The Raid on Dieppe, France, August 19, 1942

By Alex Comber

Warning: This article contains graphic images that may be disturbing to the reader; viewer discretion is advised.

Seventy-five years ago today, Canadian soldiers landed on hostile shores in France to conduct a “reconnaissance in force.” Despite careful preparations, an armada of naval support and squadrons of aircraft overhead, the landing was a failure.

A black-and-white photograph of the bodies of soldiers, a burning landing craft for tanks, and disabled Churchill tanks on a rocky beach.

Bodies of Canadian soldiers lie among damaged landing craft and Churchill tanks of the Calgary Regiment after Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942 (MIKAN 3192368)

Operation Jubilee was the code name for the Raid on Dieppe, an enemy-occupied port near Le Havre on the coast of France. The plan was for a large fleet of landing craft and other ships to depart from England at night and to land soldiers in the early morning of August 19. Destroying the port’s fortifications would help to evaluate the strength of defences along Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Other objectives included attacking a nearby German airfield and radar facilities, and seizing prisoners for interrogation. The force would then return to the landing craft in an orderly manner and depart from France.

A black-and-white photograph of a practice landing, with soldiers leaving the landing craft and walking on the beach in orderly groups.

Canadian infantrymen disembark from a landing craft in England during a training exercise before Operation Jubilee, the Raid on Dieppe, France, in August 1942 (MIKAN 3194482)

The main assault force was drawn from units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, with British Royal Marines and commandos fulfilling specialized tasks, such as disabling coastal artillery that might target naval units and landing craft.

A colour photograph of Major-General J.H. Roberts, in uniform, examining documents on the hood of a staff car.

Major-General J.H. Roberts, who commanded the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division at the time of Operation Jubilee; a military censor has removed all unit markings from this photo (MIKAN 4232358)

Churchill tanks from the 14th Army Tank Battalion (Calgary Regiment) would land in several of the newly developed tank landing craft, to help overcome defences and support infantry battalions with their assignments. Squadrons of fighters and bombers, and a vast fleet of more than 230 ships, would support the landings. Aerial attacks and naval bombardment were expected to throw the defenders into disarray.

A black-and-white photograph of air force officers standing for a group portrait in front of a Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft.

Group photo of pilots for the Raid on Dieppe (MIKAN 3592320)

The mission began to unravel as the landing craft neared the beach. The formidable defences had not been destroyed in the preparatory bombardment, and the defenders were forewarned by their military intelligence services to expect an attack. Machine guns in pillboxes swept the beaches with devastating fire, and few Canadian units succeeded in advancing inland, over the seawall, into the town or toward other objectives. Soldiers sheltered where they could and awaited an evacuation. The materiel costs of the Dieppe Raid included all 29 tanks lost, 33 landing craft abandoned or destroyed, a British destroyer sunk, and more than a hundred Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft downed, with many of their crews killed.

A black-and-white photograph of soldiers, some wounded or with torn uniforms.

Soldiers who took part in Operation Jubilee, the Raid on Dieppe, return to England, August 19, 1942 (MIKAN 3193844)

Historians continue to debate the underlying reasons why Allied authorities approved this risky endeavour. The attack failed for a variety of reasons; the consequences of that failure were felt in communities across Canada. Out of almost 5,000 soldiers, just over 900 were killed, while almost 2,000 were captured. Many were wounded. August 19, 1942, was the deadliest single day of Canadian military participation in the war.

A black-and-white photograph of captured Canadian soldiers being marched in formation through an urban area, with German soldiers guarding them.

Captured Canadian troops (MIKAN 3195158)

News of the Dieppe Raid travelled quickly. The Department of National Defence sent out notifications to next-of-kin for the soldiers who did not return with the naval force. Families waited anxiously as survivors passed on information about the missing, and inquiries to the International Committee of the Red Cross led to lists of the dead whose remains had been located and buried, and lists of prisoners in German camps. One poignant example was the loss of Alice Montgomery’s sons Arthur and Ralph, who were twin brothers from Brighton, Ontario, serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Canada. Arthur was killed on Blue Beach near the village of Puys, while Ralph died of his wounds two days later, in England.

