Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   www.SilverHawkAuthor.com   
 
Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division (RCAF WD)

Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division (RCAF WD)

Data current to 19 Sep 2019.

 (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec Photo)

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.

RCAF Women's Division, being inspected at Linton on Ouse or Leeming in the UK by His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother).  Princess Elizabeth and several notable RCAF Officers including Air Commodore Fauquier and Air Vice Marashall McEwan were also in the group.  An RCAF Handley Page Halifax is in the background, during the Royal visit, 11 Aug 1944.  (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4047092)

 (DND Photo)

RCAF WD insignia.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328790)

RCAF WD air woman saluting, ca 1941.

The Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division (RCAF WD) was a non-combatant element of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) which was active during the Second World War.  The original role of the Women's Division role was to replace male air force personnel so that they would be available for combat-related duties.  First called the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF), the name changed to Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division in February 1942.  Women's Division personnel were commonly known as WDs.

 (RCAF Photo, PL 20839)

RCAF pilot with three RCAF WD photographers preparing for a mission, ca 1944.

 (DND Photo)

RCAF WD recruiting poster.  The RCAF was the first branch of the Canadian armed services to actively recruit women.

At the beginning of the war, Canadian women began pressing for the right to be allowed to join the war effort.  This, along with manpower shortages, led to the air force conceding that women could help the war effort by taking over many men's duties with the aim of freeing up men for work that was directly related to combat. The Royal Air Force (RAF) suggested that the RCAF form its own women's unit much like the RAF Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).  In June 1941, the government formally decided to allow the enlistment of women in the armed services.  In 1941, an order-in-council authorized "the formation of a component of the Royal Canadian Air Force to be known as the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF), its function being to release to heavier duties those members of the RCAF employed in administrative, clerical and other comparable types of service employment."

The CWAAF was modelled on and structured like the RAF WAAF.  To assist with the organizing of the new RCAF women's unit, several WAAF officers were temporarily loaned by the RAF.  Since the CWAAF became an integral part of the RCAF, another order-in-council changed the CWAAF to the RCAF Women's Division (WD) on 3 February 1942.

The Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division used a rank structure like that of the Royal Air Force's WAAF.

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

RCAF WD air woman book-keeping, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328748)

RCAF WD Officer, ca 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328749)

RCAF and RCAF WD Officers examining documents, ca 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309686)

RCAF WD on parade, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4975857)

RCAF WD, Commander's inspection on the flight line, 17 Nov 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309689)

RCAF WD, parade formation, 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 5013190)

RCAF WD Airwoman E.F. Nightingale, photographer, ca 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328261)

RCAF WD Office, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328270)

RCAF WD members on course, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328263)

RCAF WD members on course, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4328265)

RCAF WD members on course, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3583411)

RCAF WD Graduation Parade, No. 7 M.D. (Crosswinds) , 14 Aug 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3582239)

RCAF WD, dress uniform, 10 July 1942.

The Women's Division uniform was based on the British WAAF uniform.  The kit consisted of a blue-grey ("air force blue") tunic and skirt, blue shirt, black necktie, greatcoat, rain coat, black shoes, navy blue cardigan, blue smock, overshoes, lisle grey stockings, gloves, khaki coveralls, grey shorts, tee shirt, summer dress, rank badges and a cap with a pleated crown.  A battle dress uniform was issued to those who would be exposed to bad weather.  In some instances, lined ski pants, parka, and winter cap with ear flaps were issued.  Airwomen who served outside Canada wore a "Canada" flash on the shoulders.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3582233)

RCAF WD, gabardine, 10 July 1942.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309688)

RCAF WD airwomen trying on uniform shoes, Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3583166)

Corporal Helen Grice of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division working in the Orderly Room of No.168 (HT) Squadron, Rockcliffe, Ontario, 1 March 1944. 

The uniform changed somewhat in 1943.  The new uniform, which was meant to be primarily worn off the stations, added a pleat to the greatcoat and the skirt was changed to a six-gore pattern.  The pleated tunic pockets were replaced with flat patch pockets below and false pockets above, and the belt became detachable. A blue leather shoulder bag was added.  The cap was replaced with one with a kepi-style with a deep visor and higher stiffened front.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3584673)

RCAF WD, dress uniform, 17 March 1952.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3584677)

RCAF WD, work uniform, 17 March 1952. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3584674)

RCAF WD, greatcoat, 17 March 1952. 

The summer uniform consisted of a blue short-sleeved cotton dress with brass buttons. This was eventually replaced with a light khaki uniform based on the new blue (winter) uniform.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4674254)

RCAF Women’s Division Personnel, Jean Flatt Davey and Willa Walker are seen third and fourth from the left, ca 1944.

Many recruits were attracted by recruiting posters and pamphlets, and many were influenced by a WD precision squad that travelled across Canada.  Officers also travelled across Canada to encourage recruitment.  Tours of WD facilities were arranged.  Films such as Proudly She Marches publicized the Women's Division, and photographs of WDs in uniform taken by Ottawa photographer Yousef Karsh attracted interest.

At first, 150 women, slated to be officers and NCOs, were specially selected for having the necessary qualifications judged on character, intelligence, leadership potential, and ability to take responsibility.  They were expected to have experience in business or social work and working with people and have organizing ability.  The women chosen were the very best of applicants; 70% of them had some high school education and 7% had been to university.  The criteria were more demanding since they were going to be the leaders of the Women's Division.

