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Sailors with wings – The rise and fall of the Royal Canadian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

Published in the The Naval Reserve Link
January 2007
Published in the Esprit de Corp Magazine
September 2007
Published on the www.aircraftcarrier.name web site
May 2010
The origins of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service go back to World War I, when the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in April 1915. Among the first British naval aviators were over 600 members of the Royal Canadian Naval Service. The RNAS was short lived, however, disbanding in April 1918. The personnel of the RNAS were merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps, thus forming the Royal Air Force.
In the meantime, Canada went ahead with its own plans to form a naval air service and on 5 September 1918, the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service was established. Like the RNAS, it too was short lived. The signing of the Armistice in November 1918, ended Canada’s first foray into naval aviation.

During World War II, the idea of a Canadian naval air service was revived by the British Admiralty. Among the recommendations of Captain H.N. Lay, RCN, Director of Operations for the formation of a naval air service, was a clarification of the differences between the duties of the RCN pilots and the Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. The RCN air service would be a carrier based element, while the RCAF would conduct coastal operations with shore-based aircraft.

For the duration of WWII, Royal Canadian Navy Reserve and RCN Volunteer Reserve pilots served with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, distinguishing themselves as effective combat pilots. 

Canada did have two aircraft carriers during WWII: HMCS NABOB, commissioned 9 March 1943 and HMCS PUNCHER, commissioned 5 February 1944. Although Canadian sailors manned both ships, they were commissioned as Royal Navy ships and the aircrews were members of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. Canada would have to wait until the end of WWII before a distinct Royal Canadian Navy Fleet Air Arm would come into being.

On 24 January 1946, the RCN commissioned its first official aircraft carrier, His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Warrior, formerly known as HMS Warrior. Two air squadrons were also formed the same day: 825 Squadron and 803 Squadron, making them the first official RCN air squadrons. HMCS Warrior served the RCN for a brief two- year period, before it was replaced by HMCS Magnificent, a similar class vessel.

The new air element was christened the Fleet Air Arm in May 1946, following in the footsteps of the Royal Navy. A year later, the name was officially changed to the Naval Air Branch. However, the name “Fleet Air Arm” remained in the lexicon of many naval personnel in an unofficial capacity right up to the end of the branch’s days.

Naval Aviation in Canada received another big boost with the acquisition of RCAF Station Dartmouth in September 1948. Keeping with the Royal Navy tradition of naming bases after sea birds, the station was re-named Royal Canadian Naval Air Station HMCS Shearwater. Royal Canadian Naval air squadrons had been based at Dartmouth since 1946, but they were simply tenants of the RCAF. Now naval air squadrons had a place to truly call their own.

In April 1950, the RCN took possession of 75 Avenger aircraft from the United States Navy, fitted with the latest anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment. The first ASW helicopter squadron was formed aboard HMCS Magnificent in 1955. The success of helicopters aboard ship was a particularly significant accomplishment for the RCN. In the early 1960s, the St. Laurent class destroyers were upgraded to destroyer-helicopter vessels, complete with helicopter flight-decks, making the RCN the first navy in the world to use helicopters on small surface ships.

The Royal Canadian Naval Reserve was also given authority to form air squadrons. In May 1953, VC 920 Squadron was formed as tender to HMCS York. Next came VC 921, formed as a tender to HMCS Cataraqui on 30 September 1953 and VC 922, formed as tender to HMCS Malahat on 1 December 1953. HMCS Montcalm and HMCS Techumseh formed VC 923 and VC 924 Squadrons respectively on 1 June 1954. Although HMCS Star did not have its own squadron due to its close proximity to HMCS York, the unit maintained a support unit for ground crew and maintenance. HMCS Star also had one Swordfish and two Seafire aircraft for their use at RCAF Station Hamilton and the unit conducted joint training with HMCS York at RCAF Station Downsview.

HMCS York’s VC 20 squadron, with their fleet of Avengers, had the distinction of being the only Naval Reserve air squadron to achieve carrier qualification. Markings were painted on the runways at RCAF Station Downsview so that York’s pilots could practice simulated aircraft carrier take-offs and landings.

In November 1955, the Royal Canadian Navy took possession of its first fighter jet, the F2H3 Banshee all-weather jet fighter, the crown jewel of naval aviation in Canada. VF 870 and VF 871 Squadrons replaced their Sea Fury aircraft with the new Banshee, flying them from both the flight deck of Canada’s newest aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, and their home base at Shearwater.

During their lifetime the Banshee squadrons would play an important role in the defence of the Canadian Sector for the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). The Banshee jet fighter even out-performed the RCAF’s CF-100 jet fighter, a great source of pride for Canada’s naval aviators.

In 1960, the RCN assumed control of the airfield at the former RCAF Station Debert, using it as a training facility for Navy fighter pilots. Like at RCAF Station Downsview, markings were painted on the runways to simulate a carrier deck. This would be a short-lived venture as the Debert facility was abandoned in the late 1960s.

