The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) came into being during the Second World War on 31 July 1942, as the naval counterpart to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, which had preceded it in 1941. The WRCNS was established as a separate service from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and remained so until demobilization was completed and the service disbanded on 31 August 1946.
The term “Wrens,” by which WRCNS members were known, was the logical slurring of the British WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), on which the WRCNS was patterned. Indeed, with no existing Canadian naval model, the WRCNS closely followed the British example, with initial senior leadership positions filled by British Wrens on loan. Three WRNS members arrived in Canada in May 1942 to develop the nucleus of the new organization, and Chief Officer Dorothy Isherwood remained as the first director.
In September, an initial cadre of 67 Canadian women underwent a probationary course at Kingsmill House, Ottawa. Soon after, the basic training centre HMCS Conestoga was established at Galt, Ontario in – to the reported amusement of the women – a vacant girls’ reformatory school, with the first class starting in October 1942. Unlike male sailors, who were recruited into the Royal Canadian Navy as either officers or (non-commissioned) ratings, all but a very few Wrens began their service in the non-commissioned ranks, and as such passed through Conestoga. Women eventually selected to become officers underwent further coursing at Hardy House, in Ottawa, where the first of an eventual 21 classes was held in February 1943.
When Lieutenant-Commander Isabel Macneill, one of the graduates of the first course, was appointed commanding officer of Conestoga in June 1943, she became the first female to command an HMC “Ship.” (In naval terms, a commissioned shore establishment with the HMCS designation is referred to as a “stone frigate.”)
On 18 September 1943, Commander (later Captain) Adelaide Sinclair became the first Canadian director of the WRCNS, an appointment she held until the service was disbanded. Formerly a lecturer in political science at the University of Toronto, Sinclair went on after the war to prominent positions in the public service. From 1957 until retirement in 1967 she was deputy executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).
The Navy had lagged in the creation of a women’s division due partly to a certain narrow-mindedness. A larger factor was that naval expansion, with its long lead times for shipbuilding, was slower in placing demands for manpower than the army and air force. Full mobilization of the WRCNS in turn was delayed by initial problems of recruiting (resolved after December 1942 by integrating it with that of males) and by the building of suitable new accommodation in the already strained infrastructure of the major naval population centres.
By 31 August 1945, 6,783 women had enlisted overall in the WRCNS. At its peak, the organization had 5,893 members, more than 1,000 of whom served outside Canada. None were killed in action, but 11 died on duty, due to illness or accidents.
The women filled some 39 different trades. While Wrens in Canada served primarily in administrative positions at the naval bases in Halifax and Esquimalt and associated naval training establishments, and at Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa, they are remembered most popularly for staffing the operational map plots in command headquarters, and for taking on the bulk of duties at the various naval signals intelligence sites on both coasts.
More than 500 Wrens were stationed at the Canadian naval base HMCS Avalon in St. John’s, Newfoundland (then a separate Dominion), another 500 at the shore establishment HMCS Niobe in Great Britain (mostly in London, Plymouth and Londonderry), and some 50 at naval offices in Washington DC, and New York City.
A women’s division was re-constituted in 1951 during the Korean War as part of a re-organized Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve), and in 1955 a women’s component of the regular navy was authorized, but no longer a separate service. The name Wrens remained popular with female sailors, however, and continued in use after disbandment of the Royal Canadian Navy with unification in 1968. The name was particularly popular in the naval reserve, which maintained a higher proportion of serving women than the regular force.
Today, women are fully integrated into the navy, including in combat roles, and the term Wrens has fallen into disuse other than for sentimental, nostalgic associations.