Following WWI and prior to 1939, most of the RCAF aircraft were amphibious. In order to service these aircraft, small boats of different sizes and shapes were used. These were manned and maintained by personnel who became the RCAF Marine Section.
Between 1918 and 1935, some of the work done by the Air Force included air photography, reconnaissance, and forestry patrol. Because this was accomplished mainly by sea planes, it was necessary to set up small marine sub-sections at various places across the country in order to service the aircraft. Though there were small sections, the major marine establishments were located at Ottawa (Rockcliffe), Trenton, as well as Jericho Beach.
A school was formed in Trenton in 1935 to train marine crewmen. In the same year, the RCAF acquired its first crash boats, 37 feet in length and built in England. They arrived at Halifax aboard a civilian freighter; one of the launches stayed at Halifax (assigned to No. 4 Flying Boat Squadron). The other was transported by rail to Jericho Beach, Vancouver (assigned to No. 5 Flying Boat Squadron).
The design of the boats proved to be quite successful, and as a result, in 1937, a 38 foot boat of the same type was ordered, this time from a Canadian firm. As well as the three crash boats, the Air Board also ordered three power dinghies from Canadian builders. Eighteen feet long, powered with a 56 h.p. engine, and operating at a maximum speed of 18 knots, they were used for aircraft tending and bomb loading.
The personnel strength of the Marine Section during this time frame was small, as was the rest of the service, but the school at Trenton continued to graduate small courses of airmen trained to operate and maintain the “Air Force Navy”. On the eve of 1939, it included 64 assorted vessels, along with 153 officers and airmen. Only a small portion of the vessels was powered; the greatest number of these were scows and assorted small craft.
When the BCATP came into effect in 1940, the Marine Section had the responsibility of providing rescue and standby vessels to those stations located near water. To help meet the need for more vessels, several commercial fishing boats and small yachts were chartered and an energetic boat building programme began.
By the start of 1941, the Marine Section’s strength had tripled – 164 marine craft along with 444 officers and airmen. The increasing number of isolated stations and units had also created a serious supply problem; to meet this need, three supply ships were built for west coast use.
What of the men who were to sail these craft? They came from farms, lumber camps, and big cities. They “mingled” with deep-water sailors, crewmen from fishing boats, Great Lakes grain boats; some were former members of the RCN and RCMP.
In 1943, two marine squadrons were formed in the RCAF; one was in the Eastern Air Command based at Dartmouth and one in Western Air Command based at Jericho Beach, Vancouver. In this year, the Marine Section reached its full wartime power peak – a strength of 941 officers and airmen operating 384 marine craft. Both squadrons carried out search and rescue, supply and patrol work till the end of 1945.
The cost in lives and ships to the Marine Section for their part in the war was small, until a tragic loss at the close of the war. M-427 BC Star, a supply vessel, sank during a vicious storm near the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1945; all 15 on board were lost.
The marine squadrons in Western and Eastern Air Command were disbanded then reorganized in April of 1947. Both east and west coast units carried out operational duties until November 1, 1951, when the RCN assumed the sea-rescue commitments. In the early 1950s, many of the Marine Section personnel were either remustered or released. The trade was also re-organized at this time and marine tradesmen became known as motorboat crewmen.
In 1952, the RCAF re-equipped the remaining Marine Sections with a more suitable craft for the current operations of the period; this consisted mainly of coastal search and rescue, standby flying, and bombing and gunnery range patrol.
By 1963, the airmen of the Marine Section were 65 strong and had extensive experience. Trade training was once again being done while on the job.
After the closure of a successful wartime section, the RCAF Marine Section at RCAF Station Comox was again re-established in 1952, when the station re-opened to support flying operations of 407 and 409 Squadrons. Three 40-foot crash boats were manned by RCAF motorboat crewman and were used for a wide variety of range patrol, target towing and rescue work.
In the mid-eighties, while RCAF Marine Section personnel had long since retired, the RCAF boats were replaced by modern 53 foot fibreglass boats; the traditions of a dedicated and professional RCAF Marine Section remain. Even the names of some the crash boats have survived as the current crash boats in 19 Wing Comox Marine Section are named as Black Duck and Albatross.
** Credit for the information: “Sea Boots & Sou-Westers Revisited: A History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Marine Section – original text by Corporal K.R. Robinson – additional material by Lieutenant Colonel T.F.J. Leversdedge. This is available in our Museum Library.