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The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was the air force of Canadamarker from 1924 until 1968 when the three branches of the Canadian military were merged into the Canadian Forces. The modern Canadian air force has been known as Canadian Forces Air Command (AIRCOM) since 1975, but still refers to itself as the "Air Force" and maintains many of the traditions of the RCAF.


The formative years and the First World War

Canada's first aircraft, the AEA Silver Dart
The aviation age came to Canada on 23 February 1909, when Alexander Graham Bell's Silver Dart took off from the ice of Bras d'Or Lakemarker at Baddeck, Nova Scotiamarker with J.D. McCurdy at the controls. This 1/2-mile flight was the first "controlled powered flight" (also the first flight of a "heavier than air craft") in Canada and the British Empire. A longer flight of 20 miles was flown at Bras d'Or Lake on 10 March 1909.

It was hoped that the Department of Militia and Defence would be interested in buying the aircraft. Although the general impression at the time was that aircraft would never amount to much in actual warfare, one official felt otherwise, and the aviators were invited to Camp Petawawamarker to demonstrate their machine. The sandy terrain of the Ottawa River valley proved to be the wrong thing for an aircraft with landing wheels about 2 inches in width, and there was great difficulty taking off. Worse still, on the fourth flight McCurdy wrecked the craft on landing when one wheel struck a rise in the ground. The Silver Dart never flew again. A second aircraft, the Baddeck No.1, was also severely damaged. Before the accidents, however, the Silver Dart made the first passenger flight aboard a heavier-than-air aircraft in Canada when McCurdy flew with his partner, F.W. Baldwin. After the crashes, the militia department showed no interest in using aircraft for aviation. It wasn't until the First World War that the Canadian government became interested in military aviation.

At the beginning of the First World War on 4 August 1914, found Canada involved in the conflict by virtue of Britain's declaration. Some European nations were using airplanes for military purposes and Canada's Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, who was organizing the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), inquired how Canada could assist military aviation. London answered with a request for six experienced pilots immediately, but Hughes was unable to fill the requirement.

Hughes did authorize the creation of a small aviation unit to accompany the CEF to Britain and on 16 September 1914, the Canadian Aviation Corps was formed with two officers, one mechanic, and $5000 to purchase an aircraft from the Burgess Company in Massachusettsmarker, for delivery to Quebec Citymarker. The Burgess-Dunne biplane was delivered on 1 October 1914, and was shipped immediately to England. On arrival, the biplane was transported to Salisbury Plainmarker where the CEF was marshalled for training. The craft never flew. It quickly deteriorated in the damp winter climate and was written off. On 7 May 1915, the Canadian Aviation Corps was decommissioned.

During World War I over 20,000 Canadians volunteered to serve with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service, producing such aces as William Barker, W.A. "Billy" Bishop, Naval Pilot Raymond Collishaw, Roy Brown, and Wilfrid "Wop" May. In 1917 the RFC opened training airfields in Canada to recruit and train Canadian airmen. The Canadian government advanced the RFC money to open an aircraft factory in Torontomarker, Canadian Aeroplanes, but did not otherwise take part.

In 1915, Britain suggested that Canada should consider raising its own air units. However, it wasn't until spring 1918, that the Canadian government proposed forming a wing of eight squadrons for service with the Canadian Corps in Francemarker. Rather than the proposed eight squadrons, the British Air Ministry formed two Canadian squadrons (one bomber, one fighter). On 19 September 1918, the Canadian government authorized the creation of the Canadian Air Force (CAF) to take control of these two squadrons under the command of Canada's Lieutenant-Colonel W.A. Bishop, the leading ace of the British Empire and the first Canadian aviator awarded the Victoria Cross.

The infant Canadian Air Force had planned to form six additional squadrons in Europe, but the Armistice disrupted these plans and in late November, the existing two squadrons were merely upgraded with new aircraft. On 19 June 1919, the Canadian government decided against a permanent, peacetime air force and on 5 February 1920, the Canadian Air Force in Europe was disbanded, never having flown any operations.

The inter-war years

After the war, Britain committed Canada to the International Convention for Air Navigation, part of the Peace Convention signed by Britain in Paris in 1919. Canada was required to control air navigation and traffic within its borders. To accomplish this, Canada instituted the Air Board, whose task was mainly regulatory but it was also responsible for controlling civil aviation and handling air defence.

