Be an Airman

In 1941, young airmen-in-training enrolled in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan were thousands of miles and months away from the hardships, deprivations and mortal dangers of the aerial battlefront. Yet, they still needed diversions from the rigours and tedium of training in some of the most remote training fields of the "Plan".

Bored, aimless at times, a hundred miles from anything resembling a big metropolis and its associated delights, airmen destined to be the pilots, navigators, engineers, bomb-aimers, radiomen and gunners of the air forces of the Commonwealth sought each other's company round the oil stoves of barely-insulated and smoky mess and barracks huts. From Patricia Bay to Ancien Lorette to Summerside, under hooded lamps, and with their first alcoholic drinks in their hands, they would play a rollicking pursuit board game that was all the rage in the Royal Canadian Air Force and even the general public.

It was not the depression era hit game Monopoly, nor the simple rules of Parcheesi, that had them roaring with laughter and boiling with not a little aggression. Nor was it the click-clack of checkers or the intellectual strategy of chess that had them captivated. It was, in fact, a game designed for them and by them that had these young men rolling the die and shouting light obscenities at each other - a game that had the secondary yet deliberate objective of keeping them focused on the job ahead.

In 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force introduced the colourful board game know as Be An Airman to members of the force and general public. Designed by then Flight Lieutenant Owen Cathcart-Jones, a major player in aviation between the Wars and a gifted artist and creative genius, Be An Airman was an informative and visual, if not challenging, pursuit board game with "Snakes and Ladders" styled prize and penalty outcomes. The course of the action followed the imaginary full career of a wartime air force recruit. From recruitment centre to Manning Depot to training centres across the land, players followed the ups and downs of training and then combat. Beginning with a recruitment office, the game ended with the winner winning the Victoria Cross and being given a hero's welcome and the keys to the Nation's Capital.

The brainchild of Cathcart-Jones, the Be An Airman game was packaged as any board game would be - with attractive and colourful graphics and illustrations from Cathcart-Jones himself, laminated to a folding, linen-backed board and boxed with dice, playing pieces resembling aircraft. Produced by Copp-Clark Publishing Company of Toronto, makers of such huge successes as Rumoli, licensed Monopoly and Ouija Boards and other games, Copp-Clark was the perfect company to print, package and distribute the game, with all net proceeds to go to the RCAF Benevolent Fund. In a way, it was one of the most unique contributions to the war effort by a Canadian company.

Author and collector Patrick Flynn on the website described the game for other collectors: "Remember the moral overtones in the Victorian editions of Snakes and Ladders? Here is a pursuit game with a similar instructional purpose. Approved by Canada's WW1 air hero Air Marshal WA Bishop VC, DSO, MC, DFC, invented and designed by F/L O. Cathcart Jones R C A F, entire royalties donated to RCAF Benevolent Fund, approved by The Air Council, manufactured by The Copp Clark Co. Toronto in 1941.

The game board is a long haul, 175 places, with many wins such as 'good solo flight, go on to 40', ‘good formation flying', shot down Messerschmitt' and equally many losses such as 'put shots through tail, lose one turn', 'shot down over England, bailed out', 'lost in London night club, lose one turn'.

This is a great piece of history. The game board shows the long training process required to become a pilot officer. This at a time when Canada's contribution was huge. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan had been developed from nothing. In his 1984 book The Plan, James N. Williams writes: 'Very few pilots in the RCAF in the spring of 1939 had even come close to a modern front line fighter. Fewer still had ever flown anything that even faintly resembled one.' Initially with lukewarm support from Mackenzie King and the Canadian government, The Plan ended up turning out 137,738 pilots, navigators, bombers, and ground staff for the allies.

This is also is also an interesting piece of communication to the general public (propaganda if you're on the other side). Be An Airman illustrates the risks and rewards; 'Awarded DFC go on to 141' Awarded VC take another turn' necessary to achieve final victory at square 175 the END. ‘Back in Canada a National Hero'.

