History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Reserve

  1. Introduction
  2. Inter-war Years
  3. Second World War
  4. Post War to Integration
  5. Post Integration
  6. 2000 and Beyond

Canada's Air Reserve came into being on 1 April 1924 as part of the official inauguration of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

Throughout the inter-war years following the First World War, the cataclysm of the Second World War, the Korean War, the decades of the Cold War, the Gulf War and the recent Balkans Air Campaign and current deployment in Yugoslavia, the men and women of Canada's RCAF Reserve have served selflessly and with distinction as part of Canada's air force.

Canadian air reservists have served nobly in the cause of freedom, human dignity, and international peace and stability. Some have lost their lives in such service and many have suffered grievous injuries. Canada should take great pride in all hers sons and daughters who have served and in those who have fallen.

The Inter-war Years During the First World War, Canada's airmen flew primarily as members of the British Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service and later the Royal Air Force.

The need for an air reserve featured prominently in the deliberations surrounding the development of an embryonic Canadian Air Force in 1919-1920 under the Air Board and its successor the RCAF in 1924.

The RCAF was created with two branches - the Permanent Active Air Force (PAAF) and the Non-Permanent Active Air Force (NPAAF). The NPAAF was designed to be a ready reserve of personnel who could augment the PAAF. As the RCAF's duties increased during the late 1920s, many of the personnel taken on strength to fulfill the myriad commitments were enrolled on the register of the NPAAF.

Indeed there were some notable members, including W.A Curtis, a decorated First World War fighter pilot who rose to become the Chief of the Air Staff, and C.R. Slemon who later retired from the RCAF as Deputy Commander in Chief of North American Air Defence Command (NORAD).

The Depression changed the situation. In the 1932/33 fiscal year, over one-fifth of all RCAF personnel, most of them from the NPAAF rolls, were released under what has been called the "Big Cut". There was, however, a positive side. On 5 October 1932, the NPAAF was formally activated with the formation of three squadrons: No. 10 at Toronto, No. 11 at Vancouver and No. 12 at Winnipeg.

The squadrons were assigned the role of Army Co-operation. While recruitment commenced immediately upon authorization of the squadrons, it took longer for the units to become sufficiently organized to allow Aircraft to be issued. In 1934, each squadron was authorized five de Havilland Moths and a Permanent Force detachment of two officers and five airmen to provide the initial flying and groundcrew training.

Further squadrons followed. In 1934, No. 15 (Fighter) and No. 18 (Bomber) were created at Montreal. In 1935, No. 19 (Bomber) was established at Hamilton and No. 20 (Bomber) was formed at Regina. In 1937, No. 13 (Fighter) was created in Calgary and No. 21 (Fighter) was formed at Quebec City. On 1 April 1938, the last three NPAAF squadron were authorized: No. 114 (Bomber) at London, No. 116 (Coastal Artillery Support) at Halifax and No. 117 (Fighter) at Saint John. On 1 December 1938, three headquarters were authorized for the NPAAF: No. 100 at Vancouver, No. 101 at Toronto, and No. 102 at Montreal. With the expansion of the RCAF prior to the Second World War, room had to be made in the numbering blocks for the Permanent Force. The NPAAF were thus renumbered in the "100-block" on 15 November 1937: No. 10 became No. 110, No. 11 became No. 111, etc. The designation NPAAF was used until 1 December 1938 when it was changed to Auxiliary Active Air Force, which it remained until mobilization for the Second World War.

The distinction between the Auxiliary Active Air Force and the Permanent Active Air Force disappeared when the Auxiliary was mobilized on 3 September 1939. At that time, the Auxiliary consisted of 12 squadrons and constituted one-third of the RCAF strength.

Of the 12 Auxiliary squadrons, only five were initially fully mobilized. The remaining seven were disbanded because of lack of personnel; however, five were later reformed and served as part of the Home War Establishment.

Two of the three initial RCAF squadrons that deployed to England in 1940 were Auxiliary units - Nos. 110 and 112. Both anticipated serving in France; however, with the fall of that nation, they were relegated to training. The Squadrons were renumbered on 1 March 1941, becoming Nos. 400 and 402 Squadrons and reaching operational status in November and March 1941 respectively. Squadron Leader F.M. Gobeil, Commanding Officer of 242 (Canadian) Squadron and an Auxiliary Active Air Force pilot, scored the RCAF's first aerial victory by shooting down a German BF 110 over Belgium on 25 May 1940.

On the home front, No. 119 Squadron served in an anti-submarine role in the Gulf of St. Lawrence while No. 120 performed a similar role on the West Coast. Both were disbanded in 1944. No. 118 Squadron served in the Aleutians as a fighter squadron until 1943 when it was redesignated No. 438 and deployed to England.

This period saw both the high-water mark and the low-water mark for the RCAF Reserve. Starting in the late 1940s the Reserve built up its strength to a peak of 5,700 personnel in 1955 and formed an integral part of the air defence of North America. However, government restraint and a changing world saw the Reserve depleted to a low of 750 in 1965.

In 1946, the government approved a new scheme for the air force. This included a Regular Force, an Auxiliary (an active reserve force), a Reserve (a ready reserve force similar to the Supplementary Reserve of today) and the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

The Auxiliary was assigned the role of defending Canada's major cities, a task they would continue for 12 years. It placed the Auxiliary almost on a par with the Regular Force, operating not only flying squadrons but also radar units, medical, technical training and intelligence units.

