When war broke out, Canada’s Parliament refused point blank to allow women into the armed forces. Two years later, it finally gave in and women flocked to recruiting centres by the thousand. But only a small percentage earned the coveted overseas posting. Nancy Lee, from a remote ranch in the Rocky Mountains, was one of the fortunate few.
A few years before she died, I was lucky enough to interview Nancy, still as smart and strong-minded and sassy as ever, about her wartime experiences.
Born in England, as a young girl she moved with her mother and sisters to a ranch at Edgewater, British Columbia, where she promptly turned into a rebellious, school-hating, horse-loving tomboy.
After growing up, she headed for Vancouver and had several jobs before landing an unusual occupation for a woman, parking lot attendant at Woodward’s Department Store. The war in Europe was raging overseas. “One night, every light in the city went out,” Nancy recalled. The next day, on December 8, 1941, she heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour.
Enough is enough, Nancy said to herself, and headed for the nearest recruiting office.
By then our government had reluctantly caved in, after anguished protests from women across the country, and allowed them to join up. Nancy applied repeatedly to the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and was finally accepted.
My wartime novel Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction, the story of a farm girl from Saskatchewan woman who joins the air force and works as a photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.
One experience Nancy recalled with indignation was the physical examination by a male doctor, who made her strip naked and perform several exercises while he watched. But for once she kept her mouth shut, and passed the exam.
Nancy travelled across the country by train to the Women’s Division headquarters in Toronto, the former Havergal College for Girls. There she was asked to train as an officer. Older than the average recruit, and oozing with confidence, she was probably considered suitable officer material.
But Nancy refused. She was worried about her varicose veins and didn’t want to spend her days marching. Besides, she loved engines and her dream was to drive a truck – the bigger, the better.
Nancy studied Motor Transport Training at Jarvis Bombing and Gunnery Station in Ontario. When she finished, she asked for an overseas posting, but was told there was no hope.
“Make a note on my file that I want to go overseas!” she demanded. Four months later, in December 1942, she was delighted to receive her new orders: pack your kit bag and get ready to sail for England.
Nancy joined twenty others in one of the few overseas contingents of Canadian women. It was such a novelty that the Toronto Telegram published an article about them, referring to Nancy in the headline: Rancherette from West Driver in RCAF. (It speaks volumes that she was a “rancherette” rather than a rancher.)
The women sailed from Halifax in a ship crammed with recent graduates of the Commonwealth air training program. It was one of the coldest winters on record and icicles hung from the railings. The voyage itself was an adventure, as the ship was dogged by enemy submarines and had to lay off the coast of Spain for two days before landing in Glasgow.
From there the women took the train to London. It was Nancy’s first experience living in a country under threat from enemy attack. She marvelled at the total blackouts as they crept through the darkened streets hand in hand, one pair behind the other, an officer leading the way with a shaded torch.
But she also enjoyed seeing the country of her birth. Like almost every other Canadian, the petite brunette had her photograph taken in front of the huge stone lions in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Nancy’s group was posted to “Little Canada,” a nickname for the designated Canadian Bomber Group No. 6 in Yorkshire, composed of six stations. The headquarters were situated in a stately home called Allerton Hall. This was a great, gloomy pile of stones shrouded with fog that the Canadians dubbed “Castle Dismal.”
Nancy and her mates weren’t living in the castle, however. They huddled in Nissen metal huts that looked like large oil barrels lying on their sides. There were sixteen women in each freezing hut, with one tiny heater that burned an inferior fuel called coke. The shivering women spent hours combing the hedges for kindling. Still dressed in skirts (battledress trousers were not allowed until later in the war), they were bloody cold.
Feisty as always, Nancy soon quarrelled with one of her officers and was sent off to Linton-on-Ouse, near the city of York. But she was quite happy there. Her duties were more meaningful, as this was an operational station with Lancaster bombers flying nightly raids over Europe, and women providing vital support on the ground.
Each day she hauled food rations to the satellite stations around Linton in her big three-ton, cab-over-engine Bedford lorry. Linton alone catered to three thousand people.
One morning she arrived to pick up her shipment and found the elderly butcher cleaning turkeys for Christmas dinner, his hands blue with cold. The rancherette from the Rockies was no stranger to this unpleasant chore, so she rolled up her sleeves and pitched in. From that day forward, the butcher was her friend. Although the entire country was on strict rations, he would often slip her a few eggs or a bit of meat.
Nancy also made a good pal named Joey Thomson (nicknamed Tommy) from West Vancouver. Tommy was visiting England when war broke out and, like other Canadians, she was trapped there because civilian travel was banned. When the opportunity arose, she joined the RCAF. Here’s a photo of Tommy behind the wheel of Nancy’s Bedford lorry.
The Canadian girls had an active social life, although tempered with sadness at the heavy casualties among the flyers. Romances flourished and there were many wartime weddings. When the girls lost a loved one, they were given a few days of compassionate leave. But when one of them married a bomb lorry driver, she told Nancy: “We’re going on passionate leave!”
Here’s a photo of one happy bride in her flowered hat, surrounded by friends. Nancy is second from the right.
Nancy was in London on that historic day when Germany finally surrendered on May 8th, 1945, and she joined the epic celebration. After all the weary years of war, the happiness and relief were overwhelming.
“The city went mad,” Nancy recalled. “The office workers were just crazy with joy, tearing up sheets of paper that they threw out of the windows like confetti. Everyone was kissing and hugging complete strangers!”
Nancy volunteered to remain behind while hundreds of thousands of eager men were demobilized and shipped home to their waiting families. She took advantage of the opportunity to visit France. Here’s her photo of the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by people in uniform.
By then she was missing Canada’s wilderness and could hardly wait to get home. Here she is, second from the left. Sailing back to her own country was a happy affair: no blackouts, no drills and no danger from enemy submarines. And Nancy’s beloved Rocky Mountains at the end of her journey.
Nancy’s service career was just one chapter in a long and busy life. With the help of a loan from the Veterans Land Act, she purchased Hidden Valley Ranch outside Invermere with her husband Lloyd Tegart.
After he died in a tragic accident in 1967, Nancy lived alone and drove her own truck until the age of 92, when she finally moved into town.
She never had children, but surrounded herself with her beloved horses, dogs, birds and all the wild creatures that shared her environment. Here is a photo of Nancy taken on her ninetieth birthday.
Nancy Lee Tegart died peacefully in 2012 at the age of 99.
Altogether, more than 50,000 Canadian women served in the army, navy and air force during the Second World War. Fewer than ten percent of them were sent overseas. Women serving in our armed forces today owe a debt of gratitude to the stalwarts like Nancy Lee who blazed the trail.
Rest in Peace, Nancy Lee Tegart.
Nancy Tegart’s story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in print under the title My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. For more info, visit the book cover image on the bottom of this page.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a beautiful colour illustration appeared on the cover each week. This one dated December 11, 1943 (exactly seventy years ago today!!!) shows a member of the RCAF Women’s Division in her snappy blue uniform and cap. To see my complete collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.