Explore Military History at Base31, the Former Camp Picton ✈️
Base31 – aka Camp Picton or No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School, and formerly known as Loch Sloy Business Park – was one of 151 British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) schools established across Canada between 1940-1945.
By the end of the Second World War, the BCATP had produced 131,553 aircrew, according to Veterans Affairs, including pilots, wireless operators, air gunners, and navigators for the Air Forces of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
In 1969 when the camp was decommissioned, it was sold to former Picton mayor H. J. McFarland, who was of Scottish descent and renamed it Loch-Sloy. It was later purchased, in 1999, by a WWII veteran who had trained at a similar site. It’s now almost 20 years into an odyssey to try to restore as much as possible and turn it into a mixed use business park. It’s the last remaining site of its kind in North America with as many original buildings still intact. In December 2021, the site was purchased by PEC Community Partners and was rebranded to become Base31.
Learn More about Base31’s Plans for the Site
The camp was built in about a year, which might seem like it was thrown up without an intention for it to remain, but there’s a surprising level of craftsmanship to the barracks, mess halls, drill halls and more.
Resident expert and former Loch-Sloy Business Park properties manager Jacqui Burley notes that although they did not stick to heritage rules during the restorations under Loch Sloy’s tenure – using metal roofs instead of asphalt shingles, for example – the colours are as close as they could get to the originals. Since it’s mostly only black and white photographs that document life at the camp, Burley had to take the shingles to be colour-matched professionally.
According to Veterans Affairs, BCATP trainees started with basic training of about eight weeks, which included at least 50 hours of flying. Aircraft commonly used at Elementary Flying Training Schools included the de Havilland Tiger Moth, Fleet Finch and Fairchild Cornell. BCATP trainees started with basic training of about eight weeks, which included at least 50 hours of flying.
They then graduated to Service Flying Training Schools for more advanced instruction, according to Veterans Affairs: “Potential fighter pilots trained on single-engine North American Harvards while pilots selected for bomber, coastal, and transport operations received training on twin-engine Avro Ansons, Cessna Cranes, or Airspeed Oxfords. Throughout its military history, Camp Picton also housed the Avro Arrow test models.
“After five weeks of theoretical training at Initial Training Schools, air observers would move to Air Observer Schools for a 12-week course on aerial photography, reconnaissance, and air navigation. This also included 60 to 70 hours of practical experience in the air. Observers learned the science of bombing during their 10-week stay at a Bombing and Gunnery School. With an additional four weeks at an Air Navigation School, recruits were then ready for posting overseas.”
A few of the buildings have been preserved for use as a museum. There are also 60 tenants in the park, and a waiting list of businesses eager for a chance to make use of a restored barrack.
The museum is largely stocked with items collected by a Picton man who was a long-distance truck driver and picked up memorabilia from across Canada during his excursions.
Burley tells us that the bombers and gunners learned their skills with practice runs, flying out over the lake and aiming at white targets floating on the water’s surface. The bombs were actually coloured powder, so they could see who hit and who didn’t.
The tour is filled with hidden gems: the commercial grade kitchen, heavily vandalized in the years after the Camp was decommissioned; the officer’s lounger, with its retro wrap-around bar. Burley also took us to the “gas chamber,” where recruits were exposed to tear gas and taught to put on their masks, a practice that was meant to help them deal with any rising panic.
Base31’s life as a business park actually harkens back to its initial economic benefits. Says Veterans Affairs: “Coming on the heels of the Great Depression, the economic benefits of the BCATP were warmly welcomed by Canadian communities. Even before the final BCATP agreement was signed, local officials began lobbying the government to build an aerodrome in their community.”
“As bases were being built, local companies expected to win contracts for labour, gravel, and lumber supplies. Residents hoped to be employed on construction crews, while merchants anticipated that construction workers would spend their pay cheques on housing, food, clothing, and recreation.”
“Construction was not the only economic benefit of the BCATP aerodromes—large numbers of students, instructors, and their families brought business to local merchants. Host communities also benefited when local companies secured contracts for supplying electricity, water, natural gas, coal, and food to the base. Once in operation, the airport needed to fill many civilian positions, from clerical posts to aerodromes and aircraft maintenance.”
There were no women trainees, per se. But Burley tells us they did have women who moved airplanes. Otherwise, the only time women were on the camp was when they were invited for dances. Even their “madame,” who planned events and helped manage civilian staff, lived off the actual camp, in a little bump of the land skirted by a barbed wire fence.
From Veterans Affairs: “Some airmen paid the supreme sacrifice – losing their lives in training accidents, other mishaps or due to illness without even leaving Canadian soil. Of the 856 BCATP participants who either died or were seriously injured while at training schools, 469 were RCAF, 291 RAF, 65 RAAF, and 31 RNZF. Sadly, some Royal Canadian Air Force–Women’s Division members also lost their lives while serving at BCATP bases during the war. Although the bodies of the fallen Canadians were usually returned to their hometowns, Commonwealth recruits who died were buried in cemeteries of nearby communities. Usually one town was chosen as the official burial site, and these graves can still be found today.”
There are certain parts of the Camp that are losing the battle to the elements, producing a bit of a Salvador Dali effect.
They’re fighting not just the elements, but vandalism too. The airstrip is still in use, although not nearly long enough for commercial services. There is a pilot school and a couple private planes that make use of the site.
The barracks home to galleries such as Melt Studio & Gallery, home of the PAUSE experience, and Maison Depoivre, as well as Side x Side Studio featuring potter Wendy Vervoort and guitar maker Edward Klein. You can also step back in time and solve WWII-themed puzzles with your favourite team of spies at Escape Camp Picton.
Base31 is proud to be open for visitors on Saturdays in summer 2022 for site tours, as well as music in the Aviators Garden. Check out their full event listing here.
Book a spot on this unique historical walking tour and discover a Canadian military treasure worth preserving!
Post updated by Visit The County staff, July 2022.