This is my tribute to the women who served in the Second World War and paved the way for women in today’s modern armed forces.
When Canada went to war in 1939 women pressured the government for the right to enlist. The government was reluctant to allow this, but eventually personnel shortages forced a change.
An order-in-council of July 2, 1942 authorized the recruitment of women and the formation of the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF). This was a component of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Women were still not permitted to serve in combat roles so it’s purpose was to relieve male members of the RCAF from administrative, clerical and other comparable duties to heavier duty.
Effective February 3, 1943 another order-in-council changed the name of the CWAAF to the RCAF Women’s Division (WD). Their recruitment motto became “We Serve that men may fly”.
The WDs as they became known carried out many jobs during the war including, clerical, telephone operators, drivers, parachute riggers, and many others.
A total of 17,038 women served in the RCAF Women’s Division. Twenty-eight died during the war from various causes.
The RCAF was the first branch of the Canadian armed services to actively recruit women. Recruits had to be between 21 and 41 years old (later reduced to minimum of 18), pass a medical, be at least five feet tall, have a normal weight, be of good character and not be married with children.
Those employed at RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa lived in a barrack block housing up to 800 airmen. These quarters were not well heated or insulated. In winter many slept with uniforms on to keep warm.
WD members were paid only 2/3 of their male counterparts, but by 1943 this was increased to 80 percent of the males wages.
Why did they enlist? This was an age when women were expected to stay at home and wait for their men to come home from the war. They joined for adventure, a steady job, to get away from home, or patriotism.
Helen Sendell from Toronto enlisted on September 14, 1943 when she turned 18. She enlisted to show her older sister and her family she was independent and could live on her own. The family were against it. It was her form of rebellion. My mother always was strong willed.
She was assigned to headquarters in Ottawa where she put her shorthand and stenography skills to good use. She was classified as a key-punch operator in Records Department, RCAF Headquarters.
On New Year’s Eve 1943 she was at a bar in Hull, Quebec across the river from Ottawa with her date. While there another couple joined them. The young flight-lieutenant was smitten with Helen, but he was with someone else. After that evening he pursued her until she finally relented and they began dating. Helen and Mike were married September 30, 1944. Marriage between two fellow service personnel was not allowed and especially between enlisted personnel and officers. Helen was forced to resign from the RCAF. She was almost immediately hired back as a civilian employee and assigned the same job at the same desk. Her discharge from RCAF service became official December 31, 1944 “by reason of married requirements”.
After two weeks honeymooning her new husband Mike was sent to RCAF HQ in London, England in December 1944 where he remained until coming back to Canada in 1946.
I am proud of my father and mother’s service to Canada during the Second World War. In addition two of my father’s brothers served one of them paying the ultimate price.
Each November 11th I do not glorify war, but I remember the sacrifices those who served their country to preserve our way of life.