Battle of Britain: Canadians in the Royal Air Force

A group of men in various uniforms stand in front of a single propeller aircraft.
The famed No. 242 “Canadian” Squadron was a Royal Air Force squadron that – at least initially – included a large number of Canadians. PHOTO: DND Archives, DND65-110

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By Hugh Halliday

The Royal Air Force celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2018. It’s therefore fitting, as we approach our commemoration of the Battle of Britain, to revisit Hugh Halliday’s examination of Canadians serving in the RAF during the Battle of Britain.

On September 3, 1939, only hours after Britain declared war on Germany, a Westland Wallace biplane of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Observer School at Wigtown encountered thick fog and blundered into a Scottish hillside, killing Pilot Officer Ellard Alexander Cummings, 23, of Ottawa and his British gunner. Cummings had been commissioned in the RAF on May 7, 1938. He was a member of an unusual group: Canadians who had enlisted directly in the Royal Air Force (CAN/RAF). He was also the first Canadian to die on active service during the war.

The challenge: Defining “Canadian” before 1947

It is difficult to determine the number of wartime CAN/RAF personnel, in large measure because the definition of “Canadian” is inexact; Canadian citizenship did not exist until 1947 and various authors have been flexible in compiling lists. If place of birth were the only criteria, then Percival Stanley (Stan) Turner would be British, but his youthful education, upbringing and post-war RCAF service undeniably qualify him as Canadian, notwithstanding membership in the RAF between 1939 and 1945.

To demonstrate the intricacies of national origins, consider the following. Richard Howley appeared in a 1974 list as being from Victoria, British Columbia. Howley was killed in action on July 19, 1940, flying a Boulton-Paul Defiant – a certifiable death trap. The Newfoundland Book of Remembrance recorded him as being from that province; online records of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission did not identify his next of kin. It took an article by Floyd Williston to resolve the matter. Howley had been born in 1920 in Esquimalt, British Columbia. However, his father had been born in Newfoundland and, in 1926, the family moved back to the “Rock”. To further complicate the story, the father was receiving medical care for wounds suffered in the Great War as well as a Royal Navy pension. He decided he would receive better care – and live more comfortably – in England; thus, they relocated there in August 1933. So, having lived six years in Canada, seven years in Newfoundland and eight years in England before his death, what shall we call Richard Howley?

As one contemplates CAN/RAF personnel, two questions arise. How many were there? How did they get there? Given the complexities of defining “Canadian,” statistics are inexact. In the year 2000, this writer undertook to survey the subject, using varied sources. I came up with the following approximations:

Number of CAN/RAF personnel (all ranks): 1,820

Number of CAN/RAF personnel decorated: 422

Number killed or died during the war: 777

Transferred to the RCAF: 225

Transferred to RCAF Women’s Division: 20

Number making the RAF a permanent career: 55

The statistics require some caution. For example, RAF Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) personnel transferring to the RCAF Women’s Division might include a few British women who had married RCAF personnel and used the transfer method to ensure speedy repatriation with their husbands. The figures do not include approximately 10 Canadians who joined the pre-war Fleet Air Arm. Nor do they encompass persons from Newfoundland – some 740 in all. Breaking the CAN/RAF personnel down by trade is inexact. Of the 1,820 men and women identified, 1,106 are known to have been aircrew and 361 were in non-flying trades (although 44 of these subsequently remustered to aircrew). That leaves roughly 350 personnel whose trades are uncertain.

How they arrived is a complex story. A few had always been present. First World War veterans like John Baker, Herbert Seton Broughall, Raymond Collishaw, Harold Spencer Kerby and Joseph Stewart Temple Fall had made the RAF their permanent careers and through survival, seniority and service rose to senior rank.

Canadians begin joining the Royal Air Force

The ascension of Adolf Hitler to power in 1933 soon set alarm bells ringing, from private homes to government ministries. The RAF began to expand, slowly at first, accelerating throughout the decade. The principal sign of this was the number of short-service commissions that were allowed. This coincided with diminished aerial opportunities elsewhere. The RCAF had been cut by one-fifth in 1932, and it was not until 1937 that the Permanent Force experienced any significant growth. The Auxiliary Force took up some of the slack from 1934 onwards, but its units offered little of the glamour and excitement of a professional force. Young Canadians seeking an air force career looked increasingly towards Britain and, slowly, they began to appear in RAF schools.

It is doubtful if many joined out of a sense of political conviction; the prime motivations were either adventurism or opportunism. We may take the experience of Alfred Llewellyn Bocking of Winnipeg as typical (although his subsequent career was not).

