2003 History Conference - Air War Europe

The Empire Air Training Scheme
Chris Clark

On 8 September 1939, five days after the start of the Second World War, a cablegram arrived from London urging Australian authorities to begin preparing to send away an expeditionary force to Europe or some other important theatre of operations. In response to this suggestion, the government of R.G. Menzies directed both the Army and the Royal Australian Air Force to begin planning along these lines. By 20 September the acting Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Vice-Marshal S.J. Goble, had a scheme before the War Cabinet that provided for the dispatch of an air contingent of two bomber wings (each of two squadrons), a fighter wing of two squadrons, a headquarters and ancillary units. Since Australia could not spare the 96 aircraft needed for the six squadrons – indeed, it did not have modern types suitable to equip such units for European conditions – it was intended to send just the 3,200 officers and men, and leave it to the Royal Air Force to fit the force out on arrival at its destination.[1]

It is well known now that the air expeditionary force did not happen. Instead, it was overtaken by another scheme which the British government began pressing barely a week after Goble’s scheme received the government’s approval. On 26 September London invited the Dominions to sign on to plans for jointly establishing a vast pool of trained aircrew who could be used to create new squadrons in England and replace combat losses in what was expected to be an intensive air war over Europe. It was this visionary proposal, accepted by the War Cabinet on 5 October without reference to the Air Board, which subsequently became the dominant factor in RAAF wartime activity up until Japan entered the war in December 1941.

Although it was stated that the government’s agreement to London’s alternative scheme did not alter its desire to continue raising the air expeditionary force, in fact it soon became apparent that Australia lacked trained personnel to pursue both schemes simultaneously. On 31 October it was officially announced that the air expeditionary force had been put on hold “for the present”, but in effect the force had been killed stone dead. The only formed units which Australia provided for service outside the Asia-Pacific region throughout the whole of the war were No.10 Squadron (which was already in England taking delivery of new Sunderland flying boats when war began), No.3 Squadron (an army co-operation squadron sent to support the AIF in the Middle East in 1940) and No.1 Air Ambulance Unit (also sent to the Middle East at the end of 1941). None of these units were ever brought together as a separate air contingent.

So, it was the pooled training scheme which constituted Australia’s major contribution to the air war in Europe. What became here the “Empire Air Training Scheme” (in Canada it is known as the “British Commonwealth Air Training Plan”, and in New Zealand the “Empire Air Training Plan”) ultimately saw more than 27,000 aircrew trained in Australia before being sent to Britain for employment with the RAF; a further 10,000-plus partly-trained personnel completed their training in Canada, along with nearly 700 who received pilot training in Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa), before being sent on.[2] Not all these men completed training, it should be added, since it is known that only 9,606 of the Australians sent to Canada actually graduated. Even so, in total just short of 40,000 young Australian men were involved.

The story for the other participating Dominions, which did not include South Africa, was similar. Canada – which became the major training area for the scheme because of its uncongested skies, relative closeness to Britain and to the aircraft-producing centres in the United States, as well as its distance from actual fighting – graduated 72,835 of the 91,166 entrants who began training for the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with 7,002 New Zealanders. Another 42,110 trainees from the RAF (including Allied nationals) also completed their training in Canada.[3]

Judged against virtually any measure one might choose as yardstick, the impact of the EATS on the conduct of the whole air war in Europe, on the British side, was clearly considerable. This is even more the case when viewed in the narrower context of the Australian war effort alone. Within the 216,900 men who enlisted in the RAAF during the Second World War,[4] the dispatch of nearly 40,000 airmen to Europe was a significant proportion of that service’s overall effort. No less important is the fact that the RAAF suffered 6,500 combat deaths in the Second World War (about one-fifth of the total number of personnel from all three Australia services that were killed or died), of which 5,400 were lost in operations in Europe – 3,500 of them as members of RAF Bomber Command.[5] As one RAAF historian has recently written, “Few Australian warriors have ever fought a more sustained and heroic campaign than those EATS graduates who for five years flew in Bomber Command’s terrible war in the night skies over Germany.”[6]

The difference which the EATS made to British air operations prompted the official history of the Royal Canadian Air Force to describe it as “a major contributor to the air supremacy the Allies had achieved in every theatre of war by 1944”,[7] and the official history of the RAAF declared it to be “unique in military history”. Certainly, that four countries were able to pool resources in a common cause remains a remarkable achievement in the name of coalition warfare. J.V. Fairbairn, the Minister for Air who negotiated for Australia at the conference at Ottawa that formalised the scheme, expressed the view to Prime Minister Menzies on his return from Canada that EATS was the one activity that Australia might undertake which might lead to winning or losing the war. Although it was early days in the war when he made this assessment, it has a peculiarly prophetic ring. The sheer scale and duration of the scheme ensured that inevitably it had a major impact on the way matters played out.

