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Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division)

Written by Bill Zuk.

recruiting poster 456Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division)

The RCAF needs women in its ranks to work shoulder to shoulder with the men... Indeed, service in the RCAF must fill everyone with a sense of deep satisfaction, knowing, as each one must, that she is playing her part in a supreme effort to bring into being a better and happier world.

HRH Princess Alice
Honorary Air Commandant, RCAF (WD)

Waiting for the call

By 1941, Canadian women were eager to serve their country in uniform. Since the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe nearly 7,000 had received volunteer training through unsanctioned women's service groups. These organizations lobbied for the acceptance of their gender within the ranks of the Canadian military. Two factors led Ottawa to finally reconsider its stance on women in the Forces: Already, there existed a shortage of available manpower, and the British Air Ministry had suggested sending members of its Women's Auxiliary Air Force to work at Royal Air Force training schools in Canada. The Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force was officially established by an Order-in-Council on 2 July 1941. It was eventually renamed "Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division)", to reinforce that the women were, in fact, full members of the RCAF. It was the first female military service unit in North America.

wd training 300
WD training in navigation

The RCAF (Women's Division) organized Precision Drill Squads to tour Canada for publicity and to recruit new members.

With the assistance of a handful of British WAAF members and under the direction of Canadian appointees Kay Walker and Dr. Jean Davey, the first 150 officers and NCOs were appointed at a five-week administration course in Toronto in the fall of 1941. Preference was given to women who had been officers in paramilitary organizations. The RCAF anticipated the need for up to 2,000 women for the first five months, and promised "special support opportunities for advancement" to the first recruits. The recruiting process was much the same for the women as it was for the men. A lack of space in the recruiting centres meant a lack of privacy from the men, so women were allotted specific time slots for interviews and medical examinations until separate facilities could be built. Although the administration had intended to draw all new officers from the enlisted personnel, it proved difficult to persuade women with more sought after skills to leave jobs where they already had good standing. Therefore, some candidates were promised officer status even before signing up.

Entrance Criteria required a Canadian airwoman to be:

• In good health

• Between the ages of 21 and 49

• At least five feet tall

• Within a standard weight range

• Educated at a "High School Entrance" level

• Able to pass a trade test

• Free of a criminal record.

Enlisted women took an oath of allegiance and vowed to serve their country wherever they were needed.

Shoulder to Shoulder

The ranking system within the WD was separate from, but parallel to that of the men. New recruits entered the service as Aircraftwomen, 2nd Class, equivalent to Aircraftmen, 2nd Class. HRH Princess Alice served as Honorary Air Commandant, but the most senior attainable position for women was Wing Officer, the equivalent of Wing Commander. Kathleen O. Walker, Winnifred Taylor and Kathleen L. Jells were the only women to ever achieve this rank.

All military personnel, in theory, were expected to abide by the same disciplinary codes and faced the same punishments, regardless of gender. In practice women were generally treated more leniently than men. They never received detention as a punishment; instead they were fined or were given extra duties.

Women were not required to parade early in the morning for fear they would catch colds. Funding was reallocated from the men's canteens to the women's, even though the women's canteens were already better equipped. The favourable treatment of women became a point of consternation among certain men, some of whom believed that the female recruits should be dealt with through a "general program of ascetic monasticism," segregated behind high walls through the duration of their short stay with the military, however, this attitude was atypical, and most men were enthusiastic about the new recruits.

WD at work 300
A WD cleaning the Perspex of an Avro Anson trainer.

Initially, women were accorded 2/3 the salary of their male counterparts. This discrepancy was crudely justified by the assumption that it would take three women to do the work of two men. In truth, only those jobs involving heavy lifting required extra women. However, fewer women than men were needed to handle many of the more traditional women's roles, and the end result was a ratio of one for one or better. When the real statistics were brought to light, women were granted a salary equal to 4/5 that of the men, with the explanation that men were to be paid for the possibility of going to war.

"Overseas duty? Everyone wanted it. I can't think of a single person who wouldn't have given her eyeteeth to get over there. That was the whole point."

