What strikes you first about meeting Alice McMahon is just what a firecracker she is! What she then tells you about serving in WWII is not only the courage and competence of the men and women, but how much of the real “glory” and credit were never publicly recognized. And just how much of a big contribution Canadians made in World War II!
At age eighteen in 1943, when she reached the legal age for enlistment, Alice Watson signed up to be a WREN in the Royal Canadian Navy. “WREN” is a nickname, if you will, for Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), part of the Royal Canadian Navy from October 1942 to August 1946. It was revived again as part of the Reserve for the Korean War until unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968. Over 7,000 women served in 39 different trades. Women, says Alice, could not go overseas until they were 21, so she spent the whole of her war service based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, answering telephones for the Navy officers and then working as a messenger: when she was finally allowed to wear Navy bell bottoms “but only while on duty. They had trouble finding any in my size” she laughs “because I was so small then”!
All WRENs in Canada had basic training at HMCS Conestoga in Galt, Ontario, and were posted to different places after. Alice went to HMCS Cornwallis in Digby, NS; the HMCS Royal Rhodes and HMCS Esquimault in Victoria, BC; back to HMCS Stadacona in NS; and was finally “demobbed” at the HMCS York in Toronto, at war’s end.
Nor could women be married while in service, unlike today. So Alice’s story really begins before her “formal” Naval service. She was born and grew up in the Forks of the Credit in Caledon, where at fourteen she met Norman McMahon who lived in the area too. He became the love of her life, and she describes how when he left for overseas service in the Royal Canadian Regiment (known as the RCR’s) she tried hard to grin so everyone thought she actually hated him!
In January 1942, the Allies decided to start building some Lancaster bombers in Canada. Sixteen year old Alice became a “Rosie the Riveter” (a US wartime icon for women who took men’s places in the factories) helping build those Lancasters. They were required in vast quantities and also needed to be built far from enemy threat. A Crown Corporation, Victory Aircraft, was formed to do the work in Malton, Ontario and a British Lancaster was flown over in August 1942 to be the “pattern” aircraft. While there were small differences between Canadian and British Lancasters, they were designed to have interchangeable parts. As the war dragged on, Canadians were again instrumental in adapting Lancasters under construction for other uses too. Only two Lancasters which still fly still exist, and one of them is in the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton. In the end about 430 were built here and one quarter of the work force was women! The contribution of women did not end here. It has not been well publicized that it was women who flew those planes to England when finished. Remember, this was the days before radar, and they flew with no instruments navigating by the stars, Alice said. And not a single aircraft was lost by them, she maintains!
Alice McMahon quickly points you to a framed letter, a row of medals and photos of her late husband, Norman. Among them is a Distinguished Conduct Medal, given for great gallantry, and ranking just below the Victoria Cross. She said he rarely spoke of the war, even to her, usually only to wartime comrades.
She knows Norman participated with the RCR’s at the Battle of Rimini, in Italy; almost forgotten by the general public today. This was one of the hardest battles of the war against the German “Gothic Line” taking place from August 1944 to March 1945 with over 1,200,000 men fighting. She talks with some distaste how the RCR’s were made to stand to the side by General Patton, on pain of actually being shot, and watch the American forces take the credit for victory as they marched into Rome! The Dutch however, she says with a gleam in her eye, refused to do this and credit the Canadians with their liberation from Nazi tyranny.
Alice recalls her husband’s stories regarding D-Day. There is much justified hoopla this year on its anniversary, on the landing of the soldiers on the beaches. But before they got there, it was Canadian regiments like the RCR’s, and people like Norm McMahon who paved the way behind enemy lines on the French mainland; fighting their way up through Italy for the D-Day landings to happen.
She also talks about how, at the naval base in Nova Scotia, it was the Canadians who actually trained the Americans in assault landings. We had the third biggest navy in the world at the time!
Many other operations existed where Canadians were heavily involved and rarely mentioned. The “Murmansk Run” into the Russian arctic was a known suicide mission, in which Canadian Merchant Navy and Royal Canadian Navy seamen sailed into the Arctic Ocean to deliver much needed war materials of all kinds to the then allied Soviet Union, along with the British and Americans. In fact, a special bravery medal was created for it. The Germans knew how vital this was to the Allied war effort and threw their full force against these convoys. It was so dangerous, ships sailed in the winter at night to take advantage of darkness, and if crew from torpedoed boats were in the water, no ships were allowed to slow down to retrieve them and be a target themselves! In 1943 Canadian destroyers and frigates also became convoy escorts.
Alice remembers being in the Naval office where no one was allowed to speak because of tight wartime security, and you only knew that a ship had sunk when a pin representing ship positions on a big map had been removed.
Her sister, Jean Watson, was in the Medical Corps in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed in Guelph, and she would periodically visit. Alice says of the brave people she knew all those years never complained, despite horrible injuries. They made jokes, for instance likening dodging enemy bullets to dodging girlfriends. At Medical Corps dances, the amputees would be out in their wheelchairs along with everyone else. One man she knew, having lost both legs, took up shingling roofs when he came back to Canada!
The quick mind she is, Alice is fond of writing poetry. Her musings were collected and published by her church not too long ago. Her war time experiences are caught up in verses too, expressing her zest for everyday life and also feelings about events, then and now. The one she keeps framed in her room, “And What If” speaks to the need of standing up and be counted when it really mattered in WWII.
Written By: Diana Janosik-Wronski | Photography: Cory Bruyea