The Undertaking of Great Magnitude:
A brief overview of the Empire Air Training Scheme

From its formation on 1st April 1918 the Royal Air Force experienced a somewhat inconsistent period of contraction and hesitant growth during the 20s and 30s. By the end of the Great War Britain had the greatest air defence force in the world with 291,000 personnel and 700 aerodromes worldwide, but there followed a disarmament programme that would see that claim decimated. By 1920, there were only 25 squadrons out of the 188 total in 1918. During the 1920s and ‘30s, economic restraint would inhibit growth of the air force.

The emphasis during this time was on officer training, with few opportunities for a great many more with limited or no qualifications. New pilots had to have appropriate entrance qualifications and would be trained, by 1936, in one of eleven flying schools.

The RAF’s further expansion required 2550 new pilots by 1937, together with some 22,000 other personnel. By 1938, the total complement was 4850 officers and 51,000 airmen. The emphasis on quality and service independence meant that by the late 1930s a more egalitarian approach emerged.

A strategic response to the demands of an imminent European war was required. The expansion of aircrew training requirements had been considered long before 3rd September 1939, yet it was not until 17th December that year that an unprecedented scale of response, based on massive international mobilisation, would be established.

The ‘Riverdale Agreement’ was signed and the Empire Air Training Scheme was born following a conference in Ottawa, Canada, during October-December, 1939. The Agreement was named for Lord Riverdale, otherwise Arthur Balfour, Yorkshire industrialist and head of the British delegation.

Politically and logistically, economically and internationally it was a vast undertaking. War created the expedient, but behind the demand for numbers lay serious bargaining and negotiation. It was a far from British initiative since it involved principally the commitment of Canada, supported by Australia and New Zealand. Rhodesia, South Africa, India and other countries. Not without compromise on the part of Britain, the Dominions and its allies, would a united, international response unfold.

It is sobering thought that international agreement on a key component of the war effort would be settled three months after war began. Yet, cooperation with Dominion Governments was essential and as a result of diplomacy, cost analysis and detailed planning the EATS was established. Yet its significance in scale and purpose appears not to be given sufficient credit in 20th century British history. Tens of thousands passed through this programme, often beginning training in English seaside resorts before being shipped to Canada and South Africa for advanced flying training.

The Empire Air Training Scheme and its counterpart South African Joint Air Training Plan, and in the United States the Arnold and Towers Scheme, were well under way in the early Forties. In June 1942, the EATS would become the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Born on 17th December 1939 and ending on 31st March 1945 it contributed greatly to the war effort. In the words of Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, it was indeed an undertaking of great magnitude.

The above was submitted by Gary Duncan, author of
"Conversations With My Father" which relives his fathers life prior to 1939 and his experiences both as a pupil of the Empire Air Training Scheme and following the cessation of hostilities.

My thanks to Gary for this contribution