It was 1933, and I was proud holder of a brand-new “Commercial Air Pilot’s Certificate – Flying Machines” duly signed by [Squadron Leader] A. T. Cowley for the Controller of Civil Aviation. I was all set to fly anything, anywhere, at any time for “hire or reward” or just for the hell of it.

Disillusionment came fast. I was 18 years old and no one appeared especially interested in hiring a teenager to fly anything, anywhere, at any time.

Having paid his way to England in 1934, Bocking was brought before a selection board consisting of a group captain and four wing commanders. He found the experience terrifying:

The interview itself has become a somewhat hazy memory, but I do recall that the first question was “A Canadian, eh? What cattle-boat did you come over on?” This was not as rude as it may sound, because at that time the cattle-boat appeared to be the accepted means of transportation to the U.K. [United Kingdom] for Canadian hockey-players and R.A.F. aspirants. I explained that I had arrived via the C.P.R.’s [Canadian Pacific Railway] “Duchess of Bedford.” I must have made this statement with a slightly supercilious air, for they found it necessary to put me smartly in my place by expressing the hope that I had a return ticket, so that I wouldn’t become a charge on the public if I didn’t satisfy their required high standard . . . [italics in original]

The Board agreed to accept him, but five months elapsed between their decision and his being directed to an RAF depot, during which time he led a spartan existence. Finally, on March 26, 1935, the London Gazette announced that 68 young men had been “granted short service commissions as provisional pilot officers on probation” with effect from that day. Six Canadians were among the number, including Bocking. Besides these men, nine other Canadians would secure short-service commissions that year. In 1936 the figure was 70; in 1937 it was 116, and 127 in 1938.

From 1937 onwards, Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs, a retired Royal Navy officer living in Victoria, British Columbia, was instrumental in guiding young Canadians as they sought enlistment in the RAF. He acted as an informal recruiting office, advised men about documentation and medical examinations, provided letters of reference, and loaned passage money to a few. It was estimated that “Biggs’ Boys” numbered 719 (aircrew and tradesmen).

Enlistment was not always swift or happy. Apart from the West Coast efforts of Seymour-Biggs, authorities in Canada attempted some medical checks and interviews, but there was no guarantee that an applicant, arriving by cattle boat, would necessarily be accepted swiftly. Complaints were made that some men, with no friends or family to help them, ended up living hand-to-mouth, even pawning their clothes. The RCAF Liaison Officer in London, Squadron Leader V. F. Heakes, described the situation as “pitiful” and ascribed it to incomplete information or downright misinformation provided in Canada. A possible culprit may have been the well-meaning Seymour-Biggs, but persons without his expertise may have been more responsible. On August 23, 1938, Heakes wrote:

They invariably expect to be able to get into the RAF immediately with, at the most, a maximum delay of a week. Instead, the minimum delay is usually six weeks, although, by persistent effort, we can sometimes get this reduced.

Rarely, if ever, do we get a case which is completely documented and here is where the first delay occurs, for before candidates can be placed before the [Selection] Board, they must have their birth certificate, educational certificate and at least two recent and full references as to character.

CAN/RAF personnel and the outbreak of war

Canada’s entry into the war curtailed, but did not end, the flow of CAN/RAF personnel. In 1940, George Frederick Beurling would cross the Atlantic twice in his quest to join the RAF.

Young men and women stranded by circumstance in the United Kingdom or in the Empire enlisted. Douglas Rose of Stonewall, Manitoba, was playing professional hockey in Britain when the war broke out. Initially, he worked in an aircraft factory, but in 1941, he enlisted in the RAF, crossed the Atlantic to train as a pilot in Canada, then returned to Britain to fly Lancasters and be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Flight Officer Francis Corinne Duval of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, was similarly marooned in Britain; she had been studying music there when hostilities began. She joined the WAAF as an administrative officer; in January 1945 she transferred to the RCAF’s Women’s Division. Occasionally, a Canadian soldier, bored with garrison duty in Britain, applied for RAF service (although a transfer to the RCAF was more common).

There is a tendency to think of these men and women as youngsters, but many were mature when they signed up. Alfred Keith “Skeets” Ogilvie of Ottawa was 24 when he enlisted, 25 when he became a Battle of Britain “Ace” and 29 when he was involved in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. There were others (not necessarily fighter pilots) who also enlisted at 25 or older.

