RCAF Station Playground

When I was a child, we lived at the very edge of the city, the outermost ripple of the postwar suburban tract home malaise. We lived in a sweetly named, Mayberry-esque development called Elmvale Acres, a former farmer's hay field, just recently sown with the bland, unimaginative, yet solid houses from the era before marketing latched on to the enterprise. The homes did not have the euphonious monikers we find today – the Winchester, the Westwind, or the Appleton, but rather, my parents selected the B-2 floor plan as more suitable for their needs over the C-1 or A-2. It was a simpler time, before seat belts, timeouts for the kids, yoga, hybrid cars, reality TV and hockey helmets. Parents on our road were only responsible for getting their kids up, feeding their brood (and all the families were big in our neighborhood), dressing them, and sending them out. There was no reasoning with such numbers. Punishment, both bedroom incarceration and corporal were not seen as even remotely wrong… it was the simple and workable world of the wooden spoon, Dad's belt and “You wait till your father gets home”.

In those days, especially in the summer, I and my siblings left the house in the morning and only came home for meals, sleep and for a bath (once a week whether we needed it or not). Our clothes were ragged, our days were long and our imaginations were free… oh so free. We were expected to and we did indeed look after our own entertainment and personal interests. We were independent, free ranging urchins free to explore dangerous construction sites, road machinery, wrecking yards and abandoned farm houses.

The era was only a decade or so after the Second Word War, and our boyish imaginations were always turning our play into battles and our environments into battlefields. Living halfway between RCAF Station Uplands and RCAF Station Rockcliffe, the skies were always busy with Lancasters, Harvards, Canucks and Sabres. All my friends asked for binoculars for Christmas, and for a few summers, we carried them slung over our shoulders at all times, ready to train them on the silver belly of a low flying Lancaster. Abandoned bulldozers were tanks, treetop forts were bomber cockpits, ditches were foxholes. We frolicked in toxic industrial ponds, floating battleships made from construction scraps with spikes for guns, we carried guns carved from two by fours, “killing” each other when ever we got the chance and we constructed forts both in trees and underground. We developed written codes so our “enemies” could not figure out our plans. We were ready for anything.

For me, the summers spent in this landscape were paradise – endless, creative, exuberant, dirty and slightly dangerous. I used to think there was no better place in which to grow up… that is until a couple of weeks ago when Vintage News contributor David Russell sent me a small collection of his family photographs showing him and his brother Arnie when they were young boys of similar age to my aforementioned Elmvale Acres bliss. The images however dated from 1947 to 1949 when his father was stationed at the former RCAF training base at Picton, Ontario to maintain and care for the large numbers of surplus aircraft and military equipment stored in its hangars and on its ramps. Half of the hangars contained RCAF aircraft while the other half sheltered Canadian Army equipment, mostly antiaircraft guns. If this wasn't a fertile petrie dish for a boy's imagination, then nothing was.

One glimpse of the wild looking, shirtless and shoeless brothers roaming the runways and hangars of Picton and I knew that Elmvale Acres was not heaven after all, barely qualifying as a shopping mall nickel-a-ride mechanical horse in comparison to the full-scale amusement park that was Picton. For an airplane-addled, machine-loving, gun-carving post-war boy, there could never be a better place to grow up in than RCAF Station Picton, surrounded by aircraft, guns, used ammo, the ghosts of airmen and the echoes of thundering aircraft.

Picton was a typical British Commonwealth Air Training Plan air base, laid out with the familiar triangular runway configuration, the standard BCATP hangars, H-huts, maintenance facilities, gun butts and guard houses. During the Second World War, Picton was home to Number 31 Bombing and Gunnery School from April 1941 to November of 1944 operating aircraft such as the Bolingbroke, Anson and Lysander. After the Bombing & Gunnery School was disbanded, the RCAF established the No. 5 Reserve Equipment Maintenance Unit at Picton. This unit was responsible for aircraft storage and maintenance of the airfield itself. No.5 REMU operated until January 1946 when the unit disbanded and its functions were taken over by RCAF Station Trenton. However, aircraft remained in storage there during the following years that David and Arnie Russell lived at the base and enjoyed ranging over the place.  The base was partly taken over by the Army for use as the Royal Canadian School of Artillery (Anti-Aircraft). The school provided training for anti-aircraft gunners, gunnery radar operators, technical assistants and artillery instructors. A number of operational artillery units were also located in Picton, including the 127th and 128th Medium AA Batteries, Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA) and the 2nd and 3rd Light AA Batteries of the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RCA. The RCAF also maintained a small detachment at the base to provide aircraft targets for the gunners.

