Canada’s Air Force Ethos – Then and Now

by John C. Eggenberger, OMM CD PhD
Victoria, BC. June 2005.
With permission of Philip Homes, DFC.

Recently, considerable interest has been expressed in knowing more about the phenomenon ethos for our armed forces.  To this end, the article “At Risk, The Canadian Army Ethos” was presented to the public in the Conference of Defence Associations newsletter, On Track (Reference 1). The article was founded in part upon the definition of ethos affirmed by Craig Calhoun, Ed. Oxford University Press, 2002 Oxford References On Line:

From the ancient Greek, signifying the character, way of life, or moral purpose of an individual or group.The broad sense of the original term, “ethos” which encompassed habits, pre-dispositions, values and sentiments – persisted well into the eighteenth century, when it suggested to Charles-Louis Montesquieu the irreconcilable plurality of morals and ways of life. The term’s modern derivation – ethics – is usually restricted to general theories of right or moral conduct. The older term is retained to demonstrate how these are rooted in social practices and values.” (Italics and emphasis mine.)

After the article was published in On Track, several persons asked: “What about the other services, Air Force for example” – does the concept of ethos used as a foundation to express an Army ethos that works in battle lead to an understanding of an Air Force ethos that also works in an air battle. I thought it did, so I seized the opportunity to acquire relevant information about the experiences of a WWll bomber pilot Philip Holmes, DFC, (Notes 1 & 2) whom I had been interviewing for the University of Victoria Oral History program (Reference 2). The idea was to use the information from some of these interviews with Philip to illuminate the foundation of the Air Force ethos – and in addition, connect ethos with leadership.

Admittedly, the word “ethos” was not much in use during WWll, nor is it now. But whether we had a name for it or not, the phenomenon ethos has been with us since humans have lived and survived in groups.  Humans develop habits and predispositions that more or less fit with others in a group – and, if an individual’s habits and predispositions are much at variance with the social practices or expectations of his group, that individual will be “expelled” (or ought to be). Further, these habits and predispositions combine to generate values and sentiments from which certain behavior is evaluated by the group as acceptable or unacceptable. .

In order to explore and understand an Air Force ethos that works in battle, the most profitable avenue, it seems to me, is our own past  – especially the past that is related to combat operations. For, as expressed in “At Risk, The Canadian Army Ethos” (Reference 1), “It is what occurs on the battlefield, pure and simple, that imposes the structure and the ethos of an Army.”  The same holds true for Canada’s air force (whose battlefield is in the air), and we have to go back a ways to find combat examples from which to extract relevant information about our air force combat ethos.

One could have selected from a number of types of combat operations to extract this information, e.g., air superiority operations – fighter operations, day and night, or maritime, or transport operations, and so on. Often forgotten is the very real combat role played out by transport crews, in Burma, for example – flying in tough conditions under continuous threat of enemy fighter attack; or on D-Day – hauling gliders over terrain with heavy ground to air anti-aircraft fire. But, in this instance, I have chosen to outline the fundamentals of the ethos of Canada’s Air Force in bomber operations during WWII. What follows was generated during the course of more than six hours of taped interviews for the University of Victoria Military Oral History program with Philip Holmes, an RCAF pilot who flew Halifax and Lancaster aircraft during WW II.

Handley Page Halifax aircraft

Handley Page Halifax aircraft

  • A thousand-bomber raid was comprised of 1,000 individual bombers, each with a crew of 6 to 8 persons.  For the Halifax, as shown:
    • The crew  of an air force’s basic fighting unit, the aircraft, consisted of a Pilot, a Flight Engineer, a Navigator, a Radio Officer, a Bomb Aimer, a Tail Gunner and an Upper Gunner.
  • The ethos of RCAF Bomber Command, taken as a whole, was a multiple of one crew’s ethos; i.e., the ethos of the whole command more or less emulated the ethos of a single crew.

The habits and dispositions that have proved successful for an aircraft’s aircrew in air combat form the fundamentals of an air force ethos. As a corollary – the totality of an air force formation’s ethos is simply multiples of a single combat crew’s ethos.  In other words, the ethos of one combat crew  would be much the same for another combat crew; and so on.

