The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), more familiarly known as the WRENS, was initially founded in England in November 1917 during the First World War.
Wrens initially fulfilled a variety of duties at various bases in England and Scotland, as demands for women to help release men for combat duties grew.
Wrens were employed as clerks, telephonists and motor drivers and gradually took over more demanding roles in Naval command centers. Further Divisions of Wrens were established in Ireland and the Mediterranean where many WRNS officers worked on cypher duties.
The WRCNS (Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service) was founded in 1942, and by 1946, almost 7,000 Canadian women had enlisted in the service to work in non-combat roles in Canada and overseas during the Second World War.
“Release a man for sea service” ...was the cry in 1917 during the First World War. It was the beginning of the Women's Royal Naval Service which put women into men's jobs for certain shore responsibilities.
The WRNS began with Dame Katherine Furse of England who was known for her work with the Red Cross. She was approached by the British Navy about offering support to the men who were serving in the war. She studied naval procedures to determine how women could contribute to the war effort. Dame Furse set rigid standards for the women who would wear uniforms and adhere to strict guidelines set by the Royal Navy.
At the time, very few women were employed outside the home except for some who did office work, domestic service, nursing or cottage industries. There were some women who had qualified as doctors but careers for women were rare. A woman doing the work of a man was unheard of in the early twentieth century.
The Royal Navy required cooks, waitresses, laundresses, bookkeepers, telegraphists, telephonists, wireless operators and motor drivers. It was thought that women could perform these duties to replace the men so they could be sent to active military service at sea.
In England, Dame Furse wrote, “Remember the Empire expects every woman will do her duty.”
The women who served in the First World War earned respect and admiration because of their work ethic, high standards and determination. This branch of the military service was disbanded in October 1919.
The WRNS was reborn in 1939 and 75,000 women served in the Second World War. These women were assigned as supply assistants, radio mechanics, torpedo-women who serviced torpedoes, shipwrights and carpenters, training writers, projectionists and cinema operators. In 1946 the WRNS was disbanded again.
WRNS trained at HMCS CONESTOGA, in Galt Ontario, and it was the only ship in the Royal Canadian Navy commanded by a woman. In 1955, women were fully integrated into the regular force of the Royal Canadian Navy where they served in support trades until the Canadian Forces Reorganization Act of 1968.