Willa Walker blazed the trail for RCAF airwomen

News Article / March 7, 2019

By Elinor Florence

In honour of International Women’s Day, March 8, we bring you the story of Willa Walker, who blazed a trail for women in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.

Wilhelmina Magee was born in Montreal on April 3, 1913, one of four children of bank president Allan Magee and the former Madeline Smith of Saint John, New Brunswick. The Magees lived in Montreal, but the children enjoyed spending summers at the Smith family's rental cottage in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick.

Willa, as she preferred to be called, received an excellent education at a private school for girls called The Study, and developed a keen social conscience. She was an early backer of the famous Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, who became a giant figure in the Chinese civil war.

After finishing school, Willa travelled to Paris to study French language and culture. Upon her return to Canada in 1933, when she was still only 20 years old, this plucky young woman worked her way around the world as postmistress on Canadian Pacific’s famous Empress of Britain ocean liner.

Back in Montreal, Willa was employed by a news agency, accompanying the photographers who took pictures of local debutantes and celebrities. However, hearing that Sir Herbert Marler had been appointed as Canadian minister to Washington, D.C., Willa offered herself as social secretary to his wife, Lady Beatrice Marler, and spent the next two years in Washington with the Marlers before returning to Canada.

In 1939, Willa was invited to a party at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, residence of the Canadian Governor-General, and there she met a young Scottish captain in the British Black Watch 51st Highland Division, named David Walker, who was serving as aide-de-camp to Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir, the novelist John Buchan. The couple's first meeting was far from promising—Willa asked David for a sherry, but he brought her a stiff Scotch instead!

War is declared

However, sparks flew between the young couple, and they married on July 27, 1939. Only a few days after their honeymoon in David’s native Scotland, war was declared and he rejoined his division.

When David went to war with his regiment in France in 1940, Willa stayed with David’s parents at their home in Cupar, south of Dundee, not far from Saint Andrews in Scotland. Shortly before the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk in June 1940, David's entire division was captured at Saint-Valery, Normandy. David spent the next five years in a prison camp. He managed to escape three times, but was always recaptured. Eventually, he was sent to the infamous Colditz Castle in Germany, a fortress for incorrigible inmates who had repeatedly escaped from other camps.

It wasn’t until after David’s capture that Willa discovered she was pregnant. She returned to Canada for the birth of her son Patrick in November 1940 but, tragically, he died of crib death in February 1941 at the age of three months. His loss was a lifelong sorrow for Willa, and David never saw his young son.

It wasn’t until July 1941 that Parliament finally yielded to public pressure and passed an Order-in-Council allowing women to enlist, and the Royal Canadian Air Force immediately formed a branch called the Women’s Division with the motto: “We Serve That Men May Fly”.

Willa joins the war effort

With her baby gone and her husband in prison, Willa decided to join the war effort herself. In October 1941, she graduated with the first group of air force recruits, and achieved the highest marks in officer training. Three months later, in January 1942, she was placed in charge of the new female recruits in Canada, all of whom entered Number 7 Manning Depot in Rockcliffe, Ontario, for basic training. In February 1943, Willa was promoted to commanding officer of the Women's Division in Canada. In doing so, she replaced Kathleen Oonah Walker (no relation), another esteemed female officer, who departed for England to become head of the Women’s Division overseas. Both women were given the rank of wing officer, and from then on Willa became known among the ranks as “The Wing.”

Willa was a natural-born leader. She was responsible for setting up training depots all over Canada as well as the overall discipline and efficiency of the Women’s Division. It was also her duty to urge more women to enlist, and no doubt her enthusiasm convinced many young women to follow in her footsteps.

At the time, many Canadians believed that women didn’t belong in uniform, that they should tend the home fires instead—knitting socks, rolling bandages, and growing Victory gardens. They feared that a woman’s reputation would suffer if she were away from her parents’ watchful eyes. It was Willa’s job to persuade them otherwise. For the next couple of years, she criss-crossed the country by land and air, speaking to groups and organizations, even church congregations, in an effort to change the public perception of women in uniform.

In May 1943 Willa undertook an exhaustive trip across Western Canada, visiting 33 air bases between Winnipeg and Vancouver Island in five weeks, recruiting young women and meeting as many of their parents as possible. "You would consider it the right thing for your sons to do, and you should also feel that it is the only right course for your daughters," she urged. One of her most persuasive arguments was that air force life was good training for future homemakers!

The benefits of life in the Air Force!