In spite of this inequity, women quickly enlisted by the thousands. The new option of joining the military was enticing, especially to women already working in other industries. Over 70% of the women who joined the various women's military branches in Canada had abandoned another job to do so. It seems that the military offered better opportunities than had been available in the civilian work force. The wage gap in civilian industries was more pronounced than that within the military; outside the Forces, women were never granted more than 2/3 the pay accorded to men for the same work. Airwomen in particular, were also entitled to all of the benefits enjoyed by their male peers, excepting, at first, a dependent's allowance. They were given allowances for civilian clothing, as well as travel and transport expenses. They received free medical treatment and dental work, paid sick leave and paid vacations. Perhaps most significantly, a WD was relieved of the single woman's most onerous expenses, as she was housed and fed free of charge.


We Serve that Men may Flyshe serves 300

The function of the new organization would be to "release for other duties those members of the RCAF presently employed in administrative, clerical and other comparable types of work employment." For this reason, the WD selected as their motto "We serve that Men may Fly". In the first months, only eight trades within the Air Force accepted women. These included:

• Clerks

• Cooks

• Equipment sextants

• Fabric workers

• Hospital assistants

• Military transport drivers

• Telephone operators

• General duties

Although women were never included in combative duties, by the end of the war, 65 different jobs were open to them, including aero-engineering, photo interpretation, radar mechanics, and wireless operators.

The first group of trained female recruits arrived at their posts in January of 1942. Once the 16 Service Flying Training Schools of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan were fully staffed, the women began to head out to other schools and stations across the continent and across the world.

Ultimately 17, 038 women served as WDs; about 600 were sent to the United States, and about 1,500 were stationed overseas. These women often faced unforeseen dangers, and 28 of them died while in active service. Fifty women were honoured for their outstanding service: 27 received Mentions-in-Despatches, one received an Order of the British Empire, eight were declared Members of the British Empire, and 14 received British Empire Medals.

Despite their motto, many airwomen did not sign up so that men could fly. Often, they joined for the challenge and the chance to leave home. Many felt that it was their patriotic duty to enlist. Others needed the financial stability to pull them out of the Depression. Regardless of the circumstances that brought them to the recruiting centres, women who joined the Air Force were quickly thrust into roles that were traditionally handled by men. Many experienced both discipline and independence for the first time. Overwhelmingly, they proved to be capable and hard working.

In 1942, the RCAF's Air Marshal L. S. Breadner told a group of airwomen that "the WD has become an integral part of the RCAF and soon we shall wonder how the service ever got along without you."

End of Duty

It was assumed that the end of the war would naturally spell the end of the Women's Division. However, first came the monumental task of discharging the men. The RCAF had instigated a policy of "First in. First out," and in the interest of fairness, being among the last to enter the Air Force, women were among the last to be discharged. By this time the women had demonstrated proficiency for administrative duties, and would prove to be an asset in the speedy repatriation of the servicemen.

Women were discharged according to their marital status and circumstances. Married women were demobilized beginning in November 1944. Widows were considered single, and were kept on duty, while women whose husbands were prisoners of war were given special consideration and could apply to remain in service. The last woman to serve with the RCAF (WD) was discharged on 1 March 1947.

Honorary Air Commandant Princess Alice presented the RCAF (Women's Division) with a Gold Cup on behalf of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (RAF) on 1- November 1943.

Air Marshal Breadner's prophecy would soon come true. Stimulated by the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, and by a lull in male enlistment, in 1951, the RCAF began to see women as an asset even in peacetime. Once again, the call went out for women eager to serve in the Air Force, this time with a few new terms. Women would be fully integrated within the RCAF, and were subject to the same ranking system.

Women were accorded equal pay for equal work, and were now eligible for pensions. The successful and permanent reintegration of women in the Air Force was made possible only through the expertise of a number of wartime WDs who saw to the planning of procedures and the training of new members.

Whether through military service or civilian duties traditionally performed by men, the women who involved themselves in the war effort paved the way for women's empowerment in later decades. Nowhere were women given a better chance to establish themselves as capable workers than in the RCAF, where only combat duties were limited to men.

In spite of the restrictions of military life, WDs have generally reported that their time in the RCAF was a positive and liberating experience. The Air Force offered security in a time of uncertainty, and a taste of independence tempered with challenging new responsibilities. The women who rose to meet these challenges provided support that proved essential to winning the war, and affirmed that the abilities of their gender could no longer be overlooked.