For decades, female veterans of the Second World War have tended to be faces in the crowd at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
But as the number of Second World War veterans dwindles, more women are stepping out of the shadows and staking a claim to their piece of the war’s history, said Canadian documentary filmmaker Eric Brunt.
“As we get to the stage where there’s sadly going to be no Second World War veterans left, the female veterans are realizing that it’s now more than ever that they should share their story,” he said.
Of the more than 50,000 Canadian women who served in the war, Brunt said, more than 10 per cent were still believed to be living in 2020. Meanwhile, just 2 per cent of the million-plus Canadian men who served were believed to be alive in 2020, according to data Brunt obtained through an access-to-information request from Veterans Affairs Canada.
Brunt’s been racing around the country to interview as many veterans as possible before it’s too late.
When he first started his project, he said, some women refused to do interviews because they didn’t feel their non-combat roles were worthy of preservation.
Brunt said that belief is now fading and more women are feeling empowered to speak up about what they did to help win the war. He said he has now documented the wartime experiences of more than 70 Canadian women.
CBC News spoke to three female veterans who waited a lifetime to share their stories with Canadians.
“I think we should be recognized,” said 98-year-old veteran Betty Bell in her first TV interview. “We did our bit.”
The three veterans were among the women who joined newly created women’s divisions in the navy, army and air force when it was all-hands-on-deck to fight Nazi Germany.
Lucille Lane is 101 and has only in recent years started talking about her wartime experiences publicly.
“I want them to know that we did our part,” she said. “We helped.”
Lane was 21 when she left her home in Shawville, Que. to join the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service in 1943, just a year after the division opened its doors.
“I was right there where things were going on,” she said.
Based in Halifax at the navy’s headquarters, her job was to decode messages from ships in the North Atlantic.
Sworn to secrecy, Lane said she was taught to keep what she learned quiet and to not slip up. One mistake could have sent an entire Canadian convoy to the wrong place.
“Loose lips sink ships,” she said.
Lane said she received naval messages from Canadian ships on what was called “the run” from Halifax to Newfoundland to the United Kingdom. Those decoded alerts helped Canada track and chart the movement of its warships.
Betty Bell joined the military the same year as Lane. She enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force’s new women’s division.
Born in Calgary, Bell was stationed at the headquarters in London because she was living with her parents in the U.K. when the war broke out.
That put her at ground zero for the Blitz, Nazi Germany’s intense bombing campaign against the United Kingdom.
She vividly remembers the first strikes using from the Nazis’ new terror weapon in 1944 – a flying bomb known to civilians as a “buzz bomb” or “doodlebug.”
“They were shaped like a small airplane,” said Bell. “It had a long flame coming out of the tail and they made a dreadful, horrible noise.”
Bell worked for the records department, keeping track of everything the air force did. She recalls having to walk 20 minutes to work across Hyde Park and constantly seeing those flying bombs dropping from the sky, killing civilians and flattening much of the city.
“These things would come flying over and you’d have to watch them because once the engine stopped, they’d would go zoom like that,” said Bell gesturing toward the ground.
“They had a huge detonation.”
Betty Phipps was also stationed in London and also remembers running for cover when bombs fell from the sky.
“It’s very scary,” she said.
Phipps actually served in the British military. She was attached to the Royal Artillery as a radar operator and spent her days in a small cabin that was just big enough for radar equipment and about a handful of women.
Phipps recalls a deadly rocket attack that “killed a couple of our girls.” She said it hit so close to her, it affected her hearing.
“It was a very sad time in England,” she said.
Phipps tracked incoming German planes by radar and sent that information down the line to those working air defence.
‘We were very important because if we didn’t follow the radar … then they wouldn’t have been able to shoot the plane down,” said Phipps.
When asked if female war veterans have received the credit they deserve, Phipps said “no.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Some historians, documentary filmmakers and museums are trying to change that.
Telling the untold stories
Historian Stacey Barker of the Canadian War Museum co-wrote a book about the experiences of Canadian women in the ranks during the two world wars.
She said times have changed and more attention is now being paid to women’s untold stories.
“We’re trying to recapture narratives from all parts of Canada and all different communities that have their own war stories that maybe we didn’t ask them about and they didn’t talk about,” said Barker.
She said the female veterans’ contributions have been documented less than those of their male comrades.
“Maybe because they weren’t in combat, they tended to think that what they did during the war wasn’t quite as glamorous or as exciting as what men in combat were doing,” she said. “So it’s a little bit more difficult to get them to open up.”
But women’s contributions were significant and helped to keep the machinery of war running, she said. It was the first time in Canadian history that women were allowed to take on positions in the military outside of nursing, she added. Women served their country in a range of roles, such as drivers, clerks, wireless operators and office workers.
“There were Canadians fighting all over the place and in order to keep that going, there was so much that needed to be done behind the scenes to get those fighters what they needed,” she said.
The Canadian War Museum is in the midst of capturing new accounts of veterans’ experiences through an initiative called “In Their Own Voices.”
Brunt is also sharing his collection of more than 500 interviews with Second World War veterans with the museum to preserve his hundreds of hours of tape and make it accessible to the public. Each interview will be cataloged and made searchable in an online database.
“These women are amazing. They’re my heroes,” he said. “They’re the most humble people you’ll ever meet.”
Preserving these stories, he said, can help ensure they’re never forgotten. Lane said she wants that too.
“It is very important for Canadians to remember,” she said. “Some people think they only joined up because they like to fight, but it was to protect our country in any way that we were called upon to do it.”