Canada was the go-to place to get your training as an airman in the Second World War.
“In December 1939 an agreement was signed by the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to form the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, answering to a desperate need to match the production of warplanes with trained airmen to fly them. In Britain this was not to be achieved by using the operational aerodromes under pressure at home. A similar agreement was set up with South Africa.
“Canada was the primary location. It was not too far from the theatres of war, but provided dedicated aerodromes, ideal weather conditions, wide open spaces for flying unhampered by enemy action, and readily available resources such as fuel and industrial facilities in both Canada and nearby America for production and maintenance of aircraft. For Canada, this was seen as their major contribution to the war, and it was a huge operation, involving 94 schools in over 200 sites across Canada, nearly 11,000 aircraft and over 100,000 ground organisation personnel. Many Canadian young men also joined up to the RCAF and 55% of BCATP graduates were Canadian. Overall the BCATP trained almost half of all Allied servicemen in the various air forces, constituting a significant factor in establishing the Allies’ air supremacy in the conflict.
“Bryan Wild was one of over 130,000 air crew to graduate through the system in Canada.”
‘Flying Blind: The Story of a Second World War Night Fighter Pilot’ :
by Flt Lt Bryan Wild and Elizabeth Halls
Introduction to Chapter 3: “Wings Over Moose Jaw”
Header photo shows Untrained Pilots Tommy Hunter, Bryan Wild and Jimmy Ward enjoying the cold weather at Moose Jaw, Canada, 1940, courtesy of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
It’s quite a feeling to drive up towards the flat horizon, knowing that beyond the little village of Valley is the airfield where Dad first flew as a night-fighter pilot in 1941 (456 Squadron). I wondered which of the older little terraced houses might be the one where a lady made a bit of extra cash by serving home-cured ham and fresh eggs in her front room, which Dad and his friends used to frequent. They kept it as secret as they could from the rest of the Squadron. It was quite a feeling to drive through the Station and then for Chattie to be lined up with a Hawk jet for our official photograph. As I shook hands with Station Commander Group Captain Peter Cracroft I couldn’t help picturing my Dad’s amazed reaction if he could have known that this would be happening. He was always proud of serving at Valley. The Station Commander told me that the highest risk at the Station was still that of vehicles straying onto the runway. Seventy-four years after Dad hit that stray cook-wagon while trying to land at 110 miles an hour, it seems that potential hazard has not changed! The lovely Cerys, who supports my efforts from the RAF Benevolent Fund, had flown up from Cardiff in the morning; my thanks go to her, and to Darren at RAF Valley who escorted and guided us throughout our stay. After leaving the Station, and I said goodbye to them both at the ‘spotters’ car park’ nearby, a jet thundered by right over our heads. ‘I would like to say I had arranged that for you!’ said Darren. From that car park, I sat a little while looking over the airfield. From here, in a way, it is easier to get a feel for it as it was in 1941. Just the grass between the runways, and a few older hangars and airforce buildings over to the right. In front of me, Darren had pointed out a red light in the grass, where the perimeter track turns in towards the live runways. ‘That is the same system your Dad would have known – that is what the cook wagon ignored when your father was landing his Defiant.’ A strange feeling to finish with, contemplating that red light nestling in the grass, and thinking how close a shave it was that day for my Dad when he crash-landed on the one remaining oleo leg and finished up in the dunes beyond my line of sight. If he had been only 11 feet off the ground when he hit the cook wagon, instead of 12 feet, he would probably not have survived. Then I wouldn’t have been here to visit RAF Valley in a 1935 Singer Le Mans, that’s for sure.
Nearly 8500 Polish airmen ended up in Britain in 1940, after first fighting losing battles in Poland and then France. They called Britain ‘The Island of Last Hope’. My father remembers serving alongside the Polish and I remember him saying that they were good pilots and fighters; he said this with feeling.
After visiting raf Valley tomorrow I will be travelling to the site of the old RAF Penrhos, where many Polish servicemen were demobbed after the war. 2408 Polish airmen lost their lives fighting for freedom. The Polish Squadrons played a vital part in the Battle of Britain, showing tremendous valour and determination. Yet the peace they fought for, and won for the rest of Europe, didn’t come for their own country until half a century later. The Polish Housing Society, a charity set up in 1949, bought the old airfield and today it still runs a care home on the site. Here I hope to meet at least one Polish resident who served during the war. That would be a great privilege.