In the same way that Copp-Clark would contribute all proceeds to the war effort, namely the RCAF Benevolent Fund, Vintage Wings of Canada will sell copies of the game board (no packaging), rules and playing pieces with all of our profits to be donated to the Air Force Association of Canada. If you are interested in a copy of this game and wish to be put on a list to be informed when it is ready, e-mail me.

The game box which contained the Be An Airman game showed an eager recruitment officer cajoling the viewer to "Be an Airman!" and join the ranks of the heroic men in blue that were surely going to win the war for the Commonwealth. Featured prominently on the box was the image of First World War fighter ace, Canadian Air Marshal W. A. “Billy” Bishop, who “approved” of the game. It was not unlike having Sydney Crosby's image and endorsement on a box of Wheaties. Image of box courtesy

A hand tinted, blue-eyed and autographed image of Air Marshall Billy Bishop, looking perhaps a bit like a corpse, adorned the outside of the game board box, lending the name of Canada's greatest living aviation hero to the effort of raising money for the Benevolent Fund. 

The board itself featured a typical pursuit style layout with colourful graphics by Owen Cathcart-Jones.
Game courtesy of AFAC

We have yet to play the game, but it seems that players either chose to become a pilot, navigator or air gunner and then followed that specific track. If anyone has a set of instructions for the game, Vintage Wings would love to see them. Game courtesy of AFAC

The track for pilots is on the left and bottom with one for observer/navigators on the right. Game courtesy of AFAC

The designer spared no detail with plenty of combat action and flames to satisfy any child or trainee. Game courtesy of AFAC

Owen Cathcart-Jones - a graphic artist and game designer with a difference

While the very existence of the Be An Airman game was a surprising find for all of us here at Vintage Wings of Canada and in particular the pilots and support staff for the Yellow Wings Program, it was the “inventor and designer” Owen Cathcart-Jones who would prove to be an even more stunning revelation.

The RCAF did not get some Public Relations wonk, Betty down in the steno pool or a recent graduate of the Famous Artists Correspondence School of Art to come up with a scheme to raise money and awareness. They had, instead, one of the greatest air racers and daredevils of the modern age, a veritable household name, come up with not only the concept, but the artwork as well. It's a little like having Charles Lindbergh design RCAF uniforms or asking Amelia Earhart to teach yoga to mechanics. Cathcart-Jones was a bona fide aviation superstar of heroic stature, a gentleman, fashion plate, gifted artist, adventurer, entrepreneur, auto racer, naval ship captain and boulevardier. To put it in perspective, if Owen Cathcart-Jones were alive today, he would be Richard Branson.

His stunning list of accomplishments and pursuits is almost hard to believe. Born in 1900, Cathcart-Jones first entered the scene as a Royal Marine in 1919 and was awarded his wings in 1925 after completing training syllabi at RAF Netheravon and RAF Leuchars. Like a homesick angel, he rose upwards in the world of aviation, flying with the RN FAA's 403 and 404 (Fleet Fighter) Flights on both HMS Hermes and HMS Courageous. He also operated from HMS Argus and Eagle. It was on Courageous that he made the carriers first landing and made the world's first night landing.

Owen Cathcart-Jones was a man of many talents and great courage. Here, in 1928, serving as a Fleet Air Arm pilot and a Royal Marine, and flying a Fairey Flycatcher, he makes the first ever deck landing of an aircraft aboard HMS Courageous. He did so without the aid of arrester wires. Cathcart-Jones holds the high distinction of making the first successful landing of a fighter aircraft on an aircraft carrier at night, on 25th November 1929. His airplane, also a Fairey Flycatcher took off from Hal Far RAF base on Malta and landed on Courageous which was moored in Grand Harbour. The Fairey Flycatcher holds the honor of being the first designed-for-the purpose single-seat carrier-borne fighter to be designed and enter production. Cathcart-Jones was literally everywhere during the period leading up to the Second World War, even ferrying aircraft to the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.

