concentrating advanced training in Canada, while the other Dominions would undertake elementary training only. The advantages of this arrangement would be freedom from enemy interference; easier transport of trained men than to or from Australia; the greater production facilities enjoyed by Canada, compared with Australia; and proximity to the USA.
Chamberlain’s message to his Dominion counterparts
The telegram began by setting out the War Cabinet’s conclusion that the whole problem of future requirements in air strength was one of vital importance, especially in the light of the success obtained by the German Air Force in helping to achieve rapid subjugation of Poland. It was abundantly clear that an overwhelming air force would be needed in order to counter German air strength and, in combination with other military measures and economic pressure, to bring ultimate victory. Immediate measures had been sanctioned to expand aircraft production and training. In view of ‘the unfortunate fact that wastage rate of air force when engaged in continuous and heavy operations is exceedingly high’, it was expected that there would be required not less than ‘20 000 pilots and 30 000 personnel of air crews’ annually for the maintenance of this enlarged force. To provide these, it was estimated that about 90 flying schools would be necessary, more than twice the entire training capacity available in the UK, having regard to limited space, operational restrictions and vulnerability to air attack. In the view of the War Cabinet this was a problem in the solution of which the overseas parts of the Empire might well be able to play a decisive part. ‘It would be in our judgement of inestimable value to the common cause’ if about one-half of this vast training organization could be built up elsewhere.