Of those years, Russell writes, “For 21/2 years in the late '40s my father was stationed at RCAF Picton, then a satellite of RCAF Station Trenton's Number 6 Repair Depot.  Picton was essentially a storage depot with three hangars operated by the RCAF and the other three by the army (ack-ack, I believe). The hangars contained aircraft worth saving (in the air force's opinion) such as Cansos, Daks, Expeditors and Harvards The infield was filled with those that were destined for destruction or sale. Mainly they were Anson V's, but there were also several Walrus's, Hurricanes, Cornells and a number of Mosquitoes. At one point the infield was full of aircraft. Most of these were destroyed by burning after the engines had been removed; or they were sold to local farmers. 

A shirtless and barefoot David Russell (right) and his brother Arnie in 1948 exhibit the confident child-swagger of boys who are growing up with the freedom to roam a wonderland of mechanical and historical artifacts. Photo via David Russell

Because the Air Force had not really dealt with married personnel prior to the Second World War, the concept of Private Married Quarters was just beginning to sink in.  As a result there wasn't anyplace for the Russell family to live at Picton except the base of the control tower which was converted from an administration facility to our apartment.  As might be expected, it was an idyllic place for two young boys who pretty well had the run of the place including the runways. The hangar adjacent to the control tower (Picton was built in the same manner as most BCATP stations with the control tower centred and 3-4 hangars on each side) contained my Dad's "office". He was, at that time a W.O.1, with 10-15 airmen as his charges, to maintain the aircraft for his superiors at Trenton. My late brother and I were allowed access to the hangar at any time as long as we didn't go past a chalk line he drew on the hangar floor.  There was a fair amount of flying as pilots came from Trenton and other stations to deliver aircraft for storage or retrieve aircraft from storage. As well, there was constant maintenance taking place in the adjacent hangar.  If only my parents had taken more photos of the aircraft instead of focusing on two geeky little boys!!”

Perhaps heading off to church on Sunday morning, a delighted David (right) and a somewhat suspicious Arnie stand on the grass outside their control tower home. The octagonal structure in the background is the control tower itself, which now longer exists at Picton, one of the few structures missing today from the almost perfectly intact Second World War air base. The tower was not used during the entire time the Russells were at Picton. The family occupied half the building and the other half was occupied by the C/O of the artillery unit and his family.. Russell remembers,  “Colonel Fisher would occasionally invite our family during the summer to night "shoots'" at Point Petre (Prince Edward County's southernmost point on Lake Ontario) - the 1940s version of fireworks. I thought they put on a great show!!”  Photo via David Russell

A similar control tower structure to the one the Russells called home could be found on several BCATP bases across Canada, being a standard structure designed by DND and applied where appropriate. This photo shows the tower from No.4 Bombing and Gunnery School, Fingal, Ontario. Photo courtesy Royal Canadian Air Force Stations Blog

A similar tower at No. 7 SFTS, Fort McLeod shows us the entrance to the Russell home in Picton. Photo courtesy the Bomber Command Museum of Canada

A good view of the identical tower at 12 SFTS. at Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, with a Cessna Crane in the foreground. photo courtesy of Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum Brandon, Manitoba

One one last photo taken at No. 33 SFTS Carberry, Manitoba of its identical tower, with an Anson parked in the snow. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum Brandon, Manitoba

Not only were there plenty of aircraft in storage both inside and outside hangars, there was always aircraft coming and going at their “home”… More than enough to keep a young boy enthralled every day. Russell recalls the first time he experienced the power a jet aircraft, “On one occasion, probably in the late summer of 1948 we were visited by several new RCAF Vampires.  It was exciting for me as I had never seen, and more importantly, had not heard a jet.  The peculiar scream of the Goblin engine in the Vampire remains with me. My recollection is that these Vampires were an aerobatic team performing at the CNE. Why they spent the night at Picton rather than Trenton or somewhere else is beyond me.  In any event the Vampires were allowed to spend the night in the hangar nearest the control tower. My brother and I were permitted to "help" the airmen push these aircraft into the hangars.”

