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The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-­1945, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, Canada, 1996, $25

Canadians have been captivated by aviation since the Wright brothers. At the end of World War I perhaps 40 percent of Royal Air Force aviators on the Western Front were Canadian. Many later became bush pilots and opened the Far North to development. So as World War II neared, Canada’s leaders saw aviation as their country’s chief contribution to the Allied effort—and a way to avoid the horrendous infantry casualties of 1914­18. In 1939, minuscule Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) launched the British Commonwealth Air Training Program. By war’s end, the “aerodrome of democracy” had trained 44 percent of all Commonwealth aircrews and boasted the world’s fourth-largest air force, with 250,000 personnel.

In The Cream of the Crop, Allan English, a lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and a 20-year RCAF veteran, describes the struggle to develop efficient aircrew selection practices and the evolution of aircrew training from haphazard World War I beginnings into a model manpower management and training system. He points out that personnel factors influence the effectiveness of air forces at war at least as much as material and technology.

English’s discussion of the role of aviation psychology in aircrew selection—particularly the treatment of psychological casualties of air combat—is interesting on two levels. The RCAF’s effort to develop an independent Canadian policy for treating psychological casualties collided with Royal Air Force (RAF) policy and British attitudes. As in World War I, the “junior but sovereign ally” contributed a large part of the RAF’s flying personnel—more than a quarter of Bomber Command’s pilots—and Bomber Command had psychological battle casualties in spades: 4,000 cases a year in an 80,000-man force, one-fifth of the annual 20,000 casualties from all causes. Knowing that one-in-five crew members would be injured or killed (a 20-percent physical casualty rate) and with no limit on the number of missions they would have to fly, some aircrews would return early with “engine trouble,” get “lost,” drop their bombs short of heavily defended targets, or even refuse missions. The British called this “wavering” (shades of the “thin red line”). Between 1942 and 1945, the RAF simply discharged some 30,000 waverers as “lacking in moral fibre” (LMF)—i.e., for cowardice.

Canada’s leaders knew that their people—more American than British in outlook, for all their imperial loyalty—would not indefinitely accept the personal injustices implicit in this blanket procedure, nor its waste of Canada’s “cream of the crop.” The LMF controversy was not just about salvaging psychological casualties (the RCAF salvaged significantly more trained manpower for further service than the RAF); it was an assertion of Canada’s national sovereignty.

In the end, Canada’s concentration on aviation did not spare the nation heavy casualties: 17,101 Canadians were killed serving with the RAF or in the RCAF outside Canada, versus 17,683 for the army. Aircrew members represented 94 percent of those lost, 40 percent of all Canadian combat fatalities.