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February 27, 2023

Burley offers a look back at historic Camp Picton

<p>Base31 tour guide Jacqui Burley holds one of the WWII-era paint bombs used by students at the no. 31 bombing and gunnery school. (Desirée Decoste/Gazette staff)</p>
Base31 tour guide Jacqui Burley holds one of the WWII-era paint bombs used by students at the no. 31 bombing and gunnery school. (Desirée Decoste/Gazette staff)

 

DESIRÉE DECOSTE

STAFF WRITER

As part of the Flashback February local history series, Jacqui Burley, former site Manager of Loch-Sloy Business Park and Airport and now known as Base31, offered historical vantage point  on the creation and operation of one of Canada’s contributions to the Allied effort in World War II.

That Burley was providing the presentation in the refurbished and reimagined building The Lecture Hall at Base31 was not lost on the leader of the group operating the performance, business and cultural hub.

“I’ve had personal tours by Jacqui but I am really looking forward to her talk tonight,” said Tim Jones, CEO of Base31, beforehand. “When she speaks, we learn more stuff about this place. I’m also really thrilled that Jacqui has agreed to continue to work with us, she runs guided tours, and we’re working on a self-guided tour.”

After a successful first year,  Jones added there is plenty of activity both on the surface and behind the scenes at Base31 that will be announced in the days ahead.

But looking back to the genesis moment the expanse of land near Champlain’s Lookout was selected as a site to train British Commonwealth airmen, it took place just months after Canada found herself at war with Nazi Germany.

On December 17, 1939 the ‘Riverdale Agreement’ was signed which was an agreement between the UK, Canada, Australia and NewZealand. It was set up to allow aircrew training in a safe environment far away form the conflict spread out over Western Europe. 

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), formerly known as the ‘Riverdale Agreement’, saw site preparations commence in 1940.

“By the end of the war, having trained over half of all Royal Air Force/Royal Canadian Air Force air crew, as Canadians we should be very proud of our participation in the BCATP,” Burley said. “There were 231 sites built across Canada as training schools and 151 of them were airports such as this. When I say we trained over half of the air crew, that equates to 131,353 air crew which included pilots, navigators, wireless operators, air bombers, air gunners, flight engineers, plus over 8,000 ground crew, and 17,000 of which were female.”

In pre war days, the RCAF consisted of 4,000 personnel, less then a dozen airports, they trained close to 400 aircrew per year and they averaged a total of approximately 25,000 flight hours per year.

A scene of camaraderie at No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School. (Vintagewings.ca)

“By 1944 the RCAF consisted of 253,000 personnel, which on top of that there were 6,000 civilian personnel and they operated approximately 3,450 air planes and operated out of 151 airports vs less then a dozen,” said Burley. “During the BCATP training they averaged 500,000 flight hours per month. so the dynamics of where the BCATP took Canadians in aviation was phenomenal. The RCAF only owned less then 25 air planes prior to WWII.”

The BCATP’s focus was to train pilots, navigators, air bombers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers.

“This site is a typical BCATP site, there are six hangers, each hanger is 36,000 square feet with lean twos which equate the hangers into a 42,000 square foot footprint,” Burley stated. “701 of those were built across Canada during the war. They say the concrete that was used for the runways in these airports alone, you could have built a road from Vancouver to Ottawa 20 feet wide. The total cost for the program, with all of the countries combined was just over $ 2.2 billion. In Canada alone our share was $ 1.3 billion. It equated to $3,000 per Canadian tax payer, which is a phenomenal number in the 1940’s.”

At the end of WWII the BCATP was Canada’s biggest contribution to the war effort.

“At the end of the war, Britain’s Prime minister Sir Winston Church Hill referred to the plan as Canada’s greatest contribution to the Allied victory of WWII,” said Burley. “As a result of the importance of the BCATP as the victory in WWII, USA president Rosevelt referenced us as the ‘aerodrome of democracy’.”

The No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School, established in the early spring of 1941, started as “manning depot” in the fall of 1940 as the  site was expediently cleared, the iconic triangle runway built and hangers, barracks and lecture halls erected.