Yet the story of the scheme has not been universally applauded, particularly in the last 25 years when it has come in for critical scrutiny by historians. Many unsatisfactory features have been noted in the details of the way the scheme operated, particularly in the fact that drafts of Australian and New Zealand personnel in particular were broken up on arrival in Britain and dispersed throughout the RAF, so that there was little that was distinctive to either country in their record of achievements.

A clause existed in the Ottawa agreement embodying the scheme specifying that once individual squadrons reached a predominant proportion of aircrew from a particular nationality, it would be designated as a RAAF, RCAF, or RNZAF unit. Under the so-called “Article XV” provision, or what was also known as the “Infiltration” scheme, it was accordingly expected that there would be twenty-five “Canadian”, eighteen “Australian” and six “New Zealand” squadrons. Eventually there were seventeen Article XV RAAF squadrons, these being numbered 450 to 467 (but with no 465 formed). Four of these units were in Fighter Command, seven in Bomber Command, and one in Coastal Command; five were formed in the Middle East, emphasising that not all EATS personnel were destined for Europe. Furthermore, two of the UK squadrons were later sent to Australia.

The problem was that in reality the proportion of nationalities within Article XV squadrons always remained so mixed, and also fluctuated, that the nominal identification with a particular Dominion was frequently a fiction. It is recorded, for example, that when 462 Squadron formed in September 1942, only one Australian aircrew member was in this so-called RAAF unit! The startling fact is that the majority of Australian airmen were not found in Article XV squadrons anyway, but were actually spread across the whole RAF. In May 1945, when Germany surrendered, thousands of Australians were still serving in the European theatre, in 220 different RAF squadrons![8]

This situation was no different for the New Zealanders, who ended up having seven Article XV squadrons.[9] Canada, however, made a greater insistence on its airmen going specifically to RCAF operational units overseas, which ensured that the genuine identity of its national squadrons was preserved. It also allowed the Canadians to do something the Australians and New Zealanders did not achieve for their units serving in Bomber Command, which was to form their squadrons in January 1943 into a separate RCAF formation (No.6 Group) commanded by a Canadian air vice-marshal. In contrast to this, very few Australians were given command of operational units, even of the nominally “RAAF” squadrons, and those that received such appointments often did so only after the Australian authorities protested at Australian candidates being passed over by more junior RAF officers.

British selfishness extended also to the Air Ministry being unwilling to concede any say to the Dominions over strategic policy. Although the RAAF was allowed to form a headquarters in London in December 1941 to administer its forces overseas, and the air vice-marshal heading this organisation was granted access to the senior levels of the RAF, there was never any attempt by the Air Ministry to consult about the employment and postings of the personnel Australia had generously contributed to the fighting. Often RAAF Overseas Headquarters was told nothing, and sometimes given misleading information, about the roles and even the existence of Article XV RAAF squadrons. Largely because of the “closed shop” approach taken by the Air Ministry, the EATS was kept going longer than it really needed to have been. Large surpluses in trained aircrew were allowed to develop from fairly early in 1944, mainly because Allied losses in the air were declining, but the scheme was not officially cancelled until 31 March 1945 – little more than a month before the German surrender. It is hard to disagree with the view that EATS, while it may have been hugely beneficial to the war effort at the outset, had dissolved into waste and inefficiency by the time of its demise. The political mismanagement of the EATS was plainly not just the tragedy which Alan Stephens later identified it as being for RAAF history and tradition.[10]

In the situation where the Air Ministry believed it had (as indeed it did) an unfettered hand to use Australian airmen as it saw fit, the case truly seemed to be that Australia had “surrendered” – the term used by Menzies himself – its personnel to the UK government. This prompted historian John McCarthy to call his 1988 study of the EATS “A last call of empire”, a title suggesting that the whole concept behind it was an anachronism which regarded Australians as “cannon fodder” for imperial solidarity. At an early point in his text McCarthy recalled official historian Gavin Long’s pondering whether at some point in the future a later generation might fail to understand why Australians volunteered so readily for overseas service in a war to be fought on battlefields half a world away, before himself adding, “Now, after almost fifty years, that generation is with us and finds the ‘empire commitment’ largely incomprehensible.”[11]

McCarthy’s questioning and other, more recent attempts to come to grips with the horrors of the experiences of the thousands of young Australians who found themselves fighting the Second World War with the RAF, particularly those in Bomber Command who were involved in the morally confusing pulverisation of German cities and towns,[12] suggest that some degree of reassessment in this area is warranted. Even acknowledging the problems and difficulties which inevitably accompanied such a vast and complex administrative undertaking as the EATS represented, is it possible to view the experience in more favourable light? I suggest that it is, if historians are prepared to allow that few Australians before December 1941 were inclined to regard the “family” connexion with Britain as irrelevant in the way that a clear majority would do these days. It may be inconceivable now that in any major war Australia would again consent to such an arrangement – a point underscored by the conflict in Iraq earlier this year, in which the RAAF fought alongside the USAF and RAF as a distinct national contingent – but it did not reflect the way Australians felt or thought in 1939–40.

