Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps – the CWACs

During WW2, women were encouraged to volunteer for the armed forces, first as an auxiliary service, then transferred as an integral, essential part of the Canadian Army.

Member of Canadian Women's Army Corps, ca 1945 - G.W. Powley Fonds/Archives of Ontario (

It was time. The bloody grind of World War Two was underway and more manpower was needed. Canadian women wanted to participate, serve the country and make a difference. (Nurses were already permitted in the military, seeing duty on the battlefield and in hospitals.) Organized initially as volunteers in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Corps, and with available men in short supply, the Canadian forces recognized the new, untapped, source for non-combat support service. Women were now able to enlist voluntarily in the Army.

Paperwork from the Department of National War Services was the first step in signing up for full-time duty, according to Carolyn Gossage in her book, Greatcoats and Glamour Boots. “In completing the enclosed application form, you are taking the first step to join the ranks of Canada’s fighting services,” noted the heading. “The acceptance of women as full-time auxiliaries in the Armed Forces has given the women of Canada a real opportunity to serve, and at the same time enables the Defence Department to release men for Active Service where most needed.”

Auxiliary Corps to Army Corps

The Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Force transformed into the Canadian Women’s Army Corps on August 13, 1941. The mission of the division remained the same, giving women the opportunity to take over jobs in clerical, food service, messenger and driving jobs. And the options widened, from 30 occupations to 55 specialties. Decoding, signalling, vehicle maintenance and ciphering position were offered, according to the Canadian War Museum, along with laundry, movie editing, parachute repair and anti-aircraft spotting. Since they were now part of the Army, the CWAC uniforms, badges and ranks were adjusted to conform to army standards

“Unlike the Air Force, which had begun to recruit six weeks earlier, the Army did not bring in officers from Britain to help organize the corps,” said Jean Bruce in Back the Attack! “Matron-in-Chief Smellie set out immediately on a cross-Canada tour to organize a nucleus of women staff officers from each of Canada’s eleven military districts.” She chose Lieutenant-Colonel Joan Kelly to take over as commander of the CWACs.

CWACs Received Trades Training

Sent for basic training in Vermilion, Alberta or Kitchener, Ontario, the new female recruits were taught the basics of drill, parade, proper comportment and military behaviour. Strict rules applied, just as for the men: their beds had to be made exactly, without wrinkles and corners perfectly squared. Their shoes had to shine enough so that they could see their reflections and uniforms had to be pressed, just so. The CWACs were then sent on to trades training. Depending on abilities and aptitude, the training could take from two weeks to six months. Next, the women were moved on to their postings across Canada and overseas. Those destined for Britain or Europe passed through the Canadian Joint Service Mission in Washington, D.C. before shipping out overseas.

Initially, the pay scale for female soldiers was much lower than the men’s pay. Women on the bottom rung received .90 cents a day compared to the $1.30 of men of equal rank. Increases were made as the inequalities were made known, “but still never reached more than 80 percent of that of their male counterparts,” said the Juno Beach site.

CWACs Disbanded After War

With the first wave on their way to England, the CWACs entered the European war theatre in November 1942, with many more to follow. The women saw duty in France, Italy, Rome, Belgium, Germany, among other countries. Over the duration of the war, the CWACs counted 21,624 members. Three thousand of those members served overseas. None was killed in action; four were wounded.

The CWACs were “stood down” in August 1946, their military missions completed and exceeded. Though there was some issue with women in the ranks at first, the ladies gradually won over those dissenters through hard work and valiant effort. Some women wanted to remain in their good jobs in the army but, “the authorities deemed women’s services no longer necessary in peacetime,” said the Canadian War Museum. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps was disbanded in September 1946, as were the Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service and those in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division.

The time had come and Canadian women were ready. Proving themselves worthy of exacting military positions, the CWACs’ contribution in WWII, along with those of the Navy and Air Force, opened doors for future equality in the Canadian Forces.


Greatcoats and Glamour Boots, Canadian Women at War, Carolyn Gossage, published by Dundurn Press Ltd, Toronto 1991 Pp 51

Back the Attack! Canadian Women During the Second World War – at Home and Abroad, by Jean Bruce, published by Macmillan of Canada, 1985 Pg 37

This article first appeared on Suite101 in 2009.  Copyright Susanna McLeod


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