The war crisis of 1942, which turned a European conflict into a global one, put enormous pressure on Canada to expand its effort. More weapons, equipment and military and naval power were now required than anyone could have foreseen in 1939. In late 1941 and early 1942 the Japanese seemed—and indeed were—unstoppable, while Nazi Germany chewed away at the Soviet Union and ground its way inexorably across the Egyptian desert towards the Middle East.
In this atmosphere of impending doom, Mackenzie King’s government ordered night fighter aircraft to defend the British Columbia coast, and went to the electorate to absolve his government of his pledge not to introduce conscription. The British refused to sell them the aircraft, noting mockingly that Vancouver was apparently “fighting with its back to the wall!” On the latter subject, King told Canadians that it was “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” English Canada gave King a blank cheque and Quebec voters overwhelming said “Non!” That was why the 1942 U-boat campaign in the St. Lawrence was so politically useful for King, despite the apparent defeat at sea.
The Royal Canadian Navy’s response to this expanding war was a further massive expansion. In the fall of 1940 the Naval Council (precursor to the Naval Board and the policy-setting instrument of the service) estimated that the final wartime strength of the RCN would reach 3,000 officers and 20,000 other ranks. This was based on the building programs in hand, including the expansion fleet that formed the Newfoundland and Western local Escort forces of 1941-42. When the war went global at the end of 1941, so, too, did fleet expansion, with massive new building programs for war-emergency vessels and ambitious plans for a huge postwar fleet. By October 1942 the Naval Board set a new maximum figure for the wartime navy: 96,000 all ranks. This was the personnel size of the prewar Royal Navy and constituted an enormous service compared to the tiny RCN which entered the war in 1939. One key solution to reaching this target was to enlist women into the RCN. On July 31, 1942, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service was established by Order in Council, making this year the 70th anniversary of the WRCNS.
By the time the RCN got around to enlisting women, it was not a new idea. In the Great War over 3,000 Canadian women joined the nursing service, most in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Others joined British, American and French civilian medical agencies. Nurses at advanced dressing stations endured bombing and artillery bombardment, which killed six in Canadian service, and the perils of wartime travel in which a further 15 were drown as a result of enemy action. Nurses served from the outset of the Second World War, but it was only in 1941 that the government and the forces began to seriously consider drawing women more fully into the war effort. The navy, conservative as always, was not much interested: there were still plenty of men to draw on. When the government established the Division of Volunteer Service in 1941 to register women volunteers and arrange for their recruiting, training and organization, the navy prevaricated. In the end, it agreed to take 20 volunteers as drivers.
Meanwhile, the air force and army acted. In August 1941 a Canadian Women’s Army Corps was established. Significantly, according to Barbara Winter, the CWAC was not integrated into the Canadian Army, but a wholly separate corps outside the chain of command and not subject to military law. The first Canadian military service to fully integrate women was the Royal Canadian Air Force, which did so in early 1941 with the somewhat misnamed Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Despite the name, the CWAAF was part of the air force, which, following on the success of the Women’s Division of the RAF, opened a range of non-combat trades to young women and they served under the same chain of command and military law as their male counterparts.
It was only the globalization of the war at the end of 1941 that forced the RCN to open its doors to women, but then it set the standard for the era. In January 1942 the RCN asked the British Admiralty to loan two senior officers from the “Women’s Royal Naval Service”—known as “Wrens” from the abbreviation WRNS—to help establish a Canadian equivalent. The Wrens had been in British service since the outbreak of the war, when the Admiralty set the cap for Wren enlistment at 1,500. By 1945 more than 100,000 women were serving in the RN—more than the entire personnel strength of the RCN at its peak. While Canadians waited for the British to “send us a Mother Wren,” the RCN appointed a director of Women’s Service, Captain Eustace A. Brock, RCNVR. Brock came from his post as Canadian Liaison Officer in London in April, and was joined in the task of establishing the WRCNS by “Superintendent” Joan Carpenter. It was Brock and Carpenter who greeted the three (not two) WRNS officers who arrived in May: two “First Officers” and one “Second Officer.” The ranks of the British officers spoke to the fact that although the WRNS was a flourishing organization, it too remained an auxiliary service without commissioned officers and not subject to military discipline or the chain of command.
Brock, Carpenter and the WRNS officers toured Canada, interviewing prospective candidates and visiting facilities. In the end, 67 women were chosen for training at Kingsmill House in Ottawa. They would form the initial officer cadre of the WRCNS. Clad in their ‘uniform’ heavy blue smock, the candidates were introduced to the rigours of navy life, drilled by a sub-lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and brooded over by three RCN petty officers. On Sept. 19 the first promotions board was convened, in front of which 28 prospective Wren officers appeared: 22 passed and received commissions in the RCN. They were the first women in the empire and Commonwealth to carry the King’s Commission in naval service. The whole initial class ‘graduated’ from Kingsmill on Oct. 1 and the task of building the new service began in earnest. Among this initial batch of Wrens were eight recruiting officers who immediately set out across Canada.
