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The Canadian Women’s Army Corps

A CWAC saluting. In its public relations campaign, the Army stresses the positive aspects of serving in the Women’s Corps, highlighting its members’ professional activities, their confidence and charm. Ottawa, October 30th, 1943.

Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-141000.

 


CWACs undergoing basic military training at the Vermilion, Alberta Camp, one of the Corps’ training facilities, April 6th, 1944.

Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-142399.

The creation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1941 was the result of two factors: the realization that the Army would sooner or later need more workers; and the pressure exerted on the federal government by Canadian women, eager to join the Armed Forces.

Until then, military authorities had sternly resisted pressure from women, restricting them to volunteer work in a multitude of organizations supporting the war effort. But when the British Air Ministry suggested that its Women’s Auxiliary Air Forces (WAAF) be sent over to Canada at Royal Air Force training bases, the reaction was quick. The Canadian Army created its own women’s service corps. The Air Force and the Navy rapidly followed suite. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was officially established on July 30th, 1941, and recruiting started in September. The Service was, however, officially integrated with the Army only in March 1942 and put under military law. Its officers had the same ranks and wore the same badges as their male counterparts.

Recruiting criteria were strict: recruits had to be British subjects (as were Canadians then), aged between 18 and 45 and single, with no dependants; they should have completed Grade Eight, weigh at least 105 pounds (47.6 kg), be at least 5 feet tall (1.5 m) and in excellent health. Once enlisted, recruits followed basic physical fitness training to develop strength and discipline, at the Kitchener, Ontario or Vermilion, Alberta camps; officers were sent to the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec facility. Well trained, meeting a real need, the Women’s Corps was rapidly and easily integrated within the military.

The CWACs’ responsibilities covered a full range of tasks. Naturally, they were assigned traditional duties (laundry, household chores, cooking, sewing). Those who had some inclination for the stage took part in shows prepared for the troops, such as the Canadian Army Show. They were also assigned clerical work and many served at the National Defence HQ in Ottawa. Women served in health and communications services as well. They were medical assistants, dental assistants, switchboard operators, radar operators, cipher clerks. And others found themselves in traditionally male jobs: driving cars, trucks, ambulances, as mechanics, or radar operators.


Private Lowry, CWAC, tightening up the springs on the front of her vehicle, Chelsea & Cricklewood Garage , England, July 7th, 1944.
Photo by Barney J. Gloster. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-177084.

Most CWACs served in Canada; in 1943, however, three companies were posted at the Canadian Military Headquarters in London, and a fourth one at the Reinforcement Units HQ in Aldershot (England). Starting in 1944, several other members of the Women’s Corp worked at Allies HQs in Rome, later in Alost (Belgium) as well as in Brussels.

Surveys showed that most CWACs enjoyed male friendships and the numerous travel opportunities that their jobs provided. Through their training, they learned new skills that they considered could be valuable assets for future career development. Military life was an active one, and a source of pride and confidence.


A member of the Army’s Women's Corps repairing a parachute.
Photo by Frank Royal. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-209532.


 

 

 

Inequality and sexist prejudices that were then commonplace, were, nevertheless, part of a CWAC’s life. For instance, their pay remained lower than that of men of similar rank: at the bottom of the ladder a woman earned 90 cents a day in 1941, while a man got $1,30. In 1945, the CWACs’ pay was increased but still never reached more than 80 percent of that of their male counterparts. In addition, civilians sometime displayed almost open hostility towards them: many still considered that a woman’s place was in the home and that only “bad girls” would join the Women’s Corps.

At the end of the war, there were 636 officers and 13,326 members of all ranks in the Women’s Service. In all, 21,624 women served in the Army during the six-year duration of the war. They made a significant contribution to the war effort and paved the way to the integration of women in Canadian Armed forces.


Private N. McCosh sorting a pile of laundry at Camp Borden, Ontario, March 16th, 1945.
Photo by Barney J. Gloster. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-139941.

Sgt Margaret O. King, CWAC, editing movies at the Merton Park Studios film library, in London, December 19th, 1944.
Photo by Jack H. Smith. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-152114.
Links:
See The Canadian Women's Army Corps, 1941-1946 by Barbara Dundas and Serge Durflinger on the Canadian War Museum web site