'Everyone did it': Humble Ottawa veteran recalls her war years
If war is hell, for 20-year-old Connie Mooney in London, Ont., the alternative wasn’t much better.
What would her life be like if she hadn’t followed her friends and enlisted for duty in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War?
“I shudder to think,” says Mooney, a trim and active 98-year-old Ottawa resident, decked out in an RCAF kilt and tie, her Royal Canadian Legion blazer heavy with medals.
“I probably would have married someone and settled in London,” she said. “I was absolutely sure I wasn’t going to pound a typewriter and wait for Mr. Right to come along. So I signed up and went off with everyone else.”
A million Canadians served their country in the Second World War, including more than 50,000 women: 17,400 WDs, like Mooney, in the RCAF’s Women’s Division; 21,600 CWACS of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps; 7,100 WRENS in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service; and 4,500 nursing sisters.
Hundreds of thousands more went to work on home front factories, building everything from bombers to bullets to support the war effort. During the peak war years, 1.2 million Canadian women were in the domestic workforce, not only doubling the size of Canada’s female workforce from the pre-war years, but also opening up jobs in construction and manufacturing that had been traditional male occupations.
Mooney (née Connie Noyes) joined the air force in 1942 out of a sense of adventure. She was sent to Guelph for training and began work as a driver, chauffeuring officers around town.
“One of the guys I was driving, you’ll see his picture is all over the house,” she says. “That’s because I married him.”
But first Mooney followed him — to Winnipeg, where the dashing young RCAF officer, Robert Mooney, had been posted. She was in Winnipeg for just a few months before she got notice that she’d been posted overseas. She sailed from Lachine, Que. in the summer of 1944, the ship zig-zagging its way across the Atlantic even though the danger from German U-boats had eased. She arrived in Liverpool and eventually found herself stationed at Allerton Park, the Downton Abbey-like manor in Yorkshire that was the headquarters of No. 6 Group, the Canadian contingent of Bomber Command.
Mooney, a corporal, had trained to be a physical education instructor to capitalize on her athleticism. She’d played basketball and been a competitive swimmer in high school. But in Yorkshire, she found her superiors were unimpressed. There was little time for games or gym class as the Canadians ramped up their bombing campaign over Germany.
“They asked me, ‘What’s your trade?’ and I said, ‘physical training.’ They said, ‘OK … What else can you do?’ So I said, ‘I can drive a truck.”
Mooney was assigned to drive a “spook van” — a truck so big she had to sit on a box to reach the gas pedal. It was filled with radio gear and Mooney and her partner, a female radio operator, would be sent in secret before each bombing mission to park near an airfield. Hiding under trees or behind hedges as the bombers lumbered overhead toward their targets, the women would listen to the radio chatter between the pilots and the ground, transcribing what was said for the official record. They’d stay in place until the bombers returned hours later.
Sometimes they could hear the pilots reporting German aircraft that had snuck into the stream of returning bombers, waiting for a chance for a strafing attack. The spook van would relay that crucial warning to the air bases.
Once Mooney was at an airfield looking at a bomber, when an airman asked her if she wanted to peek inside.
“I went in and the whole thing was just filled with holes,” she said. “I don’t know how they ever got home. It’s amazing.”
Many didn’t make it home. Some 10,000 RCAF members were killed in training, combat or in prisoner of war camps.
Mooney remembers getting ready for bed when she heard a midnight radio broadcast from Winston Churchill announcing that the war in Europe was over.
“Well, that was the end of going to bed,” she said. “We got up and got dressed. We formed a chain and went through the camp banging on the doors. At 2 a.m., the whole camp was awake. The commanding officer was up playing harpsichord. Everyone having a great time.”
Connie left the air force after the war, but her husband stayed in and she spent years more as a military spouse, raising three sons in the process. Robert died in 1997.
Mooney’s house is bedecked with memorabilia and plaques from the various bases they were stationed. She has reams of photos and newspaper clippings of the war years that she shares with her children and grandchildren and visitors to the Canadian War Museum, where she volunteered for many years.
But when asked about what Remembrance Day means for her, she struggles to express her feelings.
“I think about my father. I relate wars more to him than to myself. He was in two of them,” she said. “I never thought I did anything special. You just do as you’re told.”
Is she proud of her service?
“Not particularly,” she says, humbly. “Everyone did it.”
She recalls friends from her youth in London who went to war and never came home.
“A lot of them were killed,” she said. “A lot of them joined up, went overseas, went on a couple of ops and were shot down.”
Four years after the war ended, Mooney went back to England where Robert was again stationed overseas with the air force. She remembers travelling to Germany to search for the grave of a childhood friend killed when his plane was shot down.
“We got to the border and they made us give them our passports and told us we had to be back in an hour,” she recalled. “We went in and, amazingly, we found the grave. We took pictures and sent them back to his mother and father. That was the sort of thing I was proud to do.”