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The Royal Canadian Naval Air Service
“The Fleet Air Arm”

By Mr. Bruce Forsyth

The origins of the Royal Canadian
Naval (RCN) Air Service go back
to World War I, when the Royal
Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in April 1915.

The RNAS was short lived however, disbanding in April 1918.
Undeterred, Canada also formed a naval air service on 5 September 1918, but this v e n t u re ended with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918.

During World War II, the British Admiralty revived the idea of a Canadian naval air service but Canada would have to wait until the end of WWII before this would come into being.
For the duration, Royal Canadian Navy pilots served with the Royal Navy Fleet
Air Arm, distinguishing themselves as effective combat pilots.

One of these pilots was Victoria Cross (VC) winner Lieutenant (N) Robert Hampton Gray, a member of the
Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve aboard HMS FORMIDABLE.

Lieutenant (N) Gray was posthumously awarded the VC for actions on 9 August, 1945, when he led an attack on Japanese shipping in Onagawa Wan, Japan.
Canada did have two aircraft carriers
during WWII: HMCS NABOB and HMCS PUNCHER.

Although Canadian sailors manned both ships, they were commissioned as
Royal Navy ships and the aircrews
were members of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm.
On 24 January 1946, the RCN commissioned its first official aircraft carrier, HMCS WARRIOR.

Two air squadrons were
also formed the same day:
825 Squadron and 803 Squadron, making them the first official
RCN air squadrons
HMCS WARRIOR served the RCN for a brief two-year period, before it was replaced by
HMCS MAGNIFICENT.

The new air element was christened the Fleet Air Arm in May 1946, following in the footsteps of the Royal Navy.
A year later, the name was officially changed to the Naval Air Branch, but the name “Fleet Air Arm” remained in the lexicon of many naval personnel in an unofficial capacity.

Naval aviation in Canada received a boost with the acquisition of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Station Dartmouth in September 1948, which was re- named Royal Canadian Naval Air Station HMCS SHEARWATER.

RCN air squadrons had
been based in Dartmouth since 1946, but now they had a place to truly call their own.
In April 1950, the RCN took possession of 75 Avenger aircraft from the United States Navy, fitted with the latest anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment.

The first ASW
helicopter squadron was formed aboard HMCS MAGNIFICENT in 1955. The success of helicopters aboard ship was particularly
significant in that when the St. Laurent class destroyers came on line in the early 1960s, they were all equipped with helicopter flight-decks, a uniquely Canadian creation.

The RCN Reserve was also given authority to form air squadrons. In May 1953, VC 920 Squadron was formed as tender to HMCS YORK. Next came VC 921, formed as a tender to HMCS CATARAQUI on 30 September, 1953, and VC 922, formed as tender to HMCS MALAHAT on 1 December,
1953.

HMCS MONTCALM and
HMCS TECUMSEH formed VC 923
and VC 924 Squadrons respectively on 1 June, 1954.
Although HMCS STAR did not have its own s q u a d ron due to its close proximity to HMCS YORK, the unit maintained a support unit for ground crew and maintenance.
HMCS STAR also had one Swordfish and two Seafire aircraft for their use at RCAF Station Hamilton and the unit conducted joint training with HMCS YORK at RCAF Station Downsview.

HMCS YORK’s VC 920 squadron had the distinction of being the only Naval Reserve air squadron to achieve carrier qualification.
Markings were painted on the runways at
RCAF Station Downsview so that YORK’s pilots could practice simulated aircraft carrier take-offs and landings.

In November 1955, the Royal Canadian
Navy took possession of its first fighter jet,
the F2H3 Banshee all-weather jet fighter,
the crown jewel of naval aviation in Canada.

VF 870 and VF 871 Squadrons replaced
their Sea Fury aircraft with the new
Banshee, flying them from the newly commissioned HMCS BONAVENTURE as well as HMCS SHEARWATER.

The Banshee jet fighters would play an important role in the defence of Canada and, as a great source of pride for Canada’s naval aviators, the Banshee even out-performed the RCAF’s
CF-100 jet fighter.

In 1960, the RCN assumed control of the
airfield at the former RCAF Station Debert
as a training facility but this would be shortlived as the Debert facility was abandoned in the late 1960s.
Despite all the successes of the Royal
Canadian Naval Air Branch, the climate was
once again turning against Canada's naval
aviators. In 1962, the RCN turned down
the opportunity to buy a United States Navy Essex-class carrier, with its state-of-the-art flight deck.

The Banshees were slated for
replacement, but instead of acquiring a new
jet fighter, the government disbanded the
Banshee squadrons.
The RCN Reserve also suffered due to the
downturn in Canadian naval aviation. By
1964, all RCN Reserve air squadrons had
been paid off.

The unification of Canada’s Armed Forces
in 1968 was the beginning of the end
for the Royal Canadian Naval Air
Branch, which was re-named Maritime Air
Group. HMCS BONAVENTURE, Canada’s only remaining aircraft carrier, was decommissioned in 1970 despite having just received a $17 million re-fit three years earlier, a move many saw as political.

Although helicopters would still fly from the
fleet’s Destroyers, all aircraft were now
shore based.
The end finally came in 1975 when Air
Command assumed control of Maritime
Air Group. All naval air personnel became
members of the Air Force, thus ending the
reign of Canada’s naval aviators.

Lieutenant-Commander (Retired) Stuart
Soward puts it best when he says, “No
doubt history will establish that Canadian
Naval Aviation failed through neglect and
misunderstanding on the one hand and
RCAF hostility toward RCN Aviation on
the other”.
Mr. Bruce Forsyth is a former member of
the Naval Reserve.

 
     
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