When SAIT went to war: A history

As SAIT serves to meet Canada’s need for skilled labour today so did it serve this during Canada’s darkest hours of the Second World War.

On Sept. 3, 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It would only take Canada until Sept. 10 to follow Britain to war.

SAIT, which at the time was known as the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (PITA), soon found itself thrust into the Canadian war effort

The Canadian government announced on June 30, 1940 that as part of the War Emergency Training Program (WETP), the grounds and facilities of PITA would be converted into the No.2 Wireless School.

The No.2 Wireless School was one of four wireless schools in Canada. The others were in Montreal, Winnipeg and Guelph, Ont.

The WETP was part of Canada’s participation in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP), which is regarded as the single largest aviation training program in history.

Canada was chosen as the primary location for the BCATP, which trained Allied pilots and air crew from both Commonwealth nations and others.

By the end of the program, Canada had trained 131,000 pilots and crew under the BCATP, just over half of those, 72,000, being Canadians.

The training was not without its risks. Roughly 2,000 died during their training under the BCATP in Canada.

During the way, PITA’s regular operations had to be relocated to continue.

Technical classes were moved the grandstand at Calgary’s exhibition grounds, the arts and women’s programs to the Coste House in the Mount Royal district, and normal school classes to the King Edward School in south Calgary.

To accommodate the transfer of technical courses to the Grandstand, classroom dividers were hastily constructed out of quarter-inch-thick plywood.

In his book SAIT: The First Sixty Years, author Roy E. Smith wrote, “these thin walls made for a memorable experience for students and staff alike.

“The shop noises were amplified throughout the area making the audibility of lectures in the classrooms most difficult.”

More interruptions to classes arose due to the installation of a much-needed heating system and maintenance to the water, gas, and electrical systems

“Accommodation at the Coste House, on the other hand, was spacious and elegant, excelling that of the institute itself,” wrote Smith.

In an interview, Darrell Knight, a member of the Calgary Military Historical Society, spoke about a former instructor at the No. 2 Wireless School that he knew personally.

“[The instructor’s] job was to give instruction in Morse code, radio construction, and theory, for airmen qualifying for radio trades in the RCAF.”

The curriculum at wireless schools while initially 20 weeks long, was soon increased to 28 weeks due to the growing complexity of the equipment.

A recruit’s time at the wireless school was only a small part of their complete training, and it would take more than a year for someone to go from the recruiting centre to their first tour at the front.

Upon enlisting each recruit was give an aptitude test to determine their role best.

David Love, historian for the Calgary Military Historical Society, said, “Someone that was very scientifically inclined would have become a navigator or wireless operator.”

The people trained at these schools would either go into duty as a wireless operator or would receive additional training to become a wireless operator air gunner.

The basic responsibility of the wireless operator was to maintain communication with other aircraft and to ground bases.

The addition of gunnery school lasted four weeks.

Along with learning basic maintenance of aircraft-mounted machine guns, “They would take additional training on how to shoot a machine gun — and have a chance of hitting something,” said Love.

Students would practice sending and receiving communications in a classroom setting, often times within arms-length of one another.

Then they were placed into a small room, to simulate the cramped working space of an aircraft. From there, they moved to in flight training.

Love said, “All had been in an aircraft before during their basic training, but there they would actively work as wireless operators.”

All of the flight exercises for the No.2 Wireless School were conducted out of RCAF Detachment Shepard.

The Shepard detachment was only nine kilometers southeast of Calgary and was, as Love said, “specifically there for the wireless school, that was its main job.”

The in-flight training for the No. 2 School was done in the DH.82 Tiger Moth biplane and then in Fleet Model 60K Fort aircraft.

However, the forts suffered from a myriad of mechanical issues, in particular the tendency for the gas cap to come off in mid-flight and jettison fuel.

Both planes were found to be too underpowered to carry the communications equipment reliably.

“[In] the early flights, the forts and the tiger moths…just weren’t strong enough,” said Love.

In early 1943, the fort was replaced with a variant of the North American T-6 Texan, also known as the Harvard.

It was proven to be a more reliable aircraft for the wireless operators than either the Fleet Fort or Tiger Moth.

After the end of the Second World War on Aug. 15, 1945, the No. 2 Wireless School disbanded, and PITA was able to return to regular home in the fall of 1946.

Flying School: A Harvard aircraft pictured on display at the Areo Space Museum Of Calgary Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.this plane is almost identical to those that would have been used in training at the No.2 Wireless School from 1943 onwards. why (Photo by Lucas Lyons/SAIT Polytechnic)
Flying School: A Harvard aircraft pictured on display at the Areo Space Museum Of Calgary Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.this plane is almost identical to those that would have been used in training at the No.2 Wireless School from 1943 onwards. why (Photo by Lucas Lyons/SAIT Polytechnic)
About Lucas Lyons 3 Articles
As a writing and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Lucas Lyons worked as a reporter for The Press during the 2017-18 academic year.

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