The History of
Canadian Forces Base Gander
Gander – The World’s Biggest Airport
The modern history of Canadian Forces Base Gander, now part of 9 Wing, started on 21 February 1954, when the radars of 226 Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron became operational. However, to appreciate the full history of Gander, and its military heritage, it is necessary to look back twenty years earlier to the construction of the world’s biggest airport deep in the forests of Newfoundland.
The Newfoundland airport, its official name until 1941, was originally planned and constructed as a purely civilian airport, but the timing of its construction, its size and its location made the airport one of the allies most vital military assets in the war against Germany. The initial idea of building an airport to support transatlantic passenger and mail traffic was discussed during a series of meetings held in 1933 between the governments of Newfoundland, Canada, Great Britain and representatives of Pan American Airways and Imperial Airways. All attending agreed it was only a matter of time before advancing aviation technology made transatlantic passenger flights possible. However, before services could begin, an airport with refuelling and engineering facilities was required. A site somewhere on the Island of Newfoundland was the chosen location. Soon after, British engineers were sent to the island and after several months of surveying along the railway line, a site near Gander Lake, at mile post 213, was selected for the new airport.
Construction of the airport began in June 1936, however, the complexity of building such a huge project in the wilderness meant construction was not complete until early 1939. Unfortunately, even by 1939, aircraft technology had not kept pace with the construction and there were no land based aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic, although both Pan-Am and Imperial Airways had successfully pioneered seaplane routes using Botwood as a refuelling point.
On 3 September 1939, just as aircraft that could fly the great distances involved were finally being tested, the Second World War was declared and all transatlantic flights ceased. As the war in Europe escalated the British military saw little value in the airport, and at one point made plans to mine the huge runways in case of a German invasion of North America. Fortunately, the true value of the airport eventually became apparent, but Britain was struggling for survival and unable to spare any resources for the defence of Newfoundland; and the Government of Newfoundland had no money or standing defense force. Therefore the task of defending the airport and the waters around Newfoundland fell to the Government of Canada.
The RCAF and Gander in World War II
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) first landed at Gander in February 1940 and by May of the same year, No. 10 Bomber Reconnaissance (BR) Squadron began operations, flying Douglas Digby bombers. Once the RCAF began operating from the airport the need for improved facilities and support functions became obvious, however the Newfoundland Government was not capable of funding the huge expansion required. To resolve this funding problem the airport was officially handed over to the RCAF on 1 April 1941 for the duration of the war.
Initially, the airport was only the operating base for the RCAF Squadron while it provided anti-submarine patrols protecting the supply convoys to Britain. However, within a few months the role of the airport changed from being the remote home base of No 10 BR Squadron into the launching point for thousands of bombers ferrying to the war in Europe. Gander was finally fulfilling its destiny as the fuel stop of the North Atlantic.
The first ferry flight took place on 10 November 1940 when 7 Hudson bombers departed Gander and successfully arrived in Aldergrove, Ireland, 10 hours later. This proved transatlantic ferrying was possible, but before intensive ferrying could commence considerable training and extra equipment was required. It was therefore not until the middle of 1941 that routine ferrying began. The ferrying continued throughout the war and by the end of 1945 had delivered almost 20,000 aircraft of all types from North America to Europe via Gander. The RCAF did not participate in the ferrying of aircraft itself, this was left to the Royal Air Force Ferry Command and the American Air Force Transport Command, but it did have the important responsibility of providing the defense of the airfield and overall control of airport operations.
By 1943, Gander was the largest RCAF base world wide with a population reaching 15,000 on occasions including personnel from the RAF, the United States Army Air Force and the Canadian Army. From the earliest days of the war the Canadian Army had a strong presence at Gander providing anti-aircraft and airfield defense. The first regiment, the Black Watch, arrived in June 1940 and regiments were changed every 6 – 12 months until the end of 1943 when airfield defense was handed over to a permanent detachment of anti-aircraft units of the Royal Canadian Artillery.
Throughout the war several RCAF Squadrons were based at Gander, No 10 BR Squadron remained at Gander from April 1941 – August 1945 flying Digbys and Liberators, they were reinforced at various times by 5 BR Squadron and 116 BR Squadron Cansos for anti-submarine patrols and search and rescue. From 1942 Hurricane fighters of 126, 127 and 129 Squadron were also based at Gander. The Squadrons at Gander flew thousands of anti-submarine missions until the end of the war but were successful only three times; U-520 sunk 30 October 1942, U-341 sunk 19 September 1943 and U-420 sunk 26 October 1943, all were sunk by aircraft of No 10 BR Squadron.
At wars end, as promised in 1941, the airport was handed back to the Newfoundland Government and RCAF Station Gander was disbanded in March 1946. By June, all RCAF personnel had returned to Canada. The end of the war saw the withdrawal of the RCAF from Gander, but it was not the end of a Canadian military presence in Gander.
Naval Radio Station Gander – An Overseas Tour
In late 1938, at the end of the flying boat season, air traffic control, meteorological and radio operations were transferred from Botwood flying station to Gander airport in anticipation of the civilian transatlantic traffic. Early in the war the long distance radio and range finding operations were handed over to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) who were experienced in these operations. Throughout the war the unit provided so much valuable military information, including the identification and location of the German battleship Bismark, that the RCN did not wish to give up the facility at wars end. Therefore, until confederation in 1949, the RCN maintained an overseas unit at an airport in the middle of Newfoundland.
The RCN Naval Radio Station (NRS) consisted of 4 buildings, 4 sailors and a few civilian personnel. Their primary task was High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) and communications monitoring. After Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949 the RCN radio station was upgraded and conditions slowly improved with 6 permanent married quarters (PMQ’s) being built close to the station. Further upgrading of facilities followed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Canada and the United States Navy (USN) to share HFDF information. As part of the MOU 15 exchange positions were established and in June 1949 the first USN sailors reported for duty at NRS Gander.
CFS Gander and the Cold War
As the cold war escalated in the late 40’s and early 50’s the military co-operation between Canada and the USA expanded rapidly and various joint operations were instigated. One of the largest was the construction of 30 early warning radar units, known as the Pinetree Radar Line, build across Canada’s northern perimeters. These radar units were built to American specifications, with the US Government picking up 2/3 of the $450 million construction costs, and were linked into the North American Radar Defense System (NORAD). Gander was chosen as one of the sites for these radar units. Construction of the new radar site at Gander began in early 1952, on the old American side of the airfield, and was completed on 21 February 1954 when 226 Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron (226 AC&W) RCAF, became operational. The reactivation of the RCAF in Gander required the building of many new facilities at the radar site and also the construction of 123 PMQ’s in Gander, by now a growing town of several thousand people. In 1955, as the base grew and extra support services for radar personnel were required, the old USAAF hospital was taken over and converted in HQ, Cpls. Club, Airmen’s Mess and CE storage. This building was again renovated in 1958 and accommodations were added for Senior NCO’s and Officers.
The 1960’s were a period of growth at the base and in the town of Gander. In April 1960 the recreation center was completed containing; sports hall, bowling lanes, theater, snack bar, swimming pool and barbershop. In June of the same year the sports field was opened with softball and baseball diamonds, tennis court, soccer field and a small athletic track.
By 1966, Naval Radio Station Gander had expanded to 25 military and 4 civilian personnel with all administration support for the unit now provided by the RCAF at 226 AC&W Squadron. At around the same time studies were being made to evaluate locations for the next generation HFDF center, in the end Gander was chosen and work commenced on the new facility in August 1967. Originally the new centre was to be built at the existing NRS site but space required for the large antenna array precluded this and an alternative site, bordering the airport perimeter, was used instead. The closeness to the airfield became apparent on 5 September 1967 when a Czechoslovakian Airlines IL-18 crashed near the site being cleared, base personnel reacted quickly and were credited with saving many lives. While construction was still under way on the new HFDF site the Canadian military was transformed from Navy, Army and Air Force to the unified Canadian Forces (CF) and RCAF Station Gander became Canadian Forces Station Gander on 1 April 1968.
As the HFDF center neared completion the size of the new unit compared to 226 Squadron made it logical for Canadian Forces Communications Command to take operational control of CFS Gander, so in 1970, 226 AC&W Squadron became a lodger unit at the station it created. The new HFDF unit finally became operational in July 1971 and operations at the old naval site were shut down after 31 years of continuous 24 hour service.
As personnel numbers at the HFDF site approached 200 the expansion of support services followed with another 60 PMQ’s being built. The number of support personnel at CFS Gander also increased considerably to provide various support functions, including the establishment of No 1 Dental Unit Detachment Gander at the base. Although still a non-flying unit, CFS Gander was in the front line of Canada’s defense system frequently being tasked throughout the 1970’s to provide support for detachments of squadron personnel from CFB Chatham NB, operating CF-101 Voodoo interceptors. The aircraft and support personnel would be detached to Gander, often for weeks at a time, whenever there were large scale Warsaw pact exercises or unusual Soviet activity in the North Atlantic. The combination of the Voodoos and 226 Squadron co-located at Gander provided a very potent force able to react quickly to and threats on Canadian airspace. Although never used for real, the rapid interception of Russian bombers flying just miles off the coast, testing fighter reaction times, was a regular occurrence.
Military Flying Returns to Gander
Since the demise of CFB Torbay in St. John’s during the mid 1960’s and the subsequent transfer of No 107 Rescue Unit to CFB Summerside PEI, the Newfoundland Government had been lobbying hard for a return to full time Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the province. With the start of offshore oil exploration and the expanding fishing industry, the federal government finally gave into pressure and in November 1976 three CH-113 Labrador helicopters of No 424 Squadron, based at Trenton ON, were detached to St. John’s airport to provide SAR for the province.
Within a very short time the limitations, both operational and economic, of having a CF detachment located at a civilian airport with minimal military support became obvious. The Air Force’s solution was to move the whole unit to CFS Gander as soon as proper accommodations for the helicopters could be found. Fortunately, a hangar recently constructed by Eastern Aviation Contractors was available and after a few alterations was ready for the units move from St. John’s to Gander in early 1977. The arrival of 424 SAR Squadron detachment marked the permanent return of military flying operations to Gander after a gap of over 30 years. Having found a permanent home at Gander the SAR Helicopters were no longer a 424 Squadron detachment and a new unit identifier was required. Thus on 2 May 1977, 103 Rescue Unit (RU) was reactivated at Gander, almost 9 years after being disbanded at CFB Greenwood. The proud history of 103 RU, before disbandment, stretched back to the first days of Search and Rescue in Canada with its formation at RCAF Station Dartmouth, NS on 1 April 1947.
With the arrival of 103 RU, CFS Gander was now an operational flying base, requiring another change in the command structure. Therefore on 9 May 1977, Air Command regained control of CFS Gander from Canadian Forces Communications Command. With the change in command the HFDF center now became a lodger unit on an Air Command station, to recognize its new status the unit was given the title 770 Communications Research Squadron (CRS) and was allocated to Canadian Forces Supplemental Radio System. Although its primary duties remained unchanged 770 CRS took responsibility for the CFS Gander communications center until December 1980 when the communications center was formally established as 727 Communications Squadron Detachment, parented by 727 Communications Squadron in CFS St. John’s.
CFS Gander was entering the 1980’s as a busy and versatile military unit and to cope with its growth many new construction projects were completed including: new fire station, supply warehouse, ammunitions stores, POL storage facility, CANEX and new accommodations for living-in personnel, By 1984 the military strength at Gander was 420 personnel, making CFS Gander the largest station in the Canadian Forces. With such a large unit establishment and considering the high profile role of 103 RU, the station was officially upgraded to Base status on 24 March 1984. Unfortunately, on 12 December 1985, almost every person on base was required to help after the worst aircraft accident on Canadian soil. On that morning an Arrow DC-8 took off from Gander airport but crashed soon afterwards on the shores of Gander Lake, 248 US Army soldiers and 8 crew were killed in the crash. Base personnel were heavily involved in all aspects of the crash and also helped in the erection of a monument to the crash victims.
