Canada’s Air Power thinkers by Richard Goette

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Why are there no Canadian air power thinkers and writers?  For a nation that has such a rich military and civilian aviation history this may seem surprising.  In a recent issue of the Canadian Air Force Journal Australian scholar Aaron P. Jackson noted that in the history of Canada’s air force there has been a “cultural tendency to eschew to written theory and doctrine.”  Instead, Jackson explains further, Canadian airmen tended “to pragmatically focus on contemporary issues, to the detriment of broader theoretical and doctrinal development.”[1]

Why has this been the case?  One major factor has been the small size of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and its post-Unification successor, Air Command/Canadian Air Force.  With fewer personnel (due, in part, to a smaller national population) than Britain’s Royal Air Force and the American military air services (the U.S. Army Air Forces/Corps before 1947 and the independent U.S. Air Force after), there were less people available to study the big issues facing the air force profession in Canada.  Instead, as Jackson notes above, Canadian airmen had to focus on more pressing contemporary issues – especially those related to flying operations.  There are, of course, many other factors involved, but the bottom line in the end is that there are no Canadian Trenchards, Douhets, Mitchells, or Wardens.

Two air force officer students review their written work at the RCAF Staff College in Toronto. Photo: Canadian Forces College

Or are there?

Well, maybe there aren’t the air force thinkers and writers of the caliber – and profile – of the names mentioned above.  However, there has to be at least a few Canadian airmen who have written at least something on air power in Canada’s air force history.  There had to be some venues for Canadian thought on air power, and it is this subject that I intend to explore.

We do know that some RCAF airmen attended the Royal Air Force Staff College in Andover, Britain, during the inter-war period.  When they returned some of these officers published articles on what they learned in Canada’s professional military journal, Canadian Defence Quarterly.  However, as noted Canadian military historian Alec Douglas stressed in Volume 2 of the RCAF official history, “it would be misleading to place too much emphasis on these expressions of personal opinion.”[2]

During the early Cold War period one could argue that there was a mini-renaissance of sorts in terms of RCAF officer writing on air force and air power issues.  Importantly, there were more venues for airmen to write about their profession. For instance, there was the service’s professional magazine, The Roundel.  But there were also several other publications in which RCAF airmen wrote about their service during this period.  A quick look at the annual Canadian Periodical Index shows that Canadian airmen published articles not only in air-related/themed magazines like Canadian Aviation but also “mainstream” media outlets such as Saturday NightThe Financial PostThe Toronto StarThe Globe & Mail, and Maclean’s, to name but a few.

Who were these airmen?

One of the most prolific writers was Clare Annis.  Who, you may ask, is Clare Annis?  An airman with a maritime air power background, Annis was one of the few RCAF airmen during and after the Second World War who actively wrote about air force doctrine and air power.  He actively engaged Canadian society on the subject of Canadian air power, delivering numerous public addresses and publishing articles in a variety of venues.  Moreover, some of this work actually became qualifying exam study material at the RCAF Staff College in Toronto during the 1950s.  It is no wonder, then, that the new building for the current Canadian Air Force’s centre of air power excellence, the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC: http://www.airforce.forces.gc.ca/CFAWC/CFAWC_e.asp) in Trenton, was named in his honour.

Air Marshal Clare Annis: A prolific RCAF writer on Canadian air power. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre and the Annis family.

Another notable name was John Gellner.  Some may recognize him for his work as a free-lance journalist, author of a book on NATO, and/or editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly during the 1970s and 1980s.  A prolific writer (and member of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies), Gellner’s opinions on Canadian defence issues were definitely coloured by his experiences as an officer in the RCAF from 1940 to 1958.

Lastly, there were those who attended and worked at the RCAF Staff College.  Established in Toronto in 1943, the college became the incubator for ideas – both concepts and doctrine – for the RCAF.  It was Canada’s centre for air power doctrine and theory as espoused by both airmen officer students and RCAF staff and civilian academics.  They published in the R.C.A.F. Staff College Journal in addition to some of the publications mentioned above.  However, there was a lot of other material from the RCAF Staff College that didn’t see the printing press but nonetheless represents important insights into Canada’s history of air power theory and doctrine development.  Unfortunately, much of the RCAF Staff College material was burned in the 1970s, notably a large number of the student papers.  Nonetheless, some of the material remains in the archives of the college’s successor, the Canadian Forces College, and should provide some interesting perspectives.

There are no Canadian Trenchards, Douhets, Mitchells, and Wardens, but there were at least some members of Canada’s air force who have written on air power issues.  These writings form an important part of the institutional history and professional thinking of Canada’s air force, and it is my hope to raise awareness to this subject.

[1] Aaron P. Jackson, “The Emergence of a ‘Doctrinal Culture’ Within the Canadian Air Force, Part 2,” Canadian Air Force Journal, Volume 2, Number 3 (Fall 2009), 35.

[2] W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of a National Air Force: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume II (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and the Department of National Defence, 1986), 120-122.  Quote from p. 122.



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