During World War II, the RCN, while not possessing any aircraft carriers of its own, provided crews for the Royal Navy carriers PUNCHER and NABOB. After the war, the RCN had three carriers, successively WARRIOR (1946-1948), MAGNIFICENT (1948-1957) and BONAVENTURE (1957-1970).
In the period from 1953 to 1964, there were Naval Reserve Air Squadrons at five naval reserve divisions:
- VC 920 HMCS YORK – detachment at HMCS STAR
- VC 921 HMCS CATARAQUI
- VC 922 HMCS MALAHAT
- VC 923 HMCS MONTCALM
- VC 924 HMCS TECUMSEH
STAR did not have its own squadron due to the proximity to Toronto but operated a detachment of VC 920 at YORK.
Personnel from STAR, including a number of Wrens, travelled regularly to Toronto to train with VC 920 Squadron at RCAF Downsview, where the outline of an aircraft carrier landing deck had been painted on the runway. VC 920 was equipped with three Grumman Avengers, two North American Harvards and a Beechcraft Expeditor, examples of which can be seen at Canadian Warplane Heritage. STAR personnel also worked out of RCAF Station Hamilton with 424 (Light Bomber) Squadron (Auxiliary).
The Seafire was a version of the famous Spitfire adapted for carrier use with a strengthened undercarriage, arrester hook, folding wings and catapult attachments. Canadian Seafire Mk XVs flew from HMCS WARRIOR and MAGNIFICENT until replaced by the Sea Fury in 1948. The next year, twenty-seven Seafires were made available to Naval Reserve Divisions and two came to STAR as static training aircraft.
- SR464 Cunliffe-Owen – landed at Hamilton Civic Airport east of Parkdale Ave and towed with wings folded to STAR where it was put on display beside a Swordish in the sports field behind the wardroom – may have ended up at Mount Hope
- PR410 Supermarine – sent to Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1954.
In an attempt to close the “air gap” in the middle of the Atlantic convoy routes, in 1943 the British Admiralty added flight decks to 14 former tankers and five former grain ships to allow them to operate as small aircraft carriers. These Merchant Aircraft Carriers or MAC ships, carried either three planes on deck in the case of the tankers or four with a hangar in the case of the grain ships. The aircraft used was the Fairey Swordfish or “Stringbag, originally designed as a biplane torpedo bomber, and famously used as such during the hunt for the BISMARCK and the British air raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto, but now employed as an anti-submarine aircraft.
A Royal Naval Air Service base, HMS SEABORN, was established at RCAF Dartmouth and spare Swordfish were held there for use on the eastbound MAC ships. In 1946, SEABORN closed and the Admiralty donated the 22 Swordfish there to the RCN, one of which also ended up at STAR as a static training aircraft.
There is also an apocryphal story that a Hurricane was sent to Hamilton and landed at the old Civic Airport east of Parkdale Avenue. When arrangements for a truck to tow the plane to STAR fell through, the pilot folded the wings and taxied along Burlington Street, getting as far as Sherman Avenue before being stopped by the police. While fourteen hundred Hurricanes were built in Canada at Canadian Car & Foundry in Fort William, and some of them were converted to Sea Hurricanes, as far as I am aware, the Sea Hurricane was never an RCN aircraft, so where this plane came from remains to be discovered.
There were two incidents of note involving VC 920:
On 5 November 1956, Avenger No 53161, crashed while simulating a carrier landing with a batsman (Landing Signals Officer) at Brantford. The pilot was unharmed but the plane was written off.
On 19 January 1957, two VC 920 Avengers were flying over Lake Erie when Avenger 86001, code 907, lost engine power and ditched on the ice 15 miles south of Port Stanley. The pilot, LCdr (P) Cal Wilson and LSOM (Observers Mate) Jerry Rol, sat in the dinghy on the ice after the plane had sunk, till rescued by an American Naval Reserve HUP 2 from Grosse Isle, Michigan and taken to London, hypothermic but otherwise unharmed.
VC 920 paid off 31 March 1964 and STAR’s connection to Naval Aviation ceased, commemorated only by a four bladed Seafire propeller mounted behind the ship’s badge on the drill-deck. Then that was requested by Canadian Warplane Heritage who eventually returned us a two bladed wooden prop which now sits, forlorn and unnoticed, on top of the Quarterdeck display cases.