One of the Air Board's first responsibilities was managing the operation of over 100 surplus aircraft that been given to Canada by the British Government to be used in the event of another war. However, the Air Board decided to operate the gift aircraft in support of civil operations such as forestry, photographic surveying, and anti-smuggling patrols. Six air stations were taken over or established by the Air Board in 1920-21 for civil flying operations. The Air Board's venture into air defence consisted of providing refresher training to former wartime pilots via a small part-time air militia known as the Canadian Air Force (CAF) at the old Royal Flying Corps air station, Camp Bordenmarker. This training scheme began in July 1920, and ended in March 1922. By January 1923, the Air Board was incorporated into the newly-formed Department of National Defence, and the CAF became responsible for all flying operations in Canada, including civil aviation.

On 1 April 1924, the title "Royal" was extended to the CAF by royal proclamation and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was formed. The RCAF continued civil tasks such as anti-smuggling patrols, forest fire watches, aerial forest spraying, mail delivery, mercy flights, law enforcement, and surveying/aerial photography.

The RCAF replaced the Air Board and the CAF as the regulator of Canadian civil aviation. In 1927 the management of aviation in Canada was reorganized so that the RCAF, now considered to be a military body, did not control civil flying. A new government branch, the Civil Government Air Operations (CGAO) Branch, was formed to manage air operations that supported civil departments. However, the RCAF supplied almost all the aircraft and personnel. The RCAF continued to support the CGAO until the Department of Transport assumed responsibilility for supporting civil departments or until these departments instituted their own flying services.

Budget cuts in the early 1930s affected personnel strength, airfield construction, pilot training, aircraft purchases and operational flying. The "Big Cut" of 1932 was especially devastating to the RCAF. The force began to rebuild throughout the 1930s, however, and priorities were aimed at increasing the strength of the RCAF as a military organization rather than improving it to better support civil air operations. New aircraft were ordered and new air stations were built. The RCAF expanded or combined its units, and regional commands were implemented. In 1938, four regional commands were created: Eastern, Central, Western, and Air Training. The Non-Permanent Active Air Force (NPAAF), an auxiliary component of the RCAF, was formed in 1932 in response to the budget cuts. Ten auxiliary squadrons were formed between 1932 and 1938. When the RCAF mobilized for war in September 1939 these squadrons lost their auxiliary status.

By the end of the 1930s the RCAF was not a major military force. Aircraft were obsolete, and the RCAF had no experience in military operations. Although new pilots and other personnel had been trained, manpower was still lacking. Many of these problems would be surmounted with the implementation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) during the Second World War.

The Second World War

The outbreak of the Second World War saw the RCAF fielding eight of its eleven permanent operational squadrons, but by October 1939 15 squadrons were available (12 for homeland defence, three for overseas service). There were over 20 different types of aircraft at this point, over half being for training or transport, and the RCAF started the war with only 29 front-line fighter and bomber aircraft. By the end of the war, the RCAF would be the fourth largest allied air force.
Second World War recruiting poster

On 15 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron became the first RCAF unit to see action.

During the war, the RCAF had the following three key responsibilities:
  • British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), Canada's massive contribution to training military aviators would see the RCAF expand to a ubiquitous presence across the country
  • Home War Establishment (HWE), fielding 37 squadrons for coastal defence, protection of shipping, air defence and other duties in Canada
  • Overseas War Establishment (OWE), headquartered in London, fielding 48 squadrons serving with the Royal Air Force in Western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East

The RCAF played key roles in the Battle of Britain, antisubmarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic, the bomb campaigns against Germanmarker industries (particularly with No. 6 Group, RAF Bomber Command), and close support of Allied forces during the Battle of Normandy and subsequent land campaigns in northwest Europe.

The RCAF reached peak strength of 215,000 (all ranks) in January 1944 (including 15,000 women). Of that total, 100,000 were training air and ground personnel in the BCATP, 65,000 with HWE, and 46,000 with OWE. At that time there were 78 squadrons, 43 at home, 35 overseas. Approximately 13,000 RCAF personnel were either killed or died as prisoners of war, and another 4000 died during training or from other causes.

Women of the RCAF Women's Division ("WD"s) took over many wartime responsibilities from men, who were made available for combat and other operational duties and to instruct in British Commonwealth Air Training Plan schools across Canada. Many WDs also served overseas. Thirty WDs would die during the Second World War.

On the homefront, the RCAF developed a volunteer organization called the Aircraft Identity Corps to assist in the early detection of enemy aircraft.