For general recruitment, women had to be between 21 and 41 years old, had to pass medical tests, be at least five feet tall, have a normal weight, must have been accepted to high school, be able to pass a trade aptitude test, be of good character, not be married with children under her care, and not hold a permanent civil service appointment.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3615000)

The timekeepers, personnel of the RCAF Women's Division, No. 2 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Station Uplands, Ontario, Canada, 1942.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3615001)

The timekeepers, personnel of the RCAF Women's Division, No. 2 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Station Uplands, Ontario, Canada, 1942.

Selected recruits were sent to manning depot where they learned "drill, deportment, discipline, service customs, etiquette [and the] king's regulations".  Selection for trade training was also handled at the manning depot.  Some of the trades that were taught at various locations across Canada included meteorology, food preparation, air traffic control, parachute rigging, photo interpretation, photography, typing, administration, wireless operation, and police work.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3583064)

Airwomen demonstrating parachute packing technique, RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Ontario, Canada, 27 October 1943.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3583311)

RCAF WD kit layout for inspection, RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Ontario, 17 June 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4295590)

Royal Canadian Air Force, Women's Division member with a personnel counsellor, Toronto, Ontario, June 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4295591)

RCAF WD Evelyn Miller, receiving messages in a control room as part of the operations concerning the Northwest Staging Route, Edmonton, Alberta, September 1944. 

Originally, only nine trades were open to women; however, duties expanded as the war progressed and 69 trades became available.  Among the many jobs carried out by WD personnel, they became clerks, telephone operators, drivers, fabric workers, hairdressers, hospital assistants, instrument mechanics, parachute riggers, photographers, air photo interpreters, intelligence officers, instructors, weather observers, pharmacists, wireless operators, and Service Police.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3583291)

RCAF WD Service Police uniform, 29 May 1944. 

RCAF regulations at the time precluded women who possessed flying licences from flight instructing or front-line duty.  Most WDs were located at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) and RAF training stations across Canada and Newfoundland.  Many served in Canadian operational stations, some served in the United States and many were posted overseas with RCAF Overseas Headquarters and No. 6 (Bomber) Group.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4542811)

Corporal East and Airwomen Jamieson who are members of the RCAF Women's Division with the Canadian No. 6 (Bomber) Group headquarters, outside their Nissen hut, in England.

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. CVA 458-9.2)

Air Vice Marshall F. Vernon Heakes, Air Officer Commanding Western Air Command 1944-1946, greeting Princess Alice, the Honorary Commandant of the Women's Division on her arival to inspect members of the RCAF Women's Division at Western Air Command, Jericho builind on 4th Avenue, Vancouver, ca 1944.  Princess Alice, was the vice regal consort of Canada's Governor General Alexander Cambridge, Earl of Athlone. 

 (DND Photo)

Princess Alice, Honorary Air Commandant of the RCAF (Women's Division), 24 July 1943. 

 (RCAF Photo)

Princess Alice, Honorary Air Commandant of the RCAF (Women's Division), 24 July 1943.  She also served as the Honorary Commandant of the WRCNS.

Her Royal Highness Princess Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline of Albany, Countess of Athlone, viceregal consort of Canada, wife of Canada's Governor General, Lord Athlone who served from 1940-1946.  They came to live in Ottawa during those years, and were very active in the war effort from 1940 to 1946.  She was born on 25 February 1883 in Berkshire, United Kingdom, the daughter of Prince Leopold and Princess Helena.  Leopold was the youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  Princess Alice died on 3 January 1981 in London, United Kingdom.

Princess Alice was the Honorary Commandant of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service.  She was also the Honorary Air Commandant of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division), and president of the nursing divisions of the St. John Ambulance Brigade. 

An Air Commodore is on the left, Air Vice Marshall Chester Hull may also be in attendance.

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. CVA 458-9.4)

Inspection of members of the RCAF WD at Western Air Command, ca 1942. 

Squadron Leader Chevrier, was the ADC to the Governor General.

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. CVA 458-9.1)

Hallway inspection of members of the RCAF WD at Western Air Command, ca 1942.  Princess Alice, Honorary Air Commandant of the RCAF (Women's Division).

 (City of Vancouver Archives Photo, Reference No. CVA 458-9.3)

RCAF WD parade and marchpast at Western Air Command, ca 1942.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4309901)

Princess Alice with Canada's Governor General Earl of Althone and members of their household in Rideau Hall, Ottawa, Ontario, March 1946. 

A total of 17,038 women served with the Women's Division before it was discontinued in December 1946.  Twenty WDs received the BEM, 12 officers received the MBE, and one officer, Dr. Jean Davey, was awarded the OBE. Twenty-eight WDs died during the war from various causes.

Women were again permitted to enter the RCAF in 1951 when the air force was expanding to cover Canada's  NATO  commitments.  Women were accepted as military pilots in 1980, and Canada became the first Western country to allow women to be fighter pilots in 1988.

Source: Wikipedia.

Airwomen, post war RCAF.

 (DND Photo)

Airwoman, control tower, 3 (Fighter) Wing, RCAF Station Zweibrucken, Germany, 15 June 1954.

 (DND Photo)

Airwomen undergo training at the Radar and Communication School in Clinton, Ontario.

 (DND Photo)

Canada’s first female fighter pilots, Capt Jane Foster (left) and Capt Deanna (Dee) Brasseur, posing in front of a Canadair CF-116 Freedom Fighter in 1988.

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.