What Was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan?
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was an important and unique contribution made by Canada in World War II. From 1940 to 1945 under the BCATP, more than 130,000 air crew were trained in Canada. That included pilots, navigators, bombers, wireless operators, gunners and flight engineers. Recruits came from Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, as well as from Newfoundland, Free France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland.
Why Canada Was Chosen for the BCATP
There were a lot of good reasons for the choice of Canada to provide air training for the World War II Allied war effort:
- during World War I a program of Imperial air training schools in Canada had been successful
- Canada had plenty of wide open space and good flying conditions for air training
- it was a safe distance from the actual fighting and bombing routes
- industrial infrastructure for an aviation industry was available to supply frames, engines and full aircraft
- Canada had access to fuel, American manufacturers and North Atlantic shipping routes to Great Britain
- Canada also had a good-sized population to provide recruits of its own.
There were strong political reasons in Canada as well. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was hopeful the plan would keep many Canadians at home providing the air training and reduce the need to send large numbers to fight in Europe. Mackenzie King and the Liberals had made promises not to introduce overseas military conscription, which had been an extremely divisive issue during World War I.
Another incentive in Canada was the prospect of building the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). At the beginning of World War II, the RCAF had only about 4000 personnel and just a few hundred aircraft. RCAF pilots and aircrew usually served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) when overseas. While the British expected that the RAF would be the single operational force for the BCATP, Mackenzie King held out for an unspecified number of squadrons to be designated as RCAF. By the end of the war the RCAF had grown to more than 200,000 personnel, half of them BCATP trainees or air training support. The 72,000 Canadian graduates of the BCATP made up 45 overseas RCAF squadrons, as well as about a quarter of the strength of RAF squadrons. There were also about 40 RCAF home squadrons.
Basics of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
The BCATP agreement was signed in December 1939 by Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Training began at the end of April 1940. The BCATP agreement was renewed in 1942 and lasted until March 31, 1945.
The initial agreement called for the establishment of 58 air training schools for initial training, elementary flying, service flying, air observers, bombing and gunnery, air navigation and wireless. The schools were to train 50,000 men, including 20,000 pilots. Canada was required to provide about 80 percent of the recruits. Canada also needed to find another 33,000 military personnel and 6,000 civilians to serve as teachers, administrative and maintenance staff to man the BCATP facilities across the country. By 1945, 131,000 air crew had graduated, 72,000 of them Canadians.
The Department of Transport had to select sites and prepare airfields and the RCAF had to design and build the facilities. By the end of the BCATP there were 231 training sites across Canada and more than 8000 buildings had been constructed.
About 3500 planes were required for flight training, many of which came from Britain. A serious problem came up early in the plan when Britain, expecting a German invasion, had to stop the delivery of Avro Anson trainer planes. C.D. Howe, the Canadian Minister of Munitions and Supply, came up with a plan, and delivered on it, for Canada to build its own version of the Avro Anson, spreading the contract out amongst five different companies.
Costs of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
Like all other costs of war, the cost of the BCATP was very high. By the close of the BCATP at the end of March 1945, the total cost was $2.2 billion. Canada's share was $1.6 billion.
Legacy of the BCATP
As well as providing much-needed air power to the Allies during World War II, the BCATP provided benefits to Canada at home. All provinces hosted schools, and many communities hosted a BCATP airport. For those communities the construction work was welcome after the Great Depression in Canada, and so were the extra jobs and the economic activity brought by recruits, instructors and their families.
Many of the smaller airports familiar to Canadians today started out with the BCATP.
History of Aviation in Canada
For more on the history of aviation in Canada see