For an airman, habits and dispositions are developed by systematic training that brooks little variation from “perfect.”  Individuals begin training at common start points – and during training never lose their individuality, character or personality. But, to succeed these persons learn to discipline themselves such that whatever they do as airmen, they attend to system and order – the foundation of their profession.

Check lists and standard operating procedures that oblige habitual behavior abound: from briefing – to flight planning – to aircraft walk around – to start up – to take off – to climb out – to flight planned altitude – to mission – to tactics – to return to base – to descent – to landing – to shut down – to debriefing.  All these phases of a successful flight are enacted in conformance with checklists and standard operating procedures for everyone in a flight crew. The habits and dispositions developed through these routines also provide for the crew-members to deal with the “unexpected.” A successful combat operations flight, such as the one illuminated in an extract from Holmes’ flying log book, arose in the main from every crew member doing his job properly, singly and in the team.

extract from LCol Holmes' log book

extract from LCol Holmes’ log book

Also, in the fighter role, flying operations are usually conducted singly and in the team – often in sections of two or four aircraft. Fundamental to success is individual competence and teamwork between aircraft during these missions – and there is anextremely strong feeling of interdependence between all members of the same section. Their habits and predispositions, as they conduct their air battle as a team, provide for success. In sum, the wartime combat fighter aircrew ethos was generated in the same way as was the ethos of the bomber crew, and as was the ethos of transport, maritime and other aircrew.

Not to be forgotten are the multitude of airmen and airwomen who worked hard and long to ensure that the aircraft was in all respects serviceable and “ready to fight” when a mission was announced.  The ethos of this group is worthy of expression, for without it,  the mission could not have been mounted. Suffice it here to suggest that they too lived by checklists and standard operating procedures – and they too grouped themselves into packets of folks trained to work singly and in teams.  As well, I am sure that they also sought company among fellow airmen doing similar jobs.

Whether a crew member was a pilot, a navigator, a flight engineer, gunner, bomb aimer or “whatever,” the check list was king and the standard operating procedure was queen. And each crew-member performed his/her specific set of checks and standard operating procedures such that the aircraft was tuned up to be in as good a shape to fight as it could be, at every phase of the mission. The crews’ predispositions that are developed from these habits are such that when emergencies occur – or a confrontation with the “unexpected” arise and the aircraft becomes “wounded” in some way – the crew members, singly and together are predisposed so as to bring the aircraft back to a configuration which enables the completion of the mission, with effect.  So it also is on combat operations when, in addition to a damaged aircraft there are also wounded or killed crew members on board, the more healthy work through “whatever” to get the mission done, and bring home the wounded and the dead.

Opined Holmes, confidence between members of a bomber crew was a critical factor in a successful bombing mission. Further, in his experience, this confidence arose from the demonstrated job proficiency of each of the members during training flights and subsequent bombing operations.  In Holmes’ opinion, confidence was developed as a result of crews spending time together during non-flying time – recreational pursuits as well as barrack and messing experiences.  When asked, “. when not flying, who did you hang out with?” Holmes replied, without a moments hesitation, “With the crew.”   And, when asked “What did the other crews do?”, Holmes replied, “Same thing – crews stuck together, partied together, did bike or walking tours together – as crews we did almost everything together – when in a pub in England, we invariably sat together, sometimes with other crews at the same table – but we seldom mixed with members of other crews.” These experiences combined to generate, for Philip’s crew, feelings of “bonding,” “trust” and “cohesion.”  But, according to Holmes, these words were seldom if ever used during his wartime experiences to describe what went on during the development of a competent crew. Nor, according to Holmes, was the subject of leadership a topic for a classroom or hangar line session.  Leadership as such was almost never mentioned; the word “command” covered it all.

