The No. 6 RCAF Dunnville museum is a fascinating place, almost literally bulging with artifacts and documents from WW2 and the No. 6 SFTS flight training school.
Kevan and I paid a visit at their recent open house and were invited by a charming and entertaining lady to accept a guided tour.
Born in England in 1943, we both heard stories of the war years from our parents. My father in particular, an avid reader, bought and borrowed war books which I pilfered and took up to my room to read before mom deemed me too young and “disappeared” them. Before I was 12 years old I read about the unceasing air raids, the kids sent to stay in the country to keep them safe, prisoner of war camps and the various attempts at escape, the horror of the death camps, the dam busters and the Battle of Britain.
In addition we both attended schools that were about one third populated with Jewish students and teachers, many of whom had been caught up in the horrors overseas, whose families were too traumatized to speak about it except among themselves.
But seeing the artifacts in this museum brought us a reality neither of us had really experienced in books and films. They spoke to what their owners had experienced. In particular, as newspaper people, we appreciated the preserved front pages of newspapers telling of the flooding of the industrial Ruhr valley, and the Battle of Britain.
The planes seem so small for the heroic manoeuvres their pilots put them through. Also on display in the hangar is a mock-up of a Spitfire used in the Battle of Britain film.
The Museum is located on the site of the first Commonwealth fighter pilot training school in Canada. It was one of the 19 training schools run by the RCAF as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Our informative guide noted it was the only one to be built with steel trusses; the other schools were built with wood since all the available steel went to the war effort.
The airfield including five hangars (all still in use), three double runways, 50 H-huts, a drill hall, a canteen, a fire hall, and other buildings, began construction in the late spring of 1940 and officially opened in November of that year. The site was ideal because it was not near controlled air space and was close to the open water of Lake Erie.
All trainees trained at an elementary flying school before coming to No. 6 SFTS. Our guide showed us the Link, a machine that determined whether would-be pilots could literally stomach the dips, dives and freewheeling that constituted a fighter pilot’s manoeuvres. If they came out of the machine in a nauseous condition they were directed to non-flight training.
Sometimes the Link needed a good cleaning after a failed test.
The first class of pilots graduated from No. 6 on February 10, 1941, eleven weeks from the official opening. Pilots from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. earned their wings there, before being sent to fight in the European theatre.
Since the trainees were as young as 18 it was difficult to keep them all out of trouble when they weren’t actually training, our guide confided with a wink and a smile. Thus the school hosted regular dances which attracted young ladies from as far away as Welland and St. Catharines as well as the locals.
One young man, Leading Air Craftsman (LAC) William Smith, took to buzzing cruise ships on Lake Erie. In June 1943, he was doing unauthorized aerobatics for the entertainment of the 1000 passengers of the “Canadiana” when he lost control and ditched his plane. The fuselage and his body were brought up several hours later by the U.S. Coastguard and turned over to Canadian authorities.
Smith, who came from near Oxford, England, and who was discovered to be actually only 17 years old, was one of 47 killed during training. Seventy years on, the remains of his Harvard #2963 plane have been located and recovery is in process, a delicate operation that includes removing underwater vegetation before the pieces can be brought up. One artifact from the plane is already on display in the museum, an extinguisher whose paint is toxic to underwater life and thus more easily salvaged.
This exceedingly well-run museum is well worth a visit, a tribute to the work and love the executive and volunteers put into it.