The Battle of Britain|
Canadian pilots do battle in the skies over England during the first crucial battle of the Second World War
During the summer of 1940, a few hundred fighter pilots stood in the way of Hitler's massive air attack on England. One hundred Canadians were among them.
Dubbed the Battle of Britain, it was the first decisive clash of Second World War and the first battle in history to be fought exclusively in the air.
"It is certainly an awful sight to behold those ugly black bombers in rank after rank," remembered Canadian pilot Ernest McNab. "Your mouth dries up like cotton wool. You lose all sense of space and time. We fought far above the clouds in a world of our own - a world of freezing cold, of limitless space traced with white plumed trails of wheeling aircraft as they fought. It was like skywriting gone mad. "
From July to October 1942, Germanys powerful air force, the Luftwaffe, launched relentless bombing attacks on British ports, radar stations and airfields. Hitler wanted to destroy the country's air defenses to make way for an invasion of Britain.
For some Canadian airmen the Battle of Britain was baptism by fire. At the time, Canada had a fledgling air force. Many Canadian pilots fought with the British military. But as the Battle of Britain raged on, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) number one squadron went into action.
Ernest McNab led the Canadian squadron. The short, stocky engineer from Rosthern, Saskatchewan was the country's most experienced fighter pilot but on the eve of battle McNab was worried.
"This is the lowest point in my life. I didnt think my men were ready for combat."
Not trained as fighter pilots, his men had spent only 20 hours in their planes. Most had fired only once at a moving target. Now they had to face the fearsome Luftwaffe during some of the fiercest fighting in the battle.
And their inexperience proved deadly. On August 24th - these new Canadian fighters realized too late that some of them had been firing on British, not German planes. Two planes escaped, a third did not.
As Battle of Britain continued, Allied aircrews were out-numbered and losing pilots faster than they could be replaced.
Hartland de Montarville Molson had left Montreal, the family business and his young bride, Maria Magdalena Posner, to fly for Canada.
"Since noon yesterday we have done seven patrols of at least an hour each. Bill Sprenger, Cupe Hyde, Bob Corbette and Jean Paul Desloges have all either had to bail out or force land, but are not in bad shape. Having had two slugs and dinner it is now time for sleep, because we go at dawn tomorrow. "
By mid-September, Hitler was running out of time to establish air superiority over south and east England. Soon winter weather and tides would force him to delay an invasion of Britain until spring.
On September 15, 1940 Germany launched as all-out aerial attack.
At 11:30 in the morning, air raid sirens wailed over London. Waves of incoming German aircraft left thousands dead and London in ruins. British, Canadian and other Allied pilots scrambled to their Hurricanes and Spitfires.
"It was a terrific spectacle," McNab recalled. "There were more than a thousand aircraft in the sky just south of London. So many that there was as much danger of colliding with another fellow as there was of being shot down."
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in the command bunker deep below the streets of London. "I asked Air Vice Marshall what other reserves have we," he wrote. 'There are none,' he replied. The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite."
The German planes retreated but came back two hours later. "It was a quick shot and away for someone was sure to be on your tail," Ernest McNab remembered. "I counted nine aircraft falling at one time, and there were parachutes everywhere. After fifteen minutes there was hardly a plane in the sky - the Germans had run for home."
But by the end of the day Germany has lost over 60 aircraft and failed to smash the Allied air defenses. Although British cities would be bombed nightly for the next six months, the threat of invasion was over, the Allies had won the Battle of Britain. Twenty-two Canadian pilots had died winning it.
Canadian aviation underwent rapid growth after the Battle of Britain. By the end of the war, 48 RCAF squadrons were stationed overseas. Almost 10,000 Canadians died in air raids over Germany in an effort to destroy German industry and the morale of the German people.
By the end of the war, 232,632 men and 17,030 women had served in the RCAF, and 17,101 lost their lives.