A colour photograph of a ceremony alongside rows of temporary grave crosses at the Dieppe Canadian Military Cemetery near Dieppe, France.

Dieppe Canadian Military Cemetery, September 1944 (MIKAN 4233242)

The majority of the Canadian war dead from August 19, 1942, are buried at Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery at Hautot-sur-Mer. This cemetery is unique: the wartime German layout, with its doubled headstones, was retained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the war. The image shows the cemetery in early September 1944, after the area was liberated from enemy control, and depicts units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, the division that had been decimated in the Dieppe Raid, holding a ceremony to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Library and Archives Canada sources about the Raid on Dieppe

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds many records relating to the Raid on Dieppe. In addition to photos from the Department of National Defence and other private collections, there are war diaries from army units that participated, including the Essex Scottish, Royal Regiment of Canada, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, 14th Army Tank Battalion (Calgary Regiment), Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada. LAC also holds the records of all personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces from the Second World War, including all those who died while serving.

One interesting and little-known visual record of Dieppe is a small collection of photos acquired from an unusual source. The widowed Mrs. Delabarre, a resident of Le Havre, France, kept a handful of photos of Dieppe that her employer had given her. These images show abandoned equipment, and preparations for burying Canadian soldiers. For the 25th anniversary commemorations in 1967, she decided to donate the photos to help tell the story of Dieppe to Canadians. Mrs. Delabarre sent them to a Canadian Army representative, Major-General Roger Rowley, who entrusted them to the care of the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History. Years later, they were transferred to the National Archives. These images in LAC’s collection, two of which appear below, offer a unique alternative to photos taken by the German Army to document the failure of the operation.

The first photo shows “Buttercup,” a Mk. 3 Churchill tank with B Squadron, 14th Army Tank Regiment (Calgary Regiment), abandoned on the beach.

A black-and-white photograph of disabled or abandoned tanks on the beach at Dieppe. One tank has “Buttercup” painted on its side, among other recognition markings.

Abandoned Churchill tanks including “Buttercup” on the beach at Dieppe, August 1942 (MIKAN 4969643)

Some of the Delabarre photos, like those taken by German Army photographers, include graphic images of dead Canadian soldiers on the beach, under the seawall and in the stranded vessels. The images can be difficult to look at, but they are important archival records of the event. For instance, this second photo documents a little-known aspect of the aftermath of the Raid on Dieppe. Instead of showing German military personnel inspecting derelict vehicles and landing craft, and viewing wounded and dead Allied soldiers, the photo shows teams of civilians moving and preparing bodies for burial, and they are performing this grim task in the confines of an assault landing craft.

A black-and-white photograph of civilians working amid deceased soldiers in a beached landing craft.

Civilians recover the bodies of soldiers killed in the Dieppe Raid and prepare them for burial (MIKAN 4969646)


Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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.

Images of Canadian war artists now on Flickr

Canadian War Artists brings together the portraits of eighteen Canadian war artists who painted during the Second World War. These portraits, from the collections of Library and Archives Canada are accompanied by short biographies.

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.

Stelco archives now acquired

By Lucie Paquet

Library and Archives Canada is proud to announce that it has acquired the archives of The Steel Company of Canada, more commonly known as Stelco. These archives are now part of our national heritage. They include more than 100 metres of textual records, thousands of photographs, technical and architectural drawings, and over 200 film and sound recordings. The Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) fonds, currently in archival processing, documents all aspects of the evolution of the steel industry from the beginning of its mechanization in the 1880s through to the 1980s.

Black and white photograph showing an industrial complex for steel production and processing.