The Cold War era

By spring 1945, the BCATP was discontinued and the RCAF was reduced to 165,000 (all ranks) and by VJ Day on 2 September 1945, it was proposed that the RCAF maintain a peacetime strength of 16,000 (all ranks). By the end of 1947 the RCAF had five squadrons and close to 12,000 personnel (all ranks). Peacetime activities resumed and the RCAF participated in such pursuits as aerial photography, mapping and surveying, transportation, search and rescue, and mercy missions. Interest in the Arctic led to several northern military expeditions supported by the RCAF.

By the end of 1948, the Soviet bloc was perceived as a serious threat to security in Europe. The Cold War had begun and peacetime activities were no longer a priority for the air force. The Canadian government began preparing to meet this threat. In December 1948 the government decided to increase the number of RCAF establishments, increase the size of and recondition existing air stations, recruit additional personnel, and obtain and produce new (jet) aircraft. Although the RCAF had a jet fighter in 1948, the British de Havilland Vampire, it would be replaced, beginning in 1951 by the more effective Sabre, built under licence by Canadair. The new Avro CF-100 Canuck was also built and entered squadron service in April 1953. The RCAF was the first air force to operate jet transportation aircraft with two Comets entering service in 1953.

In August 1949 Canada joined NATOmarker, and as part of its military commitment, established an Air Division (No. 1 Air Division) in Europe consisting of four wings. The first wing to form, No.1 Fighter Wing, was established at North Luffenhammarker, Englandmarker in 1951, but later moved to Marvillemarker, Francemarker. Other RCAF wings quickly followed, with bases established at Grostenquinmarker, France; Zweibrückenmarker, West Germanymarker; and Baden-Soellingenmarker, West Germany. Each of these wings consisted of three fighter squadrons each. The backbone of RCAF support to NATO's air forces in Europe in the 1950s were the CF-100 and the Sabre. Until 1958 the RCAF also trained aircrew from other NATO countries under the NATO Air Training Plan.

In 1950, the RCAF was heavily involved with the transportation of personnel and supplies in support of the Korean War. The RCAF was not involved with a combat role since no jet fighter squadrons capable of the type of combat required in Korea were yet in service, and capable fighter squadrons that later did become operational, were allocated to NATO duty in Europe. Twenty-two RCAF fighter pilots, however, flew on exchange duty with the USAF in Korea.
Bomarc missile

The Sovietmarker nuclear threat posed by a growing bomber fleet in the early 1950s saw the USAF and RCAF partner to build the Pinetree Line network of early warning radar stations across Canada at roughly the 50° north parallel of latitude with additional stations along the east and west coasts. This was expanded in the mid-1950s with the building of the Mid-Canada Line at roughly the 55° north parallel and finally in the late-1950s and into the early 1960s the DEW Line was built across the Arctic regions of North America. The nature of the Soviet bomber threat and of other hostile incursions into North American airspace saw an RCAF and USAF partnership in the creation of the North American Air Defence Commandmarker (NORAD) which was formed on 1 August 1957.

The Soviet bomber threat posed to North America also saw the RCAF begin the development of Canada's most famous (and infamous) military aircraft, the Avro CF-105 Arrow fighter-interceptor. The changing nature of the Soviet threat from bombers to ICBMs in the late 1950s, and pressure from the United States, saw the CF-105 program scrapped in favour of Bomarc nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles.
An RCAF Argus flying formation with a U.S.
Navy Neptune (background)
To improve its abilities, the RCAF began replacing its 1950s-era aircraft with smaller numbers of second-generation aircraft. For instance the CF-101 Voodoo armed with the AIR-2 Genie nuclear-armed air-to-air missile replaced the CF-100 in some roles, and the CF-104 Starfighter replaced the aging Sabres.

Coastal defence and peacekeeping support were also important. Maritime patrol squadrons stationed on Canada's east and west coasts were provided with Lancasters, and later Neptune, and Argus aircraft to carry on anti-submarine operations. The RCAF's peacekeeping role mainly included the transportation of troops, supplies, and truce observers to troubled areas of the world.

Many RCAF aerobatic or flight demonstration teams existed during this period. These include the Blue Devils (flying Vampires), the Fireballs (an Air Division team flying Sabres), the Sky Lancers (an Air Division team flying Sabres), the Golden Hawks (flying Sabres), the Goldilocks (flying Harvards), and the Golden Centennaires (flying Tutors).

Because of the Cold War and the Korean War, the RCAF grew to a strength of 54,000 personnel (all ranks) by 1954 and reached a 1955 peak of 41 squadrons.


