Bernice McIntyre: From wartime Wren to the regular navy

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Battle of the Atlantic Heroes / February 10, 2021

By Chief Petty Officer 1st Class (retired) JoAnn Cunningham
Nova Scotia Wren Association

Bernice (Bunny) McIntyre, 99, has a unique record of naval service with three different service numbers representing three distinct phases of her career.

The first was issued when she joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), or Wrens, during the Second World War; the second when women were first allowed to join the Naval Reserve in 1952; and the third when she transferred to the regular Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1955.

Bernice Neill was born August 8, 1921 in Dauphin, Man. Her mother died when Bernice was 17 years old and her father sold the farm a year later. He married his widowed sister-in-law and took over the care of her four children.

When she was older, Bernice started Business College in Dauphin. It cost $10 per month to take the course so she worked for the owner of a hairdressing salon, taking care of the owner’s elderly mother and doing the laundry for the business to earn the money she needed.

Dauphin had an Air Force base nearby with a flight school and gunnery school. Bernice and a friend planned to join the Air Force. She was finding it difficult to afford the tuition for college, and when she asked her father if he would give her $5 per month to help her out, her stepmother refused.

She had to quit college and started working in a tea room. One day a friend came to tell her that the Navy was recruiting women. Bernice, who was a head waitress at the time, asked her boss for an hour off and went to apply. She was concerned about her chance of being accepted because she had not finished her business course and only had a grade eight education.

Once she got back to work, the night shift waitress asked her where she had been. Bernice told her about going to apply to the Navy, and this waitress asked Bernice to cover for her while she went down to submit her application too. Both Bernice and Bessie McLaren signed on the dotted line on October 14, 1942, and were told they would receive further instructions by mail.

A letter soon arrived telling them to report to Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Conestoga in Galt, Ont., on December 18, 1942. The letter gave a list of what to take with them, and as Bernice recalls, “It wasn’t much.”

Bessie and Bernice met up with 20 other girls in Winnipeg for the four-day train ride to Galt, where they joined a class of 100 women.

Bessie said, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after each other.”

When lining up for their vaccination shots, Bessie was ahead of Bernice in the line. Bernice recalls that there was some commotion ahead of her and found out that Bessie had fainted after the shot. “So much for having someone to take care of me!”

The basic training course was three weeks long and was a highly regimented program. At the end of their time as Probationary Wrens, Bernice was told that she was selected to be a wardroom assistant, and one of her jobs was to be the personal steward of Lieutenant-Commander Isabel Macneill, the commanding officer.

“My job also included supervising the main galley,” Bernice says. “I had to ensure all the girls were awake by shouting ‘Hit the deck!’ by 6 a.m. every morning. Then I had to run to the officers’ quarters to knock on their doors. When I returned to the main galley, I had to make sure the four tables which ran the length of the building were set properly for the Wrens. I also ensured the Wrens lining up for their meals were well turned out and were not wearing any lipstick.”

She was promoted to Leading Wren one month after she arrived in Galt.

“I could have been promoted to Petty Officer, but I liked the comradeship of the lower decks. By the time I had finished my posting at HMCS Conestoga 19 months later, 5,000 Wrens had passed through basic training courses at Galt.”

Her next posting was to HMCS Jellico, located close to Galt, where Wrens who had completed their basic training were awaiting their first draft. She was then posted to HMCS Kings in Halifax.

“I was a wardroom assistant for the ‘90-day wonder boys’ undergoing basic officer training. These trainees were distinguished by their white cap covers. They would often try to pretend to be qualified by removing their cap covers when going ashore. We were not allowed to date these trainees, but we had fun playing tricks on them, such as short-sheeting their beds.”

Eventually she was posted to HMCS Avalon in St. John’s, Nfld., where her duties included serving as the wine steward in the wardoom.

“Newfoundland was considered an overseas posting at that time,” she recalls. “We made the dangerous crossing from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland on board the Lady Rodney, fortunately without incident. It was only a month after HMCS Clayquot had been sunk by a German U-boat (December 24, 1944) just outside of Halifax Harbour. At one point in the crossing, we were woken up and told to put on our lifejackets because it was suspected that there were U-boats nearby. Fortunately, there was no attack and eventually the convoy broke off and we continued unescorted to St. John’s. This was how I came to be in St. John’s when VE Day was declared.”

As the war wound down, she was posted back to Halifax, where she worked at Admiralty House.

“I was offered a job after the war by an officer whose family owned the Cunard

Steamship Lines. I said I wanted to go back to Winnipeg on leave first and never

did return to take that job.”

Once back in Winnipeg, she worked in a hardware store for a while, but she was not yet finished with the Navy.

“I joined the Naval Reserve at HMCS Chippawa in February 1951 after one of their officers asked me why I had not joined as soon as women were able to be recruited. I replied that I thought they would not take me if I only had grade eight education. The officer said I would be recruited as long as I could pass the entrance test.”

In February 1952, Bernice accepted continuous naval duty, completed a two-week supply assistant course in British Columbia and proceeded to HMCS Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. She also served on board HMCS Coverdale in Moncton, N.B., from July 1952 until July 1955.

Bernice was one of only four Canadian Wrens chosen to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation parade in London on June 2, 1953.

It was in Moncton that she picked up the nickname “Bunny” because there was another girl in the accommodations block named Bernice. When the only Wren officer left Coverdale in 1954, Bernice was promoted to the rank of petty officer and was put in charge of the Wren block. 

When the RCN started accepting women into the regular navy in 1955, Bernice was encouraged to join.

She was posted back to Cornwallis, where she supervised issuing uniforms to Wren recruits. However, she was at the bottom of the roster for promotion and her chances of getting promoted were slim since she did not have the sea time that her male peers possessed.

She did not really like the petty officer in charge of the stores section in Cornwallis, but she eventually married him. His name was Arthur McIntyre, from Saint John, N.B.

Bernice was four days short of her 35th birthday when she got married on August 4, 1956. She says she got married in part because she had not had a real home since she was 18 years old and she was tired of living in barracks, continually surrounded by women.

Bernice was eventually posted to the supply section in the Halifax dockyard. She was seven months pregnant with her first child when she was honourably discharged for being “medically unfit” – the regulation for any married Wren who was pregnant.

In 1959, Bernice used $500 of the $800 that she received as a pension for her war service to purchase a plot of land along the Waverley Road in Dartmouth, N.S. She and her husband started to build their home in 1961 and raised three children there.

Bernice purchased a corner store not far from her home in 1969 and worked from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. while raising her family. She eventually sold the store and continued to work part-time. She had successful full-time careers in Woolco from 1976 to 1986 and with the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, working part-time from 1980 to 1986 and then full-time from 1986 to 1996.

As she nears her 100th birthday, Bernice still lives in her original Dartmouth home, carrying with her a lifetime of memories about her time serving with the Wrens, the Naval Reserve and the regular navy.