Girls primed to defend the home front

Fearing an enemy invasion, thousands of Canadian girls as young as sixteen joined volunteer militia groups in wartime, learning how to conduct air raid patrols, use firearms and incredibly, how to handle exploding bombs. And two of them still live right here in my little town.

I haven’t unearthed much about women’s militia groups, because they weren’t part of the armed forces and thus aren’t included in official military records. (And women, as we all know, are often given short shrift in the history books.)

So I was thrilled to discover that here in my own town of Invermere, British Columbia, at the Windermere Valley Museum, there exists a cardboard box filled with mementos of the local women’s militia group.

Better yet, the girl who served as the group’s secretary and painstakingly kept every scrap of paper associated with her group, is still alive and well. Her name is Joy Bond, formerly Joy Johnston, and she is 95 years old.

And another girl who served in the group is also still living here in town, Audrey Osterloh, formerly Cleland, aged 93. (Our town has a large population of independent elders, which is very inspiring).

Here are the two surviving members of Canadian Women’s Training Corps, Branch 10. Audrey is on the left, and Joy on the right.

By sifting through their old records, and talking to Joy and Audrey, I learned a lot about what those plucky gals were up to back in the wartime years.

When Canada declared war against the Third Reich in September 1939, boys flocked to join up. Within a year, most graduating high school classes had emptied of young men, leaving the girls behind.

Naturally, many of them wanted to go, too. They were just as patriotic, and just as eager to defeat the enemy. But women were not allowed to join the armed forces.

So they started their own quasi-military groups all over the country. These had different names. Some of them were loosely attached to a central command; others were independent.

The Windermere Valley group formed in September 1941 with twenty members. They began by writing a letter to “head office” in Vancouver, the Canadian Women’s Training Corps.

Head office mailed them some printed instructions, and provided moral support if little else. The local group was Branch 10, one of eleven groups in British Columbia.

While the boys in uniform were getting free room and board and a salary, these girls were paying their own expenses. Local members paid $1.50 each to join up, and then 25 cents per month. (To put that in perspective, head office reminded them that it was only the same cost as “one picture show.”)

They also paid for their own uniforms, ordered from a clothing company in Vancouver – $23 for an officer and $13 for other ranks, consisting of a navy blue tunic and skirt, white blouse, black tie and gunmetal stockings, and low-heeled black shoes for drilling and marching. Most of the girls sewed their own uniforms.

Here's a sketch showing the tunic's design.

And here's a photo of the Invermere group, looking very smart and professional. Because it was a hot day, they were allowed to leave off their tunics, or jackets.

And lest you think it was a simple matter to stand at attention, here are their printed instructions:

“On the command ‘SQUAD ATTEN-SHUN,’ bring the heels smartly together and in line, feet turned out at an angle of about 45 degrees, knees braced, body erect and carried evenly over the thighs, with the shoulders (which should be level and square in the front) down and moderately back. Arms should hang from the shoulders as straight as the natural bend of the arm will allow. Hands lightly closed (not clenched). Backs of the fingers should touch the thigh lightly, thumb to the front and close to the fingers and behind the seam of the skirt. Head erect, and eyes looking straight to the front and at their own height.”

It’s difficult to see all the young women clearly, but both Joy and Audrey are in this photograph. (The others are Phyllis Hunt, Alice Jones, P.M. Hewitt, Jean Blake, Doreen Johnston, Mary Dufault, Clare Docker, Edna Robson, Winnifred Weir, Dorothy Tegart and Eleanor Steel.)

Both Audrey and Joy had finished high school when they joined up. Joy was working at Invermere Hardware, and Audrey at the Imperial Bank of Canada. Other members were as young as sixteen, although they had to have a signed permission slip from a parent if they were under eighteen.

This was no social club. They did not have teas, dances or parties. I venture to say that it required a commitment rarely found among young people today.

Training took place one night a week, for three hours. Compulsory subjects included Military Drill, First Aid, Stretcher Bearing, Morse Code, Motor Mechanics, Air Raid Precaution, Signalling, and Rifle and Target Practice.

Here’s a certificate issued to Helen Young for completing her motor mechanic’s course.

The printed materials are daunting. For example, pages and pages of hand-written notes describe the types of bombs being used by the enemy – whether explosives, incendiary or gas – their effects on the human body, and how to treat the victims.

But the girls studied hard. As one letter explains: “The subject of Air Raid Precautions has been dealt with so thoroughly that our instructors themselves said they could not pass the examination paper which was set.

"However, nineteen members wrote the exam and there was not a single failure. Eight members made over 90 percent, and six made between 80 and 90 percent."