An interesting point to consider, however, is that a concern to preserve the distinctive identity of the forces being contributed by Australia was present even in 1939. The idea of making available a complete air contingent in the form of an expeditionary force was precisely intended to ensure that Australians were kept together as one organisation and not distributed piecemeal throughout the RAF. Failure to adhere to that principle had, I believe, as much to do with practical factors as it did with any ideological inclination of the conservative government of the day to ingratiate itself to a British master. As the protracted negotiations involved with the Ottawa agreement attest, all the Dominions were capable of arguing long and hard with London over interests that they held to be important. For instance, while it was originally intended to make Canada the centre for all advanced training under the scheme, Australia argued against being left to carry out only the elementary stage of preparing its personnel. Partly its objection was on the grounds of cost, but it was also recognised that by carrying out complete training for at least a proportion of EATS trainees, it would also be building up its own defence potential – a factor of some importance then given the uncertain intentions of Japan.[13]

Accordingly, the array of new RAAF schools which were established across Australia to support the EATS ended up including:

  • Initial Training (5)
  • Elementary Flying Training (12)
  • Service Flying Training (8)
  • Air Navigation (3)
  • Air Observer (2)
  • Bombing and Gunnery (3)
  • Wireless Air Gunnery (3).

Backing this very considerable training organisation were a large number of ancillary units – many of which had never existed before the war, such as six Schools of Technical Training.

Agreeing to take part in EATS had therefore less to do with subservience to Britain than with a genuine desire on the part of the Dominions to render meaningful help. Britain needed a regular and guaranteed supply of trained aircrew if it was able to withstand a protracted air campaign such as had been predicted in all the writing, thinking, and planning since the end of the First World War. It had little need of Dominion air units, as such, which it would have to equip and train anyway, since this form of assistance was not essentially different to EATS except for the additional burden of accommodating Dominion commanders and national chain-of-command arrangements. Was such accommodation justified in this case? I suggest that the Air Ministry in London might have been excused for thinking it was not.

The close links maintained between the RAF and RAAF meant that London was always pretty well informed on the internal dynamics of Australia’s small air force. It knew perfectly well what the RAAF’s small structure and obsolescent equipment represented in terms of combat power. As recently as 1938 the Inspector-General of the RAF, Sir Edward Ellington, a former CAS, had made a visit of inspection which delivered adverse findings on aspects of the RAAF’s operational capability and safety standards. The one thing that the RAAF had been doing consistently well over the years was its pilot training conducted at Point Cook. Since 1926 a proportion of the annual graduates of Point Cook had been selected to spend four years with the RAF on short service commissions, and this arrangement continued right up until July 1938 when this scheme had been suspended because of the RAAF’s need for all its graduates to cope with planned expansion of the Australian service.[14]

Whatever reservations that the British Air Ministry had about the usefulness of the RAAF were, of course, compounded in the case of New Zealand. There, defence aviation was even less developed than in Australia, and the small arm that had been maintained as part of the army was not separated to form the RNZAF until April 1937. Plainly, the RAF would have harboured few illusions about what could be expected of such a service in the short term, beyond that it might be expanded to provide a useful training organisation.

Reverting to the RAAF’s situation again, it is plain too, that London had a keen appreciation of what the proposed air expeditionary force might actually mean. Knowing that the RAAF had 3,489 officers and airmen in uniform when war was declared, and that Goble’s planned contingent of 3,200 must inevitably include a high proportion of these, there was never any doubt that the personnel coming to Britain’s aid would include the best and worst of the peacetime structure, or that the training base remaining behind in Australia would be weakened perhaps beyond future utility. Had it proceeded on active service, the air expeditionary force might well have ended up being an embarrassing token contribution that had to be quickly superseded.

Because it knew all about the RAAF’s senior officers, too, the Air Ministry must have been aware how dangerously thin the Australian service was in its senior ranks, especially in terms of immediately providing commanders who were up to meeting the demands of operations in an unfamiliar theatre. The few officers of recognised ability had been through the air staff college in Britain, so their strengths and weaknesses had all been appraised already. The service’s two most senior men, air vice-marshals Williams and Goble, were both seen as failures to one degree or another. Williams had been displaced as a consequence of the Ellington report and shunted off to the RAF on exchange, while the Australian government had so little faith in Goble that immediately after the war began it embarked on secret negotiations with London for an RAF replacement. Goble only hastened that process by falling out with the fractious RAF officer sent on exchange for Williams to serve as Air Member for Personnel, and resigning as CAS, before he was shunted off to Canada to serve as the RAAF representative in helping to set up the EATS there.

