75th Anniversary of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service

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.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd of smiling <abbr title=

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 black-and-white photograph of the interior of a brightly lit plotting room showing a large group of women and several men at work. Figures sit at desks on the left-hand side of the room, while women dressed in dark uniforms examine vast maps attached to the walls on the right-hand side of the room. One woman stands on a short ladder set against the wall and plots information on the upper portion of a map.

Operations Plotting Room, Naval Service Headquarters, Ottawa, Ontario, December 1943. (MIKAN 3203640)

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.”

A colour photograph of a member of the WRCNS sitting on top of a 16-pounder canon situated at the top of Signal Hill. Wearing a dark blue uniform, she is turned away from the camera as she gazes on the blue water of St. John’s harbour below. The city surrounding the harbour consists of buildings in muted tones and an expanse of low hills are seen in the background. The sky in the top third of the photograph is light blue with a haze of white, wispy clouds.

A Wren at Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland [ca. 1942–1945]. (MIKAN 450992)

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.

A black-and-white portrait of Adelaide Sinclair, seated with her arms resting on the back of a chair. She is dressed in her naval uniform, including a jacket with a white shirt and dark tie, hat and gloves. She gazes at the viewer with a slight smile on her face.

Commander Adelaide Sinclair, Director of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, July 1944. (MIKAN 3526940)

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.

Related resources

  • 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.

First German submarine sunk by the Royal Canadian Navy

By Renaud Séguin

On September 10, 1941, off the coast of Greenland, the crews of two Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) corvettes, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Chambly and Moose Jaw, were able to locate and sink U-501 as the U-boat lay in wait to ambush Allied Convoy SC-42, sailing from Sydney, Nova Scotia, with supplies for Great Britain.

The two corvettes were to take part in training exercises at sea, so that their crews, largely made up of recruits, could become familiar with anti-submarine warfare. In the face of the growing threat from German submarines, the two vessels quickly ended their training to reinforce the Allied convoy.

Colour photograph of a Royal Canadian Navy corvette under way at top speed. Thick black smoke pours from a funnel. Number K145 is written in black on the grey vessel.

HMCS Arrowhead, a corvette of the same class (Flower) as HMCS Chambly and HMCS Moose Jaw (MIKAN 4821042).

An RCN expert in anti-submarine warfare, Commander James D. “Chummy” Prentice, Chambly’s captain and Senior Officer Corvettes, quickly decided that the best option would be to move ahead of the convoy to surprise any German submarines. The navigation skills of Mate A. F. Pickard made it possible for the two corvettes to reach the area identified by Prentice in less than six days.

At about 21:30, Chambly got an ASDIC (better known by its American name, “sonar”) contact. Quickly, Chambly’s crew began releasing five depth charges. Despite a few mistakes owing to inexperience, the first two charges caused enough damage to force the submarine to surface close to Moose Jaw.

Black-and-white photograph, showing two men in naval uniform posing in front of the nose turret of their corvette. Between the two men, an image painted on the turret shows a bulldog standing on his hind legs, wearing a sailor hat and boxing gloves.

Mate A. F. Pickard and Chief Engine Room Artificer W. Spence, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1942. The two men played key roles in the corvette HMCS Chambly’s sinking of the German submarine U-501 on September 10, 1941. (MIKAN 3576697)

Surprised by the appearance of the U-boat, the crew of Moose Jaw was unable to open fire immediately with either their rapid-fire naval gun or the machine guns. Lieutenant F. E. Grubb, commanding officer of Moose Jaw, rapidly gave the order to advance on and ram the submarine. Far from being a complete improvisation, this was a manoeuver often attempted by Canadian corvettes. At close range, it was the best option for sinking German U-boats which, at night, in rough seas, presented a small moving target.

Before the initial charge, Lieutenant Grubb was astonished to see the German captain abandon the submarine to leap onto Moose Jaw’s deck! However, it was only after being rammed by the corvette, under fire of its naval gun, that the U-boat halted.

Black-and-white photograph showing a submarine and a whaler side by side. Members of the submarine’s crew can be seen on the bridge. The people in the whaler are seated.

