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Historians love to argue about the significance of past events, and the Battle of Britain is no exception. Although there is general agreement that preventing the Luftwaffe from gaining control of the skies over England and the Channel led to the cancellation of the planned invasion and that it was the first serious defeat of German forces in the Second World War, opinions quickly diverge with respect to the follow-on effects of that defeat.
Was the loss of almost 2,700 experienced aircrew and more than 1,700 aircraft the first step in the ultimate destruction of the Luftwaffe? Did the cancellation of the invasion spur Hitler to turn his eyes eastward, to his eventual invasion of the Soviet Union? Was the British victory key to securing growing support from the United States? Is the Battle of Britain the ultimate example of victory through air power? Questions such as these, with a multitude of potential answers, are the stuff upon which historians careers are built.
For the men and women who lived through the summer and fall of 1940, for the aircrew and groundcrew, and the soldiers who operated the anti-aircraft batteries and the sailors who protected the convoys, there was probably no doubt that they had weathered a monumental threat – and yet the war went on. The “official” beginning and end of battles were decided long after the events, when victors were more concerned about awarding battle honours than day-to-day survival.
We should always keep in mind that death and destruction was as much a fact of life on July 9, 1940, the day before the Battle of Britain is deemed to have begun, as it was on Nov. 1, the day after it is deemed to have ended. Indeed, the casualties suffered by Allied aircrew during those months would pale in comparison to losses during similar periods in 1943 and 1944. This was as true for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as it was for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
From a Canadian perspective, the Battle of Britain did have an effect on the nation in general and the RCAF in particular. Although Canada had declared war on Germany on Sept. 10, 1939, our approach to the war had been cautious because the government sought to limit both fiscal liability and large numbers of casualties. Haunted by memories of the First World War — especially the divisive political ramifications of tens of thousands of battlefield dead and the subsequent conscription crisis — the Mackenzie King government bowed to public pressure by dispatching an expeditionary force to England. However, he was more inclined to focus on air training and home defence.
The totality of the German victory in France and the potential conquest of England frightened King and his ministers. Even as discussions began about the evacuation of the Royal Family and the use of Canadian bases for the Royal Navy and British forces to fight on, the government hastily pledged fiscal and military resources far beyond what had been planned. The additional forces, including the RCAF’s No. 1 Squadron, were prepared and dispatched as quickly as possible. War, something that was always fought “over there,” appeared to be looming just over the horizon.
Therefore, both the Canadian government and public took a keen interest in the exploits of Canadians in the RAF and RCAF. During the battle, the front pages of Canadian newspapers trumpeted the tally of enemy aircraft destroyed as the Luftwaffe was thwarted at every turn. The skill and bravery of Canadian airmen became just the tonic needed for a country afraid of a future without England.
For the first time, a Canadian air force squadron was taking its place as part of the “thin blue line” standing between civilization and the enemy, the cost of which was brought home with the listing of Canadians who fell in combat. As the frequency and ferocity of German attacks diminished in the fall of 1940, Canada heaved a metaphorical sigh of relief that England had survived.
Hundreds of Canadians served as aircrew and groundcrew during the Battle of Britain. Twenty-three of the more than 100 Canadian pilots credited with taking part in the battle were killed, including three with No. 1 Squadron.
The survivors faced an uncertain future. For some, such as F/O William Henry Nelson of Montreal, Que., who was killed in action on Nov. 1, 1940, that future would be pitifully short. Others met their fate in far-flung theatres of war — squadron leader John William Kerwin of Toronto, Ont., was killed in a flying accident on July 16, 1942, during operations against the Japanese during the Aleutian Campaign. About 30 more Canadian veterans of the Battle of Britain did not live to see the end of the Second World War.
Both Canada and England made the most of the experienced pilots who survived the Battle of Britain. Many found themselves commanding flights, squadrons and wings, with some, such as G/C Ernest Archibald McNab of Rosthern, Sask., a former commanding officer of No. 1 Squadron, in charge of whole airfields before the end of the war.
The end of the war in 1945 saw Canadian Battle of Britain veterans embark on undertakings as varied as the individuals themselves. A significant number remained in either the RCAF or the RAF, with a few reaching senior rank – LGen Edwin Michael Reyno of Halifax, N.S., had served as a flight lieutenant under McNab. Another alumnus of No. 1 Squadron, former F/O Hartland de Montarville Molson of Montreal, Que., a member of the well-known beer brewing family, became a long-serving Canadian senator. Others would become teachers, businessmen, artists and fathers, content to live quiet lives.
Yet, on the third Sunday in September, many of them would come together in their respective communities to commemorate the Battle of Britain. The battle is an important moment in Canadian history, made so by the veterans who gather to remember their youth, acknowledge the sacrifice of old comrades, and remind new generations of Canadians of a time when great demands were made of a gallant few.
For Canada, they are representative of a willingness to stand with our Allies against a common threat. For the RCAF, they are symbols of the ethos of “service before self”, and indicative of a professional expeditionary air force. And though they are almost all gone, they will never be forgotten.