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.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.
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.
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.
- Department of National Defence fonds, Directorate of History and Heritage Photograph and Illustrations Sub-series
- Royal Canadian Air Force second central registry and file classification system. This series contains a range of RCAF-WD records, including those related to policies on marriage, publicity, and recruitment
- Find colour photos of Canadian Second World War soldiers
Laura Brown is a military archivist in the Government Archives Division.