Haldimand County – a big part of Canada’s air force history

By MPP Bobbi Ann Brady

The Second World War was a dark time in Canada’s history, and many may not know that Haldimand County was an integral part of our air training program.

Although there were no air raids in Canada, most towns nationwide had air raid sirens.

It was a time most can’t imagine. Take the uncertainty surrounding 9/11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan and multiply it a thousand-fold. I remember the images of coffins being unloaded from military airplanes and people lining the bridges in a sombre salute watching the bodies of Canadians head to their final resting places.

There were 158 military personnel killed in Afghanistan. Petty Officer Second Class Douglas “Craig” Blake, who was born in Simcoe, had the unfortunate honour of being the first Royal Canadian Navy member to die in the conflict.

There was a sense of uncertainty at the time. Although there were no domestic attacks, there were threats. I can’t imagine how families of military personnel posted overseas felt. That sense was felt by one in 10 families  in the Second World War given 1.1 million Canadians were serving in the military, with a population of about 12 million.  

It’s hard to know if locals felt more secure with two air force bases in Haldimand County, or if the drone of trainers involved in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) had an unnerving effect as residents wondered if it were friend or foe. The sight of Canada’s yellow Harvard planes provided fast reassurance of friendliness.

Canada set up BCATP in 1939 to train pilots from all Commonwealth countries. The remoteness and large, wide-open spaces made it an ideal location. Existing airfields were transitioned to military use, and many more were built increasing the total number of installations to 231. Several local locations were part of the program.

Harvards and Yales flew out of Dunnville. Hagersville airfield hosted Harvards and two-engine Avro Ansons. Both were Service Flying Training Schools for pilots in the second stage of training. Those trained in Harvards and Yales became fighter pilots, while Anson pilots were assigned to bombers. Brantford also had a base, and today’s Ontario Police College in Aylmer was the site for training both fighter and bomber pilots.

Dunnville’s No. 6 Service Flying Training School was one of the first locations to train fighter pilots. Today, it’s home to the No.6 RCAF museum, which includes operating aircraft, photos, and memorabilia. I was at the museum just a few weeks ago and crawled inside some of the aircraft. I had a difficulty comprehending how anyone could spend several hours in an aircraft that appears impossible to get off the ground. 

Each base was required to have a relief landing field in case the primary runway was disabled. Cayuga was the site of one of these. Tillsonburg, which is now home to the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association, was another.  Jarvis also had a base, but it wasn’t one of the relief sites.

By war’s end, the BCATP had graduated more than 130,000 personnel from Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Canada then had the fourth-largest allied air force.

Today, fewer than 100 40-year-old jets make up our entire stable of fighters. Those fighters are located at just two bases. The good news is new F-35s are coming, although cancellation fees associated with the on-again, off-again political football added to the cost and delayed the planes.

Bobbi Ann Brady is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk