|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
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
For the duration, Royal Canadian
Navy pilots served with the Royal Navy Fleet
Air Arm, distinguishing themselves as effective
One of these pilots was
Victoria Cross (VC) winner Lieutenant (N)
Robert Hampton Gray, a member of the
Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve
Gray was posthumously awarded the VC for
actions on 9 August, 1945, when he led
an attack on Japanese shipping in Onagawa
Canada did have two aircraft carriers
during WWII: HMCS NABOB and HMCS
Although Canadian sailors
manned both ships, they were commissioned
Royal Navy ships and the aircrews
were members of the Royal Navy Fleet
On 24 January 1946, the RCN commissioned
its first official aircraft carrier,
Two air squadrons were
also formed the same day:
and 803 Squadron, making them the
RCN air squadrons
WARRIOR served the RCN for a brief
two-year period, before it was replaced
The new air element was christened the
Fleet Air Arm in May 1946, following in
the footsteps of the Royal Navy.
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
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,
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
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
The Banshees were slated for
replacement, but instead of acquiring a new
jet fighter, the government disbanded the
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
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
Mr. Bruce Forsyth is a former member of
the Naval Reserve.