HMCS Conestoga

There has been only one establishment named Conestoga in the Royal Canadian Navy.

HMCS Conestoga / Shore Establishment

HMCS Conestoga

Formerly Bytown II, HMCS Conestoga was the basic training establishment for the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS). This was a volunteer service composed of women and was separate from the Volunteer Reserve. It was established for the duration of hostilities on 31 July 1942. The model for the ‘Wrens,’ as they were affectionately known, was based on the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in Britain, from which they had inherited the nickname. The goal was for women to take over crucial, non-combat roles to free up men for the fighting. The establishment of the WRCNS was the first time that women served in the Canadian Navy in any capacity other than nursing. While no Wren served in a combat role, or even at sea, by the end of the war Wrens worked in 49 naval trades and had earned an international reputation for conscientious efficiency. Unlike the WRNS, WRCNS officers were the first women in the Empire and Commonwealth to carry the King’s Commission in naval service, holding the same ranks and entitled to the same salutes and marks of respect as male officers.

Veterans speak of their service with the Wrens as offering a range of experience unavailable to them before the war: “liberation” from the constraints of parents and family, travel, a wider sense of independence in establishing new relationships, and new experiences through easy fellowship with their peers of both sexes. However, Wrens were subject to much more stringent standards of conduct than their male peers. Wrens were expected to ‘remain feminine’ and paragons of virtue. For example, pregnancy was a dismissible ‘offence.’

HMCS Conestoga was located in the former Grandview School for Girls, a detention centre for ‘wayward’ girls in Galt, ON. That past quickly became a running joke, but the facility, with existing residences, teaching space, an administration building, and cafeteria, was perfectly suited to its new purpose, and the Wrens quickly made it their home. Basic training at Conestoga lasted three weeks, after which the women would move on to specialist training at other facilities.

The original plan had called for 2850 Wrens to be enlisted, but by 1945 more than 6,500 women had signed up. HMCS Conestoga was paid off on 31 March 1945, and the WRCNS was disbanded in August 1946. However, an invitation was extended for former Wrens to join the Naval Reserve in 1951, something previously denied to women, and many took up the call.

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