Women defied families to serve during Second World War almost 80 years ago

·4 min read

They may look meek and unassuming at their poppy table by the window of the west Saint John liquor store, but Winnifred Rice and Catherine Stevens are two brave, strong women.

Now in their 90s, they are both veterans of the Second World War.

"I've watched dogfights and I've seen bombs come down like peas," said Rice, who served in the British Army in Salisbury and Bulford.

"If the women could help in any way, I wanted to join," said Stevens, who served in the Women's Royal Canadian Navy — known as the Wrens.

Rice enlisted in 1941, Stevens in 1942, despite their families' protests.

Brother tried to stop her

Stevens was 18 when she joined. She had a brother in the army.

When he found out from their mother that his sister wanted to join the navy, he came home on leave from Quebec to try to talk her out of it.

But her brother and a few other people she knew were being sent overseas. And she would not be dissuaded.

"I just said, 'No, I'm going to join. And that's it.'"

Rice was 16 the first time she tried to enlist.

Air raid changed her life

She had been training to become a confectioner and "doing pretty good," until the night of "a bad air raid."

"The city of Portsmouth, where I was, we were rung in fire," she recalled.

When she tried to go to the co-op for her next shift, she found it wasn't there any more. It had been bombed to bits.

"All that was left was the iron railing where the gates were," said Rice.

Faced with the need to find another job she decided to try the navy.

Submitted by Larry Lynch
Submitted by Larry Lynch

But her father refused to sign the papers.

She waited another three months for her 17th birthday and tried again — this time for the army. And her mother put in a good word with her dad.

"My mom said to him, 'She's determined to go. We'll let her go.'

"There was a war and we were needed," said Rice, explaining her resolve.

Initially, she said, her duties included pumping gas in the convoys "and things like that."

Then she had a minor health issue — she had to get her appendix out — and she ended up on "light duties" in the mess hall, where she served the rest of the war as a waitress.

"I remember that time very well," said Rice.

"We were all friends. There was 14 of us in our barrack room. And we were very close. We did everything together."

Stevens has similar memories of the camaraderie of the Wrens.

"We had a good group. We worked together. There was no arguments. We all got along. We used to have great times together."

Stevens took basic training in Ontario, then was posted to Halifax and then on the West Coast. The Wrens served in mainly administrative positions at naval bases and intelligence sites. Stevens worked as a wardroom attendant.

Submitted by Larry Lynch
Submitted by Larry Lynch

One of her good friends from the Navy died last year at the age of 100, but Stevens still corresponds with some others.

"I get a letter once a month," she said.

"There's a comradeship between veterans that you never, never forget," agreed Rice.

Rice forged another enduring relationship during the war — with her future husband.

He was a member of the Canadian parachute battalion, which was located on the far side of the railway tracks at the Bulford military base.

The British Sixth Airborne Division was at the other end of the encampment.

They would all get together for dances.

I wouldn't be able to not do anything. I mean, doing poppies is part of my life, now. - Winnifred Rice, veteran

"We couldn't get out of camp or anything. So, it was either go to the Y and play table tennis or dance."

Dancing was the highlight of their social life.

"We used to dance five nights a week and Sunday afternoons," she said.

Ballroom dancing was her favourite, but they all learned the jive once the Americans arrived.

Rice came to Canada as a war bride in 1946.

She and Stevens both became members of Fundy Branch 68 of the legion.

"We had the only ex-servicewomen's branch east of Montreal," said Rice — adding it was a large branch, too.

It only disbanded seven years ago, as membership dwindled.

But Rice and Stevens are still going strong. This year marks their 60th as poppy campaign volunteers.

"I wouldn't be able to not do anything," said Rice. "I mean, doing poppies is part of my life, now."

Stevens said she'd like to see others carry on the tradition, even if they don't have first-hand memories of war.

The funds raised are important to veterans in need, she said.

"If it's going to help someone out and we're capable of doing it I think we should go along and do it. I think there's' a lot of people that could do it and there's no reason why they can't."