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CANADA’S GREATEST CONTRIBUTION – NATIONAL IDENTITY AND THE ROLE OF PRIME MINISTER W.L. MACKENZIE KING IN NEGOTIATING THE BCATP AGREEMENT
by Bill Dalke
On 17 December 1939, Canadians gathered around their radios to listen to a broadcast delivered by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. This was a special day for Mackenzie King. Not only was it his 65thbirthday, but it also marked the culmination of a series of negotiations that would have a marked effect on the Allied war effort. Mackenzie King announced the details of an agreement that had been reached by the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. This agreement related to a cooperative air training program, and was referred to as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Its magnitude would be unparalleled. By the time the program ended, more than 130,000 aircrew had been trained, along with 80,000 groundcrew.
Although Mackenzie King’s announcement described a scope and scale of program previously unheard of, it did not reveal all the details, nor did it give any indication of the hard bargaining involved in reaching the agreement. Today, the abbreviation BCATP is synonymous with Canada. This appears natural, since the program was conducted by Canadians on Canadian soil. The truth, however, lies much deeper than that.
My hypothesis is that Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s tenacity and sense of nationalism were solely responsible for ensuring a distinctly Canadian national identity within this program. His fervent belief in Canada beingseparate from, but at the same time supportive of, Britain had far-reaching effects. This article will outline the origins of the BCATP concept, detail the ‘behind-the-scenes dealings’ that occurred prior to reaching the agreement, and describe how exactly the Canadian nationalist nuances of the agreement were reached. Mackenzie King will be revealed as a man who possessed considerable national pride and sense of purpose. His vision endured, and, ultimately, it ensured a distinctly Canadian role and identity, not just in the program, but also in the overall war effort.
The roots of the BCATP can arguably be traced back to the First World War. In 1916, Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was hard-pressed to reinforce its front line units when increased casualties began to add strain to its pilot training system as it existed on British soil.1 The solution, supported whole-heartedly by Canada, was to create the airfields and necessary infrastructure to conduct pilot training in North America. These were established in Ontario, primarily at Camp Borden, with smaller airfields being built near Deseronto, Ontario, and several other locations in the Toronto area. The organization’s name, RFC Canada, was later changed to RAF (Royal Air Force) Canada after the RAF was created through the amalgamation of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on 1 April 1918. In 1917 and 1918, the total number of aircrew members trained by RAF Canada was 3135 pilots and 137 observers (excluding Americans), of whom 2359 pilots and 85 observers had deployed overseas before the armistice.2 It was manned by a group of RFC officers and commanded by a Briton, Lieutenant Colonel C.G. Hoare. This organization was entirely under British control. Canada did not have its own air force, and, in its role as a submissive member of the Commonwealth, it allowed this British organization to be created and managed solely by RAF personnel on Canadian territory.
Perhaps this is the reason that its existence is little known in this country today outside of military or historian circles. The program, although very successful, was not considered Canadian. It was created, staffed, and managed by Britain. Canada, as a loyal Dominion, was simply doing its part by helping the war effort as best it could. The matters of sovereignty or nationalism did not factor into the equation. This would not be the case during the Second World War, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King would see to that.
After the First World War, the RAF maintained an opportunity for Canadians to pursue a career in that service. Two permanent positions were reserved for university or RMC graduates each year, and Canadians with high school diplomas could compete with British applicants for five-or six-year short service commissions.3Commencing in 1934, a significant RAF expansion scheme sought to invite and accept more Canadians into British service. This initiative received some Canadian support, and it served to accomplish three British objectives: the maintenance of a very high standard of aircrew selection, the easing of strain upon its own manpower resources, and the involvement of other Commonwealth countries in RAF expansion.4 This policy was supported by the Canadian government, in part because there often were not enough positions within the still-miniscule Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) for those who wished to join this service.