Aerial view of The Steel Company of Canada Limited (Stelco) mills in Hamilton, circa 1952. (MIKAN 4915715)

The Steel Company of Canada Limited was formed in 1910 as a merger of five companies that had previously taken over some 40 smaller ones, operating in various areas of Quebec and Ontario: Hamilton Steel and Iron Company Ltd., Montreal Rolling Mills Company, Canada Screw Company, Dominion Wire Manufacturing Company, and Canada Bolt and Nut Company. Each one had its own speciality, from the primary production of steel for the rail, agricultural and marine sectors to consumer products. This new, large company enabled the Canadian steel industry to keep pace with strong American and European competition.

The account ledgers, correspondence, management minutes, patents and photographs provide a detailed account of the beginnings of this industry, its development and its challenges.

Black and white photograph showing a mill beside a canal. Other factories and railway tracks for transporting steel materials can be seen in the background.

Saint-Henri steel mill, one of Stelco’s departments in Montreal, May 17, 1946. (MIKAN 4915716)

The archives not only document the company’s expansion, but also the development of several entire cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

Black and white photograph showing a close-up of blast furnaces on an industrial site.

Blast furnaces of The Steel Company of Canada Limited (Stelco) in Hamilton, circa 1948. (MIKAN 4915717)

Cities like Hamilton quickly became major industrial centres referred to as “steel towns.”

Black and white photograph showing men in a plant. A large number of workers manually operating the first mechanical machines can be seen in the background.

Interior view of workers at one of the steel processing plants in Hamilton, circa 1920. (MIKAN 4915719)

In the mid-twentieth century, the plants attracted many immigrants and the population in urban centres doubled in just a few short decades.

Black and white photograph showing employees packing products inside a plant.

Interior view of workers in the finishing and packing department in Hamilton, circa 1920. (MIKAN 4915720)

The Stelco archives bear witness to the working conditions of men and women who spent their whole lives in the plants.

Black and white photograph showing a group of people holding a flag with a V for victory.

Parade of Stelco managers and employees not long after the end of the Second World War, in 1945. In the foreground can be seen Stelco directors H.G. Hilton and H.H. Champ, and a military officer, among others. (MIKAN 4915722)

Stelco and its workers had important responsibilities during the First and Second World Wars, responding to the demand for military materiel from the Canadian and British governments and contributing to the Allied victory.

But success did not stop there. The phenomenal growth of urban centres during the 1950s, real estate, energy resources, means of transportation and various consumer products created strong demand for steel.

Black and white photograph showing workers operating a machine used to roll the steel and make it into panels.

Interior view of a more modern plant from the 1960s for producing steel in rolls and panels. (MIKAN 4915723)

There followed the creation of large industrial complexes and the introduction of a high-tech research centre, which enabled Stelco to develop new steel products and increase operations and production in all areas, both residential and commercial.

Black and white photograph of a man in a white lab coat taking a photomicrograph.

Engineer from the metallurgical laboratory testing the quality of the steel structure by means of “photomicrography,” circa 1960. (MIKAN 4915724)

A collage of coloured advertisements. The first image shows different residential products, including a wood fireplace for the living room, the second shows the manufacturing of steel panels, and the third shows several architectural drawings for building construction.

Collage of three advertisements from Steel in Homes (1967), Stelco Plate Products (November 1969) and Expanding the Markets for Stelco Steel, circa 1970. (MIKAN 4915725)

The Steel Company of Canada Limited (Stelco) exported its products worldwide, becoming one of the largest steel companies in North America. As an example, it was actively involved in the design and construction of the Expo 67 Steel Pavilion.

Black and white photograph showing several modern architectural structures.

In the background, the Canadian Steel Pavilion at the Montreal World Fair in 1967. This pavilion was built by the four largest Canadian steel companies: Algoma, Stelco, Dofasco and Dosco. They reproduced in miniature all the components associated with steel manufacturing. In the centre of the image, the Canadian Pulp and Paper Industry Pavilion can be seen. (MIKAN 4915727)

Over the coming months, we will introduce you to the world of Stelco—its plants, directors, employees, operations, innovations, products and challenges, as well as its social, sports and cultural activities.


Lucie Paquet is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

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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