How the Prairies helped win the Second World War 

Hello Flatlanders,

Back in 1992, before Russell Crowe was a household name, he was in Brandon filming For the Moment. The then 28-year-old actor played an Australian airman sent to Manitoba as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) during the Second World War. (There’s not much available online about the film, but I was able to dig up a New York Times review).

So what was BCATP? In 1939, Canada agreed to train 50,000 aircrew a year from Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Since the UK could fall under enemy attack at any time, aircrew would be safer training in Canada.

Canada’s wide-open spaces made it a suitable place for training, and the fact that Canada couldn’t be reached by enemy aircraft from Germany or Japan also helped. Pilots training in Canada flew the Tiger Moth, the Boeing Stearman or the Fleet Finch biplane.

131,533 Allied pilots and aircrew were trained in Canada.

There were 107 schools and 184 other supporting units at 231 locations across Canada.

Under BCATP, there were training commands in both Regina and Winnipeg.


A Tiger Moth. GETTY IMAGES.

Air crew began their training at a Manning Depot where they shined boots, marched in parade and did rifle drills. There were Manning Depots in Brandon and Swift Current.
 
From there, they went to an Initial Training School where they learned things like navigation, the theory of flight and meteorology. There were training schools at Regina College, the Regina Normal School, Saskatoon’s Bedford Road Collegiate and at the Saskatoon Normal School.
 
After this, they went onto an Elementary Flying Training School to get in their first 50 hours of basic flying instruction on a simple trainer like the De Havilland Tiger MothFleet Finch, or Fairchild Cornell over an eight week period. These schools were in:

  • Regina, SK
  • Prince Albert, SK
  • Davidson, SK
  • Yorkton, SK
  • Assiniboia, SK
  • Caron, SK
  • Portage La Prairie, MB
  • Virden, MB
  • Neepawa, MB

The next 16 weeks were spent at a Service Flying Training School. The first half of this time was spent at an intermediate training squadron. This was followed by six weeks at an advanced training squadron and the final two weeks were conducted at a Bombing and Gunnery School. Some of this training was done in:

  • Dauphin, MB
  • Brandon, MB
  • Souris, MB
  • Gimli, MB
  • Carberry, MB
  • Saskatoon, SK
  • Yorkton, Sk
  • North Battleford, SK
  • Moose Jaw, SK
  • Estevan, SK
  • Swift Current, SK
  • Weyburn, SK

The Bombing and Gunnery School, which offered instruction in the techniques of bomb aiming and aerial machine gunnery were set up in areas that had the space for bombing ranges. Such schools were set up in:

  • Mossbank, SK
  • Dafoe, SK
  • Macdonald, MB
  • Paulson, MB

Air Observers, which were later called navigators, learned how to read an aeronautical chart and a magnetic compass at schools in:

  • Regina, SK
  • Macdonald, MB
  • Dafoe, SK
  • Paulson, MB

There was an Air Navigation School set up in Rivers, MB where aircrew took a four-week course in astronavigation, where one can determine the position and course of an airplane by looking at the stars. 
 
Airfields could also be found in:

  • Boharm, SK
  • Brada, SK
  • Brora, SK
  • Buttress, SK
  • Chandler, SK
  • Halbrite, SK
  • Hamlin, SK
  • Osler, SK
  • Outram, SK
  • Ralph, SK
  • Rhein, SK
  • St. Aldwyn, SK
  • Sturdee, SK
  • Vanscoy, SK
  • Chater, MB
  • Douglas, MB
  • Eden, MB
  • Elgin, MB
  • Hartney, MB
  • Netley, MB
  • North Junction,MB
  • Oberon, MB
  • Petrel, MB
  • Valley River, MB

Wireless communications were taught in Winnipeg, which also had a repair depot.

If your hobby was plane spotting back then, there would be a lot of air traffic to watch. (Plane spotting is like bird watching. If you want to learn more or are looking for a new hobby, read How Plane Spotting Is Getting Me Through the Pandemic).

A lot of these planes are seen sitting still in the background of the film. However, some of the planes at the museum were still flightworthy after a bit of refurbishing, and the production had the budget to cover the insurance.
 
In the film, you can see de Havilland Tiger Moth and North American Harvard trainers from the museum flying around.
 
Some Brandon landmarks, including a church and the main street area, in the movie were filmed in Carberry, Manitoba.
 
Many local residents are in the movie as extras.

There is a dance hall sequence filmed in Albert Johnson’s Palladium on Rosser Avenue in Brandon, which as I understand it is no more.