Here's the cover of their guidebook on handling various types of bombs.

It may seem funny now to think that the girls were preparing for an enemy attack by the Japanese, but perhaps not so far-fetched. The terrifying surprise raid on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 -- four months after the local group formed up -- proved that Japan was a force to be reckoned with.

Everyone on the West Coast was on high alert, and that anxiety extended far into the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, and in varying degrees right across the country.

Perhaps that’s why the girls were eager to train themselves in the use of firearms. Here’s a letter from East Kootenay Divisional Commandant Major Kathleen T. Elkington of Fernie, who had served as an ambulance driver in England during the First World War.

She describes the musketry course, and concludes: “Please give Corporal White my salams, and thank him for taking on this class, it is awfully good of him, and I feel sure that any of the girls will be able to ‘Pot Off a Jap’ when they arrive . . .”

The girls trained hard physically as well. They remember route marches up the long hill beside Lake Windermere, a distance of about six kilometres, wearing their skirts and their stockings and their sensible shoes.

And they were expected to turn out for Church Parade, taking turns amongst the various churches. “We lined up and marched into church and sat down together, and then after church we marched out again,” Joy recalled.

Slackers were simply not allowed. If you didn’t attend regularly, you were dismissed. A look at this Parade Attendance sheet shows that meticulous track was kept of attendance. One girl was dismissed for being AWOL (Absent Without Leave) for three consecutive meetings.

As noted on one attendance sheet, Audrey Cleland received “disciplinary action,” but she couldn’t remember what for. “It was pretty hard to get into trouble when all the boys were gone,” she mused.

The girls did more than study and train, living up to the motto on their cap badges "Facta Non Verba," meaning “Deeds, Not Words.”

They made themselves useful by helping the Royal Canadian Legion at the Armistice Day supper and the Vimy Ridge dance, hoisted and lowered the Victory Loan flag during that campaign, and showed up in full force at any wartime fundraiser.

They also sent away hundreds of packages of cigarettes to local servicemen, and collected bundles of magazines for British Commonwealth Air Training Bases on the prairies. Here is one of many thank you letters they received, this one from the RAF training base at Penhold, Alberta.

 

The girls earned military ranks similar to those of the armed forces, and were serious about completing the requirements to move on to the next level.

Joy remembers that she was proud to be made sergeant, although it cost her five cents! She had to mail a nickel to Vancouver to receive her sergeant’s chevron, which she then sewed onto her uniform.

“I could have gone farther, but our leader Helen Young had the highest rank of Lieutenant. The next rank beyond Lieutenant was Major, but Helen refused to become a major because her father had been a major in the First War, and even though he was already dead she felt it would dishonor his memory. So the rest of us had to settle for a lesser rank.”

At the very top of this page is a photo of the three top-ranking officers, taken at the local cenotaph on Remembrance Day, 1942. Joy Bond is on the left, Helen Young in the centre, and Eleanor Steele on the right.

In conclusion, here is an excerpt from a speech given to the group in May 1943 by their redoubtable leader, Helen Young:

"As far as summer holidays go, remember that war doesn’t take a holiday. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen don’t say: ‘It’s too hot to fight, let’s put it off until the fall.’ Our own Canadians, prisoners at Hong Kong, won’t be released for the summer. Have we then the right to take time off?

"Yesterday, we heard that a point on Vancouver Island had been shelled, today it is a point off the coast of Oregon.

“I don’t believe that this war will be won until every man and woman in the Allied Nations fights it, with everything they’ve got, Moral, Physical and Material, twenty-four hours a day!”

Very inspiring, indeed!

When Canada did allow women to join the armed forces, many militia members were first in line, including several members of the local group.

Hats off to the members of the volunteer women's militias across the country, wherever you are now, and thank you for being prepared to defend Canada!

*****

To read my previous blog post about RCAF veteran Nancy Tegart, click: RCAF 'Rancherette' Blazed the Trail.

To read my previous blog post about women's uniforms, click: Hats, Helmets and Headgear.

******

             MY FAVOURITE VETERANS

The wonderful story of the women's militia, along with twenty-seven other original stories from Wartime Wednesdays, are available in book form.

To read more about the book, click: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes. To order a signed copy for $35.00 Canadian, email me at elinor1@telus.net or call me at 250-342-1621.

You may also purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking here: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes.

                            * * * * *               

                STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a beautiful colour illustration appeared on the cover each week with a wartime theme. Here’s is an image showing a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs or “Quacks” for short) dated February 20, 1943. To see my complete collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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