Surveillance on the West Coast during WWII

(click on map symbols to find out about each radar unit)


The need for surveillance on Canada’s west coast was recognized early on in the buildup to WWII. The vast majority of Canada’s west coast was isolated with inhospitable terrain and very limited population. From the outbreak of war to early 1943, Western Air Command had no airborne radar and not enough aircraft to cover the coast. In the absence of such equipment, night searches for ships or missing aircraft were forlorn hopes. Even daylight operations were hampered by fog and rain. To overcome this very serious condition the RCAF established the Aircraft Detection Corps (ADC) manned by volunteer coast watchers in May 1940 and, in conjunction with the US, 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 to help friendly aircraft navigate were built at Ucluelet, Coal Harbour, and Alliford Bay and were added to Bella Bella and Prince Rupert.

Canadian Aircraft Detection Corps (CADC)

The CADC was organized in May 1940. Throughout Canada, civilian volunteers took training courses in aircraft detection. They became skilled in recognizing and identifying both allied and enemy aircraft, and they were introduced to the various communication methods that best suited the particular area they were serving in. The civilian volunteers provided a valuable, if rudimentary, early warning system at a time when radar was not fully developed. By the end of 1943 the Aircraft Detection Corps had grown to a peak enrollment of 30,000 members across the country.

On the west coast, long stretches of uninhabited coastline on the Queen Charlotte Islands were particularly vulnerable. A great many sheltered, deep-water bays and inlets existed that could serve as hidden staging areas for the Japanese naval forces. Civilians living in some of these remote areas organized an Aircraft Detection Corps and appointed their own Regional Directors and Chief Observers. Enthusiastic, patriotic volunteers kept a vigilant duty watch to ensure that no aircraft passed their posts unreported. From Langara Island off the northern tip of Graham Island, to Kunghit Island off the southern tip of Moresby Island, housewives, loggers, lighthouse keepers, farmers and fishermen went about their daily business with a pair of high-powered binoculars slung around their neck. By 15 November 1944, with the radar line operational, the RCAF Chief of Air Staff ordered the Aircraft Detection Corps disbanded as it was no longer needed.


RCAF Coast Watch Units (CWU)

The Aircraft Detection Corps operated but not at the hours when it is most needed. In order that it be made effective, it was necessary to post CWUs at the most isolated points on the west side of the coastal islands to augment the civilian observers. CWU approval was given on April 23, 1942. This approval established Number 1 CWU detachments on the Queen Charlotte Islands. They were issued with an outboard motor boat, camping gear, and all the necessary equipment to operate a bush-camp. A two-way radio set allowed them to communicate with the Station at Alliford Bay, and all reports went directly to the Commanding Officer, who had over-all control of No. 1 CWU.

The detachments set up their camps on high ground at the chosen vantage points along the coast. The search for personnel to carry out the Coast Watch project centered on Airmen with previous bush experience, who were familiar with survival methods and first aid. The men would need to rely on each other and work as a team as they faced the extremes of climate in the Queen Charlottes. Four Airmen manned each camp; one competent woodsman, two radio operators, and one general duties airman to maintain the quarters at the camp and do the cooking.

These detachments were an unqualified success and provided the anticipated “gap coverage” for a year and a half until the Radar Units on the Queen Charlotte Islands were fully operational. By 22 November 1943, Western Air Command began to disband No. 1 CWU and all detachments were disbanded by 19 December 1943.


Radar Stations-

Before Japan officially declared war on the U.S.A. the American authorities approached Canada with the proposal that they be allowed to install “Early-Warning” equipment on the British Columbia coast. The U.S. was to provide the equipment and trained personnel to operate it. The Canadian Government would provide the sites, the buildings and supplies, the United States detachments were to be under the command of Western Air Command and the R.C.A. F. would take over the handling of the detectors as soon as the Canadian personnel were adequately trained and WAC was prepared to assume the responsibility. All the Canadian stations, with the exception of two, were equipped with Canadian-built radar.

With the attack on Pearl Harbour the establishment of the chain of radar stations for surveillance of the Pacific Coast became a high priority. Construction of the Canadian stations began in December, 1941when builders and technicians moved into Amphritite Point and started construction of the first radar station and by November 1943 all the stations were in place thanks to the pioneering work of #9 CMU and building ability of Marwell Construction Company of Vancouver. These radar stations were integrated into a system that ran from Alaska to California. History of radar in B.C. is not the glamorous, action packed story of similar organizations in England and on the fighting front it is a story of lonely vigils in outposts and utter boredom that can only come in complete isolation, the monotony of constantly repeated tasks and little or no diversion. Initially the stations were called “Radio Detachments” and in 1943 the title “Radio Unit” was adopted. The term “RADAR” was not adopted by Canadians until late 1943. No thought of comfort for personnel or ease of communication entered into the considerations of station location crew. Efficiency of operation was the only factor to be considered. The other difficulties would be solved.