In 1964 the Canadian government began to reorganize Canada's armed forces with the aim of integrating the RCAF with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army to form the unified Canadian Forces. The purpose of the merger was to reduce costs and increase operating efficiency. The Minister of National Defence, Paul Hellyer stated on 4 November 1966 that "the amalgamation...will provide the flexibility to enable Canada to meet in the most effective manner the military requirements of the future. It will also establish Canada as an unquestionable leader in the field of military organization." A new National Defence Act was passed in April 1967. On 1 February 1968, unification was completed and the RCAF ceased to exist.

Initially air force and naval aviation personnel were scattered among five commands of the new force, but in 1975, Canadian Forces Air Command (AIRCOM) was created, and most aviation units were placed under it. AIRCOM preserves many traditions of the RCAF, such as the RCAF tartan and the command march, "RCAF March Past." In 1988, Canadian air force personnel returned to the traditional blue uniform colour used by the RCAF, and in 1993 air force formations called wing were reintroduced within AIRCOM, echoing the similar structure of the RCAF thirty years previously. The army-style ranks which were instituted upon unification, however, were retained and the RAF-derived RCAF ranks and insignia were not re-adopted.

Victoria Cross recipients

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest award given to British and Commonwealth armed forces personnel of any rank in any service, and civilians under military command for bravery in the presence of the enemy. This honour has been granted to two members of the Royal Canadian Air Force since its inception in 1924.

Symbols and insignia

Image:RAF type A roundel.svg|RAF Type "A" roundel - an example of an RAF roundel used on aircraft 1924 – 1946Image:Roundel of the Royal Canadian Air Force (1946-1965).svg|One version of an RCAF roundel used on aircraft 1946 – 1965Image:RCAF-Roundel.svg|Roundel used 1965 – 1968Image:Ensign of the Royal Canadian Air Force.svg|RCAF EnsignImage:RCAF_Badge.JPG|RCAF badge (version with St. Edward's or Queen's crown)


The RCAF used British roundels and other markings until 1946, when Canada began using its own insignia identity. Indeed, Canada was the first Commonwealth country to dispense with the RAF system. The roundel was a version of the British roundel which has a red inner circle. The maple leaf replaces the inner circle to give it a distinctive Canadian character. Although the maple leaf roundel was approved for use by the RCAF in 1924, it wasn't until after the war that it began to be used on aircraft. It was, however, used on the ensign beginning in 1941. Several versions of the maple leaf roundel existed from wartime to 1965. Non-standard secondary maple leaf roundels were used during the war on some RCAF aircraft to identify them as Canadian (often on the nose or tail) and as a vehicle identification insignia. The realistic-looking "silver maple" style of leaf (referred to as the "RCAF" roundel) was replaced with the eleven-point stylized leaf of the new Canadian flag in February 1965 (referred to as the "CAF" roundel). A slightly-modified standardized version of this roundel (referred to as the "CAF revision E" roundel) continues to be used by Air Command. An all-red "unification roundel" was used on a few aircraft from 1967-1968. Some versions of the RCAF roundel included a white or yellow outline, which was used on certain aircraft.


The ensign (flag) of the Royal Canadian Air Force was based on the ensign of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), a light (sky) blue ensign, but with the Canadian roundel. Until the Second World War the RAF ensign was used by the RCAF; the RCAF ensign with the maple leaf roundel began to be used in 1941.


The badge of the RCAF was similar to that used by the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. It consists of the Imperial Crown (Tudor/King's or St. Edward's/Queen's crown), an "eagle volant", a circle inscribed with the RCAF's motto per ardua ad astra (which is usually translated as "Through Adversity to the Stars"), and a scroll inscribed with "Royal Canadian Air Force".


The RCAF tartan, based on the Anderson tartan, was registered in 1942. It was originally designed for use with an RCAF pipe band. The tartan remains as the officially approved tartan of the modern Canadian Forces Air Command and is worn by Air Command pipe bands.

Ranks and uniforms


The Royal Canadian Air Force used a rank structure similar to that of the Royal Air Force, with the exceptions of the RCAF having the rank of Warrant Officer 2 and not having the rank of Senior Aircraftsman. Ranks are listed with the most senior rank at the top.

Air Chief Marshal / A/C/M
Air Marshal / A/M
Air Vice-Marshal / A/V/M
Air Commodore / A/C
Group Captain / G/C
Wing Commander / W/C
Squadron Leader / S/L
Flight Lieutenant / F/L
Flying Officer / F/O
Pilot Officer / P/O
Officer Cadet / OCdt
Warrant Officer, Class 1 / WO1
Warrant Officer, Class 2 / WO2
Flight Sergeant / FS
Sergeant / Sgt
Corporal / Cpl
Leading Aircraftman / LAC
Leading Airwoman / LAW
Aircraftman / AC 1(2)
Airwoman / AW 1(2)


Uniforms of the RCAF were nearly identical to the Royal Air Force and other Dominion air forces in cut, colour and insignia. Personnel wore RAF-pattern blue battledress, though some personnel in the 2nd Tactical Air Force and in the Pacific also wore army khaki battledress with standard RCAF insignia. A khaki-drill uniform was introduced for wear in summer and warm climates.

