Images of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps now on Flickr 

During the Second World War, Canadian women were mobilized to serve in the armed forces. Approximately, 50,000 women enlisted and a majority of them served with the Canadian Army. A variety of tasks were assigned to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) formed in 1941. These women enrolled from a sense of patriotism or a desire to see the world, no different from their male counterparts of the time.  

However, they faced skepticism and harassment at home and abroad. Their perseverance coupled with wartime labour demands enabled women to work in numerous fields of work, such as mechanical and technical repairs, communications, drafting, or driving vehicles. The Canadian government and the Department of National Defence in 1943 started a recruitment drive and public relations campaign to support women contributing to the war effort. Over time their salaries increased, and public and military opinions began to change in favour of women serving in the armed forces.

The thousands of women who served their country during wartime gained new skills and expertise, confidence, and a much improved respect and support from Canadians. The CWAC was an opportunity and milestone for those choosing to step away from traditional gender roles in Canada.

 

75th Anniversary of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps

By Laura Brown

On August 13, 1941, after many months of cross-country campaigning during the early days of the Second World War, women were given the opportunity to join the Canadian Army. Like the Royal Canadian Air Force, which created a women’s division a month earlier, the army recognized that women could be placed in non-combatant roles to release more men to fight overseas. At first the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was not a formal part of the military and operated instead as an auxiliary organization. However, on March 13, 1942 the CWAC was officially integrated into the Canadian Army. Uniforms and insignia, including badges displaying the figure of Athena were issued to army women or “CWACs” as they were commonly called.

A coloured poster showing a female and a male member of the Canadian Army striding forward in unison. The figures wear helmets, uniforms, and carry gas mask bags around their necks. The male soldier carries a rifle on his left shoulder. At the bottom of the poster are four small black-and-white photos of women performing different jobs in the army.

Second World War Recruiting Poster, “Shoulder to Shoulder – Canadian Women’s Army Corps – An Integral Part of the Canadian Army” ca. 1944 (MIKAN 2917721)

While many Canadians were supportive of women in khaki, some were apprehensive and even fearful, viewing the acceptance of female soldiers into the military as a disturbing lapse of traditional gender roles in society. In 1943 the government launched an extensive advertising campaign in an effort to address such concerns and to encourage enlistment. Recruitment materials, such as the poster above and the film Proudest Girl in the World presented female recruits as professional, respectable, and feminine, as well as eligible for various types of work.

Before commencing basic training at one of Canada’s regional training centres, recruits were given a test to determine the job for which they were best suited. In 1941 there were 30 different jobs or “trades” available and, by the end of the war, that number nearly doubled. Some positions open to CWACs were unconventional for women at the time (such as working as a mechanic) but the most numerous trades were those associated with traditionally female work, including cook, laundry worker, or typist.

A black-and-white photo showing a crowd of smiling CWAC recruits. They wear summer dress uniforms and caps with diamond-shaped cap badges.

Personnel of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps at No. 3 CWAC (Basic) Training Centre, April 6, 1944 (MIKAN 3207287)

During their war service, many CWACs hoped for a posting outside of Canada, though only a few thousand were successful in obtaining such positions. Among them was Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female war artist. In addition to her paintings and sketches created to document the contributions of the CWAC, Bobak produced an illustrated diary, which today is held at LAC and available in digitized format. Peppered with self-deprecating humour, this work provides a frank and funny view into army life. You can learn more about Bobak by consulting this blog post.

A black-and-white photograph showing Molly Lamb Bobak posing in front of an easel with brushes and palette in hand. Bobak wears an army battledress jacket and smiles at the camera. The partially completed painting behind her depicts male and female members of the Canadian Army standing inside a room.

Second Lieutenant Molly Lamb Bobak, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, London, England, July 12, 1945 (MIKAN 3191978)

Out of the three branches of the military—army, air force and navy—the army saw the highest enlistment of Canadian women during the Second World War with a total of 21,624 recruits. The many documents related to the CWAC in LAC’s collection, some of which you can find below, help illustrate the important service of Canada’s first army women.

Related Resources


Laura Brown is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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.

 

Polysar, or the adventure of producing synthetic rubber in Canada

By François Larivée

If you were born before 1980, you may remember a picture of a large industrial complex on the back of the ten-dollar bill. An image of the Polysar (originally Polymer) plant in Sarnia, Ontario, was featured on the bill between 1971 and 1989. The company was created by the Government of Canada in 1942 as a Crown corporation, and its archives are held by Library and Archives Canada. Its history is nothing short of fascinating.