In sum, the “Responsibilities of the Military Officer,” as expressed  at page seven of Reference (3) and noted below as an overview of command/leadership, pretty much conformed to what was actually experienced by Holmes during training and combat operations. Without taking formal lessons, during training and combat operations, he learned to:


a) know, discipline and develop himself,

b) know, discipline and develop his subordinates,

c) know the objectives and be able to state them in terms his subordinates could understand,

d) know of, and how to deploy, his resources,

e) know the area of conflict,


a) know the enemy’s leaders, its personnel, resources and goals,


a) defeat the enemy.”

Of considerable interest within the relationship of leadership and ethos was Holmes’ view that as “the boss,” he had come to know the strengths and weaknesses of the crew – as individuals and as a team.  And, opined Holmes, this understanding came through not only by working as a crew in the aircraft – but as well through common experience in the pursuit of recreation – off-duty time so to speak.  Holmes further opined that without the crew’s knowledge of each other, and trust in each other (part of the ethos), several missions might very well have failed.

During the interview, Holmes spoke with feeling about the tensions and fears all members of the crew had to deal with during the mission.  Anxieties started before briefing, because the target was not known to the crew until just before departure. The anxieties continued though flight planning, and to aircraft walk around. To illustrate, a singular part of the walk-around procedure was for the entire crew to gather round the tail wheel and piss on it just before climbing on board. Was this ritual simply a superstition, an affirmation of irony, of fist shaking at the gods, of irreverence, of the illogic of what they were about to do .? Holmes wasn’t sure – but whatever it meant, this ritual served them well to affirm their common fate as a crew – and in part caused the feeling that “if the other guy can get on board, then so can I.” Once on board, routine took over.

Although the word ethos was unknown to him until recently, the meaning of this word to Homes does explain to him how it was that these thousands of crews went out, mission after mission, feeling always that “this time” they might not come back. Often suppressing considerable fear, each crew willingly entered the flyer’s common flight sequence – brief – flight plan – walk around – start up – taxi – take off, and on and on. In Holmes’ view, it was the crew’s ethos that made each enact these actions in combat, and obliged them all to move forward.

During the mission, collisions with other aircraft were always in mind. The danger of having 1000 bombers fly over one target in only one hour in dense cloud and darkness (lighted only by enemy searchlight and ack-ack fire) is a feat hard to imagine for today’s airmen. During the mission, attack by enemy fighters all along the route was always likely and often happened.  But it was, according to Holmes, the exploding flack and anti-aircraft fire that lit up the night sky when on the final bombing run which was especially terrifying.  In Holmes’ opinion, what kept them going was the crew’s ethos.

Nor was the return to base, descent and landing done without fearful occurrences. Opportunity for collisions with other returning aircraft still abounded, and enemy aircraft lurked near landing bases to sneak up and shoot down the unwary.  And, after landing, the “unwind” during the debriefing was not all that easy either. Coming down from the stress and strain of a mission took time – and, together as a crew, it was that they each, in their own way, returned to earth.

So, what does all this mean for today’s flyers. Apparent to me, it is from the combat lessons learned by Holmes and his crew during WWll, as relevant now as they were then, that we who follow need to learn – else we too will re-learn, the hard way, as they did, what makes a combat aircrew tick. (Note 2)

So, one lesson of many learned by Philip is noted below..

When asked “What did you value most in the members of your crew?” immediately came back the response, “Being able to do their job, no matter the situation…” When asked “What about courage, duty, loyalty, integrity .“, he paused for a few seconds and said “Well, if they could do their job, no matter the situation, they would likely have been courageous, loyal and have performed their duty with integrity.”

Nicely put.  Today, perhaps we should not look to courage – loyalty – duty – integrity as specific characteristics to evaluate, for example on a personnel appraisal form – rather perhaps we should simply look to whether or not the job expectations were met.

As noted at the outset, this paper was undertaken so as to make available a further understanding of how it is that military ethos comes about, and to take a step forward in learning more about how successful military leadership (thence command) depends upon knowing the ethos of the group.

