Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   www.SilverHawkAuthor.com   
 
Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC)

The Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC)

Data Current to 6 August 2019.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3589867)

Members of The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division (WD) on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1943. 

The RCAF has the distinction of being the first service to admit women beyond nursing sisters.  On 2 July 1941, an Order-in-Council granted it permission to establish the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF), which would be modelled on and structured like Britain’s Royal Air Force Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.  In February 1942, it was renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division (RCAF WD), and its members weere usually referred to as WDs.  A change in federal labour legislation paved the way for this breakthrough development. Included in the revised labour legislation, passed in early 1941, was a provision for the establishment of the Women’s Volunteer Services (WVS) and the National Selective Service (NSS) branch of the Department of Labour, which permitted the Canadian Army and the RCAF to employ women to ease their manpower shortages.

The army was the second service to receive the go-ahead.  In response to a personnel shortage in the army’s support staff, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was established on 13 Aug 1941.  Recruiting began in September and by 31 Dec 1941, Military Historian Colonel C.P. Stacey noted that, 1,256 women “had been appointed or enlisted” in the corps, then called the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Corps.  Initially the corps was not part of the army and therefore not subject to military law.  Accordingly, designations similar to those of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in the United Kingdom were used instead of military terms for officers’ ranks.  This changed in 1942 when the CWAC became an integral part of the Army and came under military law.  Henceforth CWAC officers were authorized to assume army titles and to use badges of rank.

Not until 31 July 1942, did Parliament approve the formation of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS).  (Legion Magazine)

Canadian Women’s Army Corps

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328694)

Canadian Women's Army Corps recruiting poster, ca 1943.

The Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) was a non-combatant branch of the Canadian Army for women, established during the Second World War.  Its primary was to release men from those non-combatant roles in the Canadian armed forces as part of expanding Canada's war effort.  Of the roughly 50,000 women who enlisted, more than half served in the Canadian Army.

 (DND Photo)

CWAC salute, pulbicitgy shot taken 30 Oct 1943.

The majority of CWAC women served in Canada, but a few also served overseas.  They were assigned jobs involving cooking, laundry and clerical duties, but CWAC women also pioneered roles in the mechanized and technical fields.  They performed essential services, both at home and overseas, that helped bring about Allied victory.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3194968)

Canadian Women's Army Corps vehicle mechanics.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, PA-177084)

CWAC Private Lowry, tightening up the springs on the front of her vehicle, Chelsea & Cricklewood Garage, England, 7 July 1944.

 (Padraic Ryan Photo, taken in 2007)

The headquarters of the CWAC was based at Goodwin House in Ottawa, Ontario.

The CWAC was authorized on 13 August 1941, in response to a shortage of personnel caused by the increase in the size of Canada's army, Navy, and air force.  The founding driving force to the unit's creation was Mrs. Joan Kennedy, of Victoria, British Columbia.  She initially faced a great deal of opposition from male military authorities.  The organization was initially named the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Corps and was not an official part of the armed forces.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4232477)

Matron-in-Chief Elizabeth Smellie of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) was seconded to organize the CWAC, and she then toured the country to select officer candidates from 1940 to 1944.  Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie, CBE, RRC (March 22, 1884 – March 5, 1968), also known as Beth Smellie, was a Canadian Nurse and the first woman to be promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Canadian Army.

 (DND Photo)

Lieutenant-Colonel Joan Kennedy was appointed general staff officer for training.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4232997) 

CWAC Colonel Margaret Eaton was appointed as director-general.  

Alice Sorby commanded the CWAC overseas and became deputy director-general.  

On 13 March 1942, female volunteers were inducted into the Canadian Army and the CWAC became fully integrated into the Canadian Army.  They wore a cap badge comprised of three maple leaves, and collar badges of the goddess Athena (an ancient Greek goddess associated with wisdom, handicraft, and warfare).

 (Mondochrome Photo)

CWAC hat badge.

In February 1943, a CWAC advertisement in the Edmonton Journal noted that prospective recruits had to be in excellent health, at least 5 feet (152 cm) tall and 105 pounds (48 kg) (or within 10 pounds (4.5 kg) above or below the standard of weight laid down in medical tables for different heights), with no dependents, a minimum of Grade 8 education, aged 18 to 45, and a British subject, as Canadians were at that time.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328307)

CWAC Wireless telegrapher, ca 1941.

