100 years of maritime aviation

The first HS2L Flying Boat to arrive in Halifax, seen at Baker’s Point in 1918.
Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum.

Shearwater: the birthplace of maritime aviation in Canada

By Col (ret’d) E. S. C.  Cable OMM, CD,
Shearwater Aviation Museum Historian

The Shearwater air station in Dartmouth is second only to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden as the oldest military airfield in Canada and since its inception in 1918 has been home to Canada’s naval or RCAF maritime air squadrons. Shearwater’s varied and colourful history includes the births of Canada’s naval and maritime patrol air forces and indeed reflects our nation’s naval and maritime aviation heritage more so than any other base. Shearwater was created originally as a seaplane base in August 1918, when the small promontory in Halifax harbour’s Eastern Passage, known as Baker’s Point, became U.S. Naval Air Station Halifax. It subsequently became an air station for the Canadian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The basing of American and British naval air forces at Shearwater during two world wars enriches the air station’s naval aviation heritage. With the integration of the armed forces in 1968, Shearwater became a Canadian Forces Base and finally, today, 12 Wing, an Air Command lodger unit supported by CFB Halifax. By virtue of its coastal location, Shearwater has been inextricably linked to the defence of the air and sea approaches of Canada’s Atlantic coast. In fact, it was the threat by sea that provided the original raison d’être for the base that continues today.

The Beginning

During the First World War, German submarines operated between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, particularly in the waters off the eastern and southern shores of the latter province.  In peace and even more so in war the amount of shipping entering and leaving the Gulf of St. Lawrence and using the harbours of Nova Scotia was enormous. Vessels sailing singly or banded together in convoys were departing in rapid succession from ports in eastern Canada, especially from Halifax and Sydney, laden with troops and supplies to support the British in Europe. Moreover, many transatlantic ships bound for or departing from Boston, New York and other harbours in the northeastern United States passed through the outer fringes of these waters. Therefore, both the Canadian and American governments were vitally interested in protecting these shipping lanes.

By 1917, the success of east bound convoys sailing from Halifax and Sydney enticed the Germans. Suddenly the Canadian coast became a desirable target area. The Admiralty warned Ottawa of these latest developments and the Naval Service immediately attempted to strengthen its patrol force. However, no additional vessels were available and it was decided that aircraft operating from shore bases could protect merchant shipping in Canadian waters. But where were the aircraft to come from? The Admiralty had no surplus and the only possibility seemed to be the United States Navy (USN), which was expanding its ability to patrol its home waters. The possibility of building and operating an air station in the vicinity of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia offered a means of solving the problem for both nations.

Meanwhile, the German threat was so acute that the Admiralty renewed its warning and offered a preliminary plan for aircraft patrols. The plan proposed the Canadians not only create an air service but also the seaplane, airship and kite balloon factories to support it. It was recommended that Canada seek American assistance and in the interim ask the United States to extend its coastal seaplane organization northward to protect Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Two air stations should be established at Halifax and Sydney, and the United States would supply these stations with pilots, seaplanes, airships and kite balloons until Canada was ready to take over. On 23 April 1918, RAdm Wood, USN, Commandant First Naval District, and Adm Kingsmill, Director Canadian Naval Service, agreed that the United States would take responsibility for coastal patrol and anti-submarine work as far east as Lockport N.S. and that assigned American forces would be placed under operational control of the RCN. Because Canada had no officers experienced in maritime air operations, the Admiralty appointed LCol J.T. Cull, Royal Air Force (RAF) (formerly a Wing Commander in the RNAS), to overall command of the air patrols.