“When you think of that, this site and its entirety was built in 1940, the instructors moved in, in January of 1941 and the trainees moved in, in April of 1941 and school began,” Burley said. “We were one of 11 bombing and gunnery schools in Canada and we were the only one that was blended with the RAF  to teach airmen from Britain and other parts of the United Kingdom.”

As part of bomber training, the RAF used dummy bombs with a paintball at the end and laid out white canvas to be able to tell who was successful and who was not when runs would take place over East Lake and points south. The Anson, Bolingbroke and Lysander aircraft would roar over Picton and the surrounding areas.

“One of the reasons Prince Edward County and  specifically Picton was chosen- first we are on the second highest formation in PEC, Mountain View is number one- we are surrounded by water which was very relevant for training because that simulated flying over the English Channel,” said Burley. “So they set up five different areas and they would drop these bombs on the canvas target and the paintball would explode and they could tell who was successful and who was not by the colour of the paint left on the target.”

Following WWII, operations here became the solo domain  RCAF and the base became a storage and staging area for equipment

“The RCAF called it a ‘maintenance centre’ and what that meant was, after the war there were a number of items such as planes and cots etc. which were left over from WWII and they didn’t know what to do with. For instance, hanger three was filled with cots and I mean filled. Over 32,000 square feet of bed cots from the floor to the ceiling.”

“There were over 3,000 planes owned by the RCAF,” she added  Burley. “There were also other planes that were brought back after WWII that had been used in many, many battles so they weren’t worth keeping. Here, those planes were dismantled and the scrap yard did very well. What they couldn’t use, they just pushed into a pile and burned.”

Not long after WWII, the Royal Canadian School of Artillery (AKA The Gunners) took over the site and the Canadian army hosted an artillery school that provided training for anti-aircraft gunners, gunnery radar operators, technical assistance and artillery instructors.

During the 1950’s, the base was expanded to include a private married quarters which is now known as Macaulay Village and included the Craig Barracks.

“That changed the dynamics of the site that were sitting on,” Burley said. “Because, previously, those who were training or based here lived on this site but when this happened, the privates lived in the Craig Barracks and the married individuals lived with their families in the PMQ’s. So that did alter what the site was at that time.”

The site’s military heritage was altered again in 1963 after the first battalion of the Canadian Guards moved into the site, having just returned from Cyprus on a NATO peace keeping mission.

“The Canadian Guards were essentially Canada’s first UN battalion, and they went to Cyprus as a peace keeping unit,” stated Burley. “In 1966, the unit was rented Picton’s ‘Freedom of the City’ which was the highest honour a community could give to a military unit”

In 1969, the Department of Defence pulled out of CFB Picton for good and shortly there after, the aerodrome and the original BCATP buildings were purchased by the H. J. McFarland company and Picton’s original mover and shaker.

“(Picton Mayor) H.J. McFarland initiated the site as a business park and he purchased it in 1970,” Burley said. “He had just gotten the business park up and moving as H.J. was known to do with anything he put his hands on at that point. But unfortunately, he passed away in 1974. The business park continued but over the years, there was less and less interest from the family and essentially it became a place for the local teenagers to party and learn how to drive and there was a lot of vandalism.”

Enter BCATP veteran and native Brit Vivian Leonard Scott and the Scott family in 1999 who saved the site from sure demise and slowly started a selective rehabilitation process where what could be saved was. Burley recalled those early years.

“When you opened up the doors to most of the buildings, the insulation was on the floor or there was five feet of pigeon poop and a lot of broken windows.”

“To recreate a business park was a huge challenge and the economy in PEC wasn’t the same as it maybe now,” said Burley. “And we only operated on cashflow so we couldn’t come in and invest and rebuild in a flash so it was a bit of a challenge. But 22 years later, we ended up selling it to the current owners and they are recreating it as Base31 and moving forward in the next exciting phase of this site’s impression on Prince Edward County.”

Base31 is the last of the 231 BCTAP sites built across Canada that still has many buildings standing. 

“Our national museum in Brandon, Manitoba has one hanger and one out building,” Burley expressed. “Most of them are gone, so we are the last remaining gem.”

For more information on Base31 please visit https://base31.ca

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