First Canadian F.A.A. Pilots Graduate In Canada

A milestone for No. 31 S.F.T.S. was reported in the Kingston Whig Standard:


Among the forty-seven graduates of No. 10 Course who received their wings in June 1941 were the first Canadians to graduate from a Fleet Air Arm training school in Canada. Although the class was the largest to graduate so far, there was no wing ceremony. The two Canadians were officers of the R.C.N.V.R. until they transferred to the Royal Navy to train as F.A.A. pilots. They were: Sub-Lieut. F. M. Leigh-Spencer of Vancouver, B.C. and Sub-Lieut.P. R. Thomson, from Montreal, Que. Also graduating were: Lieut. N. R. Cox, R.N.R., Nutley, England, and A/PO’s F. K. Adcock, Rugby; W. H. Anderson, Birmingham; G. S. Appleton, Welburn; W. A. Bale, Timperley; P. H. Bliss, Alyesford; F. B. Cooper, Whitby; H. J. Costley, Twickerham; D. H. Dibb, Cheadle; *K. F. E. Dorman, Ewell; J. M. Elliott, Doncaster; H. R. Emerson, Auckland, N.Z.; E. E. Emsley, Rawdon; N. D. Fisher, London; D. R. Hill, Oxford; D. G. Jenkins, Cardiff; J. D. Junor, Glasgow; J. A. Lacy, Huddersfield; J.M. Lamb, Hull; M.S. Latter, Christchurch, N.Z.; J. O. Lee, Arundel; *J. Leggatt, Ayr, Scot.; *R. E. Martin, Salisbury; *W. L. McKenzie, Birmingham; T. Milne, Peterhead, Scot.; *A. Moore, London; W. H. Neilson, Blairgowrie, Scot.; R. Pemberton, Stoke-on-Trent; N. M.Simon, West Wickham; J. F. Williams, Mold, Wales; D. A. Wright, Haworth. (*See In Memoriam.)

Members of the R.A.F. receiving their wings were:

*G. R. Bland, Marlborough; *J. M. Coxon, South Shields; *C.V. Finlay, Tunbridge Wells; R. Graham, Manchester; *C.E.Graysmark, Isleworth; W. J. Greenaway, Knaresborough; *A. R. Hedger, Ruislip; *P. N. Hewitt, Cranwell; J. W. Innes, Hong Kong; *C. L. Janes, Luton; R. Johnson, Stanhope; *D. W. Kent, Welwyn Garden City; D. M. MacFarland, Glasgow; L. L. Storey, Ilford. (*See In Memoriam)

In the earliest days, naval pilots flew off merchant ships outfitted with catapults which could accommodate a single plane. The pilot had to reach land or ditch and hope to be picked up. Pilots graduating here had their own hazards as they returned to the ‘Old Country’ for operational training. Peter Roome, who graduated with No. 50 Course, recalls: “The blue skies and clear visibility of Canada was replaced with mists, low cloud and poor visibility.” Commenting on the hazards associated with landings, he recalled “landing on a 35 ft. wide runway at Hatston in the Orkneys, one at Donibristle 600 yards long, and on an aircraft carrier with about 350 ft. of deck going away from you at 30 knots.”

Once they had their wings, the pilots were now sorted into categories as to the type of aircraft they would fly: fighters or torpedo bombers. Peter Roome explained: “It depended upon your height as to what plane model you would be assigned to – the shortest to Seafires and the rest to Hellcats.

Before we got to fly these front line machines, there was a bit more Harvard flying to do at an Advanced Flying Unit. Then on to Naval Instrument Flying School for a seven-day course, very intensive, the aircrafts being twin-engine Airspeed Oxfords. Next was No. 1 Naval Air Fighter School, Yeovilton, Somerset where I converted to the Corsair. However, ten days were spent at the School of Naval Air Warfare at St. Merryn, Cornwall, where you had to qualify in air-to-air firing. After this it was back to Yeovilton for dummy deck landings (ADDLES) and then to R.N.A.S., Ayr, Scotland where we flew out to the escort carrier, H.M.S. RAVAGER and landed on it. It was necessary to complete eight landings and takeoffs. Incidentally, we flew out from Ayr in pairs and in the other Corsair along with me was Lt. W. H. Thompson, R.C.N.V.R., from our Kingston days.”

F.A.A. aircraft flown in the early days were obsolete. The Swordfish, a three-seater with pilot, navigator/ bomb/torpedo operator and air-gunner, was described by Peter as “having a top speed of about 160 mph downhill.” It was succeeded by the Albacore and, he said, “it was succeeded later still by the worst aircraft ever designed called a Barracuda, which were so awful that there is not one left in the world even in pieces. The naval version of the Spitfire was the Seafire which I eventually flew. The difference between a Seafire and a Barra is similar to the difference between a Rolls Royce and a tractor.”