Flight magazine of Great Britain, dated July 29th, 1948  contains a brief news article about 54 Squadron RAF Vampires displaying in Canada which may or may not account for the appearance of Vampires at Picton. The article states, “AIR MARSHAL V. A. CURTIS, Canadian Chief of Air Staff, Mr. W;. Mills, Deputy Minister of National Defence for Canada, together with Sir Alexander Clutterbuck, British High Commissioner, were among 5,000 people who witnessed the first public aerobatic display by the transatlantic de Havilland Vampires of No. 54 Squadron at Trenton, Ontario, on July 21st. S/L. Oxspring used all seven of his pilots on this occasion: "Blue Section," led by the squadron leader himself, and "Red Section," led by F/L. Wooley, did formation aerobatics which brought spontaneous applause and F/L. "Jeep" Heal put up a spectacular individual display. …  On July 22nd, the Squadron saluted the city of Toronto with a fly-past which took them below the top of the Commonwealth's tallest building—the Bank of Commerce skyscraper. An aerobatic display was later put on over the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. During the following day, the Squadron saluted Montreal City and performed at St. Hubert airfield, prior to preparing to depart for Washington. The six Vampires touched down at Andrew's Field, near the capital, last Sunday.”

Virtually all the memories that David Russell has of his and Arnie's halcyon days at Picton are of wonderment, freedom and imagination set free. There was one memory which, while certainly one of great visual significance to the boys was, in hindsight, an event of an almost tragic quality as surplus aircraft were fed into the “The Big Bonfire”.  David Russell remembers, “I think some of the surplus aircraft stored in the infield were sold in flyable condition.  Some were sold to local farmers for chicken coops etc. The wings were cut off these, the engines removed and they were towed away. A lot of the rest were burned at the far corner of the airfield.  It was a large fire. When we arrived at Picton or shortly after there were many aircraft stored outside. By the time we moved, my recollection is there were very few. Just think of the value of those burned aircraft, many of which probably had very few hours. Mostly they were Ansons and I think Anson V's for the most part, so they would be all wood and fabric.”

A great shot of the young David on a chain driven tricycle and his brother in the trailer with the family dog "Spinner" and friend Barry Bevan in the rear (Barry's dad was in the army).  The trike was purchased second-hand in Scotland by the boys' father in 1945 and brought home with him in a 168 Squadron Liberator in September '45 on his return from overseas.  David Russel still owns the trike and the trailer.  Russell says “Our grandchildren love it - needless to say 3 generations of Russells have beat the hell out of it but it still functions well. On one occasion my brother attempted to circumnavigate the Picton runways on the tricycle on a cold, windy day. All was well while the wind was at his back but when he turned the corner at the far edge of the airfield into a headwind his progress got slower and slower until he came to a dead stop. My mother, watching from our living room window, let him stew for awhile then retrieved him in our car.  All of which shows the freedom we had there. Of note is that our Mom dressed us funny, although we may have been dressed for a birthday party.

Note the Picton station steam plant in the left background. It provided heat for all the buildings on the base. To the right are several H-huts. The station school at the time the boys were there, containing Grades 1, 2 and 3 (all in one room with one teacher) was in the nearest H-hut. “The proverbial one room school. remembers David Russell,  “I enjoyed that school except when I came home one day to be told my little brother had gone flying with our dad, our dog and a visiting pilot in a civilian aircraft. To say I was pissed would be an understatement.” Photo via David Russell

A simple wooden boardwalk (visible in the photo above) lead from the family's back door in the control tower to a "man door" in the hangar closest to the station's still functioning aircraft maintenance hangars. Russell tells us of his memories of the hangar,  “My brother and I were allowed to play in that hangar as long as we didn't cross a chalk line our dad drew on the concrete floor inside that door. Particularly on rainy days we spent a lot of time in that hangar with our toys and with maintenance work going on in the rest of the hangar. At one point a Canso - painted white - was resident in the hangar for quite a while.  Nobody seemed to mind our presence even though my dad's superior from 6RD [No.6 Repair Depot, Trenton -ed] would occasionally make a flying visit to check on things. He would fly over in a Cessna Crane - very noisy - and have lunch with our family. The war had just ended, the air force was a shadow of its former self and everything was very low key and laid back. Some years ago our youngest son was finishing flying training at the Moncton Fying Club. He was required to do a cross country flight in a twin engine aircraft and asked if I wanted to go with him and if so, where did I want to go. I said "Trenton, if you can obtain permission". We had a great time, flying from Fredericton-Dorval-Trenton spending the night in Trenton.  We  drove over to Picton when I discovered the control tower has been destroyed, but that the adjacent hangar, happily,  was still being used for air cadet glider training.  I didn't check to see if the chalk lines were still on the floor.”

