Juno Beach Centre | Canada in WWII
   Arms & Weapons l At Sea
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Men and Women of the Royal Canadian Navy

In 1939 the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) does not have the strength that the upcoming war demands. Having recalled the Reserve, the RCN then launches a cautious recruiting campaign, to avoid attracting too many inexperienced men. But as the war situation worsens, the RCN finds itself facing a full-blown crisis, as it needs more men and more ships. It must resign itself to open recruitment to men with no sailing experience; thus is created the Volunteer Reserve. Furthermore, in order to free up as many men as possible for duty at sea, a women's service is created in July 1942, to take on ground duties. Within six years, the RCN's strength grows dramatically, from 1,585 in 1939 to 92,529 in 1945!

Number of men who served with the RCN during WWII: 97,600
Number of women who served with the RCN during WWII: 7,122
Number of casualties sustained during WWII: 2,024 dead, 319 wounded


Lieutenant Ralph L. Hennessy, RCN, on destroyer HMCS Assiniboine, circa September 1940. Hennessy enjoyed a brilliant career in the RCN from 1936 to 1970. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the sinking of U-210 in August 1942.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-104253.

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN)
In the summer of 1939, the RCN's permanent strength is 1,674 ratings and 145 officers. Through its ongoing cooperation with the Royal Navy, those men have already served on warships. They have the experience and skills needed to organize the growing Canadian Navy and train its reserve.

Rituals and traditions of the Royal Navy have grown deep roots in the RCN and its men are proud of their service on British ships. Uniforms are the same, as are ranks and promotions. These men's goal is to give Canada a navy - naturally, smaller - but of the same calibre as the glorious British Royal Navy.

The Royal Canadian Navy Reserve (RCNR)
The Reserve is made up of officers and men with significant experience of life at sea, gained mostly through service with the merchant navy. Before the war broke out, Reserve personnel followed training at the Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Esquimalt, British Columbia, bases once or twice a year. They were recalled as soon as the war was declared. In the next six years, Reserve officers will often be given command of newly commissioned vessels.


Crew watching film in mess deck of RCN ship. By 1942 the Volunteer Reserve made up for the majority of the RCN's personnel.
Photo by William H. Pugsley. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-139292.

The Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR)
Also called the "Wavy Navy", on account of the wavy sleeve bars worn by its officers, the Volunteer Reserve enlists "for the duration" men with no navy experience, most of them volunteers from the inland regions of Canada.

As expected, the arrival of so many untrained men on newly commissioned ships impacted on efficiency and discipline. But the courage, inventiveness and tenacity of those brand new sailors compensated for the lack of experience. Some remarkable leaders would come out of the ranks, and resourceful sailors distinguish themselves. As training and ships improve, the RCNVR demonstrates it can be a match for a clever and experienced enemy.

The Volunteer Reserve soon makes up most of the RCN's strength. Those ratings and officers who had never known the Royal Navy's discipline and strictness bring in a new, typically Canadian culture, that will help the RCN develop its own personality.


A "Wren" - a member of the WRCNS - operating Direction Finding equipment at HMCS Coverdale station near Moncton, New Brunswick, August 1945.
Photo by Leblanc. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-142540.

The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS)
The RCN's women's service was created in July 1942, shortly after the Army and Air Force had made a similar move. Naturally, there were still duties that were traditionally those of women: office work, household chores, food preparation. But among WRCNS (also called "Wrens" after their British counterparts), there were also singers and dancers for the "Meet the Navy" show.

Following the Royal Navy's example, the RCN soon realized that women could be skilled communication and intelligence operators. Although they worked in cooperation with sailors, women were not authorized to serve on board of ships. Wrens worked in merchant navy coordination, information processing and signals. They were posted on the East Coast starting in March 1943, at the Halifax and St. John's naval bases, as well as at radio detection and plotting stations, such as the Coverdale Base in New Brunswick.

Between 1942 and 1945, 7,122 women served with the RCN; their determination was instrumental in the Allies' victory at sea.

Links:
Women in the Navy during the War Years
A Wren Remembers