We serve that men may fly: RCAF Women’s Division

October 29, 2018
RCAF WomensDivision-26-poster-affiche

Recruiting poster for Women’s Division

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”.

Davis-DLG and Helen 1944

Newlyweds December 1, 1944 just before Dad left for England

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.


War Horses in World War I

February 22, 2018

World War I saw the use of trucks, tanks, machine guns and airplanes, but it also relied on the horse. An estimated 8 million horses were used by all combatants during the conflict from 1914-1918. This is considered the first and only time horses were widely used in a global conflict.

Pack Horses at Vimy Ridge-LAC PA-001229

Pack horses taking ammunition to front at Vimy Ridge April 1917. Photo Library & Archives Canada, PA-001229

Horses and mules proved more reliable than mechanized transport and it took far less to look after them. They served as pack animals hauling food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to troops at the front. Horses proved invaluable moving artillery pieces around in the mud and slime of the battlefield.

The Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) Veterinary Services tended to sick and wounded horses. They had a Mobile Services group to look after horses in the field. There was even an evacuation station at the rear where sick or wounded animals could be taken for care. The British and the Germans also had units assigned to tend to horses.

At Vimy Ridge for example some 500,000 horses pulled artillery pieces into position, brought supplies, ammunition and shells from the rear to forward positions in preparation for the attack. To keep the horses going about 600,000 gallons of water per day was required.

Conditions faced by horses in World War I were harsh, Many died from starvation, disease and exhaustion while many died from artillery fire.

The British Army used over 1 million horses and mules during the war. More than 400,000 of them were killed. In one day at the Battle of Verdun more that 7,000 horses perished.

Horses became more difficult to replace as the war went on. In order to meet the need horses were purchased from Australia, Argentina, Canada and the United States. In Britain horses were conscripted from farms but that supply was soon exhausted.

At the end of the war many horses were put down as too ill or too old. Many were sold to slaughterhouses or to locals in the war zones. Quarantine restrictions also prevented many from being returned to their countries of origin.

Cavalry units did exist and were used at various times. It became clear horses were vulnerable to trenches, machine guns and barbed wire. Soldiers on horseback were dismounted and fought as infantry.

The British mounted a cavalry charge early in the war near Mons in 1914. It was a disaster. Later in 1918 they charged at the German lines once again it was unsuccessful. Out of 150 horses only 4 survived the charge the rest cut down by German machine gun fire.

730px-Alfred_Munnings_-_Charge_of_Flowerdew's_Squadron

Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron. Photo of painting by Alfred Munnings. Photo Canadian War Museum.

Canada’s most noted cavalry unit was the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Most of their war was spent as infantry, but they did mount a charge in the Last One Hundred Days of the war with minor success. At the Battle of Moreuil Wood mounted cavalry of 100 horses and men charged the German lines defended by roughly 300 enemy. The Germans surrendered but three-quarters of the cavalry were killed or wounded. The success of the attack was due to the complete surprise of the Germans seeing the mad charge of the horse soldiers bearing down on them at breakneck speed. This became known as the “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron” after the commander who was killed in the attack. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.

“War Horse” a 1982 book by British author Michael Mopurgo and later made first into a stage play and then a movie by Steven Spielberg depicts the life of a war horse quite graphically. It also shows the love and affection many of the soldiers had for these valiant beasts.


The Missing of the Great War

April 10, 2017
Menin Gate Memorial-Names

Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium showing interior wall with names of missing.

As I watched the 100th anniversary ceremonies at the Vimy Memorial in France and listened to news reports I noticed there was some confusion when discussing “missing” soldiers. I hope to clarify that in this article, another in my series on the Great War 1914-1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is charged with ensuring that the final resting places of the dead from both World Wars are preserved forever. After the November 11, 1918 Armistice the Commission’s work began. They began by recording the details of the dead from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and other countries of the British Commonwealth. Some 587,000 graves were identified and a further 559,000 casualties registered as having no known grave. Once land had been acquired they began constructing cemeteries. They consolidated smaller cemeteries into the larger ones and located as many battlefield burials as they could and interred them in the larger cemeteries.

The principles of the Commission mandated an identical headstone for every soldier regardless of rank, religion or race. Basic information where known was inscribed. Christian soldiers stones have a cross and Jewish soldiers have the Star of David. All cemeteries are well maintained. The Commission replaces about 20,000 stones every year due to weathering or damage or information correction. They also did not allow the reparation of any of the dead they were all to be buried where they died.

These cemeteries contain two types of burials, those containing identified soldiers and those graves containing remains of unidentified soldiers. The latter are the “Unknowns”. Finally all those killed, but where remains have never been located are the “Missing”. As can be seen from the previous paragraph this is a staggering number. In the war years of 1914 to 1918 soldiers were blown to bits in battle, sank into the deep mud and just disappeared. Over the years as bodies are found through various activities on the battlefields identification is attempted. If a name can be associated with the remains they are buried with that on the headstone, otherwise they are buried as unknown. They are removed from the missing list.

The War Graves Cemeteries commemorate the dead whose remains were located. The Commission also wanted to commemorated the “missing” in some permanent way so they decided to engrave the names on memorials. The Vimy Memorial walls contain the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France during World War I, but who do not have a known resting place. It should be noted there are no cemeteries at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, but there are a short distance away.

For those who died in Belgium (or Flanders) the Menin Gate Memorial was constructed in Ypres, Belgium. This memorial contains the names of over 54,000 soldiers from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who do not have a known resting place, the “missing”. Those Canadians who went missing presumed killed at Passchendaele for example are included at this memorial.

In my case I had a great-uncle, Herbert T. Waite, who was killed at Vimy but never found. His name is engraved into the Vimy Memorial Wall. I located him by searching the Commission’s database for all the surnames in my family I was researching. For common surnames you may need additional information to narrow the search results to the correct individual. You can also search for cemeteries. The search is free and easy to use.

So next time you hear about the “Missing” remember they have no known resting place, but their names are etched into the walls of Menin Gate and the Vimy Memorial and others so we can remember them always.

Should you wish to located the grave of a relative killed in the Great War or the Second World War here is the link to search. The results will tell you the exact location if it is a burial. If the person is one of the “missing” is will have under Burial “N/A” but will tell you where the name is engraved.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission


Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Defining Moment

April 8, 2017
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Canadian stamps issued to commemorate Vimy Ridge. They show the Vimy Memorial and preserved trenches nearby. The memorial was completed in 1936. 

This post is one in my continuing series related to World War I or The Great War as it is also called. It has been 100 years since these events took place that still impact us today.

One hundred years ago on the morning of April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps consisting of four divisions commenced the attack on a key high point in the Arras sector of the Western Front. This was Vimy Ridge a strategic point held by the Germans since the early days of the war. Numerous attempts had been made to capture it before without success now it was Canada’s turn.

Within the first two days it was captured and in the hands of the Allies thanks to the detailed planning and execution of the Canadian Corps. The cost was high, 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed.

Canada’s victory gained us much respect and admiration from the world. There is no doubt in this writer’s mind it was a pivotal point in the history of our nation. We became more than just one of the colonies. We became proud to be Canadians.

Today we do not celebrate a victory so much as we remember the sacrifice of the men who gave their all serving Canada. We remember and mourn those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield of Vimy. May we never forget these men.

My thoughts are with them today. I am proud to be Canadian.


Vimy Ridge: Personal connections.

March 21, 2017
Waiter-Herbert Tracy-WWI-Death-Newspaper Clipping

My Great Uncle – article in Toronto paper in 1917.

One hundred years ago on April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps fought a battle that told the world we were no longer a colony, but a true nation. This was the first time during the Great War all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together in a single operation. Some 97,184 soldiers of the Canadian Corps participated in the battle

Vimy Ridge located in France was a strategic high point the Allies wanted to capture to gain an advantage over the Germans. Attempts to capture it had been made on several occasions before without success. The Canadians had gained a name for themselves as tough, never say die soldiers, so they were called in to attempt to capture the objective.

Canadian commanders did the following key things to prepare for the battle,

  • built tram-ways and plank roads to enable the movement of over 800 tons of ammunition, rations and equipment per day leading up to the battle.
  • had 72 kilometres of pipe laid to supply 600,000 gallons of water per day for the horses.
  • amassed 50,000 horses to move artillery pieces and shift supplies.
  • constructed a full-scale mock-up of the ridge behind the lines so troops could rehearse movements. This the first time this was done.
  • a series of underground caves and tunnels were constructed close to and under the ridge.

The attack was planned for 5:30 am on the morning of April 9th. Several hours before all the men were given a hot meal and a tot of rum.

The attack began on schedule at 5:30 am behind a creeping artillery barrage. The artillery barrage moved several yards each time and the infantry followed behind. This was a tactic that gave the soldiers some protection as it forced the Germans to keep their heads down and caused confusion in their ranks. The first wave went forward through the underground tunnels to catch the Germans by surprise. Some of these caves and tunnels were large enough to hold an entire battalion. Artillery bombardments had been on-going for several days ahead of the attack, this was to confuse the enemy and keep them guessing as to when the actual attack was coming.

Within the first hour the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions reached the first objective and by 8 am the final objective. The battle continued for two days with another two for mopping up. Victory was declared April 10th. The Canadians accomplished what no other troops had been able to. The cost was high with Canadians suffering 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed. Over 4,000 Germans were captured during the battle.

This battle is personal for me because members of my family took part. As a genealogical researcher I spent a lot of time looking into our military history. I discovered connections to Vimy Ridge and other battles of World War I.

Cuthbert “Bert” Sendell:
My grandfather on mother’s side served in the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) and was at Vimy Ridge. He survived and came home. Interestingly he enlisted as Herbert Strain, his biological father’s first name and his stepfather’s last name.

Herbert Tracy Waite:
Grandmother’s big brother who unfortunately was killed at Vimy. He was only 20 years of age and left behind a wife and children back home. The newspaper article at top is a document I found during my research. Date of his death was actually April 13, 1917, but reporter didn’t have a lot of information at that time. Very sad reading and this is just one example of thousands. He is commemorated at the Vimy Memorial in France, but is one of thousands whose body was never found.

Vimy Ridge was just an entry in the history books to me, but that history came alive when I discovered my ancestors contributed to Canada’s war effort. This coming April 9th I will be proudly thinking about their sacrifice one hundred years ago.

Suggested Reading:
Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, Cook, Tim, Penguin Canada 2008
Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, Nicholson, G.W.L., McGill-Queen’s University Press 2015
(First published in 1962)
Vimy, Berton, Pierre, McClelland and Stewart 1986
The Vimy Ridge Foundation website


Poppies: Symbols of remembrance

November 3, 2016
Canada's National War Memorial, Ottawa commemorated by stamp.

Canada’s National War Memorial, Ottawa commemorated by stamp.

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

Lieutenant John McCrae, 1915

When Canadian John McCrae wrote these lines over 100 years ago he wasn’t doing it to glorify war or battles, but to remember the sacrifice of his comrades who had been killed in the service of their country. These men who now lay dead and buried in Flanders Fields of Belgium. He himself would not survive the war.

I’ve actually heard people saying that poppies and Remembrance Day itself on November 11th are meant to glorify war. There couldn’t be anything farther from the truth. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many veterans including my grandfather and my father. Not one of them has ever glorified war, but they’ve always spoken highly of their fellow veterans and especially of those who served with them.

Remembrance is critical. If we don’t remember those who served and sacrificed in some way, many with their lives, we as a society will make the same mistakes. We remember war not to glorify it, but to remember its horrors so that we make peace wherever possible, and only enter war as a last resort. Unfortunately sometimes it takes our military to fight for and defend our freedoms and values. Evil is alive in the world

We owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid to all those who stepped up to defend freedom and especially those who lie still in Flanders Fields where the poppies grow.

Bless them and remember them always.


The Greatest Generation

November 5, 2015
One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada's war dead lie.

One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada’s war death lie.

On November 11, 2015 it will be 70 years since the end of the Second World War 1939-1945 and over 100 years since the beginning of the Great War 1914-1919.

Tom Brokaw’s  famous book, “The Greatest Generation”, is in my opinion one of the best reads on war and sacrifice. It is a collection of stories from veterans and their wartime experiences. It’s not about generals and strategy, but rather about ordinary people and how they stood up and fought for our freedom against the evil forces seeking to destroy and conquer the world. Although American it applies to all who were of that generation. These people grew up in the Depression of the 1930s and did what had to be done in the 1940s. They made it possible for us to have the society we have today. The following quote from the book says it all

“They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”

These men returned from the horrors of war to short-lived celebration and then resumed their lives as best they could. For years they never talked about their experiences. All that changed after fifty years when they realized age was killing them off at a rapid rate. They didn’t want to tell their stories to glamourize war, but so that we would never forget. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to know some older vets who told me of their experiences. It is incredible to see a vet tear up when he remembers a buddy from all those years ago. They remember the friends they lost like it was yesterday such was the horror of it. To all the vets who tell the stories thanks for letting us know what it was really like.

To younger people if you want to know about wars don’t read the accounts of generals and politicians, read the stories of ordinary people, the soldiers who went through the mud, the fire, and the blood. For Canadians there is “Testaments of Honour: Personal Histories of Canada’s War Veterans” by Blake Heathcote which I highly recommend.

Other books to read are Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” or Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day”. These books are far more interesting and enlightening then some general’s memoirs. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” which revolves around the D-Day landings is one of the most realistic war movies of all time. Director Steven Spielberg screened it for veterans of D-Day to get their input. To a man they liked it, but said it lacked one thing, the smell. They told him the smell of blood, gore, death and cordite from shells was overpowering during the combat. They also told him the noise level pierced them to the very soul. These were the things they still remembered all those years later.

When you attend or watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies and you see all the old vets close your eyes and visualize them as young boys and men in their late teens and early twenties preparing to charge off the landing craft into the hellstorm of machine gun fire and shelling. While you’re contemplating that image ask yourself if you could stand up and do what needed to be done.


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