A Life's Story
April 24, 2021
Military mindset carried through civilian life
Lynn Francis, 98, served war years with Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service
By: Alan Small
Lynn Francis was one of the oft-overlooked Canadian veterans of the Second World War.
Francis, who died Oct. 11, 2020, at 98, was born Dorothy Evelyn Hammett — a later Glenlawn Collegiate grad who grew up in St. Vital.
On Nov. 19, 1942, as a 20-year-old, she enlisted with the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, a section of the Royal Canadian Navy.
About 7,000 Canadian women served in the war unit known as the Wrens (the same nickname as a similar organization that was part of the Royal Navy in Great Britain).
"She just on a whim decided to go down to the naval barracks and get an application and join up. And the next day, they called her for an interview," daughter Kathleen Francis says.
"She went to telegraphing class that was starting that night, and she was on her way. They needed the help, and they would take whoever they could get."
After receiving training, which included learning semaphore and Morse code, in St. Hyacinthe, Que., Francis was sent to Halifax, where she served until her discharge after the war.
The lessons, discipline and routines she learned during her four-year stint with the navy and the Wrens would play a key part in how she lived when she moved back to Winnipeg. She would volunteer with the Wrenettes Corps (female version of the Sea Cadets) and would eventually become the organization’s Winnipeg commander.
"The navy was such an important part of her life, dad’s life, and our family life. The navy was her whole world, basically, and she just carried that through her life right to the end," Kathleen says.
"She was very proud of the navy, and she was very proud of the uniform."
Halifax was a major port during the Battle of the Atlantic, and Francis saw firsthand how close the fighting came to Canada’s shore on Christmas Eve 1944.
The HMCS Clayoquot was to escort a convoy for a trans-Atlantic mission, but the minesweeper was torpedoed and eventually sunk by a German U-boat near Sambro Island, just six kilometres off the southern shore of Nova Scotia.
The island’s lighthouse marks the entrance to Halifax Harbour.
Eight sailors were killed, and her mother recalled seeing the wounded and freezing survivors brought back to shore, Kathleen says.
Her future husband, Jim Francis, joined the navy in 1940, and served aboard several warships, but they first met back at Glenlawn. Eventually, they would marry in October 1945, three months after the war’s end.
It’s how they became engaged that would bring laughs that would last for 57 years of marriage, until Jim’s death in 2002.
"They were on leave, and went to Toronto, and mom was expecting the ring and she didn’t get it," Kathleen says. "She was teasing dad that she was going to start seeing other men, so he better get her a ring quick.
"So he sent it in the mail, but he sent it in an envelope with no return address, no note. Just the ring in an envelope. He said afterwards that if she didn’t know who it was from, then he didn’t want to marry her anyway."
Jim learned his lesson, and later used semaphore flags to pop the question, navy groom to navy bride.
While the war and navy duties ended, the couple returned to Winnipeg. Francis had grown accustomed to military routine, however, meaning a brisk pace for walks and a rigid schedule in which punctuality mattered.
"She marched everywhere. You couldn’t get her to walk," Kathleen says.
The couple moved to an acreage at 45 Brentwood Ave., in 1961, which then was far from the city. Six decades later, it remains a woodsy enclave hidden from the busy market-garden traffic of St. Mary’s Road, south of the Perimeter Highway.
Francis’s younger sister, Jean Gregory, moved to a similar acreage next door. "We both cleaned our properties by hand with hatchets, and it went from there. We both had huge gardens."
A love of gardening blossomed, a hobby and way of life that meshed well with Francis being a child of the Great Depression. That meant she followed the three Rs — reducing, reusing and recycling — long before they became trendy.
"She never did the pesticide thing," Kathleen says. "Mom never wasted a thing. Everything went into the compost pile. She would make compost tea... and then she would use that and water her plants with it."
Francis volunteered for the Manitoba Genealogical Society, and tracked her roots to the 1600s in Switzerland. Another branch of her family tree connected her with the United Empire Loyalists — loyal British subjects who had settled in what were then the 13 colonies in America but fled to Canada during the American Revolution.
In 2005, Francis, then 83, joined her three sisters on a kayak trip through B.C.’s Gulf Islands. She had canoed many times before teaching Wrenettes but it was her first time in a kayak, Gregory says.
The four took to learning how to paddle, roll over and get in and get out of the kayak. The paddlers caught the attention of Free Press columnist Lindor Reynolds, who wrote about their preparations.
"She was game," Gregory says of her older sister by 12 years. "We were all getting on. It was just a great trip, we really enjoyed it."