by Eric Brown
This is the first article in a three-part series on the life of Second World War veteran Peter Biddlecombe.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, men from all corners of Canada rushed to join the armed forces. The Canadian pre-war armed forces were small, made up of around 4,500 soldiers, 1,800 officers and 3,100 RCAF personnel.[i] But over the following six years it grew and made significant contributions to the Allied victory. Some volunteers were First World War veterans, but the majority had never worn a uniform. So many volunteers stepped forward that the recruiting, processing and training systems were overwhelmed. This article recounts the short air force career of one young man who joined the fray and paid the ultimate price twenty-four months later.
With the accession of Adolf Hitler to the German Chancellorship in January, 1933, many people on the Continent and in Britain, felt that another war with Germany was inevitable. Re-armament slowly gained momentum although by 1939 there was still much to be done. For the Royal Air Force [RAF], planning involved consultations with the governments and air forces of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa to establish what resources, human and physical, were on hand and what would be needed to fight a war. The collective needs were daunting and time was short. There was a paucity of everything except man-power and that had to be trained before entering battle with the Germans. Preparation time was short. Aircraft production and the construction of training facilities were the most pressing issues.
Another serious problem involved the location of training bases. Berlin was only 933 kilometres from London, but with the fall of Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and France in summer 1940, the Luftwaffe now possessed airfields that narrowed the distance to 43 kilometres, the distance between Calais, France and Dover, England. Attempting to train aviators whilst simultaneously keeping watch for fighters and bombers, both friend and foe, by day and by night, presented hazards for everyone.
Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in September 1939 focussed the planners’ minds on their tasks. For instance, finding sources for the building materials needed to construct barracks, hangars, airfields and assorted training facilities; where and what sorts of aircraft should be produced, not to mention appropriate clothing. Fortunately, the location of facilities under safe skies was already underway, with Canada being the preferred location. The British intended to run the training scheme themselves, but the Canadian government objected strongly. In its view the Royal Canadian Air Force [RCAF] was certainly capable of running the scheme and furthermore, as the host nation and the second largest contributor in financial and manpower terms, this was Canada’s due, Difficult, at times acrimonious negotiations were held in Ottawa during the autumn of 1939. An agreement was eventually concluded and signed on 17 December 1939. We know it as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [BCATP].[ii] By the end of the European war in May 1945, more than 159,000 men and women, aircrew and ground crew, had passed through the plan.[iii]
The volunteer at the centre of this article was a twenty year old London, UK, born youth named Conrad Peter Vivian Biddlecombe, known to his family and friends as Peter. He immigrated to the United States with his father Conrad, stepmother Elizabeth (Conrad’s mother died while he was a child) and older sister, Mary, in April 1931. When Conrad and Elizabeth were divorced in 1941, Peter and his sister stayed in New York City with their stepmother.[iv] This article outlines Peter’s experiences while part of the BCATP and his short career on operations with the RAF.
Peter left school after completing grade ten to work at a local insulation company. He had been employed for about fourteen months when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States Naval bases on Hawaii in December 1941., The manpower and industrial strength of the United States was now committed to the Allied cause. Peter had to make a decision; he could volunteer for one of the American armed services or wait to be conscripted. As a British subject, he could try to find a way back to Britain and enlist there. The latter idea presented problems. A healthy young man, travelling alone, might be perceived as trying to shirk his duty. It was unlikely he would find space on an east bound ship, and people at the departure and arrival ports would undoubtedly question his intent. Rejecting these choices, Peter decided to go north to Canada. One will never know for certain his reasons for this decision, but perhaps he felt going to Canada would get him into the fight sooner as it would take the United States some time to recruit and train, as well as organize facilities and materiél to join the fight.
In early February 1942 Peter made his way to Lachine, Quebec, and the RCAF’s No. 5 Manning Depot. He underwent the usual routine for enlistees – medical examinations and aptitude tests as well as the “RCAF Classification Test… to assess learning ability” and an interview to assess “his motivation to become aircrew”.[v] Other, more intensive medicals for prospective aircrew followed, after which Peter was declared “fit for air duties” and he was enlisted in the rank of Aircraftsman, Second Class [AC2]. Peter was now a member of the RCAF and soon to be part of the BCATP.
With the ongoing expansion of the RCAF, training establishments often did not have the staff or facilities to cope with the great influx of men. Newly enlisted airmen were usually sent on unpaid leave until they were recalled to begin basic training. Peter was ordered to return to the Manning Depot about three months later for formal attestation as an airman, kit issue and the start of eight weeks of basic training. They learned how to properly wear their uniforms and look after their kit, the usual discipline and parade square drill, use and care of small arms, physical training, hygiene and basic military law as it applied to airmen. On completion of basic training they were promoted to the rank of Leading Aircraftsman [LAC].
Initially the RCAF did not have difficulty recruiting aircrew who met the existing educational standards, which meant the completion of high school, or ideally, some post-secondary school education. As time passed, however, this pool of men shrank considerably. Recruiting airmen who were medically fit and of suitable aptitude was not the issue; it was the lack of education. Many men lacked a good grounding in sciences or mathematics. After completing eight weeks of basic training the air force sent the aircrew candidates to school for eight to twelve weeks of intensive instruction in mathematics, physics, trigonometry and algebra. The program, Pre-Entry Aircrew Educational Courses, was conducted on site at the manning depots or, more often, in the classrooms of nearby schools or post-secondary institutions. Peter began classes in mid-May 1942 at the University of Montreal. At the end of their courses, the students, many of whom wished to become pilots, who achieved the required academic standards, then moved on to an Initial Training School [ITS]. Those who were not identified as pilot material would be channeled for training as flight engineers, wireless operators/air gunners, air gunners, bomb aimer or navigators and sent to specialised schools. Potential pilots, such as LAC Peter Biddlecombe, were posted to an ITS. For Peter this meant No. 3 Initial Training School at Victoriaville, Quebec, on 12 September 1942.
[i] C.P. Stacey. The Canadian Army 1939-1945. (Ottawa: (The Queen’s Printer. 1948). P. 1
[ii] F.J. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945. (Ottawa: Directorate of History, Dept. of National Defence, 1983 and Spencer Dunmore, Wings for Victory. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995).
[iii] Hatch. P. 206
[iv] Unless otherwise indicated, the material for this article has been extracted from the personal file of F/Sgt. Conrad Peter Vivian Biddlecombe, R164649, RCAF, Library and Archives Canada, RG24, Vol. 24853.
[v] Allan D. English. The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945. McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1996. P. 52