British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP)
A short history of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
By Dr. Richard Mayne
…participation in the Air Training Scheme would provide for more effective assistance towards victory than any other form of military co-operation which Canada can give.”
- Prime Minister Mackenzie King
December 17, 1939
Radio address on the date the
BCATP agreement was signed
It was an extremely ambitious project, particularly for a country with a small population such as Canada’s, but the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was undoubtedly one of the greatest successes of the Second World War.
The BCATP—responsible for training an estimated 131,553 Canadian and Allied aircrew—was a Herculean Canadian effort that required the construction of many new airfields and upgrades to many others, as well as tens of thousands of instructors and support workers, along with the mobilization of many other resources.
Administered by the Canadian government and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the story of the BCATP is worth exploring because it represented a sign of the country’s growing maturity. Moreover, for a country that only eight years earlier had gained full legal autonomy from Britain through the Statute of Westminster, the BCATP further symbolized Canada’s desire to develop its own sense of nationalism and direction as a completely independent state.
The scope of the plan itself was enormous. While the Dominions would establish their own Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTSs), most of the remaining training—which included advanced flying, air gunnery, wireless operator and air observer instruction—was done in Canada. The aim of these establishments was to train 29,000 aircrew of various types per year. According to the initial plan, this would be achieved through a system of 12 EFTSs, 25 Service Flying Training Schools (SFTSs) for advanced instruction, 15 air observer schools, and one large wireless or radio training school.
It was further estimated that all these stations, along with the supporting infrastructure, would require a staggering 33,000 servicemen and approximately 6,000 civilians as well as some 5,000 aircraft. But it was the anticipated cost of the proposed plan that concerned Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King the most, which, after some adjustment, came with an initial estimated price tag of just over $607 million—a considerable sum even by modern standards.
Prime Minister King fought hard to ensure that Canada’s percentage of the costs was fair, while at the same time protecting the country’s national interests. He did well. Worried about the optics of having the former mother country absorbing too much control, the Prime Minister was unflinching in his demands that the Canadian government, as well as the RCAF were the ones who were actually responsible for the BCATP. Better yet, Prime Minister King was a key supporter of what would become Article XV of the treaty, which was a clause stating that, whenever possible, Commonwealth aircrew trained by the plan would be sent to their own national squadrons, rather than being absorbed into the Royal Air Force (RAF).
It was a pivotal moment, as this Article further forged the RCAF’s identity as a national institution by giving birth to Canada’s 400 series squadrons (numbers that specifically identified them as being Canadian).
The BCATP was also a win-win situation for Prime Minister King politically. On the one hand, he was able to use statements from the British to explain to English Canada that, although it was a non-fighting role, the nation was nevertheless being asked to take the lead in a major endeavour that would be a key to victory in the struggle against Nazism. On the other, knowing that support for involvement in the war was low in French Canada, Prime Minister King could easily sell the plan there since it did not involve direct military intervention or conscription in what many in Quebec saw as a European conflict.
With the terms of the BCATP finally settled on December 17, 1939, the even larger task of realizing it began. It was a test of national will. The RCAF was small at the outbreak of the war, as was the country’s air infrastructure. For instance, there were only 39 suitable airfields in the entire country, all of which needed some degree of updating, and that left Canada approximately 85 short of the estimated requirement. Building new airfields took what in modern lexicon would be known as a “whole of government approach”, as it involved a number of departments such as National Defence, Transport, Finance, Munitions and Supply, as well as others.
Establishing the BCATP further depended on a tremendous amount of civilian support. For instance, Canadian flying clubs were invited to run the EFTSs, while commercial airlines handled the air observer schools.
Other civilian organizations were also invited to assist with the plan, including those who would address the BCATP’s overhaul and repair needs.
While the task at hand appeared insurmountable to some individuals, Canada nevertheless answered the call. As stations opened in 1940 and 1941, the BCATP soon found itself well ahead of schedule. The EFTSs and SFTSs were, on average, finished early by approximately 13 and 10 weeks, respectively. One of the only problems with these schools being ready well before planned was that aircraft production lagged behind expectations.
Complications with importing British-made aircraft meant that Canada had to turn to the United States, as well as its own aviation industry, to meet the demand. Canada’s aircraft industry responded by embarking on one of its largest production projects, as numerous trainers were pumped out of factories across the country to meet the BCATP’s needs. Canadian industry also stepped up to answer the need for other general equipment required by the BCATP, and that stood as an illustration of Canada’s growing economic might.
These efforts paid off. By 1942, the BCATP was much larger than anyone had originally envisioned, particularly since a number of British training schools were transferred to Canada. Such growth required a new agreement, which was negotiated in June 1942. Aside from extending the termination date of the plan to March 31, 1945—two years longer than originally envisioned—efforts were also made to lengthen training. While the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt, the early crisis years had passed, permitting more time to be spent on training. Pilots, for example, saw their training program increase from 26 weeks in 1940 to 38 weeks two years later.
By the time it was done, the BCATP had matured into 105 flying training schools, 184 support units, 100 new airfields, over 100,000 staff and 11,000 aircraft, which was about double the original plan.
Being part of this remarkable achievement was not always easy. For instance, instructors—who were often the top performers from their own BCATP classes—had a hard time coming to terms with official arguments that they were making the same, if not a greater, contribution to victory than the aircrews directly facing the enemy. Staying at home may not have been easy for BCATP staff, particularly in a wartime society that sometimes attached a stigma to able-bodied men who did not go overseas to fight, but without them victory would have been impossible. For others on the home front, contributing to the plan was the best way for them to help the war effort. Many ordinary citizens either worked or volunteered their time to support air training in Canada.
While the BCATP was an incredible national achievement, it must be remembered that the plan’s success was also the product of Canada’s ability to build on the essential support provided by key allies. The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand were the other principal architects of the BCATP, but countries such as Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Norway, and Poland made equally important contributions. The United States was also a source of recruits, as a number of Americans journeyed north of the border to fight the Germans before their country entered the war.
The BCATP was responsible for training a large portion of the aircrew that would bring victory against Nazi Germany. It came with a human cost, as 856 aircrew trainees and instructors were killed in accidents. The actual financial cost of the plan was equally hefty, with the final price tag set at a whopping $2.2 billion.
Yet, for Canada, the impact of the BCATP was immeasurable. As a relatively young country, Canada was handed the lead of a key Allied program that it tackled with relatively few hitches. Not only was it a tremendous military success story, but the BCATP was also strongly supported by other government departments and civilian organizations—making it a truly national effort that helped build Canada’s impressive post-war aviation infrastructure.
For this reason, the nation can take tremendous pride in the famous comment that, during the Second World War, Canada was the Allied “aerodrome of democracy”.
Dr. Richard Mayne is the Director, RCAF History and Heritage.
Author’s note: This article is the product of the author’s own knowledge as well as some key secondary sources, most notably F.J. Hatch’s Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945
PL-16978, DND Archives
New Zealand airmen display their national pride with their country’s flag after graduating from the RCAF's No.6 Service Flying Training School at Dunnville, Ontario, in May 1943.
PL-16961, DND Archives
Commonwealth airmen study a map before taking off in their Avro Anson on a training flight from RCAF Station Hagersville, Ontario, in May I943. Hagersville was the home of No.16 Service Flying Training School, one of many stations across the country that operated under the BCATP.
Anonymous. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945: An Historical Sketch and Record of the Ceremony at R.C.A.F. Station Trenton. Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier, printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, Controller of Stationery, 1949.
Barris, Ted. Behind the Glory: Canada’s Role in the Allied Air War. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2010.
Chapman, Matthew. “BCATP Revisited: The Wartime Evolution of Flight Training in Canada”. Canadian Air Force Journal Volume 4, Number 2 (Spring 2011): 35-44.
Conrad, Peter C. Training for Victory: The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989.