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Canadians with the RAF and RCAF in the Battle of Britain


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We are now in the 80th anniversary--excerpts from a major article at Skies Magazine:

The forge of leadership: Canadians in the Battle of Britain
With the Royal Canadian Air Force in the throes of expansion and training, no Canadian fighter unit would be dispatched to Europe for nearly nine months (after Sept. 1939). In order to show folks on the home front that Canadians were indeed fully engaged in the war, it was decided, as a public relations effort, to bring together Canadian pilots who were already serving in the RAF into one squadron — 242 (Canadian) Squadron. The squadron was formed in late October 1939, but only converted to Hawker Hurricane fighters in February of 1940. It would be in training or flying convoy patrols until the beginning of the Battle of France. A detachment from the squadron deployed briefly to France and Belgium in May, then returned to England in time to participate in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. At the beginning of June, the squadron was back in France where it suffered heavy losses before leaving in haste ahead of the advancing German army.

In England, the squadron licked its wounds and prepared for the start of what would soon be called the “Battle of Britain.” By the beginning of the “Battle,” the squadron had a new commander — Douglas Bader, the inspiring and legless fighter pilot known for his tenacity and leadership. The number of Canadians in the squadron had by then declined, but there were still several outstanding fighter pilots among them, including the irascible Stan Turner of Toronto (then with seven victories of his final total of 15), and the enfant terrible of No. 242, Willie McKnight of Calgary. McKnight was, by then, already a double ace with 10 confirmed victories, and Bader recognized his aggressive spirit and talent, routinely having him as his wingman.

McKnight scored three victories on Aug. 30 and a further two on Sept. 9, making him a triple ace by the end of the Battle. Squadron Leader The Reverend Guy Mayfield, Anglican Chaplain at RAF Duxford during the Battle of Britain, would write of McKnight in his wartime diary: “MacKnight (sic) was short and wiry and tough. If anyone had asked me what a typical pilot of [F]ighter [C]ommand was like, I could not have done better than to introduce MacK.” McKnight would disappear on a patrol over France in January 1941.

In June, RCAF No. 1 (F) Squadron arrived in England with their Hurricanes and set to work getting ready for the coming battle. By mid-August, the squadron was operational and joined the fray. In all, 27 Canadians posted to this squadron took part in the battle in the nearly two months it was active. Several squadron pilots are worth noting. Squadron Leader Ernie McNab of Rosthern, Sask., the squadron’s  commanding officer, was the first member of an RCAF squadron to claim a victory. Hartland de Montarville Molson, the Montreal brewery scion, would go on to command two different fighter squadrons back in Canada and Arthur Nesbitt, also of Montreal, would later command wings in the Aleutians and in Europe. After the war, he helped create Canada’s largest investment bank, now BMO Nesbitt Burns.


One last photo with the boys. The central figure (with his hands clasped) in this photo of 1 (F) Squadron is Ernie McNab, who led the squadron during the Battle. The photo was taken at Prestwick, Scotland, shortly after his promotion to Wing Commander and days before McNab handed over the squadron to Squadron Leader Gordon McGregor and left for Canada. RCAF Archives Photo

Canadian pilots accounted for 194 Luftwaffe losses during the Battle. The top Canadian was Flight Lieutenant Mark “Hilly” Brown of Portage La Prairie, Man., Canada’s first air ace of the Second World War with a total of 15 victories during the Battle of France and Battle of Britain flying with 1 Squadron of the RAF. At 39, the oldest Canadian pilot to take part was Flight Lieutenant Gordon McGregor of Montreal, whose score was 5.5 enemy fighters. Retiring as a Group Captain, he is also remembered as the future inspired leader of Trans Canada Air Lines. The youngest Canadian pilot in the Battle, Leo Ricks from Calgary, was just 19 years old when he flew with 235 Squadron, RAF...

Of the 574 foreign pilots who are listed on the Battle of Britain Monument in London, 111 were Canadian, with 22 killed in action (including one Newfoundlander) during the battle — 18 with the RAF and four with the RCAF. A further 36 would not survive the war. Their legacy, however, was much more than the competent and aggressive fighter pilots they most certainly were. Theirs was ultimately to be a story of inspiration and leadership...

242 Squadron--Bader in front middle:

More on the Canadian aspect (Stan Turner):

During the mid-50s Group Captain Turner was the RCAF air attaché in Moscow. My parents were with External Affairs at the embassy and I was a young boy in love with aircraft; the attaché noticed and gave me two "Jane's All the World's Aircraft" his office had from the latter 1940s. I have them still and remain forever grateful for the very kind act (he also gave me two "Jane's Fighting Ships"--don't know if he told the naval attaché (in fact Group Captain Turner may well have been the only attaché at the time:

I was still is school when "Reach for the Sky", the field adaptation of Paul Brickhill's biography of Douglas Bader was released. When it finally made its way to the boondocks of Ontario, my father took my brother and me to see it in the theatre in Fort Erie. This, of course, was in the mid-fifties and the memories of the war were still vivid, while most veterans were not yet in middle aged.

The theatre was packed, and the audience really got into what was an exciting movie. There were cheers when 242 Squadron scrambled for the first time in the Battle of Britain, followed by groans and boos when a large formation of Luftwaffe bombers appeared, droning in tight formation across the English countryside. All at once Bader's squadron appeared, diving in formation on the enemy aircraft. Virtually the whole audience sprang to their feet, cheering and clapping like mad. Back then, everybody knew what "the Few" meant, and what they had accomplished.
In the early 1980s, I was fortunate to meet and get to know slightly one of the Canadians who flew with the RAF in the Battle of Britain (he transferred to the RCAF at the end of the war), though when he was introduced it was his connection to another wartime escapade that was highlighted.  Keith Ogilvie was one of the last out of the "Great Escape" tunnel.

The last serving Battle of Britain veteran in Canadian service was Beverley Evans Christmas who retired as a Colonel in 1973. He served with No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron during its tour in England in the summer of 1940.