Unending Seige

Canadian Aviators

British Bristol Fighter F2B and German Albatros D.III in combat

Caption: British Bristol Fighter F2B and German Albatros D.III in combat

In the First World War, Canada had no military air arm of its own, but this did not stop some 24,000 Canadians from serving in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service before these were merged as the Royal Air Force in April 1918. Here, Canada would suffer 1,500 casualties. A quarter of the British flying officers - and some of the best - were Canadians.

Pressure to create a military air arm had been applied to the military authorities in 1911 and 1912, but they had learned only that the contraptions were expensive, dangerous and of dubious usefulness. In this strategic vacuum Canada was not as isolated as one might think. Indeed no one could foresee that, only 11 years after the first "heavier than air" flight, significant technical breakthroughs would result in the airplane's emergence as a formidable weapon of war. Nor could anyone foresee that Canada was on the verge of becoming involved in a war like that of 1914-18.

In Canada, Alexander Graham Bell was a pioneer of aviation. One of his associates, J.A.D. McCurdy, later made an unsuccessful attempt to sell his planes to the Canadian government. McCurdy went on to achieve some success in the United States. Returning to Canada with his flying school during the war, in Toronto he founded Canadian Aeroplanes, which would become involved in the mass production and mass export of aircraft - a first in the history of aeronautics.

A young Canadian aspiring to be a military aviator had to pay for his own training, whether in Canada or in the United States. Then, if the British recruited the novice into the air corps, whether attached to the navy or the army, they would reimburse him for the courses. As the war went on, a number of volunteers from the Canadian Army Corps would request or be offered a transfer to the air arm.

The actual birth of the air arm occurred on the Somme. In that sector, as the British began attacking in July 1916, some 240 Canadian aviators were in the front line. At that time the Allies dominated the air. In the early months of 1917 new and more sophisticated German aircraft tipped the balance of air power to the enemy side. By the end of the year, however, the Allies had changed this, with new equipment and a force of thousands of pilots, many of whom had been trained in Canada. Allied air supremacy would continue throughout 1918.

Additional Images

Squadron-Commander Raymond Collishaw and pilots of No.203 Squadron, Royal Air Force, July 1918