With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, once again civilian nurses came out in droves to enlist. Unlike the Nursing Sisters who came before them, they were no longer an Canadian Expeditionary force attached to the British army, rather they were fully integrated into the Canadian military. In addition, the nursing service went beyond the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. It was expanded to both the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Branch and the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service. By the end of the war, 4,480 Canadian Nursing Sisters served in the military, with 3,656 in the army, 481 with the air force, and 343 with the navy. Also aside from regular nurses, therapists, dietitians, laboratory technicians, and physiotherapists were employed by the army as well.
A Group of Nursing Sisters (May 1942). [Source]
The number of volunteers was so high that military had to freeze enlistment only 10 days after the initial call. Each year the waiting list to join grew longer and longer and some Canadian nurses said to hell with it and joined the American, British, and South African nursing services. (Now that’s determination!)
Criteria to Become a Nursing Sister
- Be between the ages of 21 and 36, (the average age was 25).
- Already be a trained nurse and registered with a professional provincial association.
- Be a single woman or a widow without children. Nursing Sisters were discharged if they got married or became pregnant.
- Physical fitness was a must.
- Pass a course and qualify before an examining board.
- Unofficial Rule: You had to be a white woman. As with civilian nursing, systemic biases kept women of colour out of the military. Men who worked as nurses in Canada were also rejected.
The “Bluebird” uniform first seen during WWI was still widely worn as was the traditional white veil. However, given that women were now serving in the air force, navy, and in places as warm as North Africa, Nursing Sisters during WWII had a much bigger wardrobe than those who came before them.
“Nursing Sister’s Apron, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC).” This uniform belonged to Nursing Sister Miriam Hartrick who served in England, France, and Italy. Please click for a gloriously large resolution of the photo.
“Cpl. Bill Kay Strolls with Nursing Sister Dorothy Rapsey.” [Source] The uniform for North Africa was the same color as soldiers’ were and consisted of a beige short sleeved dress that ended just below the knee, a beige veil, black stockings and shoes. Their brown belt is the same as the one seen in the Bluebirds uniform.
“Unidentified nursing sister modelling a nursing sister’s uniform, R.C.A.F. Station Rockcliffe, Ontario, Canada, 18 December 1943.” [Source] Nursing Sisters in Canadian hospitals would have been more likely to wear this all white version of their uniform than the ladies overseas.
“Nursing Sisters of No.14 Canadian General Hospital, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (R.C.A.M.C.), who survived the sinking of S.S. SANTA ELENA landing at Naples, Italy, 8 November 1943.” [Source] Fortunately military officials allowed Nursing Sisters to wear pants in colder weather.
After training in Canada, the Nursing Sisters sailed via large convoys over to England where they worked in Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps’ hospitals, (Taplow, Bramshott and Basingstoke). After three years in England, the Nursing Sisters were deployed to Italy, Algeria, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and even Hong Kong. They initially worked under canvases, before being moved into abandoned and/or bombed-out buildings. Between Canada and overseas, the Nursing Sisters worked in over 100 major hospital units. They also worked in Casualty Clearing Units, Field Surgical Units, and Field Dressing Units. They cared for hundreds of thousands of individuals as their work went beyond helping Canadian and non-Canadian soldiers, they also cared for civilians and former concentration camp prisoners—especially towards the end of the war. According to government records, only 17 Nursing Sisters died as a result of the war, which is a lot lower than WWI’s death toll of 53.
Not-So-Fun Fact: Following the catastrophic Dieppe raid, Basingstoke hospital saw more than 600 casualties and during a period of 19.5 hours, 98 operations were performed and staff only got a couple minutes to rest in between surgeries.