Black and white photograph showing three large spherical reservoirs and a complex network of pipes in the foreground. In the background we see a tall chimney spewing out flames and smoke as well as a building with five other chimneys.

View of pipes and three Horton Spheres storing a mixture of butylene and butadiene used in the manufacture of synthetic rubber at the Polymer Rubber Corporation plant, September 1944 (MIKAN 3627791)

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Born to Serve: Georges P. Vanier

Born in Montréal on April 23, 1888, Georges Vanier would feel the influence of his bilingual parents throughout his life. After graduating from high school, he attended Loyola College and then the Université Laval where he received a law degree in 1911. He started practicing law thereafter, although priesthood was also on his mind. It was the outbreak of the First World War however, that eventually grabbed his attention and he enlisted in the Canadian Army. He was a strong recruiter and played an important role in the creation of the French-Canadian 22nd Battalion. It was also during the war that he was injured and had to have his right leg amputated.

A black-and-white photograph showing a man smiling broadly in an officer’s uniform with cap.

Major Georges P. Vanier of the 22nd Battalion, June 1918 (MIKAN 3192070)

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Propaganda: Second World War Approach

Wartime propaganda was not a 20th century invention. It has been around for many centuries in different formats. It was the advent of cheaper and quicker printing methods that made it possible to mass produce posters at the time of the Second World War. From recruitment, security and secrecy to patriotism, frugality and investments, there were posters created for every subject.

Recruitment posters, which until this point had been aimed solely at men, started to show signs of change as the war progressed. Although still often portrayed as fragile, women were becoming more and more important to the war effort. The pressure was on to enlist more men and women and the posters made it clear there was no excuse not to join.

A colour poster showing a lion and beaver wielding swords and advancing menacingly.

War propaganda campaign: the beaver and the lion united against the enemy (MIKAN 2834354)

Another new element to propaganda during the Second World War was the concern about security and secrecy. There were growing fears that spies were always listening to conversations and that a small detail could lead to a big disaster for the troops. The posters started off fairly simple but as time progressed, they became more dramatic, often portraying a sinister-looking man in the background with large ears and a group of civilians or army men in the forefront having what seems like an innocuous conversation. The colours and graphics for these particular posters were often quite bold.

A colour poster showing two photographs overlaid with text. The top photo shows a café with people talking and a bystander listening to their conversation. The photo below shows a boat sinking.

“She Sails at Midnight…” Careless talk costs lives: propaganda for the security of Canada’s army (MIKAN 2834362)

The next phase was to target the men and women who were not able to enlist, to have them play a part in the war in a different way. They were called upon to work harder and produce more for the war effort. And when that was no longer enough, they were strongly encouraged to buy Victory Bonds to help fund the war. The tone of these posters evolved from the earlier tone of fear to something more hopeful—that by purchasing Victory Bonds, Canadians were ensuring a safe and happy future for their country.

A colour poster with a black-and-white photograph of a woman holding a bomb in her hands with the caption: “I’m making bombs and buying bonds!” Underneath the photograph in white letters on a red banner: “Buy Victory Bonds.”

Victory loan drive: “I’m Making Bombs and Buying Bonds!” (MIKAN 2846935)

Although there is no sure way of gauging the effectiveness of any of these campaigns, they remain an important piece of our history and a socio-economic, political look into the past.

Related links:

Images of Canada in the Netherlands now on Flickr

Near the end of the Second World War, Canadian forces had the responsibility of liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. During the fighting, civilians behind the German lines suffered from malnutrition, starvation, and the lack of proper shelter. Over the course of many months, approximately 18,000 civilians died, and over 6,700 Canadian troops lost their lives for the liberation of the Dutch.

Images of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan now on Flickr 

During the Second World War, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) mobilized Canadian experts, initiated the building of airfields, conducted research into the development of equipment, and provided valuable training and resources to Commonwealth aviators.

Signed in 1939, the Agreement and Plan lasted from 1940 to 1945. During this time, about 151 schools were established across Canada with over 104,000 men and women serving the ground operations. By the end of the War, the BCATP had produced 131,553 aircrew; including pilots, wireless operators, air gunners, and navigators for the Air Forces of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Victoria Cross recipient and Second World War tough guy: Major David Vivian Currie

Seventy years ago, on August 18, 1944, Major David Vivian Currie led 200 men and a dozen M4 Sherman tanks into the town of St. Lambert-sur-Dives, France in order to block the escape route of the German 7th Army out of the Falaise Pocket. Though hugely outnumbered by a detachment of the German 2nd Panzer Division, the actions that Currie and his men took effectively sealed off the only escape route for the Germans. For his efforts, Currie earned the Victoria Cross, the highest military gallantry decoration in the British Commonwealth.