By Dave O'Malley and Dave Russell
In memory of Arnie Russell

Life at Picton 1947 to 1949

A photograph of David (left) and Arnie taken during a cooler period... wild, almost feral boys - David with some sort of homemade whip and Arnie riding a trike with his pants torn. In the background stands Avro Anson 11962 as well as radio equipment. Photo via David Russell

Left: Young Arnie Russell and his sister Nancy outside their Picton control tower living quarters. Right: Arnie and David (rear) pose for dad on their new looking bicycle beside their home in the lower floors of the control tower at Picton. Photo via David Russell

A great portrait of Arnie Russell at Picton standing with his bike before a field of former BCATP Ansons destined for the "Big Bonfire”. Photo via David Russell

An odd photo of a kinked neck David beneath an Anson engine. In the background stands another former BCATP Anson awaiting its fate. Russell remembers “working on” the Ansons which indicates that they were free to play around them. This photograph was taken the first summer that the Russells moved to Picton - a time when the infield would have been full of aircraft. Dress code for young boys on the RCAF base was fairly informal as can be seen in this photo - perhaps described as feral. Photo via David Russell

The summers may have been endless and freedom filled, but Canadians have just two true seasons - eight months of winter and four months of poor snowmobiling. Here Arnie rides the much-loved chain-drive tricycle through winter snow on a windswept ramp outside the family residence at the base of the control tower. Photo via David Russell

A wonderfully haunting view of the Russell boys beneath the wing of a stored aircraft of unknown make... clearly a fabric covered wing. If you can identify the type by the triangular inspection panel, let us know. The photo graph was taken by a Chinese Nationalist Air Force Major who was visiting Picton to inspect Canadian-built de Havilland Mosquitoes then in storage in the hangars of Picton. The Chinese Nationalists purchased nearly 300 Canadian Mosquito fighter-bombers to supply their air force requirements. The Nationalists were fighting a bitter battle against the communists and the about-to-be-scrapped “Mossies” represented an inexpensive way to supplement their force. The Chinese sent a delegation in the late summer of 1947 to check out aircraft at Downsview and obviously they sent someone to look at the aircraft stored at Picton, some two hours east. The warmer clothing worn by the boys in this photo from 1947 indicates autumn, just about the time the Chinese were in the area. The somewhat distrustful look on their faces tells more about the fact that a Chinese officer was a rare sight in post-war Canada than anything else.

Russell remembers the visit vividly, “My recollection is that he stayed for several days or even longer.  My parents and he became quite friendly and he had dinner with us on several occasions. I know that the Nationalist Air Force bought Canadian Mosquitoes but whether it purchased any of the Picton aircraft is unknown to me. Undoubtedly, my Dad was instructed to assist him in his endeavours. He took a lot of photos, including several of us.

A Canadian de Havilland Mosquito in the markings of the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. This aircraft, a training Mosquito, is shown taxiing at Hankow, the home base for No.1 Bombardment Group of the CNAF. The Chinese were particularly afraid of the tail wheel “Mossie”, having been mostly familiar with former American medium bombers with tricycle gear such as the Mitchell. Then Chinese wrote off nearly 20% of the Mosquitoes simply in training accidents.

A Little Bit about Arnold George “Russ” Russell, the father

This photograph was taken in Ottawa at a time before the Russell boys and their father A. G. Russell moved to Picton in September of 1947. David writes “Although the hostilities ended in Europe in May, 168 Squadron RCAF continued its scheduled runs because it was a mail/transport operation. That is the reason for his somewhat late return. He returned to Rockcliffe and was stationed there until the move to Picton. My mother, brother and I had lived in Ottawa during the war and we continued to live there until 1947." This photograph shows a father supremely proud of his sons and happy to be home. Photo via David Russell

