By Laura Brown
Seventy-five years ago today marks the creation of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS). Established on July 31, 1942, the WRCNS was the last of the three services to open its doors to women during the Second World War—the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division (RCAF-WD) and the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), having been created a year before. Those serving with the WRCNS were commonly called “Wrens,” the nickname used by their British counterparts, who were members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).
The women who joined the navy in Canada did so with the expectation that they would not serve on ships; rather, they carried out duties on shore so that more men could serve at sea. The need for women to staff positions on land became particularly important with the increased casualties that came with the Battle of the Atlantic. The first class of Wrens consisted of only 67 members, but by the end of the war, nearly 7,000 women had enlisted with the WRCNS.
Wrens trained on “land ships” designated “Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship.” For example, HMCS CONESTOGA at Galt (now Cambridge), Ontario became the basic training centre for the WRCNS beginning in the fall of 1942. Other training locations included HMCS CORNWALLIS in Halifax, and HMCS ST. HYACINTHE in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, which hosted a communications school. Following training, recruits took on a variety of jobs, including work as cooks, mailroom workers, drivers, visual signalers, and plotters (locating and tracking the positions of vessels).
A Royal Canadian Navy press release from August 1943 noted that while not all of the tasks carried out by Wrens were glamorous, they were crucial for the success of Canada’s naval operations in the war: “Some of their jobs are routine, but they are jobs that must be performed efficiently to make sure that Naval personnel is well fed or paid on time; that Navy families are taken care of; that ships are built and ready for combat as soon as possible; that the men are trained to fight on these ships and that the ships are there to meet the enemy.” Whether working in a kitchen or in a secret position, many Wrens found that their service brought new opportunities and new friendships. This sentiment was echoed by Commander Isabel MacNeill at the end of the war when the WRCNS basic training centre at Galt was closed: “Most of us came here as strangers. We leave with many happy associations which we shall remember all our lives.”Members of the WRCNS made important contributions to the war effort both in Canada and overseas. Approximately 1,000 Canadian women served with the WRCNS abroad during the war, of which half were posted to Newfoundland, a location that was considered an “overseas posting” as Newfoundland did not become part of Canada until 1949.
Library and Archives Canada has a rich collection of documentation about the WRCNS, including the fonds of Adelaide Sinclair, the Director of the WRCNS from 1943 to 1946, whose service was recognized in 1945 through the award of the Order of the British Empire. Check out the links below to learn more about the incredible stories of Canada’s first members of the WRCNS.
- Second World War military personnel files (MIKAN 158523)
- Royal Canadian Navy Headquarters Central Registries (MIKAN 157647).This series in the Department of National Defence fonds contains includes a variety of documentation on the WRCNS, including information on recruitment and staffing.
- Dobson family fonds (MIKAN 106782). This fonds consists of documentation belonging to a family that was highly involved in the WRCNS during the Second World War. Edith Archibald Dobson was one of the first women to join the WRCNS in August 1942, and eventually became a Lieutenant-Commander. Her twin daughters, Joan and Anne, also joined the WRCNS in 1942 and served as wireless
- Isabel Janet MacNeill fonds (MIKAN 101945). A long-serving member of the WRCNS, Isabel MacNeill became the first woman to command a land ship in the British Commonwealth.
- Katherine A. Peacock fonds (MIKAN 101865). Katherine Peacock served with the WRCNS during the Second World War and later became a federal public servant.
- Colour photos of Canadian Second World War soldiers.
Laura Brown is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division.