Female WWII Veterans Break Silence to Share Their Untold Stories

Veterans Betty Phipps (left), Lucille Lane (centre) and Betty Bell (right) at Perley Health in Ottawa, holding photos of themselves in uniform.

As numbers dwindle, a new generation listens to the women who served

As the nation prepares to observe another Remembrance Day, a notable shift is occurring among the ranks of the Second World War veterans: Canadian women who served are increasingly coming forward to claim their place in history. According to CBC News, these female veterans, once just faces in the crowd, are now sharing their long-held secrets of wartime service.

Documentary filmmaker Eric Brunt tells CBC that with the sad eventuality of no WWII veterans left to recount their experiences, “the female veterans are realizing that it’s now more than ever that they should share their story.” Brunt, in his quest to preserve these voices, has raced against time, capturing the stories of over 70 Canadian women.

Among the more than 50,000 Canadian women who contributed to the war effort, CBC News spoke to three veterans who opened up about their experiences for the first time on television. “I think we should be recognized,” said 98-year-old veteran Betty Bell. “We did our bit.”

Betty Bell, 98, served in the records department of the Royal Canadian Air Force women’s division in London from 1943 to 1946.

These women were part of the new women’s divisions in the navy, army, and air force, created during a time when the fight against Nazi Germany required all hands on deck. Lucille Lane, now 101, only recently began speaking publicly about her role in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. “I want them to know that we did our part,” Lane stated. Sworn to secrecy, her crucial task was to decode messages, a slip in which could have dire consequences.

Lucille Lane joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service in 1943 and worked in the signals branch, decoding naval messages from ships in the north Atlantic. (Submitted by Lucille Lane)

Bell, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force’s women’s division, recalls the terror of the Blitz and the “doodlebugs,” Nazi Germany’s flying bombs. Her duty in the records department involved a perilous daily walk across Hyde Park amidst these threats.

Similarly, Betty Phipps, who was attached to the Royal Artillery as a radar operator, recounts the harrowing experience of tracking incoming German planes, an endeavor that was vital for air defense.

These personal accounts highlight a broader movement to acknowledge the roles women played during the war. Historian Stacey Barker of the Canadian War Museum, co-author of a book on Canadian women’s military experiences, notes a shift in attention to women’s untold stories. “We’re trying to recapture narratives… that maybe we didn’t ask them about, and they didn’t talk about,” Barker said to CBC.

The documentation of these stories is essential, less so than their male counterparts, particularly because many women did not serve in combat roles. Yet, their contributions were significant, ranging from driving and clerical work to wireless operations, keeping the war machinery running.

In 1942, the Royal Canadian Navy became the last of the country’s military services to create a unit for women. By the end of the war, the WRCNS numbered 7,000. (George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

Brunt is also contributing his extensive collection of interviews to the Canadian War Museum, ensuring public accessibility and the preservation of these narratives. He shared with CBC his admiration for these women, calling them “amazing” and “the most humble people you’ll ever meet.”

As these stories come to light, they serve not just as proof of the past but as a reminder, in Lane’s words, “for Canadians to remember.” She and her comrades didn’t join up for the love of fighting but to protect their country in any way necessary—a legacy that Brunt and others are determined to preserve.