In 1936, a serving Canadian in the RAF made a proposal that would eventually lead to the creation of the BCATP. Group Captain Robert Leckie, then Superintendent of the RAF Reserve, submitted a memorandum detailing the strategic advantages of creating an aviation training facility in Canada.5 In this document, he pointed out the favourable meteorological conditions that would permit year-round flying, as well as the fact that Canada would be far from the anticipated enemy action in Europe, while also being located close to the industrial potential of America. Leckie believed that such a program would attract many Canadians to the RAF.
In August, Air Commodore Arthur Tedder, then Director of RAF Training, and Lord Swinton, the British Secretary of State for Air, put forward the idea to the Canadian Minister of National Defence, Ian Mackenzie. Mackenzie was very anxious to cooperate in all such matters, and stated that personally, he would be “…only too glad to accede” to this proposal.6 However, when he put forward the matter to the Prime Minister in September, Mackenzie King had a very different opinion. This was reflected succinctly in Cabinet’s September decision that it would be “…inadvisable to have Canadian territory used by the British government for training school purposes for airmen.”7 The matter then went dormant for nearly two years.
In May 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sent a mission to Ottawa to assess the Canadian aircraft industry and its manufacturing potential. The head of the mission, British industrialist J.G. Weir, was also instructed to put forward the air training question again.8 The opportunity to do so arose during a meeting between Weir, Sir Frances Floud – the British High Commissioner in Ottawa – and Prime Minister Mackenzie King. At this meeting, Mackenzie King refused to accept the training proposal. A subsequent meeting only served to aggravate the Prime Minister. Mackenzie King’s main objection, as expressed to the House of Commons, rested in having “…[a] military station to be put down in Canada, owned, maintained and operated by the Imperial Government for Imperial purposes.”9 Mackenzie King saw this as distinctly different from having British pilots train in Canada at Canadian facilities under Canadian control. He was also mindful not sign on to any agreement that could be viewed as committing Canada to a future European war on Britain’s side. Such a decision at that time would not have been well received by the province of Quebec, which still harboured a great amount of resentment and discontent with respect to Canadian involvement, and, particularly, the conscription issue, during the First World War.
Although Mackenzie King had cautioned the British delegation not to disclose the content of the discussions publicly, subsequently the information was leaked to the press. This led to some embarrassing enquiries and governmental criticisms being raised in the Senate by Arthur Meighen, and, in the House of Commons by R.B. Bennett, the Leader of the Opposition. Mackenzie King was forced to admit to their occurrence, and some very lively debates ensued. The Prime Minister’s stance on the issue, and that of the government, was succinctly explained by him in the following statement:
“This government has never at any time said that it was not prepared to give in our own establishments the opportunity to British pilots to come over here and train, but they will do it in our own establishments, controlled by our own Minister of National Defence who is responsible to this parliament. This is an entirely different thing from having a branch of the British forces establish headquarters in this country, direct their own men here and be responsible, not to this parliament for what takes place in Canada as a consequence, but only to the British parliament and the British people.”10
This statement would form the basis for further discussions between Mackenzie King and the British government. On 7 July, the new British Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, told the British House of Commons that arrangements had been made “…for an officer to be sent immediately to Canada to explore… the possibility of working out such a scheme for training facilities in Canada.”11 However, it soon became readily apparent that British expectations were too high. Group Captain J.M. Robb, Commandant of the RAF Central Flying School, arrived in Canada only to find that the British government had a false impression that Mackenzie King’s offer to train British pilots for the RAF also extended to training Canadian pilots for RAF service.12 While being more than willing to discuss the training scheme, Mackenzie King was only prepared to accept British trainees coming to Canada to train in Canadian facilities. The underlying British request for Canadian pilots to be trained in Canada for British service was considered by him to be out of the question.
