Did you know many women were mocked and had their morality questions for wanting to take on men’s military duties during the 1940s?
Written by Belinda Crowson
The highest-ranking woman from Lethbridge during the Second World War was M. Leona McIlvena, who served as a major with the Canadian Auxiliary Territorial Services (CATS) and a lieutenant with the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary (Army) Corps (CWAC).
In 1940 CATS was formed. This allowed women to serve part-time. Three days each week the women would train, learning skills such as basic drills, first aid, motor vehicle repairs and general military skills. Major McIlvena commanded the Lethbridge CATS.
There were three platoons in Lethbridge. On 20 April 1941, when Margaret Reid, western commander of the CATS inspected the Lethbridge unit, the unit boasted more than 100 women among its members.
The CATS had been formed in a haphazard manner and as the war progressed, the government created more formal women’s units attached to the various forces. The Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was created in July 1941. It was followed a month later by the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary (Army) Corps or CWAC. The following year (February 1942), the Royal Canadian Air Force – Women’s Division – was formed.
Some of the women who had served with the CATS – including Major McIlvena – joined these other organizations. When Major McIlvena applied to the CWAC she received a commission as a Lieutenant and Captain Ethel Brander took over command of the Lethbridge CATS.
Leona McIlvena was one of eighteen local women who joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. The roles of women in the CWAC were varied. Many were involved in office work and domestic tasks, but other did repairs, worked in communication, acted as drivers and did drafting. The CWACs and related groups promoted their work as “We Service that Men May Fight,” performing essential services at home and overseas.
The work wasn’t without difficulties. Many women were mocked and had their morality questioned for wanting to take on men’s duties. For a time the groups faced difficulties in recruiting as women were turned away after learning how other women had been treated. These organizations, though, played essential roles during the war and served as pioneers for female soldiers who would follow in their footsteps.
Learn more Fun Facts about our city’s history by visiting and liking the Lethbridge Historical Society Facebook page.
In this image: View of Platoon 3 of the CATS saluting the colours as they march past on parade during the visit of Margaret Reid, western commander of the CATS.