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Looking back to Canada’s home front when yellow aircraft dominated the skies

This Anson MKII is located at the National Museum of the Royal Canadian Air Force in Trenton, Ont. Some 400 of these aircraft were manufactured in Amherst during the Second World War and used at training centres around the province and across Canada as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum photo
This Anson MKII is located at the National Museum of the Royal Canadian Air Force in Trenton, Ont. Some 400 of these aircraft were manufactured in Amherst during the Second World War and used at training centres around the province and across Canada as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum photo - Contributed

Nova Scotia was a significant part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

PARRSBORO, N.S. —

Josephine Slater remembers laying on her lawn in Amherst and watching planes taking off from the airport during the Second World War.

Those planes, Avro Ansons, were manufactured at the Canada Car and Foundry and Enamel and Heating plant in Amherst, taxied to a runway in the present-day industrial park and flown to locations around the country that were part of the ambitious British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

“I remember watching the Ansons as they flew over Amherst. They would take off and do things like loop de loops and other maneuvers,” said the 88-year-old Slater, who now lives in Ward’s Brook near Port Greville. “I would lay there on grass, look up and watch them fly over. They were really something to see.”

Of the RCAF’s fleet of Ansons, some 400 of them were manufactured in Amherst, while the facility also made aircraft components and repaired aircraft, employing more than 3,000. It was a story shared by countless communities across Nova Scotia and Canada as the homefront sprang to life to support Allied forces during the Second World War.

Slater shared her memories at Ottawa House Museum in Parrsboro on Aug. 25 as Mark Peapell vice-president of the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum talked about the wartime air training plan that saw pilots, air gunners, wireless operators, flight engineers and navigators trained at makeshift airstrips across the country before being sent to the war in Europe or the Pacific.

Peapell said the training program is a forgotten part of Canada’s, and Nova Scotia’s, contribution to the war effort.

Mark Peapell, vice-president of the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum, speaks to Ottawa House curator Susan Clarke and Martin Langford following a presentation on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on Aug. 25. Darrell Cole – Amherst News
Mark Peapell, vice-president of the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum, speaks to Ottawa House curator Susan Clarke and Martin Langford following a presentation on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on Aug. 25. Darrell Cole – Amherst News

“If you asked the average Nova Scotian what the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was they wouldn’t know exactly what that was or what the contribution was in terms of dollars,” Peapell said. “It touched all these rural areas across Nova Scotia, not just Halifax that was affected by the navy. It was a $2-billion project across Canada, it was a huge undertaking.”

Peapell said there was some air traffic in the skies over Nova Scotia before the Second World War, but once the training plan started in 1940 the presence of yellow airplanes became much more common.

The training plan, he said, touched every province. It was the largest program that Canada contributed to the Allied war effort, both in scale and financial cost.

Nova Scotia hosted four units and the plan created significant infrastructure, some of which still exist in Debert and Greenwood, which were operational training units and operated by the RAF until after the war when they became part of the RCAF, as well as a naval air-gunner school in Yarmouth and an elementary flight training school in Stanley.

There was also a relief training airfield and ground tactical training unit at Maitland.

The skies above the province were filled with aircraft training crews for active service at home and overseas and the trainees were not only Canadians but came from throughout the British empire and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

The plan also saw its share of mishaps with some of the trainees paying the ultimate price in crashes and today they lay buried, often close to where they fell.

An interesting aside, the only son of Air Chief Marshall Lloyd Breadner, who was chief of air staff during the war, lost his life on an air gunnery training mission out of Debert when his Mosquito fighter-bomber crashed at Higgins Mountain near Wentworth in November 1944.

Peapell said places like the base at Debert were important to the war effort because crews were trained to ferry equipment to the European theatre while there were anti-submarine missions flown by program participants.

“Ferry Command was trained out of Debert which was ferrying all the planes created by the vast arsenal of the United States across the North Atlantic,” he said. “The people flying these planes, for the most part, were trained in Debert.”

Peapell said it’s hard to imagine the economic impact these training centres had on rural communities that were coming out of the hardships of the Great Depression. The construction of facilities to house personnel, the hangers and associated buildings would have created jobs and business for area stores.

“In Debert there was one store, but by the end of 1943 there were six. Amherst was a centre for aircraft production and operations,” he said. “People don’t realize the role these communities played.”

Canada was chosen as the primary location for the plan because it was far enough away, yet close enough to both the European and Pacific theatres. There was no threat from the Luftwaffe or Japanese fighters.

Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King saw the plan as a way of keeping Canadians at home, easing the need for conscription that an expeditionary force would have required.

There were 131,000 Allied pilots and aircrew trained in Canada of which more than 72,000 were Canadian. At the height of the program, in 1943, there were 100,000 administrative personnel working at 107 training schools and 184 other supporting units in 231 communities across the country.

More than 8,300 buildings were constructed, including 700 hangers, but the work went much further than that to include water and sewer lines and other key infrastructure.

“These are pretty staggering numbers,” he said.

Peapell said part of the aviation museum’s goal is to educate people about their past and to make sure some contributions, such as those on the home front, aren’t forgotten.

“It’s not just a Nova Scotia issue, but also a Canada one. No one really knows about the story,” he said. “It’s very important to understand what was called upon, what was created and why the infrastructure remains today?”

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