Incredibly, Air Commodore G.M. Croil, the RCAF’s Senior Air Officer, was unaware of how adamant the Prime Minister was on this issue. And Croil, along with Wing Commander G.R. Howsam, Director of Training, had created a plan for training 300 Canadian pilots per year for the RAF. Within the plan, it was stated that British personnel would make up any shortfalls, should they occur, of the intended 300 Canadian pilots. This plan also conceded the necessity for three entirely new air training schools to be created, in addition to those already in being at Trenton and Camp Borden, in order to reach the targeted output. This was all very appealing to Robb, who met with Croil and L.R. LaFleche, the deputy Minister of National Defence, to expand it into a three-year plan. To Robb, it all appeared to make sense. Why would Britain even consider sending such a large quantity of personnel to Canada and back for training that could be done in Britain instead? This seemed absolutely ridiculous to the British. It made far more sense for these pilots to be drawn from eligible Canadian candidates for subsequent training and service in the RAF. Furthermore, the British intended to carry a large part of the financial requirements.
The Minister of National Defence gave his approval to the plan, and he requested LaFleche to present it to the Prime Minister. This LaFleche did on 8 August 1938, but Mackenzie King’s hostility was evident in Cabinet. He instructed LaFleche to “…tell [Group] Captain Robb who has come from England that our proposal was to afford facilities for training British pilots – not recruiting Canadians for British service, and to afford facilities for what was desired within that compass.”13 Mackenzie King viewed the plan as a definite war plan that sought to guarantee a location for British training, thereby ensuring Canada’s automatic involvement and cooperation in the war, whenever that eventuality might occur. He wished to ensure that the public was not presented with an impression that the government was indicating in advance its intentions of involvement in any upcoming hostilities.
Robb scaled down the plan (henceforth referred to as Robb’s Plan) to one that sought 135 pilots per year. In Mackenzie King’s response, he emphasized three points.14 First, only British pilots were to be included in the plan, and this point was repeated in order to make the matter unmistakably clear. Second, he believed the sheer size of the plan was an obstacle that would interfere with Canada’s own planned RCAF training and selection process. In fact, the plan requirements significantly exceeded the RCAF planning numbers of 50 to 70 pilots per year, and Mackenzie King believed this initiative would overshadow and virtually destroy the autonomy of Canada’s air force. Third, any schools established in Canada had to be solely under the control of Canada’s Department of National Defence. Subsequently, and, not surprisingly, Mackenzie King formally rejected Britain’s proposal on 31 December 1938.15
Mackenzie King’s reply sent both parties ‘back to square one.’ The Prime Minister was willing to help the British, but, at the same time, he had no intention of making a military commitment for the country that would threaten either sovereignty or national unity. Britain had no choice but to accept these considerations, and new discussions commenced in January 1939.
Over the next two months, a very scaled-down agreement was finally reached. Croil advised the British that a maximum of 50 RAF student pilots could be accommodated annually in Canada.16 These could be trained in conjunction with the 75 planned annually for the RCAF, and the air force training organization was changed considerably to allow this to occur. While training previously consisted of one 10-month course, it was restructured into three 16-week stages, and the elementary flying training (EFT) phase was contracted out to civilian flying clubs. As it materialized, this air training agreement was never actually implemented. The first group of British pilot trainees was due to begin training in mid-September 1939, but the cataclysmic events of that month overtook the plan, and the trainees never arrived in Canada. Instead, Britain decided that, in this instance, it would be best for their training to be completed on British soil.
Although it appeared that all was for nought with respect to an aircrew training plan, such was not the case. Canada was fully aware of the importance that air training held for Britain. Britain, for its part, had learned that training in Canada would be conducted only under RCAF auspices. And these realizations would lead to an agreement of unparalleled scope before the year was out.
Canada’s sovereignty and independence from Britain was illustrated by the fact that it was not until one week after Britain’s declaration of war that Canada’s own decision to go to war was taken. That date was 10 September 1939.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had made an urgent appeal to Canada for the expansion of RCAF air training establishments. The British anticipated problems in meeting air personnel requirements, and stated that Canada could best assist by concentrating on training aircrew, to set a goal of training 2000 pilots annually, to enlist skilled mechanics, and to train as many observers and air gunners as possible.17 Mackenzie King replied on 12 September 1939 with the assurance that air training capabilities would be expanded rapidly, and he offered to dispatch a number of partially-trained individuals to Britain immediately. Ever mindful of Canadian nationalism, he also added a desire for ‘Canadian Air Force units’ to be formed overseas whenever enough sufficiently trained Canadians became available, and that Canadian personnel must be made available for transfer if the government should later decide to form distinctive Canadian air units for overseas service.18
The Air Ministry conceded that the proposed schools would be controlled by Canada. It also foresaw a fourfold training increase requirement. Croil made another assessment, based upon this information, and recommended that training goals of 1000 monthly graduates be set, with further consideration for future expansion beyond that number.
