Explore Canada’s Aviation Contribution to World War II at the Canada Aviation Museum

by | Jun 22, 2017 | Canada, Ottawa | 4 comments

Welcome to Norman’s second guest post.

While I spent the day at the tulip festival in Ottawa, Norman spent the day at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Norman’s first post explores Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart. This post focuses on the aircraft that Canada produced during WWII and how the war forced the creation of a dynamic aviation industry in Canada.

The timing of this post is perfect. CNN Travel just released its list of the most popular museums in the world. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington ranked second in the world, just behind the National Museum of China in Beijing. The Louvre slipped to number 3 on the list. (My favourite museum, Musée d’Orsay, did not make the list of top 20 this year)

The world’s 20 most popular museums
1. The National Museum of China in Beijing was the world’s most visited museum in 2016 with nearly 7.6 million visitors,
2. Washington’s National Air and Space Museum saw 7.5 million visitors in 2016, ranking second for visitation.
3. Paris’ Louvre saw a nearly 15% dip in attendance from 2015, with 7.4 million visitors in 2016, making it the world’s third most visited museum.
I asked Norman, if he had a day to spend at a museum, would he go to the aviation museum in Ottawa or the air museum in Washington? He picked the aviation museum in Ottawa! It has a better collection and a better display of the airplanes that interest him. 

Thank you to Norman for sharing his passion for aviation with boomervoice!


Canada ruled the skies in World War II

By Norman Letalik

War is horrible, but to the extent that it has any positive attributes, it is found in how concerted human effort can result in tremendous leaps forward in technology. As necessity is the mother of invention, and necessity is never more profound than during wartime, it is not surprising that so much invention takes place during war time.


One of the greatest beneficiaries of WWII invention was the aviation industry


WWII was the first war where controlling the air meant controlling the battlefield.

While aircraft played a role in WWI, their role was marginal and largely romantic. When we think of WWI aviation, we think of the German flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen (alias ‘the Red Baron’) with his 80 kills, British Victoria Cross recipient, Edward “Mick” Mannock with his 73 kills and Canadian Victoria Cross recipient, Billy Bishop with his 72 kills. Their exploits and feats of bravery were akin to that of jousting armoured knights on horseback, played in three-dimensional space, with aircraft and machine guns instead of horses and lances.

Most early pilots were aristocrats or wealthy gentlemen, and they operated in an entirely different environment than the poor grunts stuck in the trenches.

It was not until near the end of WWI that aircraft started to be used for bombing and strafing troops and their equipment. The 1966 British film: The Blue Max depicted the changing role of aircraft during the war and the class differences between early gentry pilots and later commoner pilots, when the exigencies of war caused air forces to dig lower into their ranks to recruit pilots to fly their aircraft.

This German fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the backbone of the Luftwaffe

Unlike WWI, aircraft figured prominently in WWII. When Germany and Russia simultaneously attacked Poland to start WWII on 1 September 1939, aircraft led the way.

Germany’s Blitzkrieg (lightning war) depended on the quick deployment of aircraft to bomb defensive positions, followed closely by tanks and other armoured vehicles.

WWII started with the shriek of the Luftwaffe’s Junkers Stuka aircraft as they dive-bombed Poland’s defences. When I say ‘shriek’, that term is meant literally, as most Stukas at the outset of WWII had propeller driven sirens fitted to them to evoke more “shock and awe” in enemy ground forces when they entered their dives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf5potr_KYQ

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the major opponent for the Royal Air Force

Nine days after Germany and Russia invaded Poland, on 10 September 1939, Canada entered WWII to support Britain as well as its other European allies. This was more than two years ahead of the United States, which only entered WWII after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.

Over one million Canadians served during WWII, 44,000 of whom died and 54,000 of whom were wounded. Deaths as a percentage of Canada’s population was 0.38 as against 0.32 for the US. So, while Canada’s losses were considerable, they were small when compared with Britain’s 0.94%, let alone Germany’s 8.23% or Russia’s devastating 12.9%, which, in addition to encompassing more military deaths, also included high civilian losses.

