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1919 - 1939


By 1930 Signals had its own navy. The motorized schooner "Velox" and a boat variously described as a barge or scow were purchased to provide transportation to and from Aklavik's summer station at Herschel Island, to haul wood into the settlement in the spring and for fall fishing. During the 1930 season the Velox logged 1661 miles (using 442 gallons of gasoline) in some of the most difficult boating conditions possible. Early crew members included Sergeants Earl Hersey and Frank Riddle of "Mad Trapper" fame. When not in harbour, meals were cooked on a coal burning stove installed on the barge. The Velox served the station until 1940 when it was transferred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who operated it out of Cambridge Bay for many years.

In 1930 the ill fated dirigible "R-100" visited Canada and RCCS provided the radio beacon receiver. Signal technicians also went aboard the airship to install the receiver. As the British crew doubted the accuracy of the Canadian receiver a bottle of Scottish "mineral water" was wagered as to whether the airship could be guided over the Peace Tower in Ottawa by radio beacon alone. On the appointed day, with Major W.A. Steel aboard, the R-100 floated gracefully over the tower. The score was evened when the British crew politely declined to return their beacon receiver on departure from Canada.

On 13 January 1930 the first RCSIGS Officers' Mess "At Home" was held at Camp Borden.

In 1931 Signals provided weather reporting and ground - air communications services for the Lindburgh polar flight. They also supported the Russian polar flights of 1933 and 1937.

On 31 December 1931 the man hunt for the "Mad Trapper of Rat River" began. On 16 January 1932 Sgt R.F. (Frank) Riddell and Sgt H.F. Hersey of NWT&Y Station Aklavik joined the RCMP "posse". After 48 days the incident ended on 17 February 1932 when the fugitive, presumed to be Albert Johnson, was spotted by Hersey. Hersey was seriously wounded by the fugitive before he, in turn, was shot and killed. Hersey was evacuated 160 kilometres to hospital in Aklavik by bush plane flown by "Wop" May, a famous bush pilot and World War I flying ace. In this case the Signals had helped get the Mounties man for them.

1932 - the year of the cuts. The RCAF which had 178 officers and 700 other ranks (plus seven RCCS officers and 113 men) by 1931 had its budget cut by 75%. 78 officers, 100 men and 110 civilians were laid off and activities curtailed. RCCS personnel were reduced accordingly. Expansion of the aircraft beacon system was cut off just as the sites were selected to extend the air routes through the Rocky Mountains.

In 1932 Lieutenant Colonel W.Arthur Steel was appointed as the third member of the new Canadian Radio Broadcast Commission (CRBC). LCol Steel had been chief radio officer for the Canadian Corps in World War I and a technical consultant for parliamentary radio committees. The CRBC was tasked with regulating all broadcasting and developing public radio broadcasting in Canada and lasted exactly 23 days before the first political interference occurred. The CRBC was replaced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1936.

In 1933 the military deployed to the St Lawrence River to aid the Royal Canadian Mounted Police catch smugglers. RCCS operated six ground stations and a headquarters in Halifax while the RCAF provided aircraft which were directed at any suspect craft by the ground stations. In 1933 425 patrols were flown with a 92% success rate of interception while in 1934 this rose to 479 flights with 96% success. In 1935 RCCS and the RCMP initiated a similar program on the Pacific coast.

In 1933 Signals provided weather reporting and ground - air communications services for Russian polar flights.

1933 saw the introduction of two way wireless into RCAF service training. Previously radio equipped aircraft had either transmitted blind or been capable of receiving but not both. Wireless was first installed in an Avro Tudor aircraft of the School for Army Cooperation, Camp Borden, in 1934. Wireless training was moved to Trenton in February 1936.

By 1933 the NWT&Y had twelve full time radio stations and one summer station.

In 1934 Signals provided weather reporting and ground - air communications services for the ill-fated round the world flight of Wiley Post and Will Rogers.

In 1934 the building of a permanent Signal Training Centre at Barriefield on the outskirts of Kingston was authorized as an unemployment relief project. Colonel Elroy Forde was responsible for the construction project. This project came to fruition in August 1937 when Signals training moved from Borden to Kingston.

In early 1934, due to depression induced budgetary restrictions, the Canadian Army advised the RCAF that it could no longer provide "contracted" services such as Signals to the RCAF. The RCAF then decided to create its own Signal Service.

In June 1934 four wireless operators transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force to form the nucleus for the new RCAF Signals Branch. One Royal Air Force officer on loan to the RCAF and three internal transfers completed the originals.

In 1934-35 two more aircraft radio beacons were installed along the Ottawa - St Hubert air route by RCCS. In 1936 ,expansion of the system to cover the country took place but, by that time RCCS was no longer responsible for the project.

On 15 June 1935 the Chief of the General Staff, Major-General A.G.L. McNaughton and Colonel Elroy Forde turned the sod for the new officers' mess in Kingston.