Private F. Madore with Nursing Sister M.F. Giles waiting for an air-evacuation from an R.C.A.F. Spitfire base, Normandy, France, 16 June 1944. [Source]
Civilian vs. Wartime Nursing
Civilian nurses in the 1930s-1940s had a more limited role than they have today. Their work was devalued because nursing was seen as merely a natural extension of women’s caring natures. As such, during the war, Nursing Sisters enjoyed a level of autonomy and authority they had never experienced before. Nursing Sisters saw themselves as soldiers; their actions were a necessary contribution towards winning the war. They sought out ways to get closer to the front lines despite the danger and were granted these opportunities. When male physicians or orderlies were unavailable nursing sisters jumped in.
Although these women had demonstrated time and time again that they were more than capable of doing their job, a substantial factor behind their expanded autonomy came from the perception held by military officials that this as a temporary situation created by necessity. In other words once the war was over female nurses would go back to their normal roles and the medical jobs within the military would be filled by men again.
Nursing Sister D. Mick reading patient’s chart during rounds of a ward at No. 15 Canadian General Hospital, R.C.A.M.C., El Arrouch, Algeria, August 1943. [Source]
1. Nursing Sisters Kathleen G. Christie and Anna May Waters were sent out to Hong Kong in 1941. The British hospital they were working at was taken over by the Japanese and they were sent to Stanley Internment Camp. They continued to care for injured Canadian soldiers in spite of the lack of food and medical supplies, ill-treatment from their captors, and the threat of tropical diseases. Waters reportedly made soup in a steel helmet because she had nothing else to use. When a letter from Christie to her father finally arrived in 1943, it was almost two years old at this point. It was about their time at the hospital before Hong Kong fell. The two were repatriated during a prisoner of war exchange in December 1943. After recuperating in Winnipeg, Waters rejoined her unit. She worked abroad the TSS Letitia, one of two Canadian hospital ships that were staffed by all women, and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific war theatres.
Nursing Sister Margaret Brooke, a dietitian at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 17 July 1943. [Source]
2. If a ship you were on at night was torpedoed and sank, would you be able to cling to a rope on a capsized lifeboat until daybreak? In 1941, Brooke not only did that when a German submarine attacked the SS Caribou off the coast of Newfoundland, but she did so with one hand. She used her other hand to hold onto fellow Nursing Sister Agnes Wilkies who had let go of her own rope. Brooke was rescued but unfortunately Wikies didn’t make it. For her efforts, Brooke was later honoured with membership in the Order of the British Empire. She was the only Nursing Sister to receive this award.
Following the war, some Nursing Sisters were able to stay behind and continue to care for veterans and civilians. Others came home, but worked in military hospitals. Essentially, a total of 80 women were able to keep their jobs as permanent military nurses.
The bulk of Nursing Sisters however found themselves frustrated. Those who wanted to continue working knew that a return to conventional hospital nursing would not be fulfilling. Their care for patients would become limited again and there would be little opportunity to utilize their new skills or their capabilities with new technologies. Hospitals were either unwilling or unable to do so. As a result, two-thirds of former civilian nurses never returned to their old jobs. Some Nursing Sisters used their veterans’ benefits to advance their education, embark on new careers, or even start their own businesses. If they chose to stay in the medical field, moving into public health, psychiatry, and occupational health were popular choices.
Nursing Sisters of No. 10 Canadian General Hospital, RCAMC landing at Arromanches, France, July 23, 1944. [Source]
Bates, Christina, Dodd, Dianne Elizabeth, and Rousseau, Nicole, On All Frontiers: Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing, Canadian Museum of Civilization, University of Ottawa Press, 2005.
Christie, Kathleen G. (2001) “Report by Miss Kathleen G. Christie, Nurse with the Canadian Forces at Hong Kong, as Given on Board the SS Gripsholm November 1943,” Canadian Military History, Vol. 10: 4, 4. Accessed from: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol10/iss4/4
“Nursing Sister – Anna May Waters,” Veterans Affairs Canada. Government of Canada. October 23, 2014. Accessed from: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/diaries-letters-stories/second-world-war/anna-may
“The Nursing Sisters of Canada,” Veterans Affairs Canada. Government of Canada. 2005. Accessed from: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters#sisterhist3
Toman, Cynthia, An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War, University of British Columbia Press, 2007.