In London, however, Vincent Massey, – the Canadian High Commissioner – and Stanley Bruce, his Australian counterpart, were conceiving a plan of incredible magnitude. After further discussions with W.J. Jordan, their New Zealand counterpart, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, the RAF Chief of Staff, they went to see the Dominion Secretary, Anthony Eden, on 16 September 1939. Massey and Bruce suggested, “…[that] consideration be given to a scheme whereby Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand airmen should be trained in Canada… and… sent to the front as distinctive Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand air forces.”19
On 26 September, telegrams were sent to the prime ministers of the three nations outlining the scheme to pool Dominion resources, to conduct elementary pilot training in each country, with advanced training occurring in Canada, and then to transfer graduates overseas to join Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand squadrons. The message sent to Canada estimated that 50,000 Commonwealth aircrew would be required annually. Four-ninths of that number could be raised and trained within Britain, while the remainder would come from various parts of the Commonwealth to be trained in Canada.20 Mackenzie King immediately recognized the importance of this program, and realized that, with concentration of Canadian energies upon air training, there would be less pressure for a larger army and therefore less risk of the need to consider conscription.21 All aircrew would be volunteers. After presenting the proposal to Cabinet, Mackenzie King wired Chamberlain of Canada’s acceptance in principle, but noted that Canada was lacking in sufficient instructors and aircraft for a program of such magnitude. He also mentioned that the matter of division of costs would need to be addressed, and that Ottawa would be pleased to host a conference in order to finalize arrangements and terms.22
The British negotiating team arrived in Ottawa on 14 October, led by Lord Riverdale, a prominent industrialist and advisor on the purchase of war materials. On 17 October 1939, he met with Mackenzie King, but he did not deliver a good first impression. He spoke as if all but minor details had already been settled. He also gave details of the proposed plan to the press, and the Canadian government did not appreciate this impropriety. Riverdale made the mistake of referring to the plan as ‘your scheme’ when speaking to Mackenzie King, who corrected him diplomatically by pointing out that the scheme was, in fact, Britain’s, and certainly not his. Mackenzie King recorded that he was, “…rather amused at the sort of railroading, taking for granted style which Riverdale adopted,” and noted that it was “…amazing how these people… from the Old Country… seem to think that all they have to do is to tell us what is to be done. No wonder they get the backs of people up on this side.”23
Mackenzie King’s first formal meeting with the British Mission took place on 31 October 1939. He began by reading the opening lines of the British Prime Minister’s communication, and made it perfectly clear that the Air Training Plan had originated from the British government, and that Canada had been invited to cooperate. Canada, thus far, had indicated only a willingness to participate. When Riverdale, accompanied by Captain Harold Balfour, the British Parliamentary Undersecretary for Air, presented the proposal, it was immediately obvious that the two nations had very different views. Riverdale outlined a program to train 850 pilots, 510 air observers or navigators, and 870 wireless operators/air gunners every four weeks, approximately 29,000 aircrew per year.24Based upon this projection, Canada would need to create 72 aircrew schools of all types plus support, storage, maintenance, and ancillary units and facilities. Riverdale also declared that Britain would supply a ‘free contribution’ of aircraft, engines, and spares valued at $140 million. This left a projected cost balance of $748,500,000, of which Canada was expected to cover half, and supply half the trainees, while the remaining $374,250,000 would be divided between Australia and New Zealand.25
The Canadian Prime Minister was not pleased with Riverdale’s ‘airy’ manner.26 In addition, the size of the program and the suggested cost distribution was startling. Mackenzie King responded in plain language, stating that Riverdale’s reference to Britain’s ‘free contribution’ was inappropriate, and that it should be kept in mind that it was actually Canada that was making the contribution. He added that there was nothing in what Riverdale or Balfour said that was in the least bit appreciative of Canada’s willingness to cooperate. Mackenzie King interpreted this as a ‘taken-for-granted’ attitude, that it was Canada’s duty and obligation, and that the Mission had only to tell the Canadian government what was expected of it.27 Mackenzie King later reflected:
“It will never be known what we have saved this country by making clear that Canada has gone into this war of her own volition to co-operate; also what has been saved the British Empire of possible dismemberment as a consequence of this attitude. We would get nowhere if it were for a moment assumed that as a part of the Empire, it was for the central part to tell the outlying parts what they were to do… the worst part of the whole business is that this scheme is, in reality, a recruiting scheme for the British Air Force rather than any genuine attempt for any co-operation.”28
The financial implications were astounding to the Canadians. Mackenzie King made it clear that the plan could not possibly be shared in the proportions described. J.L. Ralston, Canada’s Minister of Finance, echoed those sentiments, and observed that Britain’s contribution was far too small.
Obviously, considerable negotiations ensued. These cannot be concisely detailed within the limitations of this brief article. The cost of the plan, in its final form, was estimated at $602,271,210 from inception to 31 March 1943, which was the agreed-upon termination date. Costs to the three Dominions were amended to be reflective of the ratio of trainees that would be provided. Canada’s share, not counting the cost of elementary training, was established at $287,179,331.29 And, in due course, the continuation of the war necessitated an extension of the plan until March 1945.
Mackenzie King dedicated a considerable amount of effort to the negotiations in order to guarantee that Canada’s interests were safeguarded. He ensured that the overall administration of the program rested with the Canadian government, and that command responsibility belonged to the RCAF. The other participating nations’ interests were protected through a supervisory board in which each nation had a voice. This board met monthly, and made recommendations to the Chief of Air Staff. As the end of negotiations came into view, Mackenzie King dealt with an associated matter of wheat prices. On this matter, he received assurances from the British Prime Minister that a mutually satisfactory agreement would be reached separately.
Mackenzie King also demanded a statement of priority from the British government that would serve to illustrate the importance that Britain placed upon this agreement. Mackenzie King was seeking a formal admission that Canada’s role in the air training scheme would be the nation’s predominant war effort. Although the other participating nations were content with the agreement at this point, Mackenzie King pressed for a statement regarding priority that would say that Britain felt that Canada’s participation would provide more effective assistance than any other form that could be provided by the nation. He anticipated this statement would serve to help avoid a conscription requirement, and would appease Quebec’s citizens. Chamberlain subsequently provided a statement that echoed almost exactly what Mackenzie King was demanding, but with a stipulation that the British, “…would welcome no less heartily the presence of land forces in the theatre of war.”30 Mackenzie King edited this phrase to his liking and, during his broadcast announcing the BCATP to the Canadian people, he used it to emphasize the degree of importance accorded by Britain to this important agreement.
Mackenzie King was ruthless on one more point of the text. This related to the status of the Dominion squadrons. The agreement stated, “…the UK Government undertakes that pupils… shall, after training… be identified with their Dominions, either by… organizing Dominion units or in some other way. The UK government will initiate inter-governmental discussions to this end.”31 Mackenzie King wanted the agreement changed to reflect that Canadian personnel would be organized into RCAF units at the request of the Canadian government, and would not just be subject to the whims of the mother country. The British Air Ministry obviously had other ideas in mind, as exemplified by the formation of 242 (Canadian) Squadron in October 1939. It was comprised largely of Canadian members of the RAF. Mackenzie King welcomed the gesture, even referring to it in his broadcast announcing the BCATP, but it was too obscure for him. His demand centred upon Canadian squadrons being designated only as RCAF, and that those same squadrons would be organized when requested by the Canadian government, and not by Britain. After much discussion and the relaying of messages, a suitable text was agreed upon. Late on 16 December, the members of the British Air Mission were in Mackenzie King’s office where Riverdale presented an amended Article 15, which stated “…[that] the UK Government, on the request of the Canadian Government, would arrange that Canadian pupils when passing out from the training scheme will be incorporated in or organized as units of the Royal Canadian Air Force in the field.”32 This brought the negotiations to an end. The parties present signed the document after midnight, and the date reflected that it was signed on Mackenzie King’s birthday, 17 December 1939.
Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King was a leader with considerable moral fibre. He played a singularly important role throughout the process by which the BCATP agreement was reached.
It is obvious that Britain’s preference was to repeat the air training program that had been conducted in Canada during the First World War under its control. In 1936, Canada’s Minister of National Defence was ready to concede to Britain’s will. Only Prime Minister Mackenzie King prevented this from occurring. A similar situation had occurred with the industrialist J.G.Weir’s mission in 1938. Again, Mackenzie King proved to be the voice of nationalistic reason. He adamantly refused to concede to British desires to create, occupy, and manage air training organizations conducted upon Canadian soil. Mackenzie King fought off attacks from the opposition that criticized him for this stance, and that publicly questioned his loyalty to the Commonwealth. To this, Mackenzie King replied emphatically that such efforts on Canadian soil would only be conducted under RCAF direction and Canadian control. When Robb’s Plan was presented with a view to training 300 Canadians per year for RAF service, the Canadian Prime Minister was the one individual who concisely and forcefully made his beliefs known. His influence upon the ultimate agreement mis unquestionable.
It is unlikely that the BCATP would be a matter of national pride today were it not for Mackenzie King’s considerable influence. He consistently sought autonomy from Britain, and he frequently had to contend with seemingly arrogant and superior British attitudes. His purpose was not solely founded upon nationalistic grounds, but was also for political and military reasons. At the time, Mackenzie King saw the Plan as a means to avoid supplying large quantities of troops to the fighting fronts. All BCATP candidates would be volunteers, and this, in itself, might ultimately serve to avoid conscription, and thereby appease Quebec, which still harboured significant ill feelings as a result of events that had occurred during the First World War.
Not only was the matter of control of facilities on Canadian soil important to Mackenzie King, but he also had the foresight to stand his ground with respect to the operational disposition of Canadians after their training had been completed. His determination for Canadian aircrew to be designated as such and for RCAF units to be created at the behest of Canada, instead of Britain, resulted in Britain conceding that Canada would have a voice instead of being subject only to its direction. In reality, Mackenzie King was anything but a subservient Dominion leader.
The creation of #6 (RCAF) Group within Bomber Command, as well as other smaller indigenous RCAF fighting formations, would not have occurred were it not for Mackenzie King’s demonstrated tenacity during BCATP negotiations. Number 6 Group was the ultimate result of his ensuring that Canadian operational formations would be created when requested by the Canadian government. The active squadrons of the Canadian Forces today (the 400-series squadrons) all trace their roots to the Second World War. It is interesting to note that, while the origins of many British squadrons can be traced back to the First World War, the same cannot be said of Canadian units. A distinct Canadian identity in the air did not exist at that time, when all Canadian aircrew were assimilated into British units. The ability to form indigenous Canadian squadrons during the Second World War was a direct result of the foresight of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. He alone recognized the importance of Canadian identity while others around him sought only to address the conflict. Mackenzie King chose to address both issues simultaneously. The effect of his strength of character is still evident today. Otto Bauer once wrote: “A nation is a totality of men united through community of fate into a community of character.” A considerable portion of the Canadian character was forged during the Second World War. And Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was, in fact, the blacksmith.
Chief Warrant Officer J.W. “Bill” Dalke is a recent graduate of the Knowledge Acquisition Program at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is currently the Wing Chief Warrant Officer at 16 Wing, CFB Borden, Ontario.