Wednesday, March 8th is International Women’s Day, a wonderful opportunity to honour women in aviation! We have a collection of books in our Museum’s Library that focus on women; I’d like to share some of them with you.
A History of Women in the Canadian Military ~ The author, Barbara Dundas, wrote this story of women in Canada’s armed forces. Then Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, celebrated the book, “I am sure that anyone who is interested in the ever-evolving role of women will deeply appreciate this book that chronicles an important part of their full and equal inclusion in our society and our national institutions.”
The author begins the story in 1885 during the North-West Rebellion, a time when Canadian women first answered the country’s call to military service. Though the Minister of Militia and Defence was confident of success, he knew that there would be casualties. And so he ordered a medical contingent to accompany the expedition. From the beginning, the Medical Director-General for the operation recognized the need for women nurses. In addition to their medical duties, the nurses who participated in the North-West campaign were expected to establish recreation areas, make bandages, and distribute blankets, clothing, and other supplies sent by various women’s groups and charities across the country. Military operations were successfully concluded within a month; the services of the nurses were no longer required. Five nurses, along with the rest of the medical staff, accompanied the wounded to Winnipeg where their patients received additional medical attention.
Throughout the immediate post World War II period that nurses saw the most widespread service. While military operations in Korea were still in progress, nurses were serving as part of Canada’s contribution to NATO forces in Europe. In 1951, RCAF nurses entered the dangerous field of para-rescue, which had previously been restricted to airmen and doctors. At the Para-Rescue School in Edmonton, candidates had to face six weeks of vigorous physical training and classroom instruction before attempting their first parachute jump.
The role of women expanded further between 1965 and 1988. In 1988, women began training as fighter pilots. One of the first to do so was Captain Jane Foster.
To Spread Their Wings ~ Sara E. Johnson crafted her book for the 50th Anniversary of the RCAF (WD) 1941 – 1991. This is a personal memoir of the three years that Sara Thomson Johnson spent as a photographer in the RCAF (Women’s Division) during World War II, from March 1943 – March 1946. It’s interesting to note that 17,001 Canadian women joined the WDs between 1941 and 1946 “to serve their country and to find a new life and opportunities together; finding life long companions… spreading their wings!”
Johnson reflects on her time at the Photo School, “Every morning at the Photo School we were lined up in the general workroom at the west end of the building and given our riboflavin capsule. We had been asked to volunteer as guinea pigs to test its effect on our eyesight. We had no idea whether we were the ones taking the actual riboflavin or the ones who were taking placebos…once a month some men came and took pictures of the inside of our eyes using a special camera and a strobe light. Afterward we went around seeing spots before our eyes for an hour. They never told us anything about the results, but some years later I noticed that riboflavin was one of the things they put in vitamin pills so I guess we didn’t get spots before our eyes for nothing.”
Greatcoats and Glamour Boots ~ Canadian Women at War (1939-1945) ~ “Many young Canadian women desperately wanted to be of service to their country, ‘to free a man to fight’, as the recruiting posters urged and by the war’s end almost 50,000 of them had enlisted ‘for the duration’.” This book is a collage of anecdotal and documentary material and includes photographs and sketches from public and private collections as well as from military archives.
In the chapter “Joining Up”, women reflect on the reasons for enlisting. Not all of them ended up being happy with their choice, however. One former member of the WD recalls, “I was in nine months and ten days exactly, and ten days after I got in, I wanted to get out. My purpose in joining up was to get away from home, period! It was the routine I hated…I didn’t like being told what to do…I was too independent to enjoy being in the service.”
“Preparing to Serve” was an interesting chapter. A woman remembers that “they processed people like a sausage machine. You got your medical, did your aptitude test and were classified and slotted. Then you were sworn in and told to report on such-and-such a date… I’ll never forget it, what did they serve us for dinner but cold macaroni with gravy on top of it! There were no cooks on duty! That was just the beginning. I lay down on my bunk that night thinking, ‘What have I done?’… I really did!”
Written by Nano Pennefather-McConnell, We Never Stopped Dancing is referred to as an Airwoman’s Scrapbook. Beginning her time in Canada, she writes, “My ebullient mood was shattered a few days later. The news flashed around the station. A Bolingbroke training bomber had crashed into Lake Erie. There were no survivors. I was told to come back to the office after supper, to send telegrams to the next-of-kin. I felt numb. The plane had crashed while practice bombing. I finally understood why the airmen called the Bolingbrokes ‘flying coffins'”.
She later posted for Great Britain. Upon arrival, “The bombed-out streets of London looked familiar from all the pictures we have seen. The difference, of course, was that now we were inside the picture, and the damaged buildings were all around us. When we got to our rooms we were given the day off… we saw a few of the sights and then headed for the Beaver Club where we were welcomed with open arms. Two boys stopped us and said ‘Say something in Canadian for us, girls.’ The Beaver Club was a place where Canadians in London congregated to meet friends from home. We couldn’t wait to go… In the days ahead, I was to meet some of the men in No. 4 Canadian Hospital who had returned from Dieppe. It would be the first time I had met anyone who had been directly involved with the enemy. I was not prepared for the bitterness and resentment expressed by some of these men.”
In addition to the books above that focus on Canadian women in service, there are two that look at the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).
The WAAF ~ A History of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in the Second World War, was written by Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott. The WAAF was raised a few weeks before the war started in 1939 to provide, “among other trades, telephonists, plotters and radar operators at RAF stations and British embassies around the world, and this is what they are remembered for. But they undertook duties from cleaning and clerical work to becoming dental hygienists and flight mechanics.”
“The author describes the training they received, the work they undertook and what happened when WAAFs were off duty. Their key role was communications and intelligence, for which the women’s ‘anti-hamfistedness’ (as one scientist put it) made them particularly suited. A number of WAAFs won gallantry awards and their stories are also included.
‘Archie’ Hall, WAAF, wrote We, Also, Were There. “This is a collection of recollections of those hitherto forgotten young women, the WAAF of Bomber Command, some of them very young, leaving home for the first time – pitched overnight into a strange, and at first, terrifying world. It tells of the fun, the tragedy, the comradeship, and above all, dedication to the job.”
The writer recalls her work with Intelligence/Operations, “Just at the time when the Battle of Britain was hotting up I joined the WAAF as a plotter…the most coveted job at that time for WAAFs – to be a plotter in the Battle of Britain! These were exciting and dramatic days, and many pictures of this Operations Room (No. 11 Group Fighter Operations Room at Uxbridge) have since been shown on television, etc. It is now a museum, called ‘The Bunker’ – we used to call it ‘The Hole’.”