As Remembrance Day approaches, Bruce Richards writes about his father Mack’s experiences training for action as an RCAF pilot in the Second World War.
The year was 1943, and my dad, Mack Richards of White Rock, knew that he was going to war. The only question remaining was what branch of the Canadian military would accept him. Many of his Semiahmoo high school friends had already left school early to earn high wages in the Vancouver shipyards. Other local friends had joined the merchant marine and had crewed on freighters and tankers, bringing essential war materials from Halifax to British ports. Many would also lose their lives in the terrible Battle of the Atlantic.
Dad’s earliest childhood heroes included the Canadian fighter Aces of the Great War. His young imagination was filled with admiration for the courage of men like Billy Bishop, Billy Barker, Raymond Collishaw and others. He was also going to make his mark flying Spitfires or Mosquitoes in the skies above Europe, but first he had to get through the mundane challenges of French 12.
By June 1943, he had graduated from Semiahmoo with strong enough grades and references to earn him a slot with the RCAF. His step-father, Redge, had fought with Vancouver’s 29th Battalion, C.E.F. at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Arras and more. Wounded twice and invalided home in early 1919, Redge had seen much of the horror of war and did not wish his son to experience what he had gone through. Perhaps the RCAF represented a different, cleaner and safer kind of fighting? At 17, dad received his step-father’s signed permission to join up.
His journey toward the skies above Europe would be a long and convoluted passage, beginning with a train ride to the University of Edmonton, where he would be introduced to military life and initial ground school training. Aptitude and proficiency tests were an essential part of this flight training process, with an estimated 50 per cent “wash-out” rate in this and future course work. He was determined to become an officer and a pilot, however, his marks and his instructors would ultimately determine if he was streamed for a pilot position or sent off to affiliated schools to specialize as a navigator, bomb aimer, air gunner or ground-crew personnel.
He worked hard and passed, and moved on to Initial Flying School at the newly constructed RCAF Abbotsford Station. There he would learn basic flight and airmanship on the Canadian-constructed single engine Cornell aircraft. One memory that impressed the local flier was having the opportunity to come home on a 48-hour leave. Dad missed the Sunday night bus back to Abbotsford, and without a driver’s licence or a family car, he had little choice but to walk from White Rock, along 16 Avenue, to his Abbotsford station. Arriving long after curfew, he would receive a punishment of “confined to barracks,” with additional guard duty to fulfill on top of his regular RCAF duties.
By early 1944, dad was on another bus heading to his secondary flight training school in Claresholm, Alta. There he would be trained in the flying of twin-engine Canadian-built Anson trainers. As a Sgt/pilot with a crew of three, he would learn the pre-requisite skills of precision night flying, navigation and bomb aiming. But first he had to join the lads in shovelling snow off of their flight areas. After this humbling introduction to Claresholm Station, he would need to go on to pass a myriad of challenging flight curricula and coursework designed to determine if he was cut out to become an RCAF Bomber Command pilot.
On one of his night training flights, his Anson aircraft would lose an engine approaching the foothills of Calgary. Dad feathered the engine, but his under-powered aircraft could not hold elevation flying on a single engine. With no ability to maintain flight, dad had little choice but to select a suitable flat farm field and to carry out a safe wheels up “belly landing” in the dark. His diary for that date states simply: “Crash. No injuries. Perfect record ruined!”
Seven months later, in August 1944, he graduated as a Sgt/pilot and returned to White Rock on furlough, while awaiting overseas re-deployment. Dad remained hopeful that he might yet win a future spot in the RCAF, flying twin engine Beaufighter or Mosquito fighter-bombers, while most men in his course were slotted to fly RCAF Halifax and Lancaster bombers out of stations located in East Anglia, England.
It was not to be. His future RCAF orders were to become a pilot instructor at an unnamed British Commonwealth Air Training Program station. However, these orders were soon rescinded as the need to train new Canadian pilots steeply declined. There was also little perceived need for more RCAF pilots to be sent to Europe at this time. He was in limbo. His dreams of flying fighters or bombers over the skies of Europe were grounded by the present over-supply of Canadian pilots waiting to fight.
With the European war over on May 8, 1945, the RCAF now re-focused on sending a “Tiger Force” of bombers, fighters and aircrew over to the Pacific to help finish off the war against the Japanese Empire. These air crew had been recently training at RCAF Abbotsford and Boundary Bay Stations.
Dad was called back up into RCAF service in June 1945, and he went on to a Harvard fighter trainer refresher course at Camp Borden, Ont. for a spot in finishing off the Pacific Air War. He then received orders to deploy to Australia for forward deployment. These orders were soon cancelled at short notice. During his Camp Borden training, two atomic bombs were dropped and Japan sued for peace. By Sept. 2 1945, victory over Japan had arrived and this terrible war was at last over.
Dad had been born in 1925, and joined the RCAF directly after high school. Had he been but one or two years older he would have undoubtedly flown with Bomber Command over the skies of Europe. This tremendous Bomber Command contribution to ending the Second World War brought forward the highest cost to be paid from aircrew and their families. Of 125,000 aircrew who flew over the skies of Europe, 57,205 (46 per cent) would not survive their tours, with a further 8,403 men wounded, and another 9,838 becoming prisoners of war. Over 10,000 Canadian aircrew would die while flying with Bomber Command. Dad, like so many of his generation, volunteered to fight in this most terrible war. Had he been older, he would have flown in some of the most dangerous night flying raids carried out by British, Canadian, and other Commonwealth aircrew.
He was lucky, perhaps, to have not left Canada. In some vestigial way, I also feel aware of my own good fortune that my future father survived this terrible war unscathed. In 1950, he was able to re-muster as a Cold War warrior and fly and train on Mustang fighters. His earlier dreams of becoming a fighter pilot would at last come to fruition.
Flying part-time with 442 Auxiliary City of Vancouver Squadron, he and his squadron mates would fly out of RCAF Sea Island Station, later known as Vancouver International Airport. Their training involved scenarios of intercepting and destroying potential Russian bombers carrying nuclear weapons towards West Coast cities. Our father passed away in 2017, but during his life he loved to fly, and his eyes often lit up when he spoke of very tight low-level formation flying across the Strait of Georgia, high-speed diving “beat-ups” of Abbotsford Airport, and flying mock dog fights against other squadron Mustangs, within the puffy clouds above.
Blue skies, dad. You followed your dreams, you stood tall, and asked not the cost, when the world was on fire.
This Nov. 11, please take two minutes or more to quietly reflect on those many hundreds of thousands of Canadians who, like dad, took up the call to end tyranny against free peoples around the world. Let us all remain vigilant and dedicated to work for peace, justice and righteousness for all Canadians, and for all people.