“Life in the air force is a wonderful background for marriage,” she said. “A marriage is going to mean so much more, because of the experience the man and woman have shared together in uniform. A girl who has been in the service will be able to understand her husband better—because she’ll know what he’s been through.”

Canadian women would be better citizens after a period of duty, she said. “No one need fear that these women will never be able to settle down comfortably in their homes during peace time. They will, gratefully, but they will be better people—they will be more adaptable and have a better understanding. They will have benefitted greatly from a little discipline!”

Most women, she explained, join the services for intensely patriotic reasons. Some have lost husbands or fathers or brothers, and are determined to take their places. “They aren’t looking for glamour,” she said. “They want it to be hard. They want to experience to some extent the life that their relatives had.”

On this tour, Willa was accompanied by another reputable officer, Jean Flatt Davey, the first female doctor in its Medical Division. Women in the air force were healthier than average, the two women explained, because they received good food, plenty of exercise, and excellent medical care.

Willa also emphasized the training that women received in forty different trades, including meteorologists, mechanics, wireless operators, and operational clerks. And although the women received only two thirds as much pay as the men, female veterans would receive the same benefits after the war as male veterans, including pensions and the opportunity for further education.

Willa was repeatedly asked by eager young recruits across the country when women would be sent overseas, but she was quick to point out that they were badly needed here on Canadian air bases. Only about 2,000 of the 17,000 women in the air force were fortunate enough to be sent overseas in wartime.

Willa went on to visit all the air bases in Eastern Command, and even travelled to the Dominion of Newfoundland, at that time a separate country.

The war for equality

Interviewed by newspapers from coast to coast, some male reporters didn’t quite know how to describe the impressive officer. One reporter wrote: “Mrs. Walker is of average height, very slim, with sparkling brown eyes, brown hair, and looks very young for the very responsible position which she holds.” It was still very much a man's world, but privately, Willa waged a war for women’s equality.

For example, at all the training depots, the officers' mess, or dining hall, was reserved for men only, so Willa was not allowed to eat with the male officers. Frustrated by this regulation, one day Willa ordered her driver to park in front of the officers' mess. In sub-zero temperatures, she sat inside the vehicle during a snowstorm, eating her cold crackers, until the male officers were so ashamed that they invited her inside.

Across the country, women officers let out a cheer, as they were never again prevented from entering the officers’ mess! It was another proud moment for Willa when the head of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (BWAAF), after which the Canadian branch was modelled, visited Canada on an inspection tour and pronounced the women’s performance as “absolutely first-class. The thing that has impressed me is their enthusiasm,” said BWAAF Air Chief Commandant Katherine Trefusis Forbes, “their cheerful, keen attitude to do the job they are doing. People still don’t realize just how colossal it is.”

In November 1943, Willa accepted a solid gold cup on behalf of the Women’s Division, a gift from the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, presented by Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. For her war work, Willa was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in London, England, in January 1944, presented by Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI.

During the long years that David was in prison, Willa never gave up hope that he might escape. She came up with a code for communicating important news in seemingly innocent letters to her husband, which passed undetected by both the Canadian and German censors.

She also managed to smuggle escape maps to David in the soles of a pair of shoes contained in a Red Cross package. This time, Canadian military officers intercepted the package and found the maps.

At first, they admonished her for her foolhardiness, but the ingeniousness of the scheme appealed to them, so they repacked the shoes and sent off the package. Unfortunately, nobody escaped from Colditz Castle, not even David.

The war ends

As the end of the war approached, women were no longer needed in the armed forces, and they began to receive their discharges. Willa resigned her post in October 1944 after three years of service, to await the return of her husband. It wasn’t until May 1945 that the war finally ended and they were reunited.

The couple settled briefly in Scotland, where their son Giles was born. The young family then travelled to India, where David served as chief of staff to Lord Archibald Wavell and, subsequently, to Lord Louis Mountbatten.

In 1947, the Walkers returned to Scotland, where David retired with the rank of major, and their son Barclay was born. The following year, the Walkers returned to Canada and settled in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick.

Willa brought her organizational skills to bear on the challenge of raising four rambunctious boys.

Dedicated to serving the community, Willa belonged to many local organizations, and wrote a popular book about her beloved town, entitled “Summers in Saint Andrews: Canada's Idyllic Seaside Retreat”.

Willa Magee Walker died in 2010 at the age of 97. On June 16, 2018, a park in Rockcliffe, Ontario, was named and dedicated in her honour.  Willa Magee Walker truly embodied the Royal Canadian Air Force motto of that era: Per Ardua Ad Astra. Through Adversity to the Stars.


 

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