Over the past thirty or so years, Canada’s Air Force  and Army have been affected by an increasing and overwhelming intrusion of systems and directives that tend to affirm the primacy of individual “rights” over the needs of the group.  Also, the effect upon ethos of a lack of resources is plain to see. For instance, contracted-out pilot training will introduce habits and predispositions different from before, and when these change, so do values and sentiments. This example, as well as other intrusions and changes to the “way the air force does business,” have influenced the habits and predispositions, as well as values and sentiments of air and ground crew in unpredictable ways. No longer is the trainee obliged to live “in barracks”; no longer is the mess the center of off-flying gatherings; no longer is there a cohesion caused by a course serial’s trials, troubles and travails. Current training serials no longer parade; are no longer systematically caused to respond to orders from a parade commander. All these changes, and more, may be signs that we can no longer be confident that the Air Force ethos of today will provide for success as did the ethos of Canada’s Air Force crews of World War II.

Finally, the answer to the question as to whether or not the Air Force ethos can be illuminated using the same concept of ethos as expressed in the article upon the Army ethos in the CDA newsletter On Track is, to my mind, yes it can. It would be an error to conclude that since the activities of an infantry section/platoon bear no resemblance to the activities going on in a bomber crew, (or any combat aircrew), the outcome of a battle-developed ethos is therefore different. Found in this synopsis of an Air Force air battle based ethos was the same outcome as in the Army’’s land based battle ethos – while the habits and predispositions of the army and the air force are fundamentally quite different – these differing habits and predispositions lead to the same core values – courage, loyalty, duty and integrity.

Halifax bomber silouette

Halifax bomber silouette


1) Eggenberger, John C. At Risk, The Canadian Army Ethos. CDA Newsletter, On Track, Page 25, Volume 10, Issue 1, Spring 2005.

2) University of Victoria Reginald Roy Military Collection, Oral History – Philip Holmes DFC 1984 & 2005.

3) Eggenberger, John C. Toward a General Model of Military Leadership for the Canadian Armed Forces; Royal Military College, Department of Military Leadership and Management, Departmental Manuscript 79-1, Kingston Ontario.

Note 1: Synopsis of operational experience: Philip D. P. Holmes, DFC:

Converted to four-engine aircraft (Handley Page Halifax) in early 1944. Flew short operational trips to France, dropping leaflets, to get the “feel” of operations. Joined No. 433 Squadron at Skipton, Yorks. in June 1944. Changed in early1945 to the Avro Lancaster; carried a heavier bomb load. Spent considerable time mining enemy waters, including Norwegian. These were exciting low-level operations. The crowded skies on regular missions of several hundred aircraft, caused worry over the chance of collisions. Air crew casualties ran about fifty per cent for any given operational tour (30 missions). Many night operations over Germany; fewer daylight attacks, usually the Ruhr which was less distant. Later in the war his aircraft was attacked by Me 262’s (Messerschmitt jet fighters) and his gunners were credited with shooting down one and one-half of the new jets. Normally the Lancaster carried four one thousand-pound bombs plus incendiaries. Was promoted to squadron leader on his twenty-first birthday in 1945. Took command of an Avro Lincoln bomber conversion squadron just before the end of the war.

Note 2:

For myself, I have come to understand better how it was that I came to know the airforce ethos – in 1956 my first Squadron in Comox BC, 409 AW(F)  was commanded by W/C Hal Bridges DFC, bomber pilot, and my Flight Commander at 409 was S/L Joe Giles, DFC, bomber pilot, and in 1960 my second squadron, 445 AW (F) in Marville France  was commanded by W/C Al Trotter, DFC, DFM –  bomber pilot.  As well, when serving in Zwiebruken my Base Commander was Group Captain Don Laubman, DFC, day fighters and when serving later at Baden Soellingen my COpsO was W/C Joe Shultz, DFC, night fighters.  These latter two wartime airmen acted and thought operationally no differently from the foregoing folks. In many ways, these airmen were all cut from the same mold as Philip Holmes, but – that is not to say that they were conformists, they certainly were not. But these combat veterans did teach us (unbeknownst to us – or to them I suspect) what sort of ethos works in combat: well led, job proficient individuals combined into a mission oriented team that can work together and can play together  – we can do no better than to copy their example.

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