Approximately 250,000 men served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Over 17,000 of them would be killed. During the early stages of the war, the Canadian military's main role in Europe was to aid the British home defence. In July 1940, the 1st Canadian division was the only fully-equipped force in England. Canadian pilots fought in the Battle of Britain. After successfully aiding in the defence of British cities against the massive Luftwaffe bombing offensive, Canadian squadrons began to make raids on France, attacking German air bases, gun positions, and rail lines.
One third of the 48 RCAF squadrons that served in Britain were attached to the Bomber Command. This arm of the Canadian air force suffered heavy losses during their sorties over enemy territory. By mid-1943, Canadian bomber crews were making nightly bombing runs on Germany, hoping to weaken that nation's ability to produce war material. Lancaster and Halifax bombers dropped thousands of tons of explosives on factories and steel mills. They also deluged the German cities of Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Berlin with bombs. The attack on Hamburg is regarded as particularly controversial. On 24 June 1943 in a massive raid, 800 bombers flattened the city. Three days later they returned, dropping fire bombs that killed almost 50,000 people. Hitler denounced the action as a terror bombing, even though the Germans had systematically bombed civilian targets like Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, and Coventry.
Although the RCAF served predominantly in Britain, Canadian fliers also fought in Italy and north-western Europe as well as providing transport in Burma. In addition, a large number of Canadians served in the Royal Air Force, where they made up 20 per cent of personnel.
Canada provided vital service to the RAF and other air forces by training a great many Allied airmen through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Early in the conflict, the British proposed that the Canadian government establish bases that would train men for service in the air. Prime Minister King, ever hopeful of limiting active Canadian participation in the war, was agreeable. Training bases such as these would allow Canada to make a significant contribution to the Allied effort while carrying little risk of casualties or alienating Quebec. Whatever King's motivation, the military importance of the program is indisputable. The 107 training bases located across Canada produced over 130,000 pilots, gunners, and navigators who were essential to the success of Commonwealth air forces.
Arduous conditions were not confined to the ground war. The battle for control of the skies was also extremely perilous -- and deadly.
Air raids, intended to destroy the military-industrial complex of Nazi Germany, also killed tens of thousands of civilians, pulverized cities, and resulted in the loss of thousands of Allied airmen and aircraft. Being a member of a bomber crew was fraught with peril, as Bomber Command's raid of 28 July 1944 on Stuttgart, Germany demonstrates.
On the night of 27 July 1944, Bomber Command informed Murray Peden and his crew that Stuttgart would be the following night's target. Peden, a pilot from Winnipeg, flew with the RCAF's 214 Squadron of 100 Group, which was responsible for electronic countermeasures -- a means of disrupting communications between enemy fighters and their controllers on the ground. Bomber Command had attacked the German city on two successive nights (24 and 25 July). It thought that a third attack would be a brilliant stroke because the Germans would not anticipate such a move. As he recalled later, Peden was very uncomfortable with the decision.
"I felt sick. I did not normally second-guess the routing laid on by the high brass; but this conception ... [which involved using the same flight route for the third straight time] struck me as an invitation to disaster ..."(1)
Peden's B-17 bomber took off from England the night of 28 July, bound for Germany. Shortly after crossing the French coast, his misgivings were proved justified as German fighters intercepted his group.
"Combats broke out on all sides in the darkness," Peden recollected. "... [S]oon the terrible sight of aircraft blowing up in mid-air, or burning fiercely as they spun to earth, was repeated time and again. It took us three hours and 55 minutes to claw our way to Stuttgart, and by the time we got there I had lost count of the number of combats that had broken out in close proximity to us, all too many of them terminating in the usual dreadful way ... Time after time I called: 'On your toes, gunners, there are fighters right near us,' as vicious exchanges of fire tore the blackness open ..."(2)
As with most bombing missions, the return trip for Peden's group was as dangerous as the bombing run. German fighters constantly harassed the RCAF bombers. They shot down many, although some survived the calamitous trip back to England. Even then, however, bomber crews often lost one or more members. Tail-gunners were especially vulnerable to attack. Perched precariously in an unprotected glass cocoon at the rear of the bomber, and mercilessly targeted by enemy fighters, they suffered a disproportionate number of bomber crew casualties. On the night of Peden's flight, Bomber Command lost 62 aircraft and scores of fliers, most of these on the Stuttgart raid.
Overall, bomber crews suffered a far higher casualty rate compared to other armed services. Less than one in three bomber crews escaped with their lives after a 30 operation tour. Some 8,200 Canadians perished in service of Bomber Command. Life as a fighter pilot, though apparently glamorous, was also extremely risky. Many RCAF fighter pilots died, were injured, or bailed out of a damaged fighter plane.
Hilly Brown was one of the RCAF fighter pilots fortunate enough to have survived after "ditching." In mid-August 1940, a German pilot shot down Brown's plane over the English Channel. Brown was able to escape his smoking aircraft as it spiralled down towards the waters below. He was extremely lucky; landing in the Channel, he suffered minor leg injuries and facial burns. Shaken but mostly unscathed, Brown managed to return to the air in a new fighter two days later.
Life for fighter pilots who avoided combat injuries was still very difficult. While some seemed to thrive on the strains of being a fighter pilot, the stress of flying hundreds of missions devastated others. Mind-numbing fatigue was part of the flyer's everyday existence. Many pilots developed digestive and nervous problems.