Juno Beach Centre | Canada in WWII
   Arms & Weapons l In the Air
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The Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division

During the war, women played a significant role with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Their contribution to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was especially important: as women took on many different responsibilities, men were made available to serve overseas and BCATP schools had no concerns about personnel shortages.

Mrs. E. Elliott cooking spaghetti in the kitchens of No 3 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), Calgary.
National Defence Image Library, PL 11309.

A Privy Council order authorized the creation of the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force on July 2nd, 1941, renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division on February 3rd, 1942. Kathleen Oonah Walker was the Women Division’s first officer, with the rank of Flight Officer from the start of the Division. H.R.H. Princess Alice was to be the Division’s third officer, as an honorary rank, though.

Kathleen Walker’s mandate was to set up the RCAF’s women auxiliary services. She was well versed in the RCAF’s structure, her husband – who died in May 1941 – having been Group Captain C.C. Walker. She also had in-depth experience of volunteer and auxiliary organizations. Recruitment started in 1941 under Walker’s supervision and that of Section Officer Jean Flatt Davey.

Many reasons could motivate a young woman to enlist in the RCAF Women’s Division: patriotism, a taste for adventure, a husband, a father or a brother with the RCAF. Training took place at first at Havergal College in Toronto, soon to be designated as No 6 Manning Depot. On December 1st, 1941, a first cohort of WDs completed training and was declared ready to serve. Actually recruiting went so well that a second training centre, No 7 Manning Depot, was established in Rockliffe, near Ottawa, on April 11th, 1942.

Operations monitoring at the Eastern Air Command HQ, Halifax, January 9th, 1943.
National Defence Image Library, PL 14623.

In January 1942, when the first WDs joined No 2 Service Flying Training School, at Uplands, near Ottawa, they were given a rather limited range of duties: administrative and clerical work, dental assistants, equipment assistants, weather observers, telephone operators, photographers, wireless operators, fabric workers, tailors, laundry staff, cook. But in the following months the scope of their responsibilities was significantly increased: they became chauffeurs, hairdressers, musicians, pharmacists, laboratory assistants, parachute riggers, and more and more often they held jobs that used to be strictly for men, such as electrical and mechanical work.

As of mid-1942, Women’s Division members received new responsibilities outside the BCATP framework; they served in operating centres of the Western and Eastern Air Commands, they worked at interpreting reconnaissance or bombing photographs. Soon, a first group of WDs was sent overseas to serve in Great Britain. In January 1945, 1,450 WDs were with the RCAF Overseas HQ and with Bomber Command’s No 6 Group HQ and bases.

Aircraftswoman 2nd Class Laura Bagby towing a trainer aircraft with a tractor, No 3 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), Calgary, Alberta.
National Defence Image Library, PL 11323.

The RCAFdenied women the possibility to fly in fighter or reconnaissance planes on account of the potential danger. When women flew, it was usually as passengers on familiarization flights, or, less often, when specific work had to be done. But WDs did find themselves in dangerous situations as those serving overseas were exposed to bombing raids, especially during the summer of 1944 when Germany launched V-1 raids over Britain.

Although their tasks did not allow them to accomplish glorious deeds or to give their lives, the WDs’ outstanding work was reflected in numerous citations.

Squadron Officer Kathleen Lorena Jeffs (Toronto), awarded MBE (Member of the British Empire), January 1, 1944 for work in the Directorate of Supply Administration, AFHQ, Ottawa.

Squadron Officer Jeffs, as Chief Messing Officer to the RCAF, has personally reorganized the messing services and established a messing branch of the Women’s Division consisting of highly qualified dieticians. Under her direction a very high standard of Service messing has been achieved which has been an important contribution to the welfare and morale of aircrew training in Canada. This officer has displayed outstanding ability and energy in the performance of her duties.

Three photographers getting ready to take off; from left to right: Flight Sergeant A.D. Lang, Aircraftswomen M. Dudlyke, M. Clayborne and Jeanne Farris.
National Defence Image Library, PL 20839.  

Sergeant Myrtle Eileen Boreham (Toronto), awarded BEM (British Empire Medal), January 1, 1944 for services in RCAF Overseas Headquarters.

In her service career, this airwoman has been outstanding in her devotion to duty, and in her after-duty hours she has not spared herself in furthering the good spirit of morale and comradeship among Airmen and Airwomen. In her capacity as a Sergeant, working in the section for recruiting Canadian women in the RCAF Women’s Division in England, she has been a constant inspiration to ail recruits, with her enthusiasm for the service and her desire to place it above personal matters.

At its highest, in December 1943, the RCAF Women’s Division’s boasted a staff of 591 officers and 14,562 members of all ranks. In all, 17,038 women proudly wore its uniform before the service was abolished on December 11th, 1946. It amounted to 8% of the overall RCAF personnel during WWII.

Women were permitted once more to join the RCAF only in 1951. In 1980, women were accepted as military pilots; in 1988, Canada became the first western country to license women as fighter pilots.


Suggested Reading

• Larry Milberry, Hugh Halliday, The Royal Canadian Air Force At War 1939-1945, 1990, p. 149-154.