The group captains next down the list were a pretty uninspiring bunch when it might have come to selecting an operational commander, even though all gave good service in the less demanding positions which were subsequently found for them. In the case of two of these officers, A.T. Cole and F.H. McNamara, senior RAF commands at air vice-marshal level were eventually found for them – Northern Ireland and Aden respectively – but the fact that neither of these posts were operationally important might be seen a form of implicit acknowledgement of each man’s limitations. By contrast, it should be noted that when, later in the war, some of the RAAF middle-level officers had demonstrated outstanding command capabilities, the RAF made strenuous efforts to obtain their services for appointment to important RAF posts. Two who are known to be in this category are F.M. Bladin[15] and J.P.J. McCauley, both of whom gained high rank in the postwar RAAF.

In short, in can well be argued that the Air Ministry had sound practical reasons for adopting the stance it did in preferring a flexible manpower arrangement like EATS over acceptance of a national contingent from Australia, reasons which went beyond arrogant presumptions of professional superiority and pursuit of convenience and flexibility for selfish motives. Of course, what may have been an excuse in 1939–40 did not necessarily hold true two years later, when the RAAF have evolved into a much larger, more capable, and sophisticated organisation, and personnel sent to Britain under the EATS had – if they survived – acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding the nature of the air war in Europe.

So far as the loss of identity that resulted from Air Ministry manning policies under EATS is concerned, it is at least worth considering the point of view advanced by the New Zealand official history. This argues that

the policy of concentrating men from a particular part of the Commonwealth in separate units, strongly advocated in some quarters, was far from being universally popular among the aircrews themselves, many of whom when given the choice preferred to serve with RAF units. Moreover, it was the considered opinion of some who were in a position to see both sides of the problem that the more flexible arrangements adopted by New Zealand were not only of the greatest help to the RAF in securing the best possible employment of all trained aircrew but also had a broadening effect on all concerned.[16]

Enough evidence exists to suggest that what held good for the New Zealanders was true, too, for a great many Australians.

One should also take into account what the life experience which EATS afforded (forgetting about the high likelihood of it being a death experience for a moment) meant to the young men involved. As Alan Stephens observed,

For them EATS represented the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance for overseas adventure, to fight for king and country, and to prove themselves as their fathers had done twenty years before … At a time when few Australians travelled and attitudes were narrow, the experience of distant places, new friends, and the Air Force’s cheerful paternalism added to the sense of adventure”.[17]

And respond to this opportunity Australia’s youth most definitely did – 68,000 of them in the first six months of the war alone! This aspect was well appreciated by RAAF recruiters, who deliberately played up the theme of overseas adventure in their promotional pitch.

To recognise that the EATS had its problems and imperfections is to do nothing more than to accept the inherent organisational difficulties in devising a fair and reasonable basis for such a monumental and complex arrangement. That EATS came into being at all is testament to the extraordinary goodwill and willingness of the four parties to negotiate around differences on a range of thorny issues. As a consequence the EATS remains one of the most remarkable examples of co-operative endeavour undertaken in the name of coalition warfare. Though unlikely to ever be repeated, perhaps there is scope here to acknowledge its positives rather than merely dwell on its negatives.


[1] D.N. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-42 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962), p. 58n.

[2] War report of the Chief of the Air Staff, Royal Australian Air Force, 3rd September 1939 to 31st December 1945 to the Minister for Air (Melbourne: RAAF Printing & Publications Unit, nd), p. 21.

[3] W.A.B. Douglas, The creation of a national air force, vol.3 of The official history of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), p. 293.

[4] Commonwealth of Australia, Official year-book, No.40: 1954, pp. 1115-16.

[5] G. Long, The six years war: a concise history of Australia in the 1939–45 war (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1973), p. 474.

[6] Alan Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, vol.3 of The Australian centenary history of Defence (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 60.

[7] Douglas, p. 192.

[8] Long, The six years war, p. 393.

[9] H.L. Thompson, New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force, vol.2 (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1956), p. 6.

[10] Stephens, p. 66.

[11] John McCarthy, A last call of empire: Australian aircrew, Britain and the Empire Air Training Scheme (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1988), pp. 8-9.

[12] See, for instance, Hank Nelson, Chased by the sun: courageous Australians in Bomber Command in World War II (Sydney: ABC Books, 2002).

[13] War report of the Chief of the Air Staff, p. 17.

[14] C.D. Coulthard-Clark, The third brother: the Royal Australian Air Force 1921–39, (1991), pp. 87-9.

[15] See Australian dictionary of biography, vol.13, p. 193, for negotiations to appoint Bladin as AOC of No.238 Group, RAF, in 1945.

[16] Thompson, p. 7.

[17] Stephens, pp. 67, 71.


Chris Clark is an historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.