This photograph shows the Russell boys' dad as a happy young airman in a 5 Squadron Stranraer at RCAF Dartmouth at the beginning of the war. “It was his first posting after finishing technical training at Camp Borden - just in time for the war to start. He was employed as a "fitter-gunner". The squadron began patrols within a week of war being declared.  Typically, they would take off from Dartmouth at 0530 hours, provide anti-submarine protection (the Mk. 1 eyeball) to an outbound convoy from Halifax, then land at Sable Island to refuel around noon.  They would take off from Sable by late afternoon, and join up with the convoy again or conduct independent operations. They would land back at Dartmouth around midnight.”  Photo via David Russell

Dad was a “Stranny” man. The Stranraer was a twin-engined general reconnaissance flying-boat with a crew of six, three Lewis machine guns in bow, dorsal and tail positions and a maximum bomb-load of 1,000 pounds. Known originally as the Southampton Mk.V, it was officially renamed in 1935. Twenty-three served with the RAF from 1936 to 1940 while the forty with the RCAF served from 1938 to 1946. The "Stranny" was also referred to as "The Whistling Bird Cage" due to its many brace wires. Stranraer 913 above (or QN*B) belonged to Number 5 (General Reconnaissance) Squadron, operating out of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The unit was mobilized for war on 10 September 1939 and on 31 October was redesignated as Number 5 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron. The RCAF's first wartime mission may have been flown by a Stranny on 10 September 1939 when No. 908 of 5(BR) Squadron carried out a patrol from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

After his time on Stranraers at No. 5 Squadron, Russell worked at No. 2 Service Flying Training School at Uplands where he was a maintainer, sometimes tasked with the recovery of crashed training aircraft. His time there was featured in another article a few years back about the maintenance side at the big training base. After Uplands, Russell would serve with 168 Squadron RCAF.  Formed as a Heavy Transport unit at Rockcliffe, Ontario on October 18, 1943. The squadron flew Fortress and Liberator aircraft in delivering mail to Canadian servicemen in the United Kingdom and on the Continent until disbanded on April 21, 1946. Here we see Russell other members of 168, probably taken in Gibraltar or Rabat Sale Morocco (he and 168 was stationed in both places) or perhaps Naples where he flew on occasion. This was probably taken in 1945. Photo via David Russell

An RCAF Flying Fortress. The RCAF held six Flying Fortresses on strength from 6 December, 1943 to 27 December, 1946, three being Mk. II Model 299-Os (or B-17Es), and three were Model 299-Ps (or B-17Fs) as was 9204 depicted here. All six belonged to 168 Heavy Transport Squadron which operated out of RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Ontario and were tasked to fly mail to Canadian troops serving in Europe. 9204 was severely damaged at Rockcliffe on 17 September, 1944 and was never repaired, but it had contributed to the squadron's overall total of 636 trans-Atlantic mail flights (of which 240 were flown by the B-17s); 26,417 flying hours; 2,245,269 pounds of mail from Canada to U.K.; and 8,977,600 pounds from U.K. to the continent. RCAF Photo

Ground crews of 168 Squadron work in winter conditions at RCAF Station Rockcliffe at the end of the Second World War.  Rockcliffe's distinctive hills rising behind the flight line can be seen in this photograph. RCAF photo

A photograph of  Arnold George Russell at his promotion to Flight Lieutenant. Photo via David Russell

Picton today - a time capsule.

Today, the old base is still alive and functions as the Town of Picton's airport and is home to the Prince Edward Flying Club. Photo: Mike Berry-Canucks Unlimited

The Vintage Wings of Canada Yellow Wings Tour of 2011 paid a visit to Picton.  Photo: Mike Berry-Canucks Unlimited

The Vintage Wings Finch starts up in an old familiar milieu - the standard hangar found across the country in every BCATP base. These days some of these hangars exists in many old training fields, but not always with intact barracks, maintenance and admin buildings. In fact, Picton is the only fully preserved BCATP base of the hundreds that were built 70 years ago. Photo: Mike Berry-Canucks Unlimited

The Finch taxies down the hangar line and back in time at Picton. In the background stands the gun butts which David Russell remembers well. “One of our favourite pastimes was to go to the gun butts (concrete structure used for testing and aligning aircraft machine guns) which were not then being used.  There we would root around in the sand looking for unblemished fired projectiles (mainly .303) and/or casings.  We would polish them with sandpaper and our Dad would drill a hole through them so we could hang them from our belts or elsewhere.  Simple childish games.” Photo: Mike Berry-Canucks Unlimited

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