An aerial map of Baker’s Point circa 1920
Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

Canadian authorities finally approved establishment of two air stations on 5 June 1918. Cull arrived from England in July and approved the initially selected Halifax sites; the seaplane base was to be just south of Dartmouth at Eastern Passage, while the airship site was also to be on the Dartmouth side of Halifax harbour. Cull selected Kelly Beach on the western side of North Sydney for the seaplanes and balloons and a site for airships on the opposite side of town. The Canadian government was to furnish at its expense the site and buildings and all ground equipment, while the American government was to provide the aircraft and the personnel to operate them until Canadian personnel had been trained and could staff the stations. Operating expenses were to be born by the U.S. government during the period American personnel were conducting the air patrols. British and Canadian naval officers were ultimately responsible for control of the stations and for operations. The Americans created the office of Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Air Forces, Canada and detailed Lieutenant R.E. Byrd USN, later an Admiral renowned for his polar exploits, to the new command. Additionally, Lieutenant Byrd was ordered to assume direct command of the station at Halifax and to act as liaison officer between the American and Canadian governments in naval aviation matters.

Although progress up to this point in establishing the air patrols was gratifying, it was not rapid enough to meet the alarming situation that developed in the first week of August 1918. U-156 sank six vessels southeast of Nova Scotia. Other vessels were attacked during the same week in the same place. Numerous mines were discovered along the Nova Scotia coast. There was a compelling need to commission the Canadian air stations into operation as soon as possible. Equipment and supplies indispensable to operations were hastily shipped to Halifax. Lieutenant Byrd arrived at his new base August 15, 1918. Crates containing the first two HS-2L flying boats arrived in Halifax by train August 17 and were barged across the harbour to the Dartmouth air station and hauled up on the beach using logs for rollers. The first aircraft was assembled and successfully test flown two days later and the first operational patrol was flown August 25, 1918; maritime patrol aviation in Canada was born.

RCNAS Formed

To implement the plan agreed to in April in Washington to have Canadians replace U.S. Navy airmen, Canadian Naval Service 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. Aircraft pilots recruited by the RCNAS were to be trained in the United States while airship pilots were to be trained in England. By the beginning of November 1918, a total of 81 cadets were recruited and the RCNAS was well established with the high expectations of being a fully-fledged fighting force by the spring of 1919.

U.S. Navy Operations At Halifax

During the first week of September no bombs had yet reached Dartmouth, however, the submarine situation was so serious that depth charges were substituted for bombs with the intention of dropping them by hand on any hostile submarine. Lieutenant Byrd eventually established a detachment of six HS-2L flying boats and several kite balloons to conduct anti-submarine patrols off the approaches to Halifax harbour and a second detachment of six HS-2Ls at North Sydney. In forming the general operating policy for the aerial patrols, it was agreed not to attempt routine patrols at either Halifax or North Sydney, but to keep two seaplanes solely for escort work and one seaplane at each station for emergency anti-submarine duty. Without interfering with this schedule, as many supplementary patrol flights as possible were also to be flown at each station at the times and locations deemed most likely to produce results. Operations began in earnest the week of September 7,1918 during which seven escort flights and ten patrol and other flights were made. Emergency flights were made whenever circumstances demanded and all convoys were escorted for a distance of 60 to 75 miles to sea.  There was a total of 200 patrol and other flights during the U.S. Navy deployment with a flying time of approximately 400 hours.

After only a few months of operations, the First World War came to an end the U.S. Navy personnel departed their bases at Dartmouth and North Sydney and returned home.The United States donated to Canada 12, HS-2L flying boats, 26 Liberty engines and four kite balloons. Canada’s first venture into maritime patrol aviation had cost a total of $811,168 for bases, equipment and personnel. The American donation was valued at $600,000 and the flying boats were to give much valuable service in the years to come.

RCNAS Demise

The Canadian Cabinet attempted to keep the RCNAS as a post-war component of the RCN, however, the time was not ripe for naval aviation in Canada and on December 5, 1918 orders were issued to disband the RCNAS. The RCN, without money, had to put naval aviation on hold for more than 20 years. The former American fleet of 12 HS-2L maritime patrol aircraft were among the first donations of aircraft that equipped the Canadian Air Board, Canada’s second home based air force (The RCNAS being the first). The few buildings at Dartmouth, which had been built by the Canadian government to support Lieutenant Byrd’s detachment, became the nucleus of what was to become the RCAF’s largest maritime air base and Canada’s only naval air station.