A Brief History of the Woman’s Royal Canadian Naval Service
At the beginning of WWII, Canada did not initially have a woman’s service. In contrast, England had been recruiting women for the armed forced since 1938.
The Canadian Government would not accept the idea. “Canada did not need women to run her war” they said and the war was nearly two years old before the government changed it’s mind. Nurses were different; nursing sisters had been a Canadian military tradition since the Boer War.
In July 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Women’s Division, called WD’s, was founded and a month later was followed by the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, known as CWAC’s. Women from all walks of life volunteered by the hundreds. It was not until early 1942 that the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) decided it could use some help from women and a signal was sent to the British Admiralty with the urgent request, “Please send us a mother Wren”.
The title “Wren” came from the British Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) adopted the same name. Three officers of the WRNS arrived in Canada in May 1942, and they picked the first 67 recruits, 22 of whom became officers.
In October 1942, HMCS Conestoga at Galt, Ontario (now Cambridge) became the basic training centre for Wrens from across Canada. The Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Commander Isabel Macneill, the first woman to command a ship in the British Commonwealth.
At that time the war was not going well for the Allies. In June 1942, German submarines were sinking an Allied ship every four hours and for every U-boat sunk five more were being built. The Canadian Navy needed manpower for sea duty, so women between the ages of 18 and 45 were recruited for duty.
Their duties included servicing anti-submarine equipment, aircraft maintenance, ciphers, communications, signaling, wireless telegraphy and driving. They did the same work as men, but did not serve at sea on warships. By 1944 there were over 74,000 Wrens deployed in Britain, the Mediterranean, the Near, Middle and Far East, Australia, Europe and North America.
The European war ended on May 8, 1945 (V-E Day) and Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. Demobilization of over 6,700 Wrens began immediately after V-J Day and by August 31, 1946 was completed. The Wrens no longer existed.
In 1951 approval was given for the establishment of a Women’s Reserve in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR). Approximately 700 Wrens joined. In January 1955, Cabinet approved a nucleus of regular force Wrens for the Royal Canadian Navy and in February the Ministry of National Defence announced the establishment of a women’s component in the regular force of the RCN. This represented the first time in the history of the British Navies that Wrens were totally integrated in the regular force.
Although still called Wrens these women were members of the RCN until February 1, 1968 when the Canadian Forces Reorganization Act came into being and women of all three forces came under one heading as “service women”. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the name WREN disappeared from the working ranks of Canadian Navy.