Air Force

For the pioneers of flight, aerial combat was glamourous yet every bit as dangerous as fighting in the trenches.


The air force played a crucial role during the Great War — one that grew in importance as the conflict wore on.

Indeed, many of the gains achieved in the final months of the war came as a result of airplanes working in concert with tanks and troops on the ground. More than twenty-three thousand Canadians served in the Royal Flying Corps, later the Royal Air Force, with more than fifteen hundred dying either during training or combat.

At the beginning of the war, the military brass was skeptical of the airplane’s effectiveness as a combat weapon. Made of wood and canvas, these relatively flimsy devices were, in the early days of the war, largely used for reconnaissance. However, as technology improved, the killing power of airplanes became more evident. Flyers used planes to drop bombs on their enemies, while improved machine guns allowed for strafing enemies on the ground as well as enemy aircraft in the skies.

Pilots, gunners and aerial observers faced many dangers beyond simply the threat of enemy attack. For most of the war, airmen in tight cockpits of biplanes could not wear parachutes. Any type of mechanical failure required an attempt at an emergency landing, too often behind enemy lines.

Canada did not have its own air force during the war; Canadian pilots flew with Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, which became the Royal Air Force in 1918. Starting in 1917, Canada began training pilots and air crew, with the majority of the training camps located in southern Ontario.

Canada did boast several of the British Empire’s greatest flying aces, including Billy Bishop, William Barker, and Raymond Collishaw. A Canadian, Arthur Roy Brown, was credited in 1918 with killing German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. Today, controversy surrounds the Red Baron’s death, as some argue he was actually killed by a rifle shot from the ground.

The Canadian Air Force was created in 1920 and became the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. During the Second World War, Canada was known as the “aerodrome of the free world” for its major role in training allied pilots.

— Text by Jessica Knapp


The Curious Tale of Two Roy Browns

The Curious Tale of Two Roy Browns

A case of mistaken identity dogged them throughout their flying careers—which one shot down the “Red Baron”?
Archie Jenks

Archie Jenks

A dentistry student at McGill University, Jenks enlisted on February 18, 1915, at the age of 25.
Herbert Gardiner

Herbert Gardiner

Despite many plane crashes, Herbert Gardiner survived the Great War.
Lyell Campbell Spence

Lyell Campbell Spence

On March 7th, 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross for "gallantry and devotion to duty as a forward observation officer (FOO) during an attack."