Upon the outbreak of war, dozens of CAN/RAF personnel were positioned to see action in the first engagements. When RAF Blenheims attacked German warships on September 4, 1939, the lead navigator was Pilot Officer Selby Roger Henderson of Winnipeg, who brought his formation directly to the target. On October 17, 1939, during a German raid on Scapa Flow, Flying Officer Howard Peter Blatchford of Edmonton, Alberta, shared with three others in the destruction of a Heinkel (He) 111 – the first Canadian aerial victory of the war. The London Gazette of January 2, 1940, announced the first aerial gallantry awards to Canadians: DFCs to Wing Commander John Francis Griffiths and to Pilot Officer Henderson. Meanwhile, CAN/RAF ranks had suffered their first casualties, including Flying Officer Alfred Burke Thompson from Penetanguishene, Ontario, who, on the night of September 8, 1939, was taken prisoner following engine failure during a leaflet drop over western Germany. By the end of 1939, 24 CAN/RAF members had died in battle or flying accidents. Ahead lay more night bombing, the campaign in Norway, and the Battle of France, before the beginning of the Battle of Britain.

Battle of Britain CAN/RAF contribution

When one reviews the CAN/RAF contribution to the Battle of Britain, it is necessary to remember that the majority of such personnel were outside Fighter Command and some were flying in distant theatres. Of the 80-odd Canadians present (excluding RCAF pilots), one realizes that they were widely scattered throughout Fighter Command, with only No. 242 “Canadian” Squadron (a special case) having any concentration of Canadians. Four commanded squadrons, albeit briefly: Edward Mortlock Donaldson, John Arthur Gerald Gordon, John Alexander Kent and Ralph Ian George MacDougall. Others, however, were flight commanders and not far away from post-Battle of Britain commands.

They represented a diversity of experiences. Among the CAN/RAF aircrew there were raw newcomers while others came to the Battle with considerable combat experience. An unusual example of the latter was William Henry Nelson of Montreal. As of September 3, 1939, he was a pilot in No. 10 Squadron and captained an aircraft in the unit’s first wartime operation – dropping leaflets over northwest Germany. As a result of sorties flown during the winter and spring, including raids on Norwegian targets, he was awarded the DFC at the end of May 1940.

When Fighter Command sought reinforcements from other commands, Nelson volunteered. He attended No. 6 Operational Training Unit and then was posted to No. 74 Squadron, flying Spitfires. With that unit he was credited with the destruction of five enemy aircraft (August 11 to October 29, 1940), plus two damaged. He was the highest-scoring Canadian Spitfire pilot of the Battle. Nelson was killed in action on November 1, 1940.

Mark Henry “Hilly” Brown of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, had fighter combat experience in spades.

He had been commissioned in the RAF in May 1936 and duly joined No. 1 Squadron, accompanying it to France in the autumn of 1939. That unit was involved in the first tentative brushes with the Luftwaffe during the “Phony War” period, during which time he was credited with three enemy aircraft destroyed (two of them shared with other pilots). On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their offensive in the west; No. 1 was thrown into the battle, and Brown regularly added to his victory list.

Calculating fighter pilot “scores” is a mug’s game, and drawing up a tally of Brown’s successes is complicated by several factors, including the many claims that were shared with other pilots and inadequate documentation from the Battle of France.

The citation to his first DFC (gazetted July 30, 1940) began, “Since the beginning of the war Flight Lieutenant Brown has destroyed at least sixteen enemy aircraft,” but even this seems to lump confirmed, probable and damaged claims. For all that, Brown was undoubtedly one of the two most successful Canadian fighter pilots of 1940, his only rival being William Lidstone McKnight of Calgary, Alberta, flying with No. 242 Squadron. Brown’s Battle of Britain claims amounted to two destroyed (one shared) and one damaged, but as an experienced flight commander, he was a rock in his squadron’s order of battle. He took command of No. 1 Squadron shortly after the Battle of Britain, was subsequently advanced to wing commander and was killed in action over Sicily on November 12, 1941.

Three CAN/RAF Battle of Britain pilots came from an unusual source. In the autumn of 1939, an enterprising Australian, Sydney Cotton, had undertaken to experiment with aerial reconnaissance using unarmed, high-speed Spitfires. His Photo Development Unit enlisted several CAN/RAF pilots – “Cowboy” Blatchford, George Patterson Christie of Montreal, Quebec, and John Alexander Kent of Winnipeg, Manitoba – who subsequently transferred to Fighter Command and participated in the campaign.

As the war progressed, RAF combat reports became increasingly detailed, but the narrative standards in 1940 were much less demanding. Some of the better ones were filed by Pilot Officer Joseph Emile Paul Larichelière of Montreal.

Having attended McGill University (1935-1936), he had chosen to join the RAF and was 27 when he joined No. 213 Squadron on May 25, 1940. He was thus reasonably experienced when he filed his first combat report, for an action at 1230 hours, August 13, 1940, near Portland, when enemy aircraft were sighted at 15,000 feet [4,572 metres].

