Abandoned aircraft hangar©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
It was 1940 and the British were fighting for their very lives. Literally thousands of flyers needed to be trained in an extremely short period of time and the British, quite simply, lacked the necessary aerodrome space to do this. They turned for help to their allies in Canada. Prince Edward County, with its sparse population, long coastline, and the added benefit of being a continent away from prying Nazi eyes, seemed ideal for the location of an RAF Bombing and Gunnery School
Camp Picton was first used in the fall of 1938. Following the start of World War II, the area was expanded as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The buildings and runways were built during the summer of 1940. Construction was completed at lightning speed and by November 1940 the RCAF had moved in and was using the base for military training of commercially licensed pilots. In April 1941 the British RAF moved in and by early 1942 had taken over the base. The camp was an excellent training installation. It had several hangars, 2500 foot runways, five bombing ranges and facilities to house close to 1000 officers and airmen.
It was wartime and the usual amenities of schools and recreational facilities found in post-war military installations were still a thing of the future. One small convenience was a postal outlet that operated from 1942 to 1944, with Corporal Garnett and Sergeant Ferguson serving as postmasters. Other than that, the airmens' main entertainment centre and playground was the nearby village of Picton, located about a five minute drive north of the base.
Initially, relations with Picton's civilian population got off to a rocky start. Complaints of drunkenness, rowdy behaviour, late nights and an alarming increase in venereal disease were brought to the attention of the commanding officers. The shamefaced officers were faced with the unpleasant task of putting an immediate stop to the shenanigans in order to maintain peace with the townspeople.
During its tenure as a wartime training school, Camp Picton racked up an impressive record. There were separate courses for navigators and air gunners as well as a Conversion Training Squadron that offered military training to licensed civilian pilots. Each course ran for about six weeks with an average class size of around 40. With new courses starting at least once a month, there seemed to be no end to the frenzied pace. By 1944 the RAF was running five simultaneous bombing courses, each one having from 40 to 60 students. In November 1944, the bombing and gunnery unit disbanded and turned the facilities over to the RCAF, who established an equipment maintenance unit that operated until 1946.
Following the end of the war, the RCAF continued to maintain the base as a training centre. During the 1950s, the camp was expanded to include a large military housing complex, known as "Picton Heights" to accommodate personnel with families. Located about a kilometre east of the camp, Picton Heights included 250 homes, a grocery store, a public school, that also functioned as a Sunday School and a meeting place for various groups such as Cubs, Scouts, Girl Guides, Brownies and a recreational committee. Two chapels were added in 1954. By the early 1960s, the population had grown to almost 1,200.
Peacetime facilities within the camp were equally accommodating. In addition to providing housing for singles, the camp offered a canteen, limited postal facilities, an on-site barber, skeet range, theatre and recreational activities, such as badminton, basketball, volleyball, boxing, floor hockey and archery. The camp fire hall was staffed by civilian fire-fighters. Both the Officers' Mess and Sergeants' Mess had "ladies rooms" where women were permitted during designated evenings during the week. In addition to the base amenities, there was no shortage of attractions in nearby Picton, which had grown to become a popular summer tourist centre.
In 1960 the old aerodrome became officially known as Camp Picton and was converted from a training base to an operational base. It was renamed CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Picton in 1966 and then, in 1969, shut down and sold as part of the overall military downsizing.
Following closure, the hangars, barracks and other buildings, that were part of the original British training base, passed through several rounds of private ownership and are now operated as an industrial park. A few of the buildings, in particular the hangars, are leased to assorted manufacturers. The others remain empty. Current occupants include a skid factory, a hammock store, an archery club, a welding shop, a flying club and a marine shop. The volunteer fire fighters still make use of the old fire hall. Craig Barracks, a later addition built in the 1950s, was sold to the Ontario Government and converted into a hospital in Picton.
Although the DND no longer uses the site, the 851 Royal Canadian Air Squadron Prince Edward, which is part of the Cadet Program, has been making regular use of the facilities since the late 1970s. The camp is used for a variety of cadet activities for about 10 months of the year. During the summer the Cadet Program uses the adjacent airfield for a six week course in glider training.
For all intents and purposes Camp Picton looks pretty much as it did when it was first built over half a century ago. The barracks and hangars, covered in wood shake siding, have a style completely different from post-war military installations. The base was featured prominently as a location backdrop in the controversial 1993 CBC Television production, Dieppe.
Although somewhat shabby and a bit worse for wear, Camp Picton still retains a majestic military aura. Hastily erected, its buildings were not constructed for longevity. Nevertheless, more than 60 years later, it continues to stand as a mute testament to one of the darkest periods in world history.