Reflections on Enlistment in World War II: In Their Own Words

A line of women holding booklets behind wooden trestle tables. Recruitment posters on the wall behind them.

A group of new recruits for the WAAAF with their enlistment papers, at No. 1 Recruit Centre, RAAF, Melbourne, c 1942. AWM VIC0498

Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war….

[From a speech made by Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies, 3 September 1939]

Veterans reflect on enlistment in World War II

In this series of interviews, you will hear veterans sharing their views and lived experiences of enlistment. While listening to these stories, you will gain an insight into the motivations of Australian service men and women to enlist in the:

  • Royal Australian Navy (RAN)
  • Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF)
  • Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)
  • Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF).

Listening to oral histories gives us a unique insight into the challenges some veterans may have faced to enlist. We can also see how the decision to serve their country shaped their lives.

You may wish to use the questions beneath each video for independent study and classroom discussion.

Why did Australians want to enlist in World War II?

Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. To help Britain, Australia formed the AIF to serve overseas. Aircrews from the RAAF and a number of RAN ships were also sent to fight for Britain.

Historian GH Fearnside suggested that:

Perhaps the call to adventure was the greatest motivation for volunteers; certainly it continued to attract young men eager to test themselves, although the air force was even more popular. The lure of adventure was never greater than to the very first volunteers, who formed the 6th Division in 1939.

Popular reasons for enlistment included a sense of patriotic duty and a desire to 'do one's bit' to protect Australia and the British Empire from Germany. After 1941, people often enlisted to protect Australia from the threat of Japanese invasion.

After the war, in a large survey of Australian Army veterans, 'duty' was the most important factor for those who enlisted during the war, with other values like nationalism and loyalty to the Empire as second and third. The survey also found that Anzac tradition was a factor in some people's reasons for enlistment.

Dixie Lee

Dixie's father and uncle both served in the RAN during and after World War I. When their ships arrived in Burnie, Dixie would go aboard. Thinking back on that time, Dixie remembered that he liked everything about the navy, including the cakes made on board. At the age of 17 during World War II, he followed in his family's footsteps and joined the RAN in August 1941.

Hear Dixie talk about his memories of going aboard navy ships in his youth and how this shaped his desired to enlist in the RAN when war broke out.

Watch the video:

Do the activities

  1. Do you have family members who serve or have served in the navy like Dixie's father and uncle? Imagine they have been away serving for a long period of time. Describe what it's like to see them come home after so long.
  2. Do you think many young people would want to enlist and go to war today? Why?
  3. Imagine how your life would change if you joined the navy at 17 like Dixie. Write a list of the things you would miss, such as friends and family. Do you think you would find being at sea exciting?

Andy Anderson

Andy joined the RAAF in Perth in March 1942. Andy went to England where he was posted to No 10 Squadron, flying Sunderland aircraft out of Mount Batten near Plymouth. Andy flew anti-submarine and convoy escort missions in the Bay of Biscay, France, and the western approaches to Britain from December 1943 to the end of the war in Europe, in May 1945. In this video, Andy talks about what it took to become a member of No 10 Squadron.

Watch the video:

Do the activities

  1. Why do you think Andy, like so many other young men, wanted to be a 'hero'? What do you think this meant?
  2. Becoming a fighter pilot requires a high level of skill and training. Can you think of any differences between what a fighter pilot during World War II and pilots in the modern RAAF would experience?
  3. Andy talks about the level of responsibility that young people in No 10 Squadron had. Read about the air war Europe 1939-1945 and the lives of RAAF aircrew. Write a letter home to your family detailing a day in your life as a member of No 10 Squadron during World War II.

Phil Elger and Bill Evans

Phil enlisted with the RAAF in June 1942 in Sydney. After basic training, he was sent to England and was based in Mildenhall, Suffolk. He flew Wellington and Lancaster bombers as a wireless operator with No 15 Squadron.

Bill enlisted in Adelaide on 15 August 1942. After training in Australia, he was also sent to England. He served in Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF). First, he was attached to No 166 Squadron RAF, then transferred to No 625 Squadron RAF. After being commissioned as a wireless operator in March 1944, Bill also flew Wellington and Lancaster bombers. He participated in 17 operational flights.

Phil and Bill talk about their motivations to enlist in the RAAF, and how tough the training was.

Watch the video:

Do the activities

  1. Bill talks about his desire to defend his country as his primary motivation to enlist in the RAAF in June 1942. Read Australia under attack 1940-1945. Identify 3 key events between 1940 and 1942 that brought the war to Australia and may have affected Bill's decision to enlist.
  2. Phil talks about the shock he received when he joined the RAF. What sort of conditions was he expecting?
  3. Phil remembers the unarmed training course being particularly difficult. What sort of activities did he have to undertake?

Rachel Rayner

Rachel had been a member of the Air Training Corps. She was too young to enlist when the war began so she volunteered for the Red Cross. When she turned 18, Rachel enlisted in the WAAAF.

Hear Rachel talk about needing her father's signature on the enlistment form to join the WAAAF at age 18.

Watch the video:

Do the activities

  1. What were Rachel's reasons for enlistment?
  2. Rachel volunteered with the Red Cross before enlisting in the WAAAF at 18. Read Leaving home. Research some of the other service roles available to women in World War II.
  3. What did Rachel's father do when she told him she wanted to join the WAAAF?

James Kerr

James was underage when he enlisted in the AIF in March 1941. He was accepted nonetheless. At first, James served in an anti-tank regiment and was deployed in Malaya. Later he served in the defence of Singapore against the Japanese invasion, where he was taken prisoner in 1942. As a prisoner of war, James was sent to work on the Burma-Thailand railway and was interned in Changi prison.

Hear James talk about his unsuccessful attempts to join the navy at the age of 13 in 1939 and lying about his age to AIF recruiters to join the army in August 1940.

Watch the video:

Do the activities

  1. Why didn't James pass the midshipman's exams when he tried to enter the Royal Australian Naval College?
  2. At what age did James leave school to try and join the navy? What stopped him from being able to join?
  3. After hearing how a friend got into the army, what did James do to join the AIF in 1940?

Value of oral history in the classroom

Oral histories bring historic events to life through the voices and memories of people who lived through them.

Listening to the stories of Australian veterans helps us understand the experience of military service and war. Hearing from their family members gives insight into the hardship of service on home life.

By gathering oral histories, we can avoid stereotyping and generalising military service. We can identify the similarities and recognise the diversity of their experiences. Two people who have served the same theatre of war will have different memories and bring their own insights to the broader story.

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