Since women were not allowed to enter in combat of any kind the CWACs worked as office personnel, as dental and medical technicians, or as telephone operators, secretaries, clerks, canteen workers, vehicle drivers, jobs in repairs, communications, drafting, and many other non-combat military jobs.  They were only paid two-thirds of what the men were paid in the same occupation (this figure later became four-fifths).

 (Galt Museum and Archives Photo, P19891053017)

CWAC telephone switchboard operators at Canadian Military Headquarters, London, England, 1945. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309683)

CWAC staff in a communications centre, Ottawa, Dec 1944.

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. CVA 371-174)

CWAC operator answering the telephone, ca 1941.

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. CVA 371-190)

Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart speaks to a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328276)

CWAC office workers, Dec 1941.

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. Mil P220.2)

 Canadian Women's Army Corps member Sue Ward

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328284)

CWAC on parade, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405623)

Private Helen Brymer, Canadian Women's Army Corps, watching Private Dorothy Lowry check the battery of her vehicle at the Chelsea & Cricklewood garage, England, 7 July 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328324)

CWAC driver with Central Ordance Depot vehicle, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328770)

CWAC driver with Mobile Field Kitchen vehicle, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309687)

CWAC driver cleaning her staff car, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309679)

CWAC drivers demonstrating VIP protocol, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3334442)

CWAC Private conducting tests during the Respiratory Disease Control Program, Camp Borden, Ontario, Canada, ca. February-March 1944.

The CWAC had many jobs with different uniforms.  A canteen worker could wear overalls, a radioman could wear the battledress trousers and the battledress jacket (most common). Uniforms came in many different forms. Home front women usually wore dress skirts (or trousers) and round hats. If it was a job that meant getting your hands dirty, such as working on an engine of an airplane or vehicle, they would wear normal hardy clothing.  Official regulations regarding uniforms were that the women must wear a: "Khaki greatcoat, barathea skirt and hip-length jacket, peak cap with high crown, and a cap badge with three maple leaves on a stem on which was inscribed 'Canadian Women's Army Corps'.  The helmeted head of Athena appears on buttons and badges."

Forty per cent of the women who enlisted said that patriotism was their motivation. About one-third said they joined in search of new opportunities and adventure. Other factors included being near loved ones who were already serving, the prestige of serving in uniform, and releasing men for combat roles. A prominent CWAC motto was “We serve that men may fight.”

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328305)

CWAC wearing a greatcoat and gas mask carrier in front of recruiting posters, ca 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3205994)

CWAC entering a gas hut on a training exercise, No. 2 Canadian Women’s Army Corps, Basic Training Centre, Vermilion, Alberta, July 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309678)

CWAC members on course, Dec 1941.

Between 350 and 430 newly enlisted women were sent each month for basic training at Kitchener, Ontario, or Vermilion, Alberta, on a four-week course.  Officers, mainly university graduates, were trained for eight weeks at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec.  Some recruits were assigned to additional specialized training for up to six months.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405631)

CWAC members on the firing range, 15 Dec 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3207287)

Personnel of the Canadian Women's Army Corps at No. 3 CWAC (Basic) Training Centre, 6 April 1944.

 (DND Photo)

CWAC recruiting poster, ca 1944 (2).

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3604398)

CWAC recruiting poster (3), English version.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3604398)

CWAC recruiting poster (4), French version.

 (DND Photo)

CWAC recruiting poster, ca 1944 (5).

An intensive advertising campaign of posters, film, full-page magazine and newspaper advertisements, and radio announcements gradually revived the recruitment effort. "Proudly She Marches," a popular film on the topic by the National Film Board, emphasized pride, cohesion and discipline without the loss of femininity.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3210381)

Canadian Women’s Army Corps Sergeant Karen M. Hermiston holding an Anniversary Speed Graphic camera, London, England, 15 Nov 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3210381)

Canadian Women’s Army Corps, Sergeant Karen M. Hermiston holding a Rolleiflex camera.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405629)

CWAC Private Marjorie Cox of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit splicing film, Merton Park Studios, London, England, 19 December 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3211840)

Private Nadine Manning of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit in a film vault at Merton Park Studios, London, England, 19 December 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3211842)

Private Nadine Manning of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit processing strips of censored film at Merton Park Studios, London, England, 19 December 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3211841)

Sergeant Margaret O. King of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit operating an editing machine in the film library at Merton Park Studios, London, England, 19 December 1944. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4232878)

CWAC uniform in colour.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309685)

CWAC members sewing adjustments to their uniforms, 1941.

The professional CWAC uniform - khaki suit, peaked cap, military shirt, tie, hose and shoes, inspired pride and encouraged women to enter more innovative fields such as photographer, pipe or brass band musician, or entertainer with the Canadian Army Show.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3210826)

CWAC Lieutenant Verity Sweeny adjusting the gown of singer Mary Leonard of the Canadian Army Show, Guildford, England, 21 June 1945,

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3525922)

Members of the Canadian Women's Army Corps preparing to disembark from a troopship, Gourock, Scotland, 31 March 1943.

 (Galt Museum and Archives Photo, P19891053013)

Members of the Canadian Women's Army Corps arriving in Italy, 1944.

 (Galt Museum and Archives Photo, P19891053012)

Members of the Canadian Women's Army Corps touring battlefield ruins in Italy, 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 35396980)

Canadian Women's Army Corps Pipe and Brass Bands preparing to take part in CWAC anniversary march past Apeldoorn, Netherlands, 13 August 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3222692)

Members of the Canadian Women's Army Corps Pipe Band, alongside captured German E-boats, Wilhelmshaven, Germany, 4 October 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3222691)

Piper Flossie Ross of he Canadian Women's Army Corps Pipe Band on the deck of a surrendered German E-boat, Wilhelmshaven, Germany, 4 October 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3396976)

Lance-Corporal A.W. Hartung with Pipers Flossie Rose (centre) and Mona Michie of the Canadian Women's Army Corps Pipe Band, Zeist, Netherlands, 25 August 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3219097)

Lieutenant Molly McMurray, Commanding Officer of the Canadian Women's Army Corps Pipe Band talking with Captains C. McDowall (left) and L.K. Hill, Zeist, Netherlands, 25 August 1945. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405628)

Corporals Eileen Sainsbury and Rita Moffat and Private Christina Gray, all of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, boarding a streetcar, Antwerp, Belgium, 28 October 1944. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3225471)

The Canadian Women's Army Corps Brass Band en route from the Royal Palace to the City Theatre, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 25 July 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3396989)

Canadian Women's Army Corps Pipe Band parading through Amsterdam, Netherlands, 17 October 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309682)

CWAC member sorting uniform pins, Dec 1941. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405613)

Personnel of the Canadian Women's Army Corps operating pressing machines at the Surrey County Council Central Laundry, Carshalton, England, 19 August 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3526870)

Personnel of the Canadian Women's Army Corps at the Surrey County Council Central Laundry, Carshalton, England, 18 August 1943. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3198843)

CWAC members of the Canadian Army "Invasion Revue" Show, Banville, France, 30 July 1944. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3191978)

Canadian Women’s Army Corps, 2nd Lieutenant Molly Lamb, war artist, London, England, 12 July 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3217951)

War artist 2nd Lieutenant Molly Lamb, Canadian Women's Army Corps, sketching at Volendam, Netherlands, 12 September 1945.

Molly Bobak became the first Canadian woman artist to be sent overseas to document Canada’s war effort, and in particular, the work of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.  She prepared hundreds of sketches and paintings of war scenes and CWAC personnel at work. She was a Canadian teacher, writer, printmaker and painter working in oils and watercolours.  Fresh out of art school, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942.  After V-E Day in Europe, she was sent to London.  There she met her future husband, 21-year-old Bruno Bobak, Canada’s youngest war artist.  The couple soon married.  Ms. Bobak remained with the CWAC until 1946, documenting their training, marching and working.  After spending four years in Europe with money from a grant by the Canada Council, Bruno was offered a position teaching at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Bruno and Molly settled in Fredericton, where she continued to live until she passed away on 2 March 2014.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3381922)

Personnel of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps taking part in a firefighting exercise, London, England, 28 February 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3381969)

Personnel of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps taking part in a firefighting exercise, London, England, 28 February 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3396484)

Canadian Women's Army Corps  with the first contingent entering Hamm, Germany, 12 June 1945.

An overseas posting was the most desired role.  Three thousand CWACs served in Britain, northwest Europe, Italy, the Far East and Germany.  Appointment to overseas work was highly competitive, validating a woman’s skilled proficiency and contribution to the war effort.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405622)

Personnel of the Canadian Women's Army Corps disembarking from a troopship at Naples, Italy, 22 June 1944. 

CWACs served out of country initially in 1942 in Washington, DC, and then later with the Canadian Army in the United Kingdom.  In 1944, CWACs served in Italy and in 1945 in northwest Europe, usually as clerks in headquarters establishments. After VE Day, more served with Canadian occupation forces in Germany.  Approximately 3,000 served Canada overseas.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405626) 

Personnel of the Canadian Women's Army Corps crossing the Alexandre III bridge, Paris, France, 15 October 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3518574)

Private Doreen Exler, Canadian Women's Army Corps, enrolled as a student at the Khaki University of Canada, Leavesden, England, 14 September 1945.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3206147)

Canadian Women's Army Corps member graduating from a course in London, England, 19 February 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3202514) 

Canadian Women's Army Corps memberstaking instruction in bomb-handling, London, England, 30 Jan 1943.

While no members of the CWAC were killed in action, four were wounded in a German V-2 missile attack on Antwerp in 1945.  "The CWAC was the largest force with 22,000 members, followed by the Air Force Women’s Division with 17,000 and the WRCNs with just under 7,000."  In August 1946 the CWACs were disbanded.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4453882)

Officers of the Canadian Women's Army Corps taking part in the CWAC Conference in Ottawa on 3 Nov 1960.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4453885)

Officers of the Canadian Women's Army Corps taking part in the CWAC Conference in Ottawa on 3 Nov 1960.

The Canadian Women's Army Corps was re-instated on 22 March 1948 and re-designated on 18 April 1955.  The CWAC was disbanded as a separate corps in 1964 when women were fully integrated into the Canadian armed forces.  

 (DND Photo)

WRCNS, CWAC, RCAF WD recruiting poster.

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps served in the Second World War alongside the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division) (RCAF WD), the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), and the nursing services associated with all three forces.

After the Second World War, the CWAC and other military organizations were disbanded as women were finally incorporated into the Canadian Forces (CF).

The CWAC and other military organizations were aimed at attracting young women into the Canadian forces during the Second World War and paved the way for women's future involvement in combat.  With tens of thousands of women involved in these organizations, it provided Canadian women with the opportunity to do their part in a global conflict.  55 trade categories open to women by the end of the war.  Their involvement was critical to the Allied victory. 

Sources: Wikipedia and The Canadian Encyclopedia

CWAC Memorials

Canadian Women's Army Corps (2000) by André Gauthier is a 6-foot-4-inch (1.93 m)-high bronze statue in front of the Kitchener Armoury, Kitchener, Ontario.

Erected by local ex-servicewomen, a memorial in Salmon Arm, BC, was dedicated on 14 August 2000 to all Canadian women who served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War.

Female General and Flag Officers in the Canadian Forces

23 women have risen to the rank of General or Flag Officer in the Canadian Forces.  In the summer of 2015, Christine Whitecross was promoted to Lieutenant-General and become the Chief of Military Personnel, the first female to be promoted to that rank.  On 27 July 1994 Dr. Wendy Clay became the first woman in the Canadian Forces promoted to the rank of Major-General when she became the Surgeon General.  Sheila Hellstrom was the first female to achieve the rank of Brigadier-General on 27 January 1987.  Lorraine Frances Orthlieb was the first female reserve officer to reach flag officer status in the Canadian Forces when promoted to the rank of Commodore in 1989.  Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett was the first female reserve officer promoted to Rear-Admiral (in April 2011) and appointed Chief Reserves and Cadets in May 2011. 

In 2017, there were eleven active female General and Flag Officers in the Canadian Forces: Lieutenant-General Chris Whitecross, Major-General Tammy Harris, Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, Brigadier-General Frances Allen, Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon, Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan, Brigadier-General Danielle Savard, Brigadier-General Virginia Tattersall, Brigadier-General Josée Robidoux, Commodore Marta Mulkins, and Commodore Geneviève Bernachez.

In 2018, there were thirteen active female General and Flag Officers in the Canadian Forces: Lieutenant-General Chris Whitecross, RCAF Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, RCN Major-General Frances Allen, RCAF Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon, RCAF Brigadier-General Darlene Quinn, RCAF Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan, Canadian Army Brigadier-General Danielle Savard, Canadian Army Brigadier-General Virginia Tattersall, Canadian Army Brigadier-General Josée Robidoux, Canadian Army Commodore Marta Mulkins, RCN Commodore Geneviève Bernachez, RCN Commodore Rebecca L. Patterson, and RCN Commodore M.J. Joseé Kurtz, RCN