Black and white photograph showing a man peering out over a tank turret.

Major David V. Currie, VC, South Alberta Regiment, Breda, Netherlands, November 25, 1944. (MIKAN 3224834)

Major Currie was born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan in 1912 and trained as an auto mechanic and welder. A major in the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (South Alberta Regiment) in 1944, Currie had only ten days of combat experience when he was tasked with capturing, cutting off, and holding the road through St. Lambert.

Currie was leading “C” Squadron, a small force of tanks and anti-tank guns, together with two infantry companies of the Argyll and Southerland Highlanders, with no artillery support and little reconnaissance. When his first attack was repulsed, Currie snuck into the village on foot, surveyed the German defences, and rescued the crews of two disabled Canadian tanks. The following day, he had seized and consolidated a position half-way inside the village. Over the next 36 hours, Currie so skillfully organised his defences in the face of near-constant counterattack that he not only held the unit’s position but inflicted disproportionately heavy casualties on the German forces.

Black and white photograph showing a man sitting on top of a tank, leaning against the machine gun and looking off to the left.

Major David V. Currie, VC, of the South Alberta Regiment in a Humber I scout car, Halte, Netherlands, November 12, 1944 (MIKAN 3227188)

The Germans attempted their final breakthrough of the Canadian positions on the evening of August 20th but were routed by a surprise Canadian assault. Over 2,100 German soldiers were taken prisoner by Currie’s force of less than 200. Currie then completed the capture of the village, thus denying the remnants of the German armies their last escape route from the Falaise Pocket. The battle of St. Lambert was to be the final battle of the Normandy Campaign.

Black and white photograph showing a group of German soldiers with their arms raised in the air surrounded by Canadian soldiers.

Major David V. Currie (third from left with pistol in hand) of The South Alberta Regiment accepting the surrender of German troops at St. Lambert-sur-Dives, France, August 19, 1944. (MIKAN 3396233)

In the months following St. Lambert, Currie participated in the Battle of the Scheldt and the liberation of the Netherlands. He later achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and served as sergeant-at-arms in the Canadian House of Commons from 1960 to 1978. He died in 1986. The armoury in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is named the Lt. Colonel D. V. Currie Armoury in his honour, as is Currie Avenue in Saskatoon.

To learn more about Canada’s military past, visit the Military Heritage pages.

Sergeant Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, VC

Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith (May 3, 1914 – August 3, 2005) was the last living Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) and the only private in the Canadian Armed Forces to receive this decoration during the Second World War. It is the highest military honour awarded to British and Commonwealth Forces.

Private Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, V.C.

Private Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, VC (MIKAN 4233307)

Private “Smokey” Smith earned this distinction 70 years ago—on October 21 and 22, 1944—in Savio, Italy, where he was fighting with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. His unit was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River, which had risen significantly due to torrential rain, making it impossible for tanks and anti-tank guns to cross. Having successfully crossed the river, the unit’s right flank was attacked by the German 26th Panzer Division. Smith, an experienced member of the anti-tank platoon, had participated in the amphibious Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy, been wounded twice, and been part of fierce street fighting during the advance in Italy. Sheltering in a ditch as a German Panther tank rolled toward him and machine guns raked his position, Smith waited until the tank was within 30 feet of his PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank, a.k.a. “tank-stopper”) and then stood up, fired, and disabled the tank. Still in full view of the enemy, he drove back the Germans who leapt from the burning tank, along with a second Panther and 30 infantry soldiers, all the while protecting a wounded comrade. According to his VC citation, “Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack.” (The London Gazette, no. 36849, December 20, 1944). Smith’s unit consolidated the bridgehead position and paved the way for the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.

Private Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, V.C., of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada

Private Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, VC, of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (MIKAN 3227168)

As Smith later told it, he was placed in a Naples jail by Military Police to keep him out of trouble until he could be sent to London to receive his VC. He was, by his own words, a man who didn’t like to take orders but who believed firmly in the job he had to do. Following the war, Smith re-enlisted in the army but did not see combat. He later served as a recruiting sergeant in Vancouver and remained in the army until his retirement in 1964. Smith received the Canadian Forces Decoration and was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996 in recognition of his service to Canadian veterans’ organizations.

To learn more about Canada’s military past, visit the Military Heritage pages.