Women in the War: The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS)

We often receive reference requests for photographs of loved ones serving with the Canadian Forces. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds a vast photographic collection, over 30 million images, a substantial portion of which is found within the Department of National Defence fonds (RG24/R112). A project to survey accession 1967-052 “Canada. Dept. of National Defence collection” 1939–1953 and to index all photographs of servicewomen began in April 2018 and is well under way. I hope to see the work completed for all three arms of the service, Navy, Army and Air Force, by 2022. Representing all three branches of the armed forces and comprising over 500,000 photographs, this collection is one of my favourites and at the top of my list for review when a researcher requests photographs from the Second World War or the Korean War. It includes photographs from the home front and theatre of war, making it a rich, well-described collection.

My colleague’s post “75th Anniversary of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service ” published in 2017 serves as a perfect complement to this work and features many photographs, both colour and black and white, of servicewomen at work and play. To quote from the post, I want to highlight here that: “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).” Throughout the captions, I found both terms “Wren” and “WRCNS” used to identify servicewomen.

A black-and-white photograph of two members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service washing the front of a bus while their colleague sprays the side of the bus with a hose.

Personnel of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) washing a bus at H.M.C.S. CONESTOGA, Galt, Ontario, Canada, July 1943. (a108171)

The accession is broken down into prefixes, most often by location (such as base or city) or by ship. For example, the MAG prefix is comprised of photographs documenting “the HMCS Magnificent between 1948 and 1957.”

The finding aids for each prefix, also referred to as caption lists, are available for consultation in the second-floor reference room at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. They are also part of LAC’s initiative to digitize the majority of existing finding aids, ongoing until 2024.

A survey of the caption lists for each of the prefixes specific to naval photographs has been completed, and all those captions that mention servicewomen have been noted. The result is 2,652 photographs, or 1.3 percent.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a military uniform leaning across a counter to interview three women beside a sign that reads “Canadian Wives’ Bureau.”

Leading Wren Evelyn Kerr (right) of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) interviewing British wives of Canadian sailors, Canadian Wives’ Bureau, London, England, 30 November 1944. (a128179)

One of the pleasures of the project has been the exposure to the various trades and functions that the Wrens performed. From photographers and dieticians, to motor transport drivers and librarians, the servicewomen performed all sorts of valuable work at home and abroad to support the war effort. I also came across and included numerous images of Nursing Sisters.

A black-and-white photograph of a member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service handing a man a tall stack of books beside a ship.

Leading Wren Ruth Church, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), delivering a supply of library books to Able Seaman Bill Swetman of the HMCS Petrolia, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, November 1944. (a189717)

How to Search for “Your” Servicewoman

You can write to us with information about “your” Wren or Nursing Sister to see if there are any indexed photographs that identify her by name. It would be helpful to know her maiden name, where and when she served, as this will help us narrow the search. Similarly, once you identify relevant records within a series, a review of those photographs by yourself or a freelance researcher may reveal additional photographs that did not identify her by name OR that did not indicate that any servicewomen were in the image. For example, many captions simply describe the photograph as “Christmas Dance” or “Holiday Party” and were not included.

To know more about “your” servicewoman’s time with the Canadian Forces, request a copy of her Military Service file.

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service carrying a large bag on her shoulder.

Leading Wren June Whiting of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) disembarking at Liverpool, England, April 1945 (a142415)

Please feel free to visit us at one of our public service points in Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg or Vancouver or write to us with questions about LAC’s holdings, both archival and published.


Rebecca Murray is an Archivist in the Reference Services Division.

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