The RCAF peacetime establishment called for 15 auxiliary squadrons and 4500 personnel. Authority was granted on 15 April 1946 to form seven squadrons: No. 400 (Toronto), Nos. 401 and 438 (Montreal), No. 402 (Winnipeg), No. 418 (Edmonton), No. 424 (Hamilton), and No. 442 (Vancouver).

Each squadron received Harvard Aircraft and commenced service flying training. The eastern squadrons trained as fighter-interceptors, the western squadrons as fighter-bombers. On 1 April 1947, No. 406 Squadron was authorized and formed at Saskatoon.

In March 1948, Nos. 400, 401, 438 and 442 began to receive the de Havilland Vampire, the RCAF's first jet fighter. Nos. 402 and 442 were issued Mustangs and Nos. 406 and 418 received Mitchell light bombers. Two more squadrons were formed in 1948: No. 420 (London) and No. 403 (Calgary), both of which were equipped with Mustangs. By the mid-1950's, the Auxiliary flew modern Sabre 5 fighters in defence of North America. These were front-line fighters for a serious mission.

The situation started to change in 1958. The government believed that due to changing technology, future conflicts would be fought with the forces already in place. In this scenario, wars would be over before there was time to mobilize the Reserves, and get them and their equipment to where they were needed.

The Air Council announced on 26 March 1958 that the Auxiliary would be employed as light transport, and search and rescue units. They would trade their fighters and bombers for Expeditors and Otters. This change also resulted in control of the Auxiliary passing from Air Defence Command to Air Transport Command on 1 April 1961.

The change in role was not the only cause of reductions to the Auxiliary. During 1961, the introduction of more powerful radar in the Pinetree Line resulted in the disbandment of the Auxiliary's Aircraft Control and Warning units. In all, over 80 percent of the manpower of the Auxiliary resigned or were declared surplus.

By 1964, only four headquarters and six active flying units remained on strength: No. 11 Air Reserve Wing in Montreal controlling Nos. 401 and 438 Squadrons, No. 14 Air Reserve Wing in Toronto controlling Nos. 400 and 411 Squadrons, No. 17 Air Reserve Wing in Winnipeg controlling No. 402 Squadron, and No. 18 Air Reserve Wing in Edmonton controlling No. 418 Squadron.

The mid-1970s saw a resurgence of the RCAF Reserve. As the defence budget was reduced throughout the 1970s, military planners recognized that they could save money by using part-timers to perform specific tasks or to augment Regular Force units.

The concept of "twinned squadrons" or "twinning" was introduced. Under this concept Air Reserve units began to use the equipment of Regular Force units when not required by the latter, thus eliminating the need to purchase additional equipment.

In Edmonton, 418 Squadron shared Twin Otters with 440 Squadron and in Winnipeg, 402 Squadron worked with the Canadian Forces Air Navigation School flying the venerable Dakota. On 1 May 1975, 420 Squadron was resurrected, moving to Summerside to share 880 Squadron's Trackers for coastal patrol duties.

Another new concept, the RCAF Reserve Augmentation Flight, was pioneered in Moose Jaw in 1975. In 1976, Air Reserve Group was formed in Winnipeg as part of Air Command with a mandate to administer some 950 RCAF Reserve personnel, although RCAF Reserve units responded operationally to Regular Force group commanders.

During the late 1970s, Air Command retired the Twin Otters in Montreal and Toronto and introduced modern helicopters. By 1981/82, 1 Wing in Montreal and 2 Wing in Toronto (renamed from Nos. 11 and 12 Air Reserve Wings on 1 January 1969) were equipped with Kiowa helicopters. The two Wings gained an operationally active role in support of Canada's ground forces.

On the support side, Nos. 1 and 2 Tactical Aviation Support Squadrons (TASS) were formed in 1987. These squadrons were composed of 1/3 Regular and 2/3 Reserve Force personnel. Their role was to provide Aircraft maintenance and logistical support to the squadrons of 1 and 2 Wings; however, they also provided similar services to Regular Force units and to various operations in Canada and Germany.

The period of restraint following the change in government in 1992 saw the RCAF Reserve re-align its capabilities in some areas and introduce new roles. Between 1994 and 1996, three Reserve flying squadrons (Nos. 401, 411 and 418) were disbanded and No. 420 was "zero-manned" (remains on the establishment but with no personnel or Aircraft assigned). In 1996, Nos. 1 and 2 TASS and 2 Wing were disbanded, and 1 Wing became a "Total Force" Wing. Of the six helicopter squadrons belonging to 1 Wing, two (Nos. 400 and 438) were "Reserve heavy". All 1 Wing squadrons received Griffon helicopters to support army operations.

By the year 2000, the RCAF Reserve had become an integral part of the Total Air Force. Reserve positions were incorporated into air force headquarters, wings, squadrons, and units across the country. RCAF Reservists were employed, in both support and operational capacities, across the entire spectrum of air force operations, including domestic and international deployments.

Today, as the men and women of Canada's RCAF Reserve serve the nation both at home and abroad, they continue to meet the high standards of excellence and professionalism that have been the hallmarks of Canadian airmen and women since the beginning. RCAF Reservists will be ready to fight, if called upon to do so, in defence of Canada and the cause of freedom, just as those who served before them.

From an inauspicious start, Canada's RCAF Reserve has had a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, influenced by such factors as budget cuts and force reductions. Nevertheless, it has proven to be a resilient organization that has been able to adjust to the changing needs of the Canadian government and Canada's military. One thing is certain - Canada's RCAF Reserve continues to demonstrate its ability to play an integral role in serving Canada.

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