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 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.