The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) came into being on 4 May 1910. Four short years later its two ships, HMCS Niobe and HMCS Rainbow, were cleared for action in the First World War. Canadian naval aviation, however, became a brief reality only during the latter part of the war after persistent urging from the British Admiralty and generous cooperation from the United States navy.

Canada, as a nation, did not become interested in naval aviation until late 1916 when new extended range German U-boats such as the Deutschland began attacking shipping off the American eastern seaboard. In April 1918, representatives of the Royal Navy (RN), U.S. Navy and the RCN agreed on a comprehensive plan to establish seaplane stations at Halifax and Sydney.

The Americans were prepared to supply aircraft and kite balloons and lend pilots for the seaplanes until the Canadians, who would be trained in the U.S., were ready to take over. Canada provided the land at Baker’s Point south of Dartmouth (now 12 Wing Shearwater) and Sydney, and constructed all buildings required for the seaplane stations at an estimated cost of $2,189,600.

Naval headquarters drew up a recruiting scheme calling for 500 officers and men to be added to the strength of the RCN for air duties; ordinary rates of pay were to prevail with a special air allowance. A Canadian Order-in-Council dated 5 September 1918 authorized the new force to be known as the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS), which was to be patterned after the its British counterpart, the RNAS.

However, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 and the Americans departed their Halifax and Sydney stations, leaving behind aircraft and equipment valued at $600,000, free of charge, for the embryonic RCNAS.

The Cabinet attempted to retain the RCNAS as a post-war component of the RCN. Unfortunately, the time was not ripe and on 5 December orders were issued to disband it. The RCN, without money, had to put naval aviation on hold for more than 20 years.

Canada’s next involvement with naval aviation occurred early in the Second World War when Canadians volunteered directly to serve with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (Air). To make it easier to formally recruit Canadians, the Admiralty agreed, in September 1943, that those recruited for the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) would be accepted in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA).

As Canadians helped to swell the ranks of the FAA, the RN was still critically short of manpower and had difficulty providing ships’ companies for the increasing number of Escort Aircraft Carriers. In January 1944, the RCN agreed to provide the ships’ companies for HMS Nabob and HMS Puncher, two American built carriers loaned to the RN under the wartime lend-lease agreement. The FAA provided the air squadrons and air personnel embarked on Nabob and Puncher.

Nabob provided sterling service in operations off the Norwegian coast until she was torpedoed in August 1944. Through the Herculean efforts of her Canadian crew, Nabob limped back to Scapa Flow where she was eventually cannibalized. Similarly, Puncher provided yeoman service with the British Home Fleet. Immediately after the war she was used as a troopship repatriating Canadian soldiers before being returned to the U.S. Navy.

The experience gained by Canadians flying with the FAA and manning Nabob and Puncher provided the essential foundation for the second attempt to form a Canadian naval air service.

In a letter dated 13 December 1945, the Admiralty proposed to loan Canada two light fleet carriers and offered to transfer the four FAA squadrons to the RCN. On 19 December, the Canadian Cabinet accepted the British proposal and on 24 January, the date of commissioning the RCN’s first carrier, HMCS Warrior, the Admiralty transferred 803 and 825 Squadrons to the RCN – both were manned principally by Canadians

The RCN planned to man the four Squadrons as they were transferred from the FAA with 550 ex-RCAF pilots who were surplus to the RCAF’s post war needs, plus RCNVR airmen with previous FAA experience. However, in February 1946, personnel shortages forced the disbandment of the 826 and 883 Squadrons – they remained Canadian squadrons on paper.

With the plan to acquire two aircraft carriers, the RCN required a shore base for its aircraft when not embarked on the carriers. Senior RCN and RCAF officers agreed to establish a Royal Canadian Naval Air Section at RCAF Station Dartmouth, with the RCAF responsible for logistic support for the RCN’s aircraft.