Despite all the successes of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Branch, the climate was once again turning against Canada’s naval aviators. In 1962, the RCN turned down the opportunity to buy a United States Navy Essex-class carrier, with its state-of-the-art flight deck. The Banshees were slated for replacement, but instead of acquiring a new fighter for Canada’s Navy, the Canadian Government disbanded the Banshee squadrons. RCN fighter squadrons had lasted a mere 16 years.

The RCN Reserve also suffered due to the downturn in Canadian naval aviation, with most RCNR air squadrons being paid off by 1959. Only HMCS York’s VC 920 Squadron and HMCS Malahat’s VC 922 Squadron lasted longer, with both being paid off in 1964.

The unification of Canada’s Armed Forces in the mid-1960s was the beginning of the end for the Royal Canadian Naval Air Branch. In 1968, the Naval Air Branch became Maritime Air Group, a sub-unit of Maritime Command. HMCS Bonaventure, Canada’s only remaining aircraft carrier, was decommissioned in 1970. Shockingly, “The Bonnie” had just received a $17 million re-fit three years earlier. Many RCN members would argue its decommissioning seemed more political than one of practicality.

Although helicopters would still fly from the decks of the fleet’s Destroyers, all of the fleet’s fixed wing aircraft were now shore based.

The end of Canadian naval aviation came in 1975 when Air Command assumed control of Maritime Air Group. The Royal Canadian Naval Air Branch officially ceased to exist. HMCS Shearwater, by this time re-named CFB Shearwater, officially reverted to being an air force base.

Lieutenant-Commander (Retired) Stuart Soward puts it best when he says, “No doubt history will establish that Canadian Naval Aviation failed through neglect and misunderstanding on the one hand and RCAF hostility toward RCN Aviation on the other” (Quote from Hands To Flying Stations, Vol. 2, by Stuart Soward).

Canada’s Aircraft Carriers
In all, Canada had five aircraft-carriers:HMS NABOB, Ameer Class Escort Carrier, commissioned 9 March 1943 with Avengers and Wildcats aircraft. Canadian manned but commissioned as RN ship. It was paid off 30 Sept 1944.HMS PUNCHER, Ameer Class Escort Carrier, commissioned 5 February 1944. It flew Barracudas (821 Squadron) and Wildcats (881 Squadron.). Canadian manned but commissioned as RN ship. It was paid off 16 Jan 1946.
HMCS WARRIOR, a Colossus Class Light Fleet Carrier, commissioned 24 January 1946, originally HMS WARRIOR of the Royal Navy. Officially, it was the first RCN carrier. It flew Seafires (803 Squadron) and Fireflies (825 Squadron). It was paid off 23 March 1948.
HMCS MAGNIFICENT, Majestic Class Light Fleet Carrier, commissioned 7 April 1948. It flew Sea Furies (803 squadron) Avengers (825 squadron) Sikorsky HO4S3G Helicopters (HS 50 Squadron). It was paid off 14 June 1957.
HMCS BONAVENTURE , Majestic Class Light Fleet Carrier, commissioned 17 January 1957, originally HMS POWERFUL of the Royal Navy. It flew the F2H3 Banshee flown by VF 870, 871, VX 10 (Jet), CS2F Tracker flown by VS 880, 881, VX 10 (twin engine prop), CHSS2 Sea King, flown by HS 50 (Helicopter, jet), Sikorsky HO4S (Helicopter, piston engine) flown by HU 21 and a COD aircraft (Carrier On Deck), a stripped down version of the Tracker, flown by VU 32 Squadron.  It was paid off 3 July 1970.

Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR – Canada’s last Victoria Cross winner
World War II RCN pilot Lt Robert Hampton Gray, VC, DSC, RCNVR, has the distinction of being Canada’s last Victoria Cross winner.  Lt Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for valour in the British Commonwealth in the face of an enemy, for actions against Japanese forces at Onagawa Wan, Japan, leading a low level attack on a Japanese destroyer on 9 August 1945.  It was reported that Gray succeeded in sinking one destroyer with a direct hit before his airplane crashed into the bay.  His body was never recovered.  
The Japanese government erected a memorial on the shore of Onagawa Wan, Japan, in 2006, close to the area where his plane is known to have crashed.  He is the only member of a foreign military to be so honoured.
Gray also has the distinction of being the only member of the Royal Canadian Navy to win the Victoria Cross under RCN service.  While Commander Richard Bourke, VC, DSO, RCN, won the Victoria Cross in WWI, he was serving with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve at the time.  He joined the RCN during WWII.

Source Material: “THE BONNIE” by J. Allan Snowie.  Special thanks to Lieutenant-Commander (Retiredd) Stuart Soward, CD, Commander (Retired) Robert Williamson, CD, Commander (Retired) Fred Lee, CD, and Lieutenant-Commander Graeme G. Arbuckle, CD, CMS Staff Officer Heritage, for their assistance with this article.  Additional source material: Grant Dawson’s Homepage – Canadian Military Aviation Photographic Archives – http://www.chat.carleton.ca/~gdawson/milpics.html, www.shearwateraviationmuseum.ns.ca & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canadian_Victoria_Cross_recipients.

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.

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