In the early days, radar (particularly for early-warning) was very sensitive to siting. It was necessary not only to have height of land but also to have a combination of physical conditions and station- spacing which would provide suitable coverage and safety overlapping. Thus, while some sites were in nice civilized areas, the large majority were located in isolated and almost inaccessible places. Many of the units were so remote and desolate that merely to get on to them from the ship meant a brief scuffle with the Grim Reaper. More than one member of the RCAF who was “lost on active service” was in fact claimed by the Pacific during such disembarkations. Some of the sites were so desolate that seawater had to be distilled and treated to provide fresh water for all purposes. In many places, merely stepping off the unit into the bush meant taking a good chance of being lost. At others the site was just bare rock, and the only way to get lost was to fall or get blown into the sea. The latter was a simple enough matter, as the winds sometimes reached velocities of up to 120 m.p.h.

Personnel were recruited from all over Canada; they came from every walk of life. There were teachers, clerks, engineers, students, and of course many radio amateurs or “hams”. None of them received any special physical or survival training. Although it was the policy to “rotate” personnel, it was impossible to move them to more pleasant locations as often as was desirable. Some of the boys became “bushed,” and a few had to be moved for the sake of their health. All in all, however, morale remained at a high level, thanks partly to the general determination to defeat the monotony by organizing recreation, and partly to hard work. Hunting, fishing and sport competitions were held. Carving driftwood and manufacture of novelties from sea- shells were favourite hobbies. The units were so small that padres and doctors could not be established therefore medical and religious services could only be supplied at comparatively infrequent intervals.

One aspect that is seldom talked about is the communications network that tied all these units into the filter rooms at Victoria and Prince Rupert where operational data was collected and analyzed before being passed on to fighter, bomber, and other stations,. On Canada’s West Coast radio transmission and reception was unreliable, to say the least, at that time- often due to turbulent weather, coupled with the mountainous terrain, etc. Landline communication circuits or Radio Telephone sites were installed to make sure connections from coastal Radar and other defence sites would be sure to reach Command Control Centres filter rooms in Victoria and Prince Rupert.

Construction and maintenance of telephone lines by # 9 CMU was carried out under a variety of mostly adverse conditions. Men, material and supplies had to be landed from boats as close to the work site as they could get. This in itself was no easy task and much of the material had to be carried on backpack boards through thickly forested areas and often over very rough terrain. Temporary tent work camps housed personnel. A number of these telephone lines were simply a single circuit of two #14 gauge copper wires on side blocks fastened to trees. The line usually would follow an irregular foot trail through the forest, up and down steep ravines, over rough rocky areas, and across very difficult terrain. Everything was done on foot and most things done by hand labour. One example was a single telephone circuit line which ran from Cape Scott across the thickly forested northern part of Vancouver Island to Port Hardy on the East Side of the Island. Then south along Johnstone Strait to a point almost at Campbell River (a distance of about 160 miles) where it connected into civilian telephone company facilities that took it to its destination.

Remote line maintenance sites typically were prefabricated wooden buildings, always referred to as “shacks”, with a number. These buildings had been transported in and erected sometime before the arrival of #9 CMU four man crews. Four bunks with straw mattress and several blankets, a firewood cook stove were provided. Drinking water was obtained from whatever stream or lake that could be found nearby. Two kerosene or gasoline lanterns provided light. 

Millions of dollars were spent in constructing the radar chain, in purchasing the equipment, and in training personnel and more than 3,000 officers and airmen were employed to operate and maintain the units. The coverage was very close to 100% so there is some assurance that nothing got through. Aircraft could be detected up to 150 miles depending on their altitude, and surface vessels were made visible to keen-eyed watchmen from 30 miles away. Yet, as far as is known, there were no tracks plotted from enemy aircraft so one could ask what Canada got out of all this. The records tend to prove, that the entire system was paid for in aircraft saved and experience gained. In one year on the West Coast, over fifty assists were given to friendly aircraft that were either lost or in distress. It is estimated that at least ten aircraft and crews probably owe their survival to the ground-based radar. If the estimate is true, this saving alone nearly paid for the chain. In addition, Canada accumulated a great deal of data regarding radar sites, construction problems, propagation of radio waves on both coasts, manufacture of radar, and personnel training. All this experience would prove to be invaluable in other future emergencies.

Radio Units in our area of coverage were; (AllifoRadar sitesrd Bay, Bella Bella and Coal Harbour Areas)

9 Radio Unit – Spider Island, BC

10 Radio Unit – Cape Scott, BC

11 Radio Unit – Ferrer Point, BC

26 Radio Unit – Langara Island, BC 

27 Radio Unit – Marble Island, BC

28 Radio Unit – Cape St. James, BC


Comments are closed.