Where the History of Canada's Navy Comes Alive!   

A Short History of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (Wrens)

Ex-Wrens Final Reunion

15-17 September 2006

Winnipeg, Manitoba

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Where did it all begin?

On November 26th 1917, a letter was sent from the First Lord of the Admiralty to King George V requesting approval of a proposal to form a Service called the ‘The Women’s Royal Naval Service’. Women would be employed on various duties, on shore, hitherto performed by naval ratings. The King gave his approval and the Women’s Royal Naval Service was established. Thus it was that before women had been granted the vote they donned the uniform of the Women’s Royal Naval Service; served in the Royal Navy and found themselves doing jobs which would have been unthinkable for women to undertake just a few years earlier.
It is the initials W.R.N.S. that the acronym “Wren” came about. The W.R.N.S. was officially disbanded in 1919 but was reformed in 1939. The number of Wrens initially required by the Royal Navy in 1939 was fifteen hundred: fifteen thousand applied. During the next six war years more than one hundred thousand women served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

The Formation of the W.R.C.N.S.

An obvious feature of the Second World War was the constant demand for manpower. As more men went off to battle women replaced them in many civilian jobs and the enlistment of women in the services followed. In 1941 the naval authorities were of the opinion that the situation did not require an auxiliary force of women, but with the vigorous expansion of the war effort the original plan was revised and in January of 1942 the British Admiralty was asked for the loan of two qualified officers in the W.R.N.S. to help establish a similar organization. The following July the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service was established.

When it came time to select the women who would make up the first class of Wrens there were about two thousand applications. Seventy were chosen for their outstanding leadership qualities and executive abilities. On August 29th 1942, sixty seven of these women reported to Kingsmill House in Ottawa to begin their basic training.

On September 19th the first selection board was held at Kingsmill House. Twenty-eight of the 67 appeared before the board of whom twenty-two were passed as officers of His Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy — the first women to ever to carry the Kings commission in any British Navy. For although the W.R.N.S. was a far older service, it was an auxiliary to the Navy, not an integral part of it as in Canada. The class graduated October 1, 1942 and most were immediately dispersed from Kingsmill House, their task to help organize a service that eventually would see 6,783 women in uniform.

The development of the program was hindered by the lack of accommodations, but this was overcome and the first basic training centre, HMCS Conestoga was established in Gait, Ontario, in October of 1942. All but a few members of the W.R.C.N.S. began their careers in the ranks and passed through HMCS Conestoga.

In May of 1943 courses were started in Cornwallis for: writers and supply assistants, cooks, wardroom assistants, sick berth attendants, laundresses, M/T drivers and
photographers. At St. Hyacinthe courses for: coders, visual signalers, teletype operators, switchboard and radar operators, plotters, and telegraphists

By April 1945 total enlistment in the WRCNS was 6,500. One sixth of Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service served outside of Canada; 503 were sent to England, 568 were sent to Newfoundland, and about 50 to New York and Washington.

Pay was 90 cents a day during basic training, with extra daily allowances given according to the Wren’s ability in her particular branch. Ratings receive a free issue of winter and summer uniforms and a grant of $15.00 to kit themselves up with personal underclothing and toilet necessities. A quarterly upkeep allowance of $3.00 was also allotted.

May 1945 the war was over and troops began coming home. The war effort was winding down. There was a discussion on the desirability of retaining a number of Wrens in the navy. It would have been advantageous to keep a disciplined group, both to carry on the excellent record that had been established and to maintain the nucleus of a women’s service ready for expansion in any future war. The Director of the W.R.C.N.S. argued that it would be to costly to maintain a group of Wrens in peacetime and by August 31st 1945 the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service had ceased to be.

In 1951 there were Wrens in uniform once again. With the establishment of a regular women’s component in the air force permission was given for the establishment of reserve components in the army and navy. Approximately 60 officers and 650 Wrens joined the R.C.N.(R). On January 26, 1955, Cabinet approved a nucleus of regular force Wrens for the Royal Canadian Navy and on Feb 25 the Minister of National Defense announced that approval had been given for the establishment of a women’s component in the regular force of the Royal Canadian Navy. The women were referred to as Wrens, but with the unification of the armed services in the late sixties the names of the women’s groups in the services was dropped.

Information from: The Girl’s of the Kings Navy by Rosamond “Fiddy” Greer

Formation of the Ex-Wrens Association

In early 1946, Wrens taking discharge in Winnipeg found that they had lost contact with their civilian friends, but found they had many friends and welcome support at HMCS Chippawa. A letter in May 1946 from Lt. (\N) Frances Parsons to Cynthia Avery-Jones suggested that a Wren club be formed.

The purpose of the group was mainly to support; care and contact Ex-Wrens newly discharged and in Deer Lodge. It was also suggested that it would be a kindness to look after the sailors in the Municipal Hospitals. Since Wrens were no longer employed in the Ship’s offices, Ex-Wrens volunteered to work evenings and did so until the new Wrens were organized in 1952.

The first six years were very busy visiting former Wrens and Sailors in Deer Lodge and the Municipal Hospitals and families. The Dry Canteen was organized in 1949 to care for underage sailors and turned over to the RCN in 1955 with the repeal of prohibition. For entertainment there was swimming, badminton and bowling with Ex-CWAC’s and WD’s. Formal Teas were the main source of fundraising.

The flood came in 1950 and the military was called to assist in building dykes and pumping. HMCS Chippawa had its own waterway from the Legislative Building to the back door. The Dry Canteen proved its worth, it was open 24 hours a day supplying food and drink for weary sailors in from the dykes. Over 150 Ex-Wrens took shifts in order to keep the canteen open.

In 1952 members of HMCS Chippawa hosted the Western Ex-Wrens stranded in Winnipeg due to the rail strike. After refreshments in the Dry Canteen they were joined at the Bus Depot by the Winnipeg Ex-Wrens and all proceeded to Toronto to enjoy the first of many reunions to be held in various cities across Canada.

For many years the Association assisted with the Ship’s Company Christmas Party that entertained adults and children alike. Invited guests were needy families in the area.

Our membership is made up of Ex-Wrens from WWll, Korean War, and the post war Reserve. Ages range from early 70’s to early 90’s. We maintain contact with our members with monthly luncheons. Guest speakers are invited to help keep us up to date on current happenings in our City. In recent years we have been strong supporters of the Naval Museum at HMCS Chippawa.

Information from: Early History of the Ex-Wrens association by Lorine Hodgson

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