75th Anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division

By Laura Brown

When Canada entered the Second World War on September 10, 1939, Canadian women were not permitted to enlist in the armed forces. As in the First World War, nursing was the only opportunity women had to help in the war effort. Looking for other ways to “do their bit,” many women turned to volunteer work, paid labour, or joined unofficial military organizations that permitted members to wear uniforms and practice drills. By 1941, mounting pressure from women wishing to join up, as well as an impending shortfall of male recruits, forced the Canadian government to examine the potential role that women could play in the military. At the same time, the expansion of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada resulted in a need to staff ground positions at its newly opened centres across the country. The authorities, therefore, decided that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) should be the first service to begin accepting women. The Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF) was formed on July 2, 1941, its name changing to the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division (RCAF-WD) seven months later. By the summer of 1942, Canadian women were serving in all three branches of the armed forces – the air force, army, and navy.

A coloured poster showing the faces of a male and a female member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The man wears an aviator’s hat and goggles and the woman wears a blue cap with a visor. A medallion consisting of a blue circle with a red maple leaf in the centre is situated between the man and the woman.

Second World War Royal Canadian Air Force Recruiting Poster, “Men, Women The RCAF Needs You Now!” [1943] (MIKAN 2999983)

Despite their title of “airwomen,” the female members of the RCAF stayed on the ground during their war service. Women may have not been permitted to fly planes, but the messages in recruiting posters, newspapers and films, such as Jane Marsh’s National Film Board film, Wings on her Shoulder (1943), reinforced the idea that the roles women could play were every bit as important to the war effort. In fact, the jobs that women took on in the RCAF-WD, such as working as typists, cooks, and parachute packers, were essential, and recruits were reminded that every military support role taken by a woman would release a man to go and fight. The RCAF-WD promoted this idea with its motto, “We Serve that Men May Fly.”  In total, 17,038 women donned the blue cap and uniform to serve in the RCAF-WD during the Second World War.

A black and white photo showing two women dressed in coveralls standing on either side of a long table, upon which a folded parachute rests.

Unidentified airwomen demonstrating parachute packing technique, RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Ontario, 1943 (MIKAN 3583064)

Two women who took on unique roles within the Women’s Division were Willa Walker and Jean Davey. Walker joined the service in 1941, excelled in her training, and eventually achieved the rank of Wing Officer, the commanding officer of the RCAF-WD. Jean Flatt Davey also joined the RCAF in 1941 and became the first female member of its Medical Division. She later attained the role of Chief Medical Officer of the RCAF-WD.

A black and white photo showing seven members of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division. The women stand outdoors, their hands clasped behind their backs as they smile at the camera. The figures wear standard issue uniforms including jackets, skirts, caps and shoes.

RCAF Women’s Division Personnel, undated. Jean Flatt Davey and Willa Walker are seen third and fourth from the left, respectively (MIKAN 4674254)

You can learn more about these women by exploring the Willa Walker fonds and the Jean Flatt Davey fonds. In these collections, as well as in other private and government collections at Library and Archives Canada, you can find a range of documents related to the RCAF-WD. This documentary heritage is a reminder of the remarkable contributions made by Canada’s first airwomen during the Second World War.

Related resources

Laura Brown is a military archivist in the Government Archives Division.


9 thoughts on “75th Anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division

  1. The history of women serving in the RCAF is very interesting and certainly worth attention. While the role of women in the RCAF was largely supportive, they did FAR more than type, cook, and pack parachutes! Women also worked as communications and wireless operators and in the incredibly important role of radar operators! They served in Bomber Command right here in Canada, and some were even shipped “overseas” to Newfoundland. All the women involved with radar, just like the men, were subject to the Official Secrets Act and were not allowed to speak of their work until the early 1990s. While the exact number of women serving in wireless and radar is unknown, it is likely in the hundreds. Their work was technical, required excellent concentration and focus, and was often highly skilled.

    • Thank you for your comment. While this blog post provides some examples of positions held by members of the RCAF-WD, it is far from being an exhaustive list. Work in areas such as wireless and radar operations, as you highlight, are further examples of the varied and important duties that Canadian airwomen performed during the Second World War.

      • My mother was one of those RCAF-WD members stationed ‘overseas’ in Newfoundland. We never spoke of this while she was alive. How can I find out more about her service generally but particularly that in Newfoundland? I am very interested in knowing more about where she was and what radar operations were like at their very beginning.

    • Thanks, I was about to add more as well. My mother was an officer who went overseas, to the UK to serve in the RCAF. She was in charge of supplies and inventory. There is likely an official name for what she did, but my Mom had so many cute names for what her job entailed and to make people laugh, I am not sure she ever used the proper term… FYI…My father, who was a bombardier,was actually a lower ranking officer than she.

      After searching for days for my great grandfather’s and his partners scientific journals, I finally found them with 4 of their 6 names misspelled. And THAT was the British Royal Society publishing making such egregious errors.

      I sincerely hope that the position of “military archivist” is a voluntary one. Military precision demands that you do your job well and not just satisfactorily. Being the civilian motto of seeing a job well done for the sake of it has also gone by the wayside, I feel really, really, really old and weary this week… SIGH …

  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 3, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

  3. My great Aunt Julia Vereker “Gladys” Elliott is 2nd from the right in the picture below the parachute packing picture. Her 4 siblings also served during WWII. Sisters Christina and Evelyn also served in the RCAF. Evelyn served in England decoding messages recieved. She told after an unfortunate experience most decided it was pointless to take refuge when the bombs dropped. They’d stop typing while the bombs fell then once they exploded they continue their typing. Their two brothersJohn Alexander”Jack” Elliott (received The Bronze Lion Medal authorized by the Queen of Netherlands) and Duncan Campbell Munroe Elliott both served with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Both brothers had been injured during the war recovered and continued to serve.Their parents Chief Constable John Lattimer Elliott and Christina Flora Munro of Swan River Mb were blessed to have all five of their children return home from WWII.

    • Dear Ms. Sharp,
      Thank you for sharing the story of your great-aunt Julia and her siblings during the Second World war. This is a fantastic story and is a remarkable example of war service coming from a single family.
      To enhance the description of the photograph that was used in the blog post, the archivist who is responsible for the Jean Flatt Davey fonds (the collection in which the photograph resides), will add information to the photograph’s record (MIKAN 4674254) in our database so that your great-aunt will be identified. The new information may take some time to appear online as our system updates.

      Thanks again for your contribution and for reading the Library and Archives Canada Blog.

      Have a great day.

  4. I’m looking for information on my Aunt….Evelyn J. Knowles, RCAF Morden, MB
    1940’s. I have a photo of her in uniform. I’d like to know about her service. Evelyn died in 1957 and I am collecting a family history.

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