A Hawk. Photo: Cpl Manuela Berger/4 Wing Imaging

Where to see this Second World War history

If you haven’t been to Brandon’s Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum, where For the Moment was filmed, I would recommend it. If you’re feeling adventurous, and have the money, you can book a flight in a Tiger Moth, Cornell or a Harvard.

The Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw also has a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan gallery

And there is the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada in Winnipeg that has a Tiger Moth in its collection.

What’s left of these Second World War training schools?

Canada still trains Air Force pilots from around the world on the Prairies.

Moose Jaw, for instance, isn’t just home to the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

Students training to be Canadian Air Force pilots pass through 15 Wing Moose Jaw, training on the Harvard II, a single engine propeller plane.

They can later move onto the Hawk, basically a starter jet used for training before graduating to the F-18.

Fighter training happens in Cold Lake, AB, along the Saskatchewan border. Cold Lake’s air weapons range, where bombs are detonated, crosses over into Saskatchewan.

Here’s how Air Force student-pilots train at 15 Wing Moose Jaw.

Before going to Moose Jaw, all Canadian Air Force pilots start in Portage La Prairie where they learn how to fly on the Grob 120A, a tiny little two-seater single engine plane.

If the pilots go onto fly multi-engine planes instead of jets, they will return to Portage La Prairie after Moose Jaw to learn how to fly the King Air, a plane with twin propellors. (Last week, a King Air being flown by the Canadian Air Force crashed in Thunder Bay).

Air Force helicopter pilots are also trained in Portage.They fly the CH-139 Jet Ranger before moving onto the Bell 412 CF for phase two of their training.

Winnipeg is home to 17 Wing, which has the Air Force’s William G. Barker VC Aerospace College that offers a number of advanced training courses.

The school was named after a First World War hero who was the deadliest air ace that ever lived.

Winnipeg also has the Canadian Forces School of Survival and Aeromedical Training.

Present day navigators train in Winnipeg too, flying in the back of a Dash-8, also called the Gonzo because of the plane’s long blue nose, which houses a large radar system.
 
It’s not uncommon to run into pilots from NATO countries, like France, Germany and Italy, on any of these Prairie Air Force Bases because of the NATO Flight Training in Canada program.


Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. A Manitoba Métis beader is heading to Paris Fashion Week after she attracted the attention of a New York-based fashion retailer.
  2. Winnipeg speed skater Tyson Langelaar placed eighth in the 1500 metres at the Olympics.
  3. Steinbach writer Miriam Toews had a piece in The New Yorker this week, reflecting on her family’s past while walking down the frozen Assiniboine River. Back in 2019, Toews wrote another article for The New Yorker about having to reckon with her Mennonite past.
  4. The new Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program intends to offer farmers up to six free one-on-one sessions with mental health counsellors who have a background in agriculture.
  5. Historians are mourning the loss of an important building from Winnipeg’s jazz era.

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. The new Tugaske potash mine, northwest of Regina, will use far less water because of new technology that recycles water.
  2. Regina’s Mark McMorris, who won his third consecutive Olympics bronze medal Monday, plans to take another run at gold in 2026. Meanwhile, his family back in Regina recalled how nerve-wracking it was to watch him compete this week.
  3. The Government of Saskatchewan announced the signing of Canada’s first provincial Memorandum of Understanding with the Philippines to create post-secondary research partnerships and education exchanges.
  4. The border City of Lloydminster will be getting bigger after Alberta approves annexation.
  5. Moose Jaw started the process of installing 730 solar panels on city buildings, which is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 829 tonnes annually.

Photo of the Week

The Snowbirds perform over 19 Wing Comox, British Columbia on April 11, 2017. Photo: Sgt. Halina Folfas/19 Wing Imaging Services.

Some recent reader feedback:

Fern wrote in about the Jan. 25 issue Gophers are smarter and more interesting than we think. “This is quite interesting,” she wrote. “Never thought I would read a whole article about gophers (ground squirrels apparently).”

And John wrote in about the Feb. 1 Olympic issue From Regina to the back of a cereal box. “Sport is meant to distract the public from actual issues, guess its working,” he wrote.

I appreciate the point, because there is the Roman idea of giving people “bread and circuses” to pacify discontent and divert attention from grievances.

According to the International Olympics Committee, the goal of the games is to contribute towards building a peaceful and better world by bringing people together through sport without discrimination.

If one wants to go down the Olympic rabbit hole, after the Tokyo Olympics last summer, The Atlantic did a deep dive into all that is wrong with the contemporary games. However, despite all the issues, a former Olympic athlete makes the argument that the Olympics still matter.


Until next week…

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

Important work at a critical time.

Over the last 20 years, on the Prairies and beyond,  local newsrooms have shrunk, which means not much investigative journalism gets done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Flatlander is changing this.

 

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