WWII West Coast Air War
On the eve of his retirement in 1935, the Canadian Chief of General Staff Major General A.G.L. McNaughton, wrote a paper clearly stating the realities of defence in Canada.
“The requirements for forces sufficient to discharge our obligations for the maintenance of our neutrality in the west are neither extensive nor very costly and it seems to me that by their absence we are taking a risk to our future wholly disproportionate to the interests we have at stake.”
The United States Congressional Committee voiced a warning that paralleled McNaughton’s evaluation. They concluded that it was entirely possible for a belligerent to attack the United States using a Canadian base, and that Canada was not in a position to defend itself. They reasoned that if a nation hostile to the United States was to overfly Canada, or utilize Canada’s bases in order to mount an attack, this action would force the United States to take steps to defend Canada. Despite the acknowledgment from both sides of the House regarding the importance of air defence, most of the money that was allocated was used for new ground services, equipment and maintenance, and only three new aircraft (Blackburn Sharks) were actually purchased. In early 1936 No. 4 (FB) Flying Boat Squadron, at Jericho Beach Air Station, received orders to begin surveying the coast of British Columbia to identify potential land and seaplane bases. In October 1936 the Squadron Commanding Officer Wing Commander A.B. Shearer and Sergeant N.E. Small, flying Fairchild seaplanes, left Jericho Beach in the company of Royal Canadian Navy vessel HMCS Vancouver. Sites visited on their inspection tour included: Ucluelet and Coal Harbour on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Bella Bella, Alliford Bay in the Queen Charlotte Islands, and Seal Cove at Prince Rupert.
Number 4 (FB) Squadron continued their surveying duties throughout 1937, as well as participating in army cooperation exercises with coastal defence batteries. During August, three Vickers Vancouver Flying Boats arrived at Bella Bella to establish a meteorological reporting station, and later that year Squadron Leader Mawdesley was assigned temporary duty at Prince Rupert with one of Jericho’s Fairchilds. Effective January 1 1938, No. 4 Squadron received redesignation as a General Reconnaissance Squadron and continued its coastal survey duties with detachments at Prince Rupert and Bella Bella.
On February 16 1939 a detachment from Jericho Beach No. 4 (GR) Squadron left for Kennedy Lake, near Ucluelet. They were assigned one Vickers Vancouver Flying Boat to patrol Barkley sound and to complete a five week survey of the area in connection with the future development of a base at Ucluelet A detachment from No. 4 (GR) Squadron was dispatched to Alliford Bay in the Queen Charlotte Islands to establish communications and take weather observations. Western Air Command was finally established on April 15,1939 and Canada declared war against Germany in September 10, 1939. On September 12 1939 the first war time coastal patrol was dispatched in Stranraer #912.
On October 31, 1939, the Squadron’s status changed to No. 4 (BR) Bomber Reconnaissance, and S/L F.J. Mawdesley assumed command of the Squadron. They were re-equipped with No. 5 Squadron’s Stranraers as the aircraft became available, In May 1940 five of the No. 6 (BR) Squadron Sharks, were turned over to No. 4 (BR) Squadron for that Squadron’s move to their wartime station at Ucluelet.,
In the fall of 1939 number 6 (TB) Squadron, at Trenton Ontario, transferred to the West Coast. An advance party arrived in Vancouver in October 1938 followed on November 1 by the balance of the Squadron with its five Blackburn Shark 11s tied down on flat cars. The Squadron completed its move by November 6.
On October 31, 1939, No. 6 Squadron was officially redesignated as a bomber reconnaissance squadron and commenced regular patrols of shipping in the Gulf of Georgia. The Squadron was placed on stand-by as a striking force, and two Shark IIs were detached and sent to RCAF Station Ucluelet. By April of 1940, No. 6 (BR) Squadron had received all of its allotment of Sharks, and training was complete. On April 6 the Squadron received warning notice of the move to their permanent war station at Alliford Bay in the Queen Charlotte Islands and on May 1940 No. 6 Sqn. took up residence at their wartime base, Alliford Bay, which was a water-borne site only
When Canada declared war against Germany in September 1939 the WAC consisted of only five squadrons. Four of them equipped with obsolete aircraft including a bomber squadron with aircraft from the Great War and, as there were no fighter aircraft at all for its only fighter squadron, 113 Fighter Squadron was disbanded. On Sept. 10, 1939, WAC was already on alert with its few units, No. 4 Sqdn. (now designated a Bomber Reconnaissance unit), No. 6 (Torpedo-Bomber) Sqn. and No. 111 (Coastal Artillery Cooperation) Sqn. 111 Sqn was reconstituted as a fighter Squadron in 3 November 1941 and flew Kitty Hawks in Alaska. A Regina-based unit, 120 Sqn was called out on full time duty in September 1939 and redesignated Bomber reconnaissance on 31 October 1939. No. 120 Sqn. was quickly transferred to the coast .Its first operation patrol out of Coal Harbour was on 11 December 1941. Their last mission was on 21 April 1944
The need for navigation aids and surveillance was recognized early on in the buildup. The RCAF established the Aircraft Detection Corps (ADC) manned by volunteer coast watchers in May 1940 and construction of the radar sites started in 1942. These radar detachments were integrated into a system that ran from Alaska to California. Direction Finding stations that were built at Ucluelet, Coal Harbour, and Alliford Bay were added to Bella Bella and Prince Rupert and detachments from both No. 4 and No. 6 Squadrons started regular patrols of the entire coast. The RCMP vessel MacDonald was stationed at Ucluelet to provide security and communications for aircraft refuelling there.