Many of the others from Kingsmill went to the new WRCNS recruit depot, commissioned as HMCS Conestoga in 1943, which opened in Galt, Ont., in October. Previously a correctional institute known as the Grandview School for Girls, the new Wren depot was an ideal facility, with residences, instructional space, an administration building and cafeteria. As Rosamond Greer recounts in her delightful memoir, The Girls of the King’s Navy, the buildings soon took on a naval flavour, with the residences renamed after British naval heroes, and everything else getting a suitable nautical label: decks, heads, gangways, galleys, where once there had been floors, bathrooms, hallways and kitchens. The institute no longer had guards and wardens, but, as Greer observed, it “had a Commanding Officer…and her entourage of Wren officers who taught us, organized us…and scared us half to death.”
The basic training program at Conestoga lasted three weeks. It was often a rude shock for young women used to a more sheltered existence. As Greer recalled, navy and barracks life required that they discard their modesty along with their civilian clothes. Wren ratings learned how, who and when to salute, and there was no time to think about being homesick. Day began at 0630 with “Wakey, Wakey!” and then went on at a relentless pace—all in the appropriate “rig of the day,” for exercise, drill, work detail and stepping out. Greer found herself virtually buried in new clothing: two winter uniforms of heavy serge, two lighter summer uniforms, a greatcoat, a raincoat, three blue dresses, a work smock, numerous shirts, sweatshirts, socks, ties, shorts, two pairs of shoes, over boots, two hats, toiletries, a handbag—navy issue—a duffle bag to stuff it all in and a diagram to show how the various pieces were supposed to go together. Getting the right rig for the right task was a major accomplishment for the recruits. After a busy day, “Darken Ship” was piped at 2230 hours.
The original plan was to enlist 150 officers—who would be recruited into the “lower deck” first and undergo basic training before promotion and further training—and 2,700 other ranks. By 1945 over 6,000 had enlisted, mostly from Ontario, Quebec and B.C., with the WRCNS reaching a maximum strength of 5,899. “Wren officers received the King’s Commission,” Greer wrote, “held the same rank as men and were entitled to salutes and all marks of respect from non-commissioned men and women of the three armed forces.” In fact, the WRCNS was analogous to the RCNVR, and was subject to the command chain and King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions. What immediately distinguished Wren officers from the other branches of the RCN was the distinctive sky-blue rank stripes on the cuff surmounted by a diamond shaped loop, a carryover from the WRNS of the Great War.
In other key respects the WRCNS was decidedly not equal to its male counterparts. The men were “sailors” with all the rough social stigmas that implied. The WRCNS were never ‘sailors.’ They remained women in service; considered feminine and paragons of virtue. Pregnancy was a dismissible ‘offence.’ Pay and access to trades also differentiated the WRCNS from their male counterparts. (Ready To Serve, page 58). But as Barbara Winter points out in her wonderful chapter on Wrens in A Nation’s Navy, there is little evidence that members of the WRCNS complained about the pay differences. The pay they received was the best of the three services open to women, and it was higher, in some age groups significantly higher, than what a woman could earn in a civilian job. Moreover, the navy paid 365 days/year regardless of whether a woman was on duty, on leave or sick in bed.
The restriction of trades open to women did initially reflect a very sexist conception of what women might do. In 1942 these were limited to “traditional” female tasks such as stenographers, cooks, mess staff, coders, drivers or teletype operators. At no time did the WRCNS go to sea, not even to operate harbour craft. But the initial restrictions proved short-lived. By 1944 Wrens held a myriad of important and interesting jobs. These included some tasks vitally important to operations and the efficiency of the fleet. Among them was operating the spotting table for gunnery trainers on the east coast, and helping to run the Night Escort Trainer for operational escorts in Halifax. Coastal navigation stations using new LORAN systems and harbour radar became increasing WRCNS tasks. Perhaps the most important work was done in HF/DF stations, which tracked and plotted enemy transmissions and forwarded them to intelligence staffs on the coast and in Ottawa.
The RCN’s new HF/DF station at Coverdale, N.B., which was crucial to the latter stages of the U-boat war in the North Atlantic, was completely staffed by Wrens and commanded from 1943-45 by Lieutenant Evelyn Cross. The work of Cross’s staff was so good—and so important—it was complimented by the U.S. Navy operational intelligence in Washington. Wrens maintained operational plots in various commands (like the RAF WDs tracking miniature aircraft across the plotting table during the Battle of Britain in 1940), and staffed and operated Port War Signal stations, and played a key role in naval intelligence. In addition, the Mercantile Plotting Section of the Trade Division in Ottawa, the unit tasked with tracking and recording the movement of every known ship around the world, was staffed almost entirely by Wrens who were found to be much superior to men in a job that required focus and attention to detail.
By the end of the war Wrens worked in 49 RCN trades, and as a result their training went on well beyond Conestoga, in RCN schools and establishments across Canada. Over 1,000 served overseas, 503 in the U.K., and 568 in Newfoundland, with a further 50 in Washington. Historian Gilbert Tucker’s conclusion, which sounds rather dated and condescending to modern ears, bears repeating nonetheless: “they as women were put on their mettle to an unusual extent and they earned a reputation for conscientious efficiency which can scarcely be exaggerated.”
Email the writer at: [email protected]
Email a letter to the editor at: [email protected]