A boarding party from HMCS Chilliwack in a whaler alongside German submarine U-744, March 6, 1944 (MIKAN 3623255).

A boarding party from Chambly, led by Lieutenant E. T. Simmons, attempted to take possession of the submarine. The attempt had to be abandoned, because the U-boat was sinking rapidly. One member of Chambly’s crew, William Irvin Brown, drowned during the operation. Like the more than 200 crew members of the 15 merchant ships in the SC-42 convoy sunk by German submarines, the Toronto native, father of a one-year-old daughter, gave his life to supply Great Britain and the armed forces protecting it. Many other Canadians also lost their lives during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Related resources


Renaud Séguin is a military archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Canadians at the Naval Battle of Jutland, May 31–June 1, 1916

By Alex Comber

A century ago, the largest naval battle of the First World War took place off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. More than 250 warships of the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy manoeuvred to get ready for action.  The first salvoes of long-range cannon fire were discharged at 14:30 on May 31, 1916, and the ensuing clash lasted into the morning of June 1. With three British battle cruisers and 11 other ships destroyed, and more than twice as many sailors killed and injured, British naval power seemed to have suffered a setback. However, in a strategic sense, the smaller German fleet could not afford its more modest losses, and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s military commanders avoided a similar fleet battle for the duration of the War, focusing instead on submarine attacks.

A black-and-white photograph showing three large warships.

HMAS AUSTRALIA, HMS NEW ZEALAND, HMS INDOMITABLE, Second Battle cruiser Squadron ca. 1917–1919. This unit was at Jutland, where one of its ships, HMS INDEFATIGABLE, was destroyed (MIKAN 3400004)

In many regions of Canada, there were very strong pro-imperial sentiments and cultural ties to Britain. Many had recently emigrated, and still had family back in the “old country.” Though there was a small Canadian Navy (created in 1910), many residents of Canada and of the Dominion of Newfoundland volunteered to serve with the Royal Navy in a variety of roles. With ports across the British Empire and the prospect of an alternative to a soldier’s life in the trenches of the Western Front, there was much to appeal to recruits.

A black-and-white recruitment poster showing the silhouette of a sailor with ship’s guns and the following words: Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve – Overseas Division wants men ages 18 to 38, seamen & stokers. Join today. No previous experience necessary. Apply at nearest recruiting office.

Recruitment poster for the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve Overseas Division, appealing to Canadians to serve in British ships overseas (MIKAN 3635562)

Careful searching of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online casualty database reveals that at least a dozen of the approximately six thousand sailors killed serving in the British Fleet at Jutland came from Canada or Newfoundland. Stanley de Quetteville, a member of the Royal Canadian Navy, was attached to the Royal Navy and served in the massive battle cruiser HMS INDEFATIGABLE. He was originally from the English Channel island of Jersey and had emigrated to Canada in the years before the First World War in search of opportunities. A qualified engineer, he enlisted in 1910 and had served on the cruiser HMCS NIOBE, one of Canada’s first ships. He married Phyllis Fisher of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1915.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of men sitting or standing on the deck of a ship. The photo is mounted on a black background with the words “Gun Room” written at the top and a list of names at the bottom.

Members of the Gunroom, HMCS NIOBE, Halifax, N.S. Taken 1910–1911. Several of these young men went on to become important figures in the Royal Canadian Navy. Stanley Nelson De Quetteville is shown standing, the third officer from the right (MIKAN 3398852)

De Quetteville died at 16:03 on May 31, when HMS INDEFATIGABLE exploded after being hit by accurate shellfire from the German Dreadnought VON DER TANN. Of the crew of 1,019 men, there were only two survivors. The Minister of the Naval Service, J. D. Hazen, sent his widow a letter of condolence, which reads: “I wish to express to you not only my personal sympathy, but that of the whole Canadian Naval Service, which, in his death, has lost an Officer of undoubted ability and great promise. That he died a sailor’s death, in action against the King’s enemies, and in defence of the Empire, must be to you some consolation in your great sorrow.” Today, Mount Indefatigable in the Canadian Rockies stands as a tribute to de Quetteville and his fellow crew members.


Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division.

The Korean War

In the wake of the Second World War, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the North occupied by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States. Soon after the election of a northern communist government in 1948, open war broke out on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops invaded the South.

Given the situation, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to approve sending troops to defend South Korea; a number of countries, including Canada, contributed by supplying armed forces.

The Royal 22e Regiment mortar platoon ready to fire, (left to right) Private Daniel Primeau, Private Raymond Romeo, and Private Julien Blondin, all of Montreal, Quebec.

The Royal 22e Regiment mortar platoon ready to fire, (left to right) Private Daniel Primeau, Private Raymond Romeo, and Private Julien Blondin, all of Montreal, Quebec. Source

More than 26,000 Canadian soldiers fought in the Korean War. They battled communist troops on the ground, while the Royal Canadian Navy—with eight warships—helped control the Korean coasts. The Royal Canadian Air Force did its part transporting troops and equipment. A few pilots saw combat at the controls of American fighter planes.

 Black-and-white photo of two Canadian snipers aiming at an unknown target..

Two snipers. Source

On July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed at Panmunjom, bringing three years of fighting to an end.

In all, 516 Canadians lost their lives during this armed conflict. Their names are entered in The Books of Remembrance… The Korean War, exhibited at the Peace Tower in Ottawa and available online. These registers remind us of the important contribution and tremendous sacrifice of these Canadians.

The Library and Archives Canada collection contains many documents about this war, which marks the 60th anniversary of its armistice in 2013. Here are a few examples:

Part of the war diaries (War Diary, 1951) of the Commonwealth troops, including Canadian troops:

The war diary (1950–1951) of the advance party:

For more photos, visit our Flickr album.

For more information about ordering military service files, please read our blog article on this topic.

The Battle of the Atlantic (1940–1943)

Although the waters of the Atlantic witnessed many a naval battle throughout the Second World War, the longest and most important, the Battle of the Atlantic, reached its height between 1940 and 1943, pitting the Allies against the German navy and its formidable fleet of submarines, known as U-boats.

$90 Killed this U-BOAT! War savings stamps drive, 1943.

$90 Killed this U-BOAT! War savings stamps drive, 1943. Source

The Battle of the Atlantic’s crucial struggle was to protect the convoys of merchant ships against enemy German naval forces, which tried to block their way. Most of these convoys set out from North American ports and were bound for Great-Britain.

Convoy in the Bedford Basin, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, April 1, 1942.

Convoy in the Bedford Basin, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, April 1, 1942. Source

The Battle of the Atlantic saw U-boats penetrate deep into Canadian waters: the Royal Canadian Navy was actively involved in the battle, fighting fiercely to protect its merchant navy.

Freighter SS ROSE CASTLE, in convoy, torpedoed by U-boat, November 2, 1942, near Wabana, Newfoundland.

Freighter SS ROSE CASTLE, in convoy, torpedoed by U-boat, November 2, 1942, near Wabana, Newfoundland. Source

However, despite all efforts, enemy forces sunk over 70 merchant vessels, claiming the lives of over 1,600 Canadian crew members. Nevertheless, the Allies are considered to have prevailed in the Battle of the Atlantic since the Germans failed to stem the flow of merchant shipping convoys bound for Great Britain, which helped provide the supplies essential to the allied victory. Be sure to visit the Canadian War Museum for more information about this Second World War battle.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s contribution to this effort is well documented in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. Some suggestions and references for further research are provided below.

Since most convoys setting out from Canada departed from Halifax harbour, a large volume of records were produced by the Naval Control Service in Halifax. Documents available for consultation include the following:

Please visit our Flickr album for more photographs.

What’s New? The Launch of “Royal Canadian Navy Ledger Sheets” Database

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has recently announced the launch of a new online database, “Royal Canadian Navy Ledger Sheets”.

Through this online database, researchers can access more than 16,700 references to individuals who served in the Royal Canadian Navy and the Naval Reserve between 1910 and 1918. It also includes some records for those who enlisted between 1919 and 1941.

Access the Royal Canadian Navy Ledger Sheets database today!

For more information on recent announcements at LAC, visit “News”.