Recommendations were submitted that, initially, water-borne aircraft alone should be allocated to northern British Columbia, while both land and water-based resources should be used in the south. These findings were the genesis of a permanent service base at Patricia Bay. Other bases, Tofino, Comox, Port Hardy, Sandspit and Massett (aerodromes and landing strips) were constructed up the west coast of British Columbia to supply the need of air defence in case of emergency,. An “outer perimeter” base was suggested for Alliford Bay in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Initially the task of base expansion was held back by costs, estimated at $300 to $400 per acre to clear and level land. These restraints were thrown to the wind when war broke out. Even so, construction took time, especially when runways rather than anchorages had to be prepared, Construction started on the 29 March 1939 at the Patricia Bay base (mixed land and seaplane usage) and it was not operational until May 1940, the same month No. 6 Sqn. took up residence at Alliford Bay and No 4 Squadron commenced operations in Ucluelet. Coal Harbour started construction in June 1940 and flying operations started on the 10 December 1941. Spring 42 accelerated construction of Port Hardy and Tofino to support Flying boat stations was authorized. Construction of a land base at Tofino began in February 1942 and the first fighters based there arrived on Oct. 15, 1942.
For the first three years of its existence, Western Air Command was a formation where old aircraft types went to die. Elderly Vickers Vancouver and Vickers Vedette biplane flying boats remained on the strength of WAC units until August 1939 and May 1940, respectively. Stranraer flying boats continued to operate in WAC squadrons until April 1944 (30 months after they had been retired from east coast service). Blackburn Shark torpedo bombers, obsolete even when bought in 1937, soldiered on in the command until September 1943. While old types lived on in WAC, newer aircraft were slow to arrive. Lockheed Hudson patrol bombers appeared in Eastern Air Command service in October 1939 while Consolidated Catalina and Canso flying boats were operational from Nova Scotia as early as June 1941. Western Air Command waited until March 1941 for its first Hudsons and until December 1942 for its first Cansos.
With the Japanese threat after Pearl Harbor Western Command grew rapidly and played a critical role in fighter and anti-submarine operations in Canadian and American waters during the Aleutian Islands Campaign. By January 1943 Western Air Command had expanded to include many bomber, fighter and operational units under its umbrella. By the end of the war the command would eventually involve some twenty squadrons when the last units to join were added in 1943.
By 1943, Western Air Command had gained significant power and found its balance. Squadrons assigned to the protection of the northern sector formed No 4 Group, with headquarters in Prince-Rupert. No 2 Group’s HQ at Jericho Bay (Vancouver) was in charge of the southern sector of the B.C. coast. New fighter squadrons were created: Nos. 132, 133 and 135 at Patricia Bay, No 163 at Sea Island. New planes were available: Canso A flying boats to replace the aging and increasingly unreliable Stanraers, twin-engine Lockheed-Vega Venturas in place of the old Bolingbrokes of Nos. 8, 115 and 149 Squadrons.
By the end of 1943, radar stations recently built along the coast ensured an almost complete coverage of the seashore’s air space. In that same year, the air base and airfield construction programme was now focusing on the hinterland to improve the staging route network. Well-organized but without a specific enemy threat to deal with, Western Air Command in the war’s last years emphasized mobility and speed of tactical response to any potential attack. By late 1943 disbandment lists were announced. Western Air Command began running down its combat role while increasing its emphasis on training and transportation. March 1944 disbandment’s started. Long-range patrols were reduced, and the aircraft establishments of flying boat squadrons were cut from 15 to nine aircraft. However, replacing Stranraer aircraft with Cansos meant operational efficiency was maintained.
Japan’s surrender in August 1945 was followed by the rapid rundown of what was left of WAC’s operational units. The last to go was No. 11 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Sqn., disbanded on Sept. 15, 1945. Thereafter, until March 1947, WAC administered a collection of training, transport and marine units.