Fleet Air Arm pilots were given one of the following ranks upon graduation: Midshipmen (A); Petty Officers (A); or, Acting Sub-Lieutenants (A), which was reserved for those over the age of twenty. They were sent to the Royal Naval College where they learned to develop “officer-like qualities.” “Most trainees were supposed to be officer material and wore white bands on our hats, although we all got the same treatment on joining. Petty Officer Wilmot used to get us on our first parade and harangue us something like this: ‘You are Naval airmen second class but are supposed to be officer material and above average intelligence. Gawd knows why!’”

From the C/O’s diary: “Owing to the shortage of aircraft hands on this unit, pupils were employed on the Undercarriage up-warning signals duty. A serious accident was averted on the first day of the operation, which had been put into effect on No. 1 Training Command instructions. One aircraft, being slightly below and in front of the other – the lower aircraft being completely in the forward blind spot of the aircraft above. The pupil on duty waited until the lower air- craft had touched down and then fired a red Verey light as a warning to the aircraft above and the pilot immediately opened up and carried out another circuit.”

A notation reads: “Aircraft and spares situation steadily deteriorating.” By the end of the month, aircraft serviceability had reached alow ebb: seventeen dual and nine solo aircraft with which to maintain eight flights.” One of the airmen remarked: “If Hitler had known how ill-prepared and ill-equipped Britain was at the beginning of the war, he would have attacked.”


Raising money to support our servicemen was ongoing during the war and involved War Savings Stamps and Victory Bonds. Every year a new Victory Loan campaign was launched and each community was given a goal to reach. In 1941 the town of Gananoque, with fewer than 4,500 residents, was expected to raise $188,000. The campaigns opened with parades across the country that fanned the flames of patriotism, as is seen in this account of the parade in Gananoque:

“Over one mile of floats drawn by more than forty army trucks passed through cheering crowds as the Victory cavalcade made its way eastward. The R.C.A.F. band of Toronto led the parade through town. Patriotic citizens lined both sides of King Street and flags were waved in welcome and the one thousand or more children lining the street shouted enthusiastic appreciation of the display as it made its way past their lines. The forty floats depicted the various needs of the country in its war effort: guns, airplanes, searchlights, tanks, ships, ambulances, surgical supplies. The various aspects of democracy, for the preservation of which the Victory Loans were asked, followed.”

This was indeed a mighty effort, as everyone who had gone through the Great Depression could appreciate. Children took their dimes to school and filled stamp books. The citizens might have thought they were giving their best, but the Victory Bond county chairman didn’t agree. Addressing the Rotary Club in June, he said, “We are not happy over the situation in Gan.” In money alone the war was costing Canada in round figures $4,000,000. a day, but in addition to revenue raised by taxes, the country now had to borrow from her citizens at least $600,000,000. Gananoque did manage to raise the minimum objective of $125,000.00 and it was expected the town would reach the goal of $188,000.00.

On July 12, 1941, Group Captain H. J. Collins, formerly attached to the British Air Ministry, arrived to take over command. Good news for the station was the message received on the 12th that nine Harvards were ready for collection at Windsor and, after the 15th, collection would be at the rate of five per day. A total of ninety-nine of the desperately needed aircraft arrived during July and August. The Harvard, which was built at Buffalo, New York, was considered to be an excellent training plane and those who flew it said it was a ‘super’ plane and ‘fun’ to fly. A former pupil said it was fortunately also a ‘forgiving’ aircraft.

Buzzing farmers as they worked in the fields could be a source of amusement for the pilots and not just the pupils. At least one Instructor was known to say to a novice pupil, “Watch this..” and then zoom over a farmer’s wagon and laugh as the frustrated man threw his pitchfork in the air at them. This kind of foolery could mean precious lost time during the short haying season if the horses bolted and machinery was broken or harnesses snapped from the strain. Not only did the long-suffering farmers experience disturbed sleep, their livestock did as well. Urban dwellers working long shift hours complained of lost sleep, but this didn’t elicit any sympathy. In an address to the Kiwanis Club, Canadian W/C William Keddie, who had served overseas, told the members of the Kiwanis Club: “Tell them to get down on their knees and thank God that the planes they complain about aren’t Hun aircraft.”

LAC Benjamin Elwell – June 17, 1941

Twenty-one year old LAC Benjamin Elwell, drowned while swimming at Amherst Island. It was reported that he had attempted to do too much swimming and was fatigued. He was survived by his wife, Joan, of Ward End, Birmingham, England.

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