During the war, Canada’s aviation industry was transformed. Before the war, fewer than 4,000 people were employed in the Canadian aviation industry, by the end of the war there were over 120,000 employed, of which about 25,000 were women. By the end of the war, aircraft manufacture was Canada’s 4th largest industry.

The de Havilland Tiger Moth, a biplane, was a trainer aircraft in Canada

Canada’s central role in aviation for the Allied war effort was to train aircrew, as Britain was considered to be too dangerous and unsuitable for such training. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (aka, The Plan) was established for this purpose, and at the end of 1939, Lord Riverdale of Britain led the negotiations for the Air Training Agreement (aka, the ‘Riverdale Agreement’) signed in Ottawa between Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

By the end of the war, more than 130,000 graduated in Canada as aircrew, including 50,000 pilots, about half of whom were Canadians, with the rest coming from Britain or other Allied countries.

Flying schools were initially established at Eglinton Hunt Club in Toronto, RCAF Trenton in Trenton, ON and Uplands RCAF in Ottawa, and by the end of the war expanded to 231 locations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_British_Commonwealth_Air_Training_Plan_facilities_in_Canada

Canadians trained for air service contributed and sacrificed hugely to the war effort. They played a large role in the Battle of Britain, the Northern European theatre, including the Battle of the Atlantic and the Normandy invasion, as well as in Egypt, Italy, Sicily, Malta, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, Burma (now Myanmar) as well as in the Aleutian Islands Campaign.

Of Canada’s 44,000 military deaths in WWII, nearly 40%, a staggering 17,397, were RCAF deaths. This is especially remarkable given that the RCAF represented less than 19% of the total Canadian Armed Forces during the war.


Canada’s contribution came with enormous sacrifices

The Spitfire was the most successful RAF fighter against the Luftwaffe


Canada produced nearly 11,300 aircraft for the war effort

Not surprisingly, given its training role, much of Canada’s aircraft construction for the war was skewed toward building training aircraft.

The following training aircraft were built in Canada in significant numbers:

In its home defence role, Canada built a number of reconnaissance aircraft including:

The war effort required transport planes, so Canada built about a thousand transport planes, the most significant of which were 861 rugged Noorduyn Norseman light transport aircraft. These will be highlighted in a future post that will focus on Canada’s contribution to designing and manufacturing bush planes.

Canada also built bombers, including:

Finally, Canada built 3 attack aircraft in large numbers:

  • 1,134 Curtiss Helldiver aircraft for aircraft carrier operation
  • 1,451 Hawker Hurricanes which played a huge role in the Battle of Britain accounting for 60% of all kills, although it was overshadowed in the press by the faster Supermarine Spitfire, Britain’s most famous WWII fighter aircraft in its battle for air supremacy against the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, and
  • 1,134 de Havilland Mosquitos, perhaps the most successful and versatile plane of the Second World War:

The de Havilland Mosquito was nicknamed The Wooden Wonder

The Mosquito was designed by the brilliant Captain Sir Geoffrey de Havilland. It was unlike any other allied aircraft. It was built almost entirely of wood and plywood, when most aircraft for war use were built of aluminum.

Wood and plywood can be stronger and lighter than aluminum, much as modern composites like graphite and carbon fibre are replacing aluminum in aircraft today.

The Museum has an excellent exhibit on aircraft building materials which invite you compare the weight and stiffness of various materials used in aircraft construction.

This is the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine

The Mosquito was the fastest plane in WWII

The twin engine Mosquito was fitted with two V-12 water-cooled Rolls Royce Merlin engines, just like the single Merlin engine used in the famous Spitfire fighter or the four Merlin engines used in the Lancaster heavy bomber.

The Merlin was powerful and reliable and, when two were fitted to the light Mosquito, it became the fastest aircraft used by the Allied Forces and the fastest aircraft in WWII, at least until the Germans developed rocket powered aircraft like the Messerschmitt Komet  or, at the very end of the war, single engine jet aircraft, like the Heinkel He 162 or the twin jet engine Messerschmitt Me 262.