On 1 July 1935, the Royal Canadian Air Force Signals Branch was authorized and began taking over air force communications responsibilities from RCCS. 

The "Sparkers" badge, a bare hand holding lightening bolts, was adopted as the trades badges for non-commissioned communicators in the RCAF Signals Branch. It was worn on the upper right sleeve. During World War II this trades badge was also worn by RCAF radar technicians. In the army Royal Canadian Corps of Signals wireless operators also wore this badge in khaki on the lower sleeve in place of the traditional crossed flags trades badge. In 1985 it formed the basis for the logo of the newly formed Air Force Telecommunications Association and in 1992 the centre for new air element half wing trades badges.

The following description of the early days of RCAF Signals was originally written by the late WO1 S.C. Jones, RCAF.

"- Large staffs, buildings, tons of apparatus - all dominate the scene today. But when did it all start?

Until 1934 the RCAF depended on the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals for the operation and maintenance of its radio communication. Several RCAF officers had been attached to RCCS for a course of instruction, but the prime responsibility still rested with that branch of the army.

In 1934 F/Lt Pattison, a Royal Air Force Officer, was attached to the RCAF as a liaison officer to assist in the formation of a Signal Section. A headquarters was set up in Ottawa and prospective applicants were screened for the new section. Two types were chosen - those with experience and those fresh from High School. The academic requirement was Senior Matriculation. It can be readily seen that even at that early date an effort was being made to ascertain the most efficient method of training; whether to train new entries with no previous knowledge or quickly convert trained personnel to service methods of operating and procedure.

Nineteen civilians were enlisted as AC2 standard apprentices.

On October 11, 1934, two courses began. Course 1A consisted of previously trained personnel while Course 1B was composed of the remaining group. The new section became part of the School of Army Co-operation.

F/L H.B. Godwin, later AVM, a graduate of the RCCS wireless course, was appointed Officer Commanding and Chief Instructor of the new section. Under his able direction training was carried out in all phases of the new syllabus.

The first few months were equally divided between "square bashing" and Technical Training School. It is recalled that the complicated drill of "forming fours" and all its associated problems was used. Coupled with arduous PT, drill, compulsory sports, fixing and unfixing bayonets, seemingly miles of marching; the mornings could hardly be called dull.

And now for TTS; Aero engines, Airframes, metal shop, carpentry - all this and $1.70 a day as well! And on the signals side - semaphore, lucas lamp, speed classes in morse, radio circuits, apparatus and then the big moment - air operating. As part of the training schedule an aircraft was wired for two-way communication. It should be remembered that at that time it was common practice for the aircraft to be designed for good aerodynamic qualities, constructed and delivered to the RCAF. After it was delivered, all trades scrambled for the "kite". Armament branch hung guns and harness all over the place. And now a new competitor for space had arrived!

Signals now proceeded to take over the rear "open" cockpit of a big plane and build radio gear around the wireless man. In front of him in this prototype "flying classroom" was hung a transmitter and receiver. Below and to the right was an antenna 250 feet long, which was reeled out "by hand" when an aircraft was airborne. On the right side was a receiver control and a morse key. Last but not least was the "air driven" generator mounted on the lower biplane. This generator, driven by a propeller facing into the slip stream, was made inactive on the ground by tying the propeller with a large rubber band. Embarrassment with this type of generator was often occasioned by failure to remove the elastic before flight. That it was sometimes removed in flight testifies to the heroism (or was he ordered?) of the odd lucky airman. Oh, yes - the telephones were built into the flying helmet. Dressed in a bulky flying suit with a message pad strapped to one knee, complete parachute harness, sitting on a parachute, and surrounded by apparatus it could be considered that space was at a premium. But it was worth it! For this ordeal by claustrophobia the wireless man received flying pay - 70c a day!

Next came the subject of Artillery reconnaissance. Briefly summed up, it meant outside work on the aerodrome regardless of the season. The only radio apparatus was a transmitter carried in the aircraft and operated by the pilot. Two-way communication? Definitely! On certain signals from the aircraft the wireless man ran out and put out ground strips. When acknowledged by the pilot, the wireless man then pulled the strips back in. A unique system of pinpointing was carried out by firing small charges of powder which simulated artillery shell landing and bursting. This exercise, called a "puff shoot" had one other interesting feature. The frequency used for transmissions was smack in the middle of the broadcast band. The majority of exercises were carried out with a background of music from CFRB, Toronto. This anomaly can be explained by the fact that all equipment used was of RAF design and therefore for use with European frequency allocations.

Next came outstation work. This consisted of actual wireless communication on a "point-to-point" basis. The transmitters and receivers were installed in small houses originally designed for equipment of a less lofty nature. With the foresight of an economy- minded government these communication centres made use of all facilities and were jointly used by the RCAF and RCCS.