Most of Cathcart-Jones' flying time with the Royal Navy was spent in China and in the Mediterranean Sea. His short bio on the website speaks about his penchant for trouble: “He established a reputation as a forceful and daring pilot. One of his escapades became the talk of the Fleet - on 22 Aug. 1929 he was on exercises with the Fleet and loaded a plane with a large packet of "service brown" toilet paper intending to drop it HMS Revenge which should have been last in the line. Unfortunately the C-in­-C had inverted the line and he dropped the "bumph" very accurately on the Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth. His Flycatcher aircraft was clearly numbered "7" and the Captain of HMS Courageous was called to the Flagship on return to harbour to explain. Cathcart - Jones duly appeared before the Admiral with his reasons in writing and had to be on his best behaviour for some time.”

Cathcart-Jones then left the Navy and the Royal Marines to pursue civilian aviation goals. On the 31st March 1931, fellow RN aviator and wealthy playboy Glen Kidston and Owen Cathcart-Jones departed Netheravon on an attempt to break the Capetown record. Routing was Naples, Malta, Cairo, Kosti, Malakal, Kisumu, Salisbury, Bulawayo and Pretoria. A wireless operator, T.A. Vallette on loan from the Marconi Company, joined the flight as far as Cairo. At Cairo his place was taken by an engineer, G.W. Hills. On April the 5th they made a forced landing at Lichtenburg, Pretoria due to engine trouble. The propeller was damaged when their Lockheed Vega ran through wire fences. The aircraft was repaired and departed for Capetown, arriving the next day in the record time of 6 days 9 hours at an average speed of 134 mph.

By the mid-1930s, he had accumulated many awards and records including the 1934 McRobertson Centenary Gold Medal, 1934 Royal Aero Club Silver Medal and held eight long-distance world records.  Along with Ken Waller, he came fourth in the McRobertson Centenary Air Race from Mildenhall to Melbourne in 1934.

The De Havilland Comet (G-ACSR) flown by Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller refueling in Darwin while competing in the MacRobertson Centennial Air Race. Cathcart-Jones is standing on the wing. Inset: A close up of the handsome and sartorial Cathcart-Jones taken during the same race by the look of the jacket, sweater and hat.
He seems to have had a thing for checks.

Cathcart-Jones was a household name in the 1920s and 30s and his face was on everything from newspapers to cigarette cards  (No.15 of the Famous Airmen and Airwomen Series). This photo shows him and the somewhat less photogenic and pugnacious Ken Waller during the MacRobertson Centennial Air Race. After arriving in Melbourne, they had a quick turn round and flew photos and film footage of the Australian stages and finish of the MacRobertson Air Race back to Britain, setting a new 'there and back again' record of 13 days 6 hours and 43 minutes. Cathcart-Jones would die in California in February 1986 at the age of 85 after a long retirement as a polo pony breeder.

His racing was not just confined to the air. He finished 34th at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1935 driving a Lagonda all the way from Stavenger, Norway and describing the trip as "more strenuous" than the Melbourne air race.

During the Spanish Civil war, the romantic Cathcart-Jones, joined the ranks of the world's romantics and flew for the Nationalist rebels. Soon, however Cathcart-Jones would move to Santa Barbara, California United States and buy a ranch to raise polo ponies. There he would become friends with Hollywood stars and would occasionally find himself in trouble.

At the outset of the Second World War, Cathcart-Jones' duty to England won out over his new playboy life in California and he came north to Canada to enlist in the RCAF. Veteran “forensic historian” Hugh Halliday searched through RCAF records recently on our behalf and was able to uncover the salient points of Cathcart-Jones' short-lived RCAF career. The former Royal Marine joined up in May of 1940 in what is called the General List Branch and then there are no further entries until May of 1941 when he is shown on strength with the Air Force Headquarters staff. Prior to this, he was quite possibly working on the game and perhaps with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, for the 1941-designed game box clearly states that his rank is Flight Lieutenant and the next entry in his records shows that on June the first, 1941 he was promoted to Squadron Leader.

