The Sunday Edition

How Canadian women helped win the Second World War

From munitions workers to code breakers to field nurses, countless Canadian women helped make the Second World War winnable. Here are the stories of three.
Women at work at the Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William, where 3000 women built fighter planes during the Second World War. (Canadian Museum of History)
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Molly Lamb, Joan Bamford Fletcher and Willa "The Wing" Walker are not household names. But they're just three of the countless Canadian women — from munitions workers to code breakers to field nurses — who helped make the Second World War winnable.

Stacey Barker is a historian with the Canadian War Museum. She has been collecting and writing the stories of Canadian women's crucial contributions to the war effort. Here's what she had to say about Lamb, Fletcher and Walker.

Stacey Barker's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear her full interview with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright, click 'listen' above.


Molly Lamb

Molly Lamb was the only woman to be an official war artist during the Second World War. (Malak Karsh/Canadian War Museum)

"Molly Lamb, a young woman from British Columbia, was the only woman to be an official war artist. She came from an artistic background. Her father was an art critic and a gallery owner and she went to the Vancouver Art School when the war broke out.

"In 1942, she decided to join the services, joining the Canadian Women's Army Corps. Her talent became known in the army and they send her to do drafting courses. For a while she painted scenery for the army show and she really wanted to be a war artist. 

"Lamb had very influential friends; her father knew A.Y. Jackson, a member of the war artist selection board, Emily Carr and Alex Colville. Jack Chabot, an official war artist, was one of her teachers. These were people that she and her father knew. But it's important to emphasize that she would not have been appointed an official war artist if she wasn't good. And she was. She had great talent and they saw that.

"In 1945 as the war came to an end, they appointed her to be — the only woman — an official war artist and sent overseas.

"Lamb was expected to paint the women's services, unlike the male war artists who were on the frontlines and witnessed battles firsthand. She only went over after the war was over. She was sent to continental Europe and she toured around seeing the ruins. She painted the women and the women's services. There's a real sense of camaraderie in her paintings of the women who ran the services for the first time. It's a novelty but they're also taking it very seriously because they want to win the war just like the men do."

Joan Bamford Fletcher

Joan Bamford Fletcher was sent to Sumatra during the Second World War to escort thousands of civilians to safety from Japanese war camps. (Canadian War Museum)

"Joan Bamford Fletcher's father was a British gentleman who came over to Canada and started ranching. She grew up on her family's ranch, training horses. She was also sent to boarding school in Europeans came from a fairly well-off background. 

"When the war broke out, Fletcher joined the Canadian Red Cross. But it was not enough for her. This was before the women's service branches are created. So she decided to go to Britain, where she joined the first aid nursing Yeomanry, an all-woman volunteer uniformed organization. They were not officially part of the military but were used by the military. She was among those sent to Scotland to work with Polish army recruits, who were in exile, forced out of the continent. She worked as a driver for them for a few years. 

"Then in 1945, as the war was winding down, Fletcher is sent to Southeast Asia to help with civilian prisoners of war, who had to be evacuated. The Japanese were defeated but there was some hostility in that area because these were mostly Dutch colonists. An independence movement was starting and they were in a precarious situation. Fletcher ended up in Sumatra, leading two thousand malnourished, sick and ailing civilians back to safety with the help of the defeated but still armed Japanese soldiers.

"As the media of the day put it, Fletcher simply marched into the local army detachment and politely but firmly explained the situation to them. And they acquiesced. The officer in charge gave her a detachment of armed soldiers and trucks. Over the next few weeks she managed to fulfill her mission. The soldiers recognized her bravery and courage. So much so that the captain of this group of Japanese soldiers gives her his family's samurai swords, 300 years old."

Willa "The Wing" Walker

Willa Walker joined the Air Force during the Second World War and became the first woman to become a wing officer. (Yousuf Karsh/Canadian War Museum)

"Willa Walker was from an affluent background in Montreal. Her father, a lawyer, had raised a battalion during the First World War and gone overseas as a lieutenant colonel. So it was a military family. Walker was very well-educated, well-traveled and worked her way around the world on the Empress of Britain after finishing her schooling. 

"Walker then became the private secretary to Lady Marler, the wife of Herbert Marler, Canada's head diplomatic representative in Washington at the time. So she moved in very high circles. One day she meets Marler's aide de camp at Rideau Hall at the Governor-General. He was a young, dashing Scottish officer named David Walker and was instantly smitten. They married in July 1939. They went off on their honeymoon and war is declared.

"David rushed back to join his British unit and is captured around the time of Dunkirk. He was a prisoner of war (PoW). During this time, Walker was pregnant with her first child and returned to Canada to her family. It was months before she discovered he was a PoW. Fletcher gives birth to their son but he tragically died a few months later. And she finally learned that her husband was safe but a prisoner.

"In 1941, Canada decided to bring women into the military and Walker immediately joined the Air Force. She was a part of the very first group of women who trained. From day one, she was officer material. She graduated at the top of her class, won the the Brooks Medal and worked her way up through the ranks to become the senior staff officer in Canada. She was the first woman to become a wing officer, the highest rank that in practice women achieved. Only a few women were able to do so."

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