And now for a look at the extra-curricular activities. Sports were plentiful and a "must", seasonal sports were well organized and a healthy esprit de corps was established. Compulsory church parades were in vogue and Commanding Officers still reviewed their personnel at stated intervals. At both of these functions, the dress was No. 1, consisting of breeches and putties instead of the working slacks. It normally took anywhere from five minutes to half an hour to roll two putties. On these glorious occasions gloves were worn instead of the working mitts which were standard issue.

And where did this class go on disposal? Six were transferred to the East Coast to work in liaison with the RCMP Preventative Service. One went to Trenton, one to Vancouver and one, having no friends or influence, stayed on in Camp Borden.

"Thus telecom arrived in the RCAF."

In February 1935 RCCS came to the rescue of Alberta and British Columbia which had been virtually isolated by severe weather. With rail lines blocked and most telegraph and telephone lines knocked out military radio became the major communication medium.

On 25 May 1935, the cornerstone of the Forde Building, Kingston, was laid by His Excellency, Lord Bessborough, then Governor General of Canada.

In 1935 the Signals Association met in Quebec City where a young lady presented "Ermintrude" the duck to the Corps. Not being house broken Ermintrude, actually a drake, was no hit at the hotel where he initially stayed. Settled at the Depot in Borden, Ermintrude often attended school football games, recognised certain individuals and followed them like a dog. Attempts to change his name to the more masculine "Jimmy" never received popular support so Ermintrude he remained. Ermintrude was noted for his dislike of civilians whom he would attack. Ermintrude was boarded out with a farmer during the winter of 1937- 38 where he died of "undiscovered causes". The mortal remains are in the C & E Museum in Kingston. 

In 1935 England established the first Radio Direction Finding (RDF, later radar) station to investigate the possibilities of using radio to locate and track aircraft. By the end of 1936 four Chain Home (CH) stations were operating. These were the nucleus for Britain's World War II Radar Early Warning System. Canada expressed no active interest in radar until 1939 when a research mission was sent to England.

On 27 April 1936, the title "Royal" was granted to the militia element of the Corps. The Militia Signals personnel could finally wear the same badge as their permanent force counterparts (granted the right to the title on 5 June 1921).

On 26 July 1936 the Vimy Ridge Memorial was officially unveiled.

In 1937 Signals provided weather reporting and ground - air communications services for Russian polar flights

In 1937 the NWT&Y System provided communications support for the northern tour of the Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir. Asked to book hotel accommodation for Margaret Burke-White, a famous American woman photographer covering the tour, the Aklavik station arranged for her to have a newly decorated suite already occupied by a just-married Innuit couple. The hotel successfully relocated the bride before the photographer's arrival however, when the groom arrived after celebrating with friends and let himself into the now reoccupied room, there was a major commotion. On hearing her scream, Signalman R.A. "Red" McLeod, who was at the hotel, came to the woman's rescue and resolved the matter.

In August 1937 NWT&Y Station Fort Rae was moved to Yellowknife by Staff Sergeant S.A. MacAuley and Corporal F.E. Burgess. In view of the unknown availability of facilities at Yellowknife they brought all their equipment with them including the station outhouse. To their pleasure the new station boasted a brand new building and diesel generator. In August 1938 the new station dispatched over 100 radio messages from the new site.

On 23 August, 1937, the Canadian Signal Training Centre (CSTC) opened in a new accommodation in Kingston. Colonel S.A. Lee, Commandant of CSTC in Borden, moved the school to Kingston and was the first commandant. Colonel Lee turned command over to Colonel Elroy Forde in September 1937. Colonel Forde had been overseeing the construction of the new accommodation but did not command CSTC until that time.

In January 1938, the new CSTC accommodation in Kingston was officially named "Vimy Barracks".

In 1938 a radio station was opened at Gander, Newfoundland with a small RCN contingent.

In March 1938 the Munich Crisis in which Hitler annexed part of Czechoslovakia finally produced the overnight war crisis which shook the world from its lethargy. Canada finally began to realistically look to its military.

On 1 March 1938 Western Air Command of the RCAF came into being.

On 15 September 1938 Eastern Air Command was formed. A Central Air Command was planned but never implemented. Eastern Command's responsibilities ranged from Eastern Quebec out over the Atlantic Ocean beyond Newfoundland (at that time still a British colony). Western and Eastern Air Commands became the two operational commands for the defence of Canada in World War II.

In early 1939 the Government of Canada sent a research mission to England to investigate every detail of Radio Direction Finding (RDF) (later called radar) as it then existed. The team consisted of a physicist from the National Research Council and a RCAF Officer. Their report, dated 14 April 1939, requested immediate action by the Canadian Government to implement the use of radar. This was not taken up until late November 1940.

As war clouds loomed on the horizon the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals came to the end of a period unique in Canadian military history. With the many services it had provided to the country the Corps was in the unique position of being the only branch of the Armed Forces that continued to expand during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was also in the rather unique position of being the one military activity which provided the Canadian Government with a net profit!

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