The initial batch of Supermarine Seafire and Fairey Firefly aircraft, obtained from the Royal Navy as part of the war claims settlement, made their maiden voyage to Canada embarked in HMCS Warrior and first landed at RCAF Station Dartmouth on 31 March 1946. The RCN also inherited 22 Fairey Swordfish and three Supermarine Walrus aircraft from the RN when HMS Seaborn, the Royal Naval Air Section at RCAF Station Dartmouth, was disbanded. In May 1947, 826 and 883 Squadrons were reactivated and equipped with Fireflies and Seafires, respectively.

Reduced personnel ceilings forced the RCN decision to operate only one carrier; HMCS Warrior was paid off in March 1948 and replaced by HMCS Magnificent, which made its maiden voyage to Dartmouth with new Hawker Sea Furies and Fireflies embarked. Eventually, a total of 74 Sea Furies would replace the 35 Seafires in 803 and 883 Squadrons.

On 1 December 1948, RCAF Station Dartmouth was transferred to the RCN and renamed Royal Canadian Naval Air Station Dartmouth. Following the RN tradition of naming air stations after sea birds, the RCN commissioned the Dartmouth station HMCS Shearwater.

With the signing of the new NATO accord in 1949, the RCN agreed to specialize in anti-submarine warfare. After operating British Firefly aircraft, the RCN ordered 125 Grumman TBM Avengers from the U.S. Navy.

In January 1955, the RCN embarked on a major modernization program for the Air Arm. Lockheed T-33 jet trainers were acquired from the RCAF to train pilots on the McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee jet fighter, which was to replace the Sea Fury. In November 1955, the first of 39 ex-U.S. Navy Banshees, armed with infrared heat seeking air-to-air missiles, was delivered to Shearwater.

In 1956, the first of 100 de Havilland-built CS2F Trackers replaced the Grumman Avenger. The Tracker, a twin engine, four crew aircraft, embodied the latest sensors and equipment and became the backbone of the RCN’s airborne anti-submarine warfare capability. Finally, in early 1957, the aircraft carrier Magnificent was paid off and replaced by HMCS Bonaventure, which was equipped with the latest innovations in aircraft carrier design, including an angled flight deck, a steam catapult and a mirror landing system.

Helicopters at first played a secondary role in Canadian naval aviation but in the final analysis outlasted their fixed wing brethren. In the early 1950s, the Naval Air Arm had a small fleet of Bell HTL and Piasecki HUP 3 helicopters that played a major role in surveying the eastern Arctic while embarked on HMCS Labrador. Also Sikorsky HO4S (Horse) helicopters were used for search and rescue both ashore and while embarked on Magnificent and Bonaventure.

In 1955, the HO4S pioneered the use of dipping sonar, which led to the wide use of helicopters operating from small destroyers in the anti-submarine role. To enable helicopters to operate from the rolling and pitching decks of its small St Laurent class destroyers, the RCN pioneered and perfected the Helicopter Hauldown and Rapid Securing Device (HHRSD), colloquially known as the “Beartrap.”

In May 1963, the first of 41 CHSS-2 Sea Kings was acquired to replace the HO4S serving with HS 50, the operational helicopter anti-submarine squadron. The Sea King’s twin-turbine engines not only improved reliability and safety for operations at sea, but also provided an all-weather day-night capability with greater speed, range, endurance and payload. Its hull design improved survivability if ditched at sea.

With the integration of Canada’s armed forces in February 1968 and the termination of Bonaventure as an operational carrier in 1969, naval aviation effectively came to an end.

However, the legacy of naval aviation continues more than four decades after its demise. The sturdy Tracker soldiered on in a shore-based maritime reconnaissance role until retired in 1990, 34 years after it was first introduced into Canada’s Naval Air Arm. Today, the venerable Sea King, now more than 45 years old, continues to provide integral air support for the navy’s Halifax class frigates, long after the original St. Laurent class DDH’s retired.

Col (Ret’d) Ernest Cable, a former Canadian maritime aviator, is the Shearwater Aviation Museum Historian and an Associate Air Force Historian. He served as Deputy Commander of Maritime Air Group.