As Owen Cathcart-Jones is known to have been a technical consultant on the Warner Bros. BCATP epic feature film, Captains of the Clouds, it was quite possible that he was transferred to AFHQ to enable his participation as the film was largely shot in Ottawa and nearby North Bay and Trenton.  The former air racer must have been a charming and convincing man, for he now managed to secure an acting role in the film, with a 30 second cameo appearance in the film as the “Chief Flying Instructor“.

Owen Cathcart-Jones as Chief Flying Instructor in the film Captains of the Clouds. Typical of all graphic designers... he's a handsome fellow - Ed.

I have rarely met a good graphic designer who wasn't an aviation fan, but I have rarely come across an aviator who was a gifted graphic designer and artist. Here is a watercolour by Owen Cathcart-Jones painted while on location during the shooting of the Warner Bros. classic wartime film "Captains of the Clouds". Cathcart-Jones was both a technical advisor on the film as well as a bit-actor, playing the part of the Chief Flying InstructorThe painting shows the Hudson's Bay Co. trading post where part of the movie was filmed. Image courtesy Relics and Tales

In March of 1942 he was posted to Western Air Command Headquarters, but nothing is recorded in the WAC HQ diary to confirm this or indicate duties. Halliday then goes on to say, “Cathcart-Jones was then ‘Posted to ABS’ (Absent), 29 April 1942.  It appears that he had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave), as the diary of Headquarters, Western Air Command, under date of 6 July 1942, read in part, ‘Squadron Leader O.Cathcart-Jones who has been AWL for some time, returned from California to this Headquarters under escort.’  He is then shown as taken on strength of Western Air Command Headquarters, 6 July 1942. Two months later, he was ‘Retired’ from the RCAF”.

It appears that Cathcart-Jones' tenuous attachment to the RCAF and his ability to draw, got him connected with the Be an Airman game, Billy Bishop, AFHQ and eventually as a technical advisor and actor in the film Captains of the Clouds. It's possible that he parlayed his new connection with Warner Bros. into helping out on another film... this one in his new home, California. His AWOL episode coincides perfectly with the time he was a technical advisor on another Warner Bros. film called Desperate Journey, the story of an RAF bomber crew shot down behind enemy lines and trying to get back home. Here he would become friends with Errol Flynn and future president Ronald Reagan, the two stars of the film.

Movie posters for Desperate Journey and Captains of the Clouds, for which Cathcart-Jones was technical advisor.

On January 11, 1943 famed actor and “swordsman” Errol Flynn went on trial for statutory rape in Los Angeles, California. One of the character witnesses called to testify on behalf of Peggy Satterlee, one of the young (read underage) female companions of Flynn, was Owen Cathcart-Jones. In his book Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, Thomas McNulty describes Cathcart-Jones as a "42-year-old Canadian flyer". This is the first and only time that his birthplace was mentioned in my research, but I am not convinced that it is correct.

According to the FlyingMarines website, which is dedicated to Royal Marine pilots, Cathcart-Jones next enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve and commanded his own ship in the Seventh Fleet in the New Guinea and Leyte campaigns. He also worked with the Fifth Air Force and after Leyte served on the staff of General McArthur at Lake Sentana above Hollandia. Man... this dude gets around!

After the war, our intrepid graphic designer trained polo ponies at Montecito, Santa Barbara California, and was President of the Polo Club. This is the same polo club where, just a month ago, another RAF pilot by the name of William, Prince of Wales, played a charity polo match while on a tour of the state.  Owen Cathcart-Jones died at the age of 85 in California in January of 1986. That man needed a rest.

Dave O'Malley

The author would like to thank all those who helped with this story including Blake Ried who first showed us a black and white copy of the game; Tim Dubé whose constant help and enthusiasm for arcane stories like this have assisted us many times; archival detective Hugh Halliday, writer of the Observair's column Rambling Through Records, who ferreted out the details of Owen Cathcart-Jones' RCAF career - something never mentioned anywhere else in the world wide web; Vern Vouriot for his constant encouragement and grammatical genius; and, last but not least, Dean Black of the Air Force Association of Canada for enthusiastically couriering over a copy of the game and its box so that we could scan it with a view to printing it.

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