I was patrolling near Portland when I saw the Section Leader dive towards a [Messerschmitt] ME.110. I followed, and saw through an opening of the clouds a [Junkers] JU.88. I immediately stalled, turned, and got on its tail, giving him short bursts on the starboard engine which began to emit black smoke. I followed him and played “hide and seek” in the clouds for 15 minutes, he always leading to S.E. [south east] of Portland. Eventually I caught him up in a clear patch and put his port engine on fire and he dived straight into the sea. I could see a small motor boat rushing towards the wreck. While I was looking at the wreck I was surprised by a ME.109. I immediately did steep climbing turn to reach the clouds, which I did, and headed south for a few minutes thinking that I would not be followed there. Then I came back again through the clouds to find the ME.109 inspecting the wreck. I gave him a burst of about three seconds and saw him give a sudden upward jerk, stall and dive into the sea in flames approximately 500 yards [457.2 metres] from the JU.88.

Although he had described his first victim as a Ju 88, intelligence concluded he had shot down a Bf110. Two fighter pilots had made the same mistake – allowing themselves to be distracted by the wreckage of the first victim. Larichelière also noted delays in reporting the enemy presence because someone had left his radio transmitter on, effectively jamming squadron communications. He was credited with two enemy destroyed in this action and another Bf110 shot down that afternoon. Two days later, again near Portland, he destroyed two Bf110s and a Ju 87 in a single action. Six victories in three days was a remarkable feat, but Larichelière was shot down and killed on August 16 before anyone could recommend him for a decoration. His body was never recovered; his name is listed on the Runnymede Memorial, west of London.

For some CAN/RAF personnel, the Battle of Britain represented the beginning of distinguished careers. C.I.R. Arthur, who had wanted to become a bush pilot, found himself flying Boulton-Paul Defiants with No. 141 Squadron during the summer of 1940. He survived the massacre of July 19, 1940, in which Richard Howley was killed. His wartime service encompassed seven squadrons and 488 sorties, a DFC and Bar, command of a Mustang wing, and the destruction of at least six enemy aircraft (four shared with other pilots). Following the war, he stayed with the RAF, reverting from wing commander to squadron leader. He retired from the force on medical grounds in November 1954, returned to Canada and died in Richmond, British Columbia, in October 1998.

Howard “Cowboy” Blatchford had an equally distinguished career, but one cut short. His one Battle of Britain victory was a Dornier (Do) 17 destroyed on October 2, 1940, shared with another pilot of No. 17 Squadron, but on November 11, 1940, he scored two Italian Bombardiere Rosatelli (BR) 20 bombers destroyed (one shared) in the single intervention of the Regia Aeronautica in attacks on Britain itself, for which action he was awarded a DFC. He rose quickly to command a squadron, then a wing, but was killed in action on May 3, 1943. Like many of CAN/RAF pilots, his name is recorded on the Runnymede Memorial.

The best known of the CAN/RAF pilots, John Alexander Kent, rose to group captain and survived the war. He was also one of the few who wrote a memoir.

His story is remarkable in many ways. Commissioned on March 15, 1935, he had been awarded the Air Force Cross in January 1939 for test flying, which included more than 60 deliberate collisions with barrage balloon cables; from Farnborough he went to the Photo Development Unit, then to a flight commander position with No. 303 (Polish) Squadron. His personal Battle of Britain score was four enemy aircraft destroyed, two “probable” and one damaged. On October 26, 1940, he became commanding officer of No. 92 Squadron. Among his wartime honours were the Polish Virtuti Militare, 5th Class, frequently and erroneously described as the Polish Victoria Cross. He continued to work in the test pilot field, retired from the RAF in 1956 and died in October 1985.

Anyone who survived the Battle of Britain undoubtedly regarded it as the high point of their careers. Robert Alexander Barton (Order of the British Empire, and DFC and Bar) of No. 249 Squadron subsequently took command of the unit, led it in Malta, commanded RAF wings and in 1947 helped organize the Pakistan Air Force. He retired from the RAF in 1959 and returned to British Columbia, where he was noted as a sports fisherman. He died in Kamloops on September 2, 2010; on September 15 – Battle of Britain Day; his ashes were scattered on his favourite lake.

This is a condensed version of an article that appears, with scholarly footnotes, in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal’s 2015 special Battle of Britain edition. Hugh Halliday is a former member of the RCAF, a historian and author with numerous books and articles to his credit.

RELATED LINKS

Royal Canadian Air Force

Battle of Britain

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