CFB Gander reached its post-war personnel peak in the late 1980’s. 770 CRS and 226 Squadron were providing valuable information for the defense of North America, 103 RU was fully tasked with saving civilian and military lives around Newfoundland and Labrador, while the remaining base personnel provided the vital support services needed to keep operations running smoothly. The operational requirements at Gander were sufficient that on 1 December 1988 an Air Reserve Augmentation Flight (ARAF) was established to augment and support operational, administrative and technical functions at the base. However, within a few years of this peak the end of the cold war and the evolution of technology were to have a considerable effect on the role and size of CFB Gander.
CFB Gander – A Time of Change
The end of the cold war brought many changes to the whole Canadian Forces not just Gander, the cost of the military expansion in the 1970’s and 80’s and the large government debts made the Defense budget a target for hard cost cutting. Many bases across the country were shut and carious reorganizations were made within Air Command to reflect new priorities. One change was the forming of Air Command units into Wings, Gander became 9 Wing on 1 April 1993.
Although 9 Wing survived the round of base closures and CF reductions, the advance of technology took the greatest toll on the numbers of personnel at the base. The first major reduction came on 6 July 1990 when 226 Squadron was disbanded, after almost 36 years of continuous squadron service, to become Fighter Group Canadian NORAD Headquarters Detachment Gander. The reductions were inevitable once the 1950’s technology of the Pinetree radar line was replaced. The entire radar network across the north became obsolete and virtually all duties could now be controlled from a central location, NORAD HQ in North Bay, ON. The changes at the former 226 Squadron continued in June 1993 with 9 Wing Telecommunications Section assuming control for the Canadian Coastal Radar site on the closure of the Fighter Group Detachment.
The technology which brought the closure of 226 Squadron, did not spare 770 CRS. The replacement of old technology with new also brought a huge personnel reduction, in 770’s case from over 200 in 1989 to 17 in 1997. The significant advances in reliability and range of the new equipment again meant that fewer people at a remote location could perform all operational duties. So in the summer of 1997, after over 25 years as 770 CRS and almost 50 years as an operational unit, the sites operational duties were remoted to CFS Leitrim and the unit became CFS Leitrim Detachment Gander.
While all these reductions were taking place there was one area of expansion. At the end of 1994 a new military unit was established at Gander, 91 Airfield Engineering Flight (AEF). This flight is a reserve unit tasked to provide fully trained technicians for deployment in support of CF or United Nations operations world-wide. The personnel recruited normally have civilian qualifications in some technical trade, they then receive basic and specialist military training to prepare them for deployments world-wide.
The AEF is located in the old Eastern Provincial Airways building on the International Airport, they work closely with the town of Gander and local businesses to recruit and support its personnel. The AEF receives support from 9 Wing but it is a separate unit and, unlike the ARAF, does not participate in the operations of the base.
During all the changes to 9 Wing, 103 RU remained at full operation strength providing 24 hour SAR coverage to the people of the province and beyond. Happily, the biggest change to the unit in recent years was a welcome one.
On 24 Jun 1997, in recognition of 50 years of SAR service, 103 RU was presented with a Squadron Standard by HRH Prince Phillip and became 103 Search and Rescue Squadron. 103 SAR Squadron is unique in the Canadian Air Force by having a 100 series identifier, all other operational squadrons have 400 series identifiers, a carry over from the RCAF Squadron numbers in WW II.
The presentation of the Squadron standard was the highlight of an otherwise difficult year for the base. The changes to 770 CRS reduced Wing manpower by over 200 and this reduction forced the base to review every area for possible savings now that it was only supporting 103 Squadron, CFS Leitrim Detachment and the Canadian Coastal Radar. The effect on the base infrastructure has been significant with the closure of several buildings, including the CANEX and Headquarters building, the amalgamation of all three messes into one All Ranks Mess and the return of HQ to building 86, which now closely resembles the building 86 of the 1950s.
The late 1990’s are a time of change for the entire CF as the military tries to find a balance between cost-effectiveness and operational requirements in a post cold war world. Bur for all the reductions and reorganizations 9 Wing Gander has undergone recently the Wing is still an operational flying base with an important role in the Canadian Forces and a proud military heritage stretching back almost 60 years.