This surprising and interesting story begins in 1929, when the then very young RCAF approached the Dept. of Oceans and Fisheries for advice on the type and size of boats the air force required at the time. The air force requirement was for a vessel capable of carrying people, stores and towing in all weather. They needed the towing capability because at the time the air force operated seaplanes. Not much was done at this time other than a committee was set up to study the problem!
It took another two years before any boats or crews were brought into the force. This happened in Trenton, Ont., where two powered dinghies and two 37′ seaplane tenders were introduced. These were followed by the first armored target towing tugs used by the RCAF. Meanwhile, #4 (flying boat) Squadron, stationed in Vancouver, BC, acquired a collection of craft which by 1937, consisted of three a/c tenders, one scow and three outboards.
By the end of 1939, just at the start of the Second World War, the RCAF was the proud owner of 75 vessels, although 25 of these were row boats! The RCAF only had four high speed rescue craft, two of which were docked in Vancouver and Prince Rupert; the other two were in Nova Scotia.
Four years earlier, the RCMP had agreed that in an emergency it would transfer its marine assets to the RCN. In 1938, this policy was modified to say that both aircraft and boats be transferred to the RCAF. Although considered inferior to the boats on order, the air force did accept nine motorboats from the RCMP. Of these nine, seven were passed onto the navy and two (the Arrestor and the Detector) were kept by the RCAF. The transfer did not, however, automatically include the crews. Some stayed in service with the RCMP while the rest signed up for the duration. The ‘fleet’ that evolved was a mix of specialized boats, ex-American torpedo and high speed launches. They even had ex rum running boats, requisitioned from civilians at the start of the war. This also included fishing boats taken from the Japanese Canadians post Pearl Harbour.
How they manned the vessels is an interesting story by itself. Some of the civilian vessels kept their names. Those bought or built for the Marine Branch were named according to their size. Vessels 70′ or larger were named after native tribes. Those between 40′-60′ were named after Canadian lakes. Crash boats were named after waterfowl. As simple as this sounds, some confusion was caused, especially for boat M-848, the Albatross, built in 1952. In 1956, the RCAF began flying the Gruman SA16 Albatross aircraft. Radio traffic involving M-848 could be confusing. One time a boat requested a radio check and in return got permission to land at CFB Comox! This problem was eventually solved by renaming the boat the Heron.
Requisitioning of vessels generated peculiar disputes. Owners were allowed compensation, but value was often in the eye of the beholder. In 1941, they took possession of a vessel named the Amaryllis, which was to be used as a support vessel in Pat Bay, BC. 18 months later, the government was still haggling with the owner, who said his boat was worth $80,000. He described her as “one of the most efficient deep sea tugs on the west coast”. To the RCAF, she was a 22yr old relic, capable of not much more than light, inshore towing, but in no sense was she a deep water vessel. The government finally paid $20,000.
The men who manned these boats were as varied as the vessels themselves. Some were fishermen, others were rum-runners and some were ex-RCMP. A 1942 report stated that feelings between the ex-rum runners and the ex-RCMP member’s were anything but friendly. The Marine Division had its share of characters. Norwegian born Nels Jackson Nelson had fished and freighted along the west coast since 1910. When he joined the RCN reserve, it was on the condition that he and his vessel were part and parcel. He kept command at the rank of coxswain. In September 1941, he was transferred to the RCAF Marine Division at the rank of warrant offer. His CO once described him as “looking like a sailor”, “a real salty dog”. Nels stayed in the service till 1945. When he left, his boat went with him.
Probably the most well known task for the marine division was that of the rescue craft, otherwise known as the “crash boat”. They stood by at flying boat stations waiting for a call from an aircraft in distress. An example of this was M-408 Banoskik, a former American PT boat, which for much of 1943, shuttled between Sydney, NS and Port Aux Basque, Nfld, in anticipation of a call. Remember this was right under the ferry routes delivering much needed aircraft to European theater.
Even today, at CFB Comox, the public can see the yellow crash boat whenever the snowbirds have flying ops. As the use of flying boats and amphibians was reduced to nothing so the size of the Marine Division was too. Today, the rescue boats are provided by the search and rescue services of the coast guard, not the RCAF.