The trailblazing women of Canada’s naval reserve forces


Women in the RCN

Post-war Wrens doing drill at HMCS Cornwallis. Photos courtesy of the RCN)

A/SLt Pascale Guindon, HMCS Carleton — Canada’s Naval Reserve history is full of courage and sacrifice. As part of the Naval Reserve Centennial, we are proud to commemorate our heritage and the legacy left by those before us, including the trailblazing women of the naval reserve force who proved to the country, and themselves, their ability to serve with distinction, laying the foundation for greater gender equality in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Oh merry, oh merry, oh merry are we; For we are the girls of the King’s Navy.

When Canada’s Naval Reserve volunteer force was established in 1923, women were not included. It took a global conflict nearly 20 years later for the Navy to realize the value women bring to the service.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) ships which fought for Canada and for freedom during the Second World War (1939-45) were crewed not only by Regular Force officers and sailors, but also by wartime volunteers. These volunteers were the men of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), as well as the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR), comprised primarily of professional sailors by trade.

Canada’s wartime naval Volunteer Reserve force at peak strength was 78,000 strong. Along with this legion of men, however, was another notable group of citizen sailors which bolstered Canada’s naval contribution to the war effort: the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS).

The WRCNS was a separate service, the members of which enlisted for the duration of hostilities, making it a reserve force. Established in July 1942, the WRCNS began recruiting women to serve in shore-based trades thus freeing men for active duty at sea. By the time it was disbanded in August 1946, nearly 7,000 Canadian women had served as ‘Wrens’ with the WRCNS.

Stationed in R.C.N.V.R. Divisions

The WRCNS interacted with Naval Reserve Divisions (NRD) across the country. From a tactical point of view, the responsibility of recruitment and enlistment fell largely to reserve units. Here many women first connected with the Navy, other than those with relatives already serving, a reason why many women chose to enlist in the senior service.

In a wartime radio address aimed at Canadian women 18-45 years old, potential recruits were encouraged to contact their nearest Wren recruiting officer, adding: “You will find them stationed in the R.C.N.V.R. Divisions in all the principal cities of Canada”. Once enlisted, recruits entered a probationary period.

In July 1943, HMCS Chippawa, Winnipeg’s reserve division, was the first unit in Canada to boast having probationary Wrens for part-time preliminary training before they reported to HMCS Conestoga, the WRCNS training facility in Galt, Ont., to complete their basic military training. This first group consisted of three new recruits; by June of the following year, it was reported that thirty probationary Wrens were in training at Chippawa as cooks and stewards, as well as learning drill.

Crews of Wrens matching strokes

Even with basic training complete, drill and additional training continued for Wrens drafted to NRDs. They would also ply their trade in support of their unit and the RCN. Some of the trades in which Wrens contributed included serving as writers, telephone operators, messengers, postal clerks, pay writers, cooks and stewards. In December 1943, HMCS Prevost in London, Ont., welcomed two new Wrens, one a clothing supply assistant and the other a victualing supply assistant, bringing their crew of Wrens to six.

Beyond their military duties, Wrens also participated in organizing frequent dances and Victory Loan fundraising, and partook in various inter-divisional and inter-service team and individual sports including basketball, baseball, archery, curling, and swimming.

In the spirit of friendly competition, regattas also presented the opportunity to show off athletic prowess. During the 1943 York Regatta Day hosted by Toronto’s NRD HMCS York, two Wren whaler crews from the division made RCN history: spectators saw, for the first time, crews of Wrens matching strokes and were duly impressed with the accomplished manner in which the Sailorettes handled the long blades.

The location of a number of NRDs near navigable waterways meant that Wrens serving in those units could learn to row whalers and other watercraft, as was the case with the dozens of Wrens barracked in Ottawa at HMCS Carleton.

As the Second World War came to a close so too did a chapter of Canadian naval history when the WRCNS was disbanded in 1946. Wartime Wrens made the transition to civilian life and, for the next few years, Canada’s Navy was once again all-male.

A new era for the Wrens

Similar to the Second World War, the Korean War (1950-53) and Cold War era put immense pressure on Canada’s Armed Forces to fulfill military commitments. As the demand for labour grew, the value of women contributing to the military workforce again became apparent. In May 1951, authority was granted by the Canadian Parliament to recruit up to 500 women into the Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve) (RCN(R)). No longer a separate service, these post-war Wrens were now full members of the Naval Reserve, and for the first time received the same pay as their male counterparts.

Wrens from NRDs across the country completed their entry training at HMCS Cornwallis in Deep Brook, N.S. Many served full-time on Continuous Naval Duty in trades largely supporting administration, supply and communications branches. They administered their own mess at their training establishment, and sporting activities and competitions continued to play an important part of their service.

Wrens did not yet serve at sea. However, those attached to the Halifax NRD, HMCS Scotian, had an advantage over their sisters in most other divisions in that they are able to acquire some sea-time for themselves. Along with other reserves from the division, Wrens are embarked in Scotian’s training tender, the minesweeper Brockville, for one-day training trips.

A new opportunity for Canada’s Naval Reserve servicewomen presented itself in 1955 when Cabinet approved women enlisting as Regular Force members in the RCN. While many Wrens transferred to the Regular Force, women also continued to enlist in the Naval Reserve; today they account for more than 22 per cent of our Naval Reservists. A century after the creation of Canada’s Naval Reserve in which they were excluded, women now form an integral part of the RCN, both as Regular Force and Reserve Force members.

Women in the RCN

WRCNS personnel working at a tactical table alongside a member of the RCNVR in Halifax, June 1944.

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