During the Second World War Canadian airmen and airwomen posted outside Canada wore a Canada nationality shoulder flash, as did Canadians serving with the RAF. This was usually light-blue lettering on curved blue-grey for commissioned officers and Warrant Officer 1, and light-blue lettering curved above an eagle for other ranks, except for warm-weather uniforms, which had red embroidery on khaki-drill. Later in the war all RCAF personnel wore this nationality distinction, which was continued until unification.

After the war, the insignia for Warrant Officer I changed from the Royal coat of arms to the Canadian coat of arms. Along with the rest of the Commonwealth, insignia using the Imperial Crown changed from the Tudor Crown (King's Crown) to St. Edward's Crown (Queen's Crown) after the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the Throne of Canada.


Directors Senior Air Officers Chiefs of the Air Staff
Wing Commander William G. Barker (April 1924 – May 1924) Group Captain J. L. Gordon (Nov. 1932 – May 1933) Air Vice-Marshal G. M. Croil (Dec. 1938 – May 1940)
Group Captain J. S. Scott (May 1924 – Feb. 1928) Wing Commander G. O. Johnson (June 1933 – Dec. 1933) Air Marshal Lloyd. S. Breadner (May 1940 – Dec. 1943)
Wing Commander Lloyd. S. Breadner (Feb. 1928 – April 1932) Air Vice-Marshal G. M. Croil (Jan. 1934 – Dec. 1938) Air Marshal Robert Leckie (Jan. 1944 – Aug. 1947)
Squadron Leader A. A. L. Cuffe (April 1932 – Oct. 1932) Air Marshal W. A. Curtis (Sept. 1947 – Jan. 1953)
Air Marshal C. Roy Slemon (Feb. 1953 – Sept. 1957)
Air Marshal Hugh Campbell (Sept. 1957 – Sept. 1962)
Air Marshal C. R. Dunlap (Sept. 1962 – July 1964)

See also


  1. Roberts 1959, p. 3.
  2. Roberts 1959, p. 5.
  3. Roberts 1959, p. 6.
  4. Milberry 1984, p. 11.
  5. Milberry 1984, p. 13.
  6. Milberry 1984, p. 15.
  7. Milberry 1984, p. 14.
  8. Milberry 1984, p. 16.
  9. Milberry 1984, p. 16-17.
  10. Milberry 1984, p. 17.
  11. Milberry 1984, pp. 24, 25.
  12. Milberry 1984, p. 55.
  13. Milberry 1984, p. 97.
  14. Roberts 1959, p. 134.
  15. Greenhous 1999, p. 120.
  16. Roberts 1959, p. 238.
  17. Milberry 1984, p. 282.
  18. Milberry 1984, p. 89.
  19. Milberry 1984, p. 259.
  20. History of the Royal Canadian Air Force - The Cold War (
  21. Milberry 1984, p. 366.
  22. Milberry 1984, p. 367.
  23. Canadian Military Aircraft Markings
  24. Canada, Air Force Ensign
  25. Canada's Air Force - The Roundel
  26. RCAF Tartan A History of the Air Services in Canada. Retrieved 2009-11-04
  27. Dempsey 2002, p. 701.
  28. Johnson 1998, p. 16.

  • Greenhous, Brereton; Halliday, Hugh A. Canada's Air Forces, 1914–1999. Montreal: Editions Art Global and the Department of National Defence, 1999. ISBN 2-920718-72-X.
  • Milberry, Larry, ed. Sixty Years—The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924–1984. Toronto: Canav Books, 1984. ISBN 0-9690703-4-9.
  • Roberts, Leslie. There Shall Be Wings. Toronto: Clark, Irwin and Co. Ltd., 1959. No ISBN.
  • Dempsey, Daniel V. A Tradition of Excellence: Canada's Airshow Team Heritage. Victoria, BC: High Flight Enterprises, 2002. ISBN 0-9687817-0-5.
  • Johnson, Vic. "Canada's Air Force Then and Now". Airforce magazine. Vol. 22, No. 3. 1998. ISSN 0704-6804.

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