The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP)

The following gives a brief history of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Several good books have been written on the topic, some are listed at the bottom of this page. You can also learn more – and experience actual BCATP artifacts – by visiting us at the museum.

In the 1930’s the Nazi regime, under the dictatorship of Adolph Hitler, came to power in Germany. Hitler’s plan was to dominate Europe, and the world. Using blitzkrieg strategy, Hitler’s forces took over a great deal of Europe while Britain, France, and other nations attempted to appease him. However his relentless invasion of nation after nation continued. He blamed Jewish people, and other non-Aryans for all the ills of mankind and embarked on a campaign of internment, torture, and extermination of those who did not meet his criteria as true to his race and creed. These actions inflamed the rest of the western world. He had to be stopped, an ultimatum was delivered to Hitler that should he carry out his threat to invade Poland, Britain and France would declare war on Germany. The threat did nothing to deter Hitler, so when he invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 war was declared by Britain and France on September 3rd, and by Canada on September 10.

It had long been recognized that the next war would, to a great extent, be fought by air forces. Germany was well ahead of anyone else in air power, thus, the British Commonwealth was aware of the necessity to rapidly develop its air combat resources. The first World War set a precedent for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP ) in Canada. Fully two thirds of the 21,000 Canadians who served in Britain’s air forces in the First World War entered through the RFC/RAF Canada, a recruiting and training organization established in Canada but controlled from London and commanded by a British officer. The BCATP had its origins in the pre-war determination of the strategic requirements of the RAF. The RAF proceeded to rebuild itself in the same manner that it had during the First World War when a large portion of the aircrew was drawn from outside Britain. Candidates were selected and trained in their home countries and arrived in Britain as fully qualified pilots under the command of the RAF. As World War II dawned, Canada insisted that Canadian trainee graduates would eventually be under the command of the R.C.A.F.

On 17 December 1939, agreement was reached between the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada on the training of pilots and other aircraft crews in Canada for subsequent service overseas.

The purposes of the BCATP were:
• To train air and ground crew for use in a combined Commonwealth effort to defeat the Axis Powers (Germany and Italy);
• To use facilities in Canada for this training plan. Canada had almost unlimited space, good flying conditions, and was at a safe distance from the scene of war;
• To be a meeting and training place for Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealand and other Commonwealth personnel, as well as others who had escaped from Nazi occupied Europe.

The video below (from Valour Canada) describes the plan and the museum.

The Scope of the BCATP
The Canadian government agreed to construct some 60 entirely new air training schools and to expand 20 existing smaller units. The R.C.A.F. would provide the training facilities to support the BCATP. Initially “The Plan” was to consist of; 3 Initial Training Schools, 13 Elementary Flying Training Schools, 16 Service Flying Training Schools, 10 Air Observer Schools, 10 Bombing and Gunnery Schools, 2 Air Navigation Schools and 4 Wireless Schools. Additional supporting facilities for recruitment, training, maintenance, and administration brought the total to 74 schools and units. All units of the original program, except for three bombing and gunnery schools, were in operation by the end of September 1941, seven months ahead of schedule. During 1941, 1,218 buildings of various types were completed and 28 new schools were opened.

In July 1940, the Canadian government accepted a British proposal to move 14 RAF schools to Canada. The next year, the RAF indicated that it wanted to relocate even more schools, bringing their numbers to 35, along with four operational training units and No. 31 Personnel Depot. Under a new agreement signed in June 1942, the termination date of the BCATP. was extended to March 1945 from March 1943. The BCATP reached it’s peak at the end of 1943 with 73 BCATP and 24 RAF flying schools in operation, these were supplemented by 184 ancillary units. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Canada had a total of 4,061 personnel in the R.C.A.F. At the peak of the war in 1944 there were 253,000 in the R.C.A.F.

During its five-year life, the “The Plan” involved almost 360 units and schools operating from approximately 230 sites, not including relief airfields. “The Plan” exceeded expectations: 131,553 aircrew from four nations were trained as well as some 80,000 ground crew, including approximately 17,000 in the Women’s Division. While the purposes and the glory of the “Plan” was training aircrew, this training could not have been carried out without the ground and other support crew. It is generally conceded that it took ten persons on the ground to keep one in the air. The training of ground crew was just as rigorous as that of the aircrew, but generally less appreciated by the general population. Ground crew consisted of everything from aero-engine mechanics (fitters) and air frame mechanics (riggers), instrument technicians, administration, vehicle mechanics and drivers, to cooks, service police and other trades and occupations. Click here to see a chart illustrating the sequence of training for the various trades in the BCATP. More than 100 new airfields were built and many more were vastly improved and expanded. For a list of all BCATP facilities, go to this Wikipedia page.

In terms of manpower involved, deadlines met, and financial expenditure, the building of “The Plan” exceeded the building of the CPR. It was an undertaking whose success was underpinned by Canadian contractors, flying clubs, other government agencies and the ordinary person in the street. After the war and even today, the BCATP legacy serves Canada. The accomplishments were both numerous and impressive:
• Some 8,300 buildings were erected, of which 701 were hangars or of hangar-type construction; fuel storage totaling more than 26 million gallons installed.
• 300 miles of water mains and a similar length of sewer mains laid, involving two million cubic yards of excavation.
• 100 sewage treatment and disposal plants and 120 water pumping stations completed.
• Steam generation approached 80,000 horsepower.
• More than 2,000 miles of main power lines and 535 miles of underground electrical cable placed, servicing a total connected electrical power load of over 80,700 horsepower.

What it all cost.
The original cost figure of $600,000,000 for the initial three year plan was revised early in the summer of 1941 when the Minister for Air estimated the joint expenditure of all countries to March 31, 1943 (the initial end date), would be $824,000,000, plus $28,000,000 for the completion of training the pupils then in advanced schools. The final cost of the BCATP ended up being $2,231,129,039.26, of which Canada contributed $1,617,958,108.79.

The Legacy of The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
When the war was over many of the training bases were converted to civilian use, thus providing several more airfields than would have been the case had the BCATP not existed.
The training establishment changed the social and economic conditions in many communities for ever. For example the influx of 1,500 or more trainees and staff were added to Manitoba towns, such as Virden, Neepawa, Souris, and others. Hundreds of BCATP buildings became community halls, hockey rinks, housing, business structures, and, in our case, a museum!

Finally, because young men & women from all parts of Canada came together during training, the BCATP was probably one of the greatest unifying forces in our history.

Britain’s Sir Winston Churchill referred to “The Plan” as Canada’s greatest contribution to the Allied victory in WW II. As a result of the importance of the BCATP to victory in WW II, U.S.A. President F.D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as “The Aerodrome of Democracy”. By 1945 the Royal Canadian Air Force had become the worlds 4th largest Air Force.

Click to see a list of WWII BCATP facilities in Manitoba

Some Books Relating to the BCATP
Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada ad the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945. (1983) by F.J. Hatch
(A free pdf/online version is available at
Wings For Victory: The Remarkable Story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. (1994) by S. Dunsmore
The Plan (1984) by J.N. Williams
Training For Victory: The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West (1989) by P.C. Conrad
Behind The Glory: Canada’s Role in the Allied Air War. (2005) by T. Barris
The Royal Canadian Air Force: A Pictorial History – The Royal Flying Corps, The Canadian Air Force, The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (1992) by M.V. Winton
A Thousand Shall Fall: The True Story of a Canadian Bomber Pilot in World War Two. (2003) by M. Peden, Q.C.