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Is Borden Part of Canada’s Fading Military Heritage?

Published in the Barrie Advance
18 October 2004
Canadian Forces Base Borden has been an important part of Simcoe County since opening in 1916. In its 88 years of existence, the base has seen hundreds of thousands of military personnel pass through its many training schools. In some cases, several generations of families have graced Borden’s hallowed halls.

Over the years, CFB Borden has played an important role in Canada’s military history. Unfortunately, time and money have not been kind to some historic areas of Base Borden.

The Borden airfield not only has the distinction of being the first military airfield in Canada in 1917, but it is also the birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) established a Flying Training School at the aerodrome in 1917. Originally fifteen wooden hangars were built for their use, although three more were added by the end of the War. With their unique bowed roof design, they are the oldest example of this hangar style left in Canada. The fact that any of these hangars, intended only as temporary buildings for World War I, remain today speaks to the craftsmanship that went into their construction. Although small by today’s modern aircraft standards at only 20 by 36 metres, they were more than adequate for the Curtiss JN-4 biplanes of their day.

Through two World Wars, the Korean War and the peacetime in between, Borden’s hangars and airfield have served as an important training base for Canada’s Air Force, both for the training of pilots and aircrew, as well as a centre for technical training and professional development.

Today, Borden’s aerodrome is a shadow of its former self. Only eight of the original eighteen Royal Flying Corps hangars remain today, and the existence of this important element in Canada’s military and aviation history is in serious doubt. Despite the fact that the hangars were designated as Classified Federal Heritage Buildings in 1987, despite the fact that the hangars and the airfield were designated as a National Historic Site in 1989 and despite the fact that the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a monument to commemorate Borden’s place in Canada’s Military Aviation History in 2002, National Defence Minister John McCallum granted the approval to demolish three more hangars. Even the dedication of Hangar #11 on April 3, 2004, to the memory of World War I Victoria Cross winner Lieutenant Alan McLeod, VC, may not save it from demolition some day too.

Unfortunately 16 Wing Borden does not have the resources to preserve the RFC hangars, nor in all fairness, should they have to divert the limited funds from their training budget to preserve the hangars. It should be up to Canadians in general to do that.

Borden’s airfield is also in a poor state. Military pilot training at Borden ended with the closure of No. 1 Service Flying Training School in 1946, and for the next 20 years, RCAF Station Camp Borden concentrated primarily on technical training, run by No. 2 Technical Training School.

Military flying training returned in 1966 when the Primary Flying School re-located to Borden after the closure of RCAF Station Centralia, north of London. This move was short-lived however, as the school once again re-located to CFB Portage La Prairie in Manitoba in 1970.

Today, the only flying training at Borden is done by 400 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, who re-located to Borden in 1996 after the closure of CFB Toronto. The Squadron, a combined Regular Force – Reserve Force unit, operate from a helicopter pad and the two large, post-World War II “Arch-style” hangars at the east end of the airfield.

The crumbling tarmac was declared abandoned in 1997 (meaning no longer maintained), although the runways remained in use by the Royal Canadian Air Cadet’s Central Ontario Gliding Centre and two civilian flying clubs, the Borden Flying Club and Base Borden Soaring Group, until the airfield was officially closed to all aircraft in 2002.

The Cold War:

In addition to its primary function as a training base, Borden would have played a very important role in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. By the late 1950s, the threat of a nuclear war had become so great that the Canadian government decided to construct a secret underground bunker to house the major elements of the Federal Government in the event of an emergency. Most Provincial Governments followed suit by building their own bunkers. The Ontario Government chose Camp Borden for the site of their Emergency Operations Centre bunker, a two story underground facility that also doubled as a communications station, staffed by personnel from 400 Communications Squadron. A smaller remote communications bunker was also constructed near Edenvale, at the site of a former RCAF airfield.

Fortunately, the bunker was never used for its intended purpose and with the end of the Cold War, the bunker was vacated in 1994. Borden’s Bunker served as the Headquarters for the Regional Cadet Support Unit (Central) from 2001-2004, until they re-located to the Maple Conference Centre, formerly the Officers Mess for RCAF Station Camp Borden. The bunker is once again vacant.

Current plans call for the Borden Bunker to be sealed up, and with that, the door will be closed on an interesting piece of Ontario’s, and Simcoe County’s, military history. A similar bunker in Debert, Nova Scotia, as well as the former Federal Government bunker near Ottawa, have both been turned into Cold War museums. The “Diefenbunker” has been a great success and is a great tourist asset to the Ottawa area. Perhaps Borden’s bunker might prove to be a great tourism asset to the Barrie / GTA area, as well as a great addition to the Base Borden Military Museum organization, a museum which is currently operates from three locations including the aforementioned Hangar #11 and one of the few remaining WWII-era “H-huts” at Borden.

For more information, visit the 16 Wing Borden web site at http://www.airforce.forces.gc.ca/16wing or visit the Base Borden Military Museum web site at http://ipmslondon.tripod.com/museumreviews/id17.html .

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/is-borden-part-of-canadas-fading-military-heritage/

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