This Week in History


We're in the Navy Now!

This story was initially published in 2002.

On July 31, 1942, the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), popularly known as the "Wrens," was established by order-in-council. In a drastic departure from tradition, Canadian women were finally allowed into the Navy, Army and Air Force, where they made outstanding contributions to the war effort.

WRCNS Post-War Recruitment Poster
© Courtesy of CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, Victoria, BC
During the Boer War and First World War, women's participation had been limited to nursing and volunteering with various organizations. Even after Canada entered the Second World War in September 1939, Canadian women were not accepted into the military - despite much interest. A manpower shortage in 1941 prompted the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) to invite women's enlistment. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) followed in 1942.

To train WRCNS recruits the Navy enlisted the help of the British Women's Royal Naval Service, founded during the First World War. Most Canadian Wrens trained in Galt (now Cambridge), Ontario, at a former school for girls which was re-named HMCS Conestoga. It was officially regarded as one of His Majesty's Canadian ships and nautical terminology was used throughout: washrooms were called "heads," dormitory rooms "cabins" and kitchens "galleys." After basic training, Wrens travelled to naval bases across Canada. Initially, fewer than 10 occupations were open to them, but by 1945 Wrens were being trained in 39 different trades including wireless telegraphy, visual signalling and coding. Most postings were in Canada, but more than 1,000 Wrens served abroad: in Great Britain, the United States and Newfoundland (then considered overseas). For their wartime efforts, 20 women in the WRCNS were decorated with honours.

Arriving for duty at HMCS Conestoga in Galt (present-day Cambridge, Ontario)
© Courtesy of CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, Victoria BC

Women entering the military during the Second World War faced many challenges. The public felt that servicewomen were immoral, so friends, boyfriends and family members often discouraged women from joining the armed forces. Furthermore, women made less money than men for the same jobs. Nevertheless, more than 45,000 women enlisted in the military, with nearly 7,000 serving in the WRCNS. The women's services were disbanded after wartime, but re-established in the 1950s. In 1951, a Wren section was formed in the RCN reserve and, in 1955, the Navy began recruiting women into its regular component. Canada's early servicewomen had proven that women were capable of military service and set a precedent for future generations.

The Entry of Women in the Military in World War II was designated as a National Historic Event in 1994. A plaque in Halifax, Nova Scotia, honours the Wrens.

This year is the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service. For more stories on women and the Canadian Armed Forces, read Making Waves: Women in Uniform in the This Week in History archives.

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