Serving Their Country: the Story of the Wrens, 1942-1946
by Emilie Anne Plows
Women did not serve on HMCS Sackville or any of the other World War II ships. But they did come to play a vital role in the war effort. Virtually every woman in Canada made contributions. Women of all ages started knitting socks and rolling bandages and taking first aid courses. War relief clubs packaged ditty bags for the guys overseas, including things like chocolate, sewing kits and razor blades. Over in England, Princess Elizabeth learned to drive a Red Cross truck and Canadian women were inspired to do their bit too.
Many women took up the jobs on the home front left vacant by men enlisting in the services. Canada had its own Rosie the Riveter types, working in factories. There were Lumber Jills as well, toiling in the woods and farm women supplying the nation’s food.
Women also took over military support jobs to free up enlisted men for combat roles. In all more than 45,000 Canadian women volunteered for military service. The WRCNS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) was founded in 1942, shortly after the Canadian Army and Air Force started female services. The recruits were familiarly known as WRENS (as an echo of the members of the British equivalent, the WRNS.)
Close to seven thousand volunteers signed on and served in 39 non-combatant occupations on Canadian and Allied naval bases, at home and abroad. These jobs ranged from office work, driving and food preparation to radio, radar and teletype operators. There were nurses and even performers in the Here’s the Navy Show. Nearly a thousand WRENS served in Halifax and a thousand more in the US and Europe. Over 500 were in Newfoundland.
WRENS were trained at HMCS Conestoga in Galt, Ontario (the only ship in the Canadian Navy commanded by a woman.) There was also a training centre in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. The WRENS ceased to exist in August, 1946. But women now serve in the Canadian Navy, afloat and ashore.
The WRENS and other women in the military were proud of their role. But, frankly, a lot of them weren’t fond of their uniforms – especially since they had to wear sensible shoes, no makeup and short hair. There was a popular song of the era, Alice Blue Gown as a young woman sings about her favourite, flattering dress. There was a parody version that went like this:
In my sweet little Nav-ee Blue Suit,
Now the boys they don’t think me so cute.
You can’t rip it or tear it,
But I’m damn proud to wear it,
My sweet little Nav-ee blue suit.