By Maeve Giffin
The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) played an integral role in the Canadian effort during the Second World War. Although the women in the naval service, affectionately known as the Wrens, only served ashore in Canada, their efforts were essential to the Allied victory and helped empower women by entrusting them with non-traditional roles and specific technical and operational responsibilities, making the Wrens far ahead of their time.
The Second World War saw the beginning of Canadian women’s official participation in the military. Forty-five thousand women served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, Women’s Division of the Royal Air Force, and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. Of the three services, the WRCNS was the smallest, comprising close to 7,000 women. The Royal Canadian Navy was reluctant to admit women into the service because of their long-ingrained male traditions. As the Battle of the Atlantic began to escalate in 1942, the Navy was in desperate need for more manpower, which would force them to abandon their trepidations of accepting women in their service.
In 1941, the war had erupted around the world and by January 1942 U-boats were attacking off the North American coast and threatening the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The war in the Atlantic took a toll on naval personnel, causing the Navy to revise their plan of enlisting women. With a lack of naval experience amongst Canadian women, the Admiralty requested the assistance of three qualified officers of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) to contribute to the establishment of a similar women’s naval service in Canada. These three British officers provided Canadian women with naval training, which would allow the WRCNS to officially become established on July 31, 1942.
Sixty-seven women were chosen to comprise the first class of the WRCNS and commenced their training at Kingsmill House in Ottawa. Twenty-two of the women in the first class “were passed as officers of His Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy — the first women ever to carry the King’s commission in any British Navy,” wrote Rosamond “Fiddy” Greer in The Girls of the King’s Navy. The WRNS was a much older and established service, but it was an auxiliary to the Navy, not an integral part of it as in Canada. It was the role of these first WRCNS members to be trained and continue the recruitment process across Canada. They looked for women between the ages of 18 and 45. In their first year, the WRCNS recruited over 4,000 Wrens into the service, exceeding their initial goal of 3,000.
With the WRCNS continually growing with new recruits, there was a demand for suitable accommodation where these women could establish an appropriate training centre. In June 1942, Commander Eustace A. Brock, Director of the WRCNS, “located a vacant girls’ reform school site in Galt, Ontario, for use as a basic training depot,” as was noted by W.A.B. Douglas in A Blue Water Navy. The reform school was transformed into a brand new training centre for the Wrens and was given the ship name HMCS Conestoga. The first group of Wrens arrived at Conestoga in October 1942, eager to commence their training. At first the work was mainly domestic, transferring their regular civilian duties for this time period into a naval setting. They worked as cooks, laundresses, mess stewards, supply assistants and sick berth attendants. The initial feminine trades available for Wrens allowed for a smooth integration into the Navy and for the eventual progression into more diverse and technical roles.
Every Wren had a personal reason for enlisting in the naval service. Some of these reasons ranged from serving due to a lost loved one, for the love of their country, or seeking excitement and adventure. There was also the attraction to the uniform that caught the eyes of many women and inspired them to volunteer. Upon arrival at Conestoga, the new recruits were immediately given their standard “kits” which consisted of a dark blue “flared skirt and double-breasted coat, fastened with black buttons,” a dark blue “pork pie hat … with tally band the same as any able seaman’s, with H.M.C.S. in white letters,” as was described in Proudly She Marched: Training World War II Women in Waterloo County.
The Wrens cherished the uniform because it instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment in them. It was not the pay of 90 to 95 cents per day that motivated the majority of women to enlist in the Navy, rather it was the possibility of travel and adventure. In Greatcoats and Glamour Boots, another former Wren stated, “Most people who were attracted to the service had to be gamblers at heart, because none of us really had any conception of what it would be like. We simply took our chances.”
Taking this leap of faith turned out to be the best decision one Wren, Audrey McCaskill, ever made in her life. Prior to joining the WRCNS, McCaskill had never left her small hometown of South Porcupine in Northern Ontario. The Wrens provided her with the opportunity to escape and try something challenging, which she thought was “exhilarating.” Wrens had the potential opportunity to serve in provinces across Canada, including Newfoundland, and even locations down south in the United States. A select few were asked to serve across the Atlantic at Royal Navy stations located in London, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Greencock. For a time period when “newspaper advertisements encouraged ‘Mrs. Housewife’ or ‘Mrs. Consumer’ to do their bit for the war by planning frugal meals, spending wisely and buying war bonds,” these women proved to be extremely brave and more capable than ever expected. The first class of the WRCNS set a high standard for its future members. Many were already “prominent leaders in their line of work, whether scientific, educational, civic or social” and expected no less of the aspiring Wrens. This was a tall order for a period in time when women felt a high level of frustration for not being accepted as equals. As stated in Proudly She Marched, all 6,781 Wrens would complete “a month of basic training, to learn the essentials of organization, traditions and customs.” Immediately following basic training in Galt, they would be relocated to a position that operated or accommodated the specific trade assigned to them.
As the WRCNS trades broadened and expanded many became more specialized and technical, requiring additional training. These more advanced trades involved accurately recording the progress of tactical games, working in Halifax and St. John’s as assistants in the operational training centres, operating the spotting table for gunnery training, and also running the necessary activities for the night escort teacher. The most sought-after technical and specialized occupations in the WRCNS were communications-related trades, such as visual signallers, coders, and wireless telegraphists. These various techniques were primarily used to locate enemy U-boats and also direct Allied ships as they manoeuvred from shore to shore. The technical assistance in these specialized fields was so essential to the Allied war effort that they were deemed top secret. Wrens had to follow the Naval Discipline Act and learn the Official Secrets Act in order to understand what could be said and what must remain confidential. The confidentiality of some of the WRCNS assignments has often left them unrecognized and insufficiently appreciated.
This responsibility, leadership, and respect entrusted to the Wrens had a significant impact on the rest of their lives. Not only did they pave the way for future generations of women in the Navy, but they also set a new precedent for women in society. The WRCNS gave women more confidence, which carried into the rest of their lives whether they returned to domesticity or not.
In her book Proudly She Marched, Anne Kallin states, “even those who picked up the threads of their earlier lives where they had left off were changed: while they may have assumed traditional roles, they raised daughters who would not.” Many Wrens still remember their time in the war as the best years of their lives. Today, women are able to serve in any capacity of the Royal Canadian Navy, which can largely be credited to the courageous Wrens from the Second World War. They were successful in maintaining the established image of the Canadian Navy in the fashion that the original officers had always intended, “that of a professional, well-trained, and highly dedicated service,” which is still upheld to this day.
On the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the WRCNS, a statue named Jenny Wren was unveiled in Galt, Ontario to honour the Navy women who served during the Second World War. More than 600 former Wrens from across the nation returned to the location of their basic training to observe this commemoration. Ann Kallin described the statue as “alert, self-confident and leaning slightly into the wind with a sense of adventure and a touch of whimsy, she will be the tiddley Wren remembered by citizens across Canada.”