Jay Leno recently published a video on the importance of the Merlin engine, and even graciously thanked Canada for its significant contribution to the Allied war effort: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYcKdK7hmEo 

Leno refers to the Merlin as: The engine that won World War II.

Each British Lancaster was fitted with four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines

This Lancaster was built in Canada in 1945.

The German Messerschmitt Komet was the first rocket-powered fighter

There are only 10 Komets on display in museums around the world. This one is in Ottawa’s Aviation Museum. You can also see one in the Air Museum in Washington.

The design of the Messerschmitt Komet was revolutionary

The propeller of the Komet was not designed to move the plane. Rather, it drove a generator that powered the on-board equipment.

The Heinkel He 162 was a precursor to modern jet fighters

The Heinkel He 162 was developed by the Germans late in the war.

The Messerschmitt Komet and the Heinkel were German engineering marvels but they had nowhere near the impact that the Mosquito had throughout the war.

The Canadian Mosquito ruled the skies in World War II


The de Havilland Mosquito was a deadly pest to the Axis powers

Although its initial use was as a fast reconnaissance aircraft, the Mosquito was later used to enormous success as a precision bomber. In addition to being the fastest aircraft over Europe, it was also highly maneuverable and a pleasure to fly.

The Mosquito could be built in sections, outsourced to anyone with reasonable woodworking skills. The parts were then assembled in units as designed by de Havilland. Given the shortages of aircraft grade aluminum, this allowed the Mosquito to be built in great numbers (just under 8,000).

As Mosquitos were made mostly of wood, it was hard to detect them on radar and if they were flown at tree-top level, they could often avoid radar detection entirely. If fighters were deployed to catch them, they were too fast to be caught.

The Mosquito could carry a 4,000 pound bomb payload and drop it directly over the target rather than having to do it from great heights, as the heavy bombers had to, like the Lancaster or the American B-17 Flying Fortresses.

Carrying a full payload, the Mosquito was nearly twice as fast as the heavy bombers. As well it had a great range and was the first allied bomber to bomb Berlin. Their precision bombing capability also allowed the Allies to take out the concrete bunkers where the German V-1 and V-2 rockets were housed for launching against England or other Allied territories.

Field Marshall Goering, the Head of the Luftwaffe, purportedly said of the Mosquito:

It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminum better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again.

If you are interested in learning about some of the many heroic precision bombing raids, and even prison breaks engineered by using the Mosquito, see this documentary on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O17di3RZmBg

The Mosquito on display at the Canada AviationMuseum is not in the main exhibit area; it is in the hanger next to the main exhibit area that contains aircraft being prepared for the main exhibit area. An hour-long guided tour is provided of the aircraft in that hanger for an additional modest fee. I highly recommend it.

Finally, despite Canada’s important role in the air during WWII, we can’t forget the role that the rest of the world associates with Canada, namely as a ‘hewer of wood and a drawer of water’, a metaphor for our role as a resource supplier to the world. Canada’s most significant role in the war may have been that it provided over half of all aluminum and over 90% of the nickel used by the Allies in WWII. Aluminum was massively in demand for the aircraft industry – but for the Mosquito – and other war applications. Nickel is essential for producing aluminum alloys, high strength steel like gun barrels and armour plating and in coating steel so that exposed metals or fasteners won’t rust. In fact, what kept German jet aircraft from being effective at the end of WWII was that they did not have the right metal alloys for their jet engine turbine blades, which operate under temperatures so extreme that they will melt steel. Most jet engine turbines are made of nickel alloys or, in some more recent applications, ceramics, so that they can withstand the heat produced within the turbine.

Canada’s role as a leader in aviation took a giant leap forward during the second world war.

My next post on the Museum will be on the importance of aircraft in opening up Canada’s North, and Canada’s leading role as a designer and manufacturer of bush aircraft.

Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at BoomerVoice.ca
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray