Women's Services: Episode 3 of Paths to Victory podcast series

Running time
36 min 45 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

This podcast is part of the series, Paths to Victory. Join us to explore some of the many paths our veterans took through World War II on the road to Victory in the Pacific. In this episode, we share discuss the role of the women’s services, both overseas and in Australia. Hear stories from those who contributed to the war effort in the Women’s Services in Australia.


Archival audio: Women on the land, taking the age-old place which, in English-speaking countries at least, has always been reserved for man. A practicality in Australia? Well, let’s see. Through the Australian National Women’s Services, volunteers flow into the Women’s Land Army, already thousands strong, and growing stronger with every passing week. Excellent types are going into the Land Army, women from all walks of life.

Rebecca Fleming: The Australian Women’s Land Army made an important contribution to the war effort, but the stories of its members are little known. This is true for many of the women’s services during the Second World War. Many Australian women served overseas during the war, but the vast majority served in Australia. Their contribution to the war effort is often overlooked.

I’m Dr Rebecca Fleming. As a social historian, I’m fascinated by the lived experience of history. Memories give texture to life as it was lived, and help us to understand how it felt to serve in that remarkable period of history. Collected together, they tell us of the commonalties and differences in people’s experiences.

As we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, I invite you to join me in listening to these stories.

This episode will focus on the stories of women’s service in Australia. As the stories will show they worked in many different locations across Australia and in many different kinds of roles. Some worked in intelligence, others as despatch riders, in munitions or helping in the assembly of aircraft, among many other roles – some volunteer, others in the women’s services.

Hazel Mayes: Before I joined the Air Force I was a despatch rider for the ambulance, NES ambulance service…

Ivy Hall: I was lucky enough to get into the AAMWS car company, which was run by women only. We had men mechanics, but all the ambulances were driven by ladies. It was hard work – it was not 9 till 5, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, and definitely night work.

Alison Worrall: So you had to be very careful, you had to change your clothes all the time, walk on duck boards all the time. If anything went wrong there was a great explosion, so everything had to be cleared out again.

Joyce Linnane: It would be a very exciting occasion if we would be still copying the Japanese morse and we’d get the signal “I am being attacked”, which is a triple barbed Z, which in symbols was “He He He”. And of course there was great jubilation then because we knew that we had prevented one of our bases from being attacked and possibly one of our planes had despatched the Japanese plane.

Rebecca Fleming: These women could not have anticipated how the war would impact their lives or how important their contributions would be in Australia’s paths to victory.

When she heard the news that Australia was at war, Pat Guest was initially excited:

Pat Guest: I was babysitting and I had the radio on. We knew there was a lot of trouble and he said, “…and Australia is now at war.” I thought, “Wow!” – I got so excited. I thought it was wonderful. Grabbed the baby and I ran all the way up to our house, burst in through the front door and stopped. There was dad and mom. Dad's standing there and he’s got his arms around mom. Mom's crying into his shoulder and he kept saying, “It's all right, Meg. It's okay. The war will be over by Christmas. Pat and Jim won't have to go.” They’re my two brothers and I thought, “Pat, Jim, at the war? No.” All the excitement, there was nothing. It just drained away and I thought, “No – I don't want that.” And the war didn't finish. Went on and on. Pat went away and then Jim went away … I became an ambulance driver and that's how we saw the war out. And it wasn't pretty. I don't ever want to see another one.

Rebecca Fleming: Anne Curtis was with her friends in the Queensland bayside suburb of Manly, when she heard the news:

Anne Curtis: I can remember that well, because I was on the jetty at Manly with friends. It was early in the evening, and we were ... Usually after a boat race – I used to be a keen sailor. We were out there where we usually went, and after we came in from sailing we'd get onto to the jetty, and we'd have just a few eats, and then we'd take off home. It was there that we heard the war had broken out. And there was silence everywhere. We were wondering what was going to happen, what was ahead of us. That was the worst part because we had never been actually involved in any wars.

Rebecca Fleming: Many were keen to serve, but for women there were few opportunities to enlist in the early part of the war. Heather Starr was frustrated when her male friends joined up and she couldn’t:

Heather Starr: I mean as people we were capable. We mightn't have, you know, sort of gone in the fighting, but we felt that we should be able to do it. But it was just, you know, women's rights I suppose, without realising it.

Rebecca Fleming: Women had been lobbying to make a contribution from the very beginning of the war, in fact even before it began, but the government was a little slow on the uptake. The majority of the women’s services were not formed until 1941.

But in the meantime women mobilised themselves, contributing to a myriad of voluntary and auxiliary organisations which trained them in a wide range of skills. Among the many organisations there was a Women’s Flying Club, a Women’s Transport Corps, and the Women’s Australian National Service. Thousands of women joined the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations, as so many had done in the First World War.

Heather was a member of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. She dedicated much of her free time to the organisation:

Heather Starr: Oh yes – after work, Saturdays, Sundays. Any spare time you had. I mean that was – that was our life, because we felt that we were doing something. And so you'd go there whenever you could.

Rebecca Fleming: These organisations, paramilitary in nature, were sometimes mocked in the press. Women wanted to move beyond their usual sphere of work, to contribute as mechanics, navigators, engineers and signallers, even to learn how to fire weapons. They had to work hard to be taken seriously.

Joining the National Emergency Service in New South Wales, Hazel Mayes had the opportunity to learn a skill that was traditionally considered unsuitable for women:

Hazel Mayes: That’s right yes, before I joined the Air Force I was a despatch rider for the ambulance, NES ambulance service. That was where I actually learnt to ride a motorcycle, because they started fairly early in the war years and there must have been something in the press I think. And we got together and some of the girls could ride, and some of them had husbands who were still around with bikes, and they taught us to ride. Our uniforms consisted of black riding boots and navy britches, a navy jacket and navy cap. We didn’t wear helmets in those days and we were issued with gas masks and tin hats but we weren’t expected to ride with the tin hats on.

Rebecca Fleming: They were preparing to undertake an important role, if Australia was ever attacked:

Hazel Mayes: Well, looking back on it we were expected to keep open the lines of communication should the country be attacked and the telephone lines and various other means of communication be put out of order.

Rebecca Fleming: Hazel remembered a few incidents which caused nervous excitement in her unit:

Hazel Mayes: Well, we didn’t have that much trouble here but on a couple of occasions – the night of the shelling of Rose Bay, and another night when there was an unidentified aircraft come over, I did get as far as reporting to my station at Sutherland. Yes, I think we were all excited, we felt that at last we were going to be able to do something instead of just practice. But of course before we could really go into action, there was no action because the lines of communication weren’t disrupted and the all-clear went, and I think we were a bit disappointed that we were done out of our duties.

I think the night that the air raid siren went, when the unidentified aircraft was over Sydney, I was at home with my mother and the younger children, and I said to mum, “Well, I’ll have to go, but you get all the mattresses on to that dining room table and keep the children under there”, and things. Really, people were taking it seriously, because I don’t know that our air raid precautions would have been very effective, looking back on them. But I guess they were as effective as England’s were at the start of the war because no one had had any experience of this and I think things probably would have developed had the need been there. Fortunately, it didn’t arise.

Rebecca Fleming: The precautions put in place in Sydney made it hard to navigate the streets at night:

Hazel Mayes: Yes, it was browned out and we had blackout masks on our bikes, on the headlights of the bikes, which just allowed a very faint slit of light through and riding through blacked-out streets with that you had to know where you were going. That was one of the reasons why we were allowed to move around during blackouts because we’d had the training to find our way about in the dim light. Other vehicles which didn’t have the blackout masks on were not permitted to move during an emergency.

Rebecca Fleming: Phyl Ahearn’s Mum was a National Emergency Services warden in Lakemba in New South Wales:

Phyl Ahearn: Well, speaking about blackouts, my mum was an NES warden for our street at Hillard Street, Lakemba. And it was her duty – when they had these organised blackouts – it was her duty to patrol the street, see that there was no light shining through anywhere in the house. So that was her role in the war.

Rebecca Fleming: Like many Australian families, Phyl’s family contributed to the war effort in lots of different ways:

Phyl Ahearn: I also had a brother and a sister in the war as well. My brother was in the – all army, of course, and he was in the armoured division over at Western Australia. And then my sister worked in the same post office as I did. So, we both, we were both together in the post office, right. And I had a younger brother and sister, but they were too young. They were only 14 and 11. But the rest of us were all in, even mum doing her share. And then mum used to, of a daytime, she used to make the camouflage nets. So, she really did her – she wasn't in uniform, only the NES white uniform, but as far as being in the services you could say she was in the services because she did her role as well. I used to come home on leave and see this big camouflage net hanging off the ceiling, all hooks up around the architrave area and this big net hanging down the wall, half still with the shuttle hanging in it ready to continue.

Rebecca Fleming: Many women contributed to the war effort through paid employment. The war increased the number of women in the workforce, but perhaps more significantly, it changed the type of work they did. Labour shortages in the agricultural sector led to the formation of the Australian Women’s Land Army. The work was physically demanding and the hours long. Many who joined were city girls, not used to the labour on a farm. While initially sceptical, rural employers soon praised the women’s contribution,and their wages were considerably less than the male workers they replaced.

Women were increasingly drawn into sectors that had been considered ‘male’, taking on jobs as tram conductors, railway porters and even moving into white-collar jobs. But across the board women were paid less than men, and they were considered to be employed only for the duration of the war.

Alison Worrall worked for a time in a munitions factory in Melbourne. These factories were major employers in Melbourne, particularly of women – at their peak in 1941, the factories employed more than 16,000 people. The work could be hazardous:

Alison Worrall: So you had to be very careful, you had to change your clothes all the time, walk on duckboards all the time. If anything went wrong there was a great explosion, so everything had to be cleared out again, yeah. So, we were filling bullets. That was before – it was as soon as the war broke out I did that and joined as Air Corps as soon as it was available.

Rebecca Fleming: When the opportunity arose to join the services, Heather Starr found a disparity in the way her employer treated male and female employees:

Heather Starr: I think as far as the voluntary work was concerned, well that was – that was quite alright, we were doing our, you know, sort of ‘bundles for Britain’ type of work, to, you know, help with the war effort. But when it came down to the nitty-gritty, the women joining the services, that was not appreciated at all. They had to get permission from Melbourne, which was our head office, to allow us to join the services. But we received a letter to the effect that they would certainly keep our job open for us till the end of the war, but they would not make up our pay, as they did with the men. I thought it stunk. [Laughs]. And I still have the letter to this day. You just thought, “Well at least I've got my job, that's something.” [Laughs]. But it was – you felt, you know, you – I know I thought to myself, “Well, you know, the hide of you, you stingy things!” [Laughs].

Rebecca Fleming: After her time as a despatch rider in the National Emergency Services, Hazel enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force in 1943. She was posted to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. Hazel was a little disappointed in the work she was allocated, which was initially a bit mundane.

Hazel Mayes: So, we were put into an inspection bay and this was where they inspected the components of the engines after they had been dismantled, to see whether the parts were US or repairable, and you sat there with a pot of red paint and a pot of blue paint and anything that was repairable you put a dob of blue paint on, and the US stuff you put the red paint on it, and that meant it was discarded or went back for reclaiming, depending on the type of metal. And it wasn’t a particularly interesting job, it was something that had to be done and there were a couple of other flight mechanics from previous courses and they were there.

Then after a couple of months, they decided that they would put some of us out into the hangar proper, and they selected three and it was we, three newcomers. And we were put out in what they called final check, and this was where the engines had been overhauled and reassembled and then taken out to test and to be test run. And then they would come back from test to have blanking plates and various other things put on them before they went into store or sent off to be fitted to other aircraft. This was a bit more interesting because we were actually working on whole engines and not just picking up one component at a time.

Rebecca Fleming: As the war in the Pacific continued, the pace of work increased:

Hazel Mayes: At one stage there when the Pacific Push, as they called it, was on and they were converting a lot of the Beaufort Bombers – Beaufort aircraft for other roles, we had a lot of engines coming through and a lot of aircraft coming through, and we worked longer hours, and for a while, we worked 6 days a week and so forth. But the thing we always knew that leave was a privilege and not a right – it was just part of the deal and you just went along with it. It was a bit tiring and so forth, but it just had to be done and there was no question of not doing it. I think we just took whatever came up and just did it.

Rebecca Fleming: Joyce Linnane also served in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. She worked in a top-secret intelligence role, translating Japanese Kana code. The importance of secrecy was emphasised even while training:

Joyce Linnane: As far as the work was concerned, at our first class, we were then told the job we were going to learn. There was a place called Central Bureau of Intelligence, that top-secret security was required, that any one of us could endanger the whole of the war if one of us spoke out of turn and gave away any of the information we were about to hear. We were really brainwashed and pounded on this and it stayed with all of us to the extent that when my parents died a quarter of a century later, they had thought I had served as a straight WT operator – absolutely nobody knew until the security sealing was lifted, and now my family and a few friends do know of the interesting job that we learned. There is a great deal of security involved in intelligence but we took this in our stride and we were among the original intake for instruction in the Japanese Kana code, and our duties were intended to be – and indeed they eventually were – to intercept all enemy signals. Kana is quite different to international Morse. It involves symbols and transpositions, which are phonetic Japanese language. It was not an easy course but we all passed – that is the WAAAF – already a RAAF class had passed out ahead of us.

Rebecca Fleming: It was important work, which involved long hours and intense periods of concentration.

Joyce Linnane: Each of the Kana operators, concentrating on air ground or army activity, were given a set frequency to monitor. Personally, I usually worked on the air ground, and we had to wait sometimes incredible hours, and there’d be absolute silence. This was the hardest part of our work; and quite suddenly a signal would come up and – usually a string of Vs. And so we’d grab our pencils, put our hand up so that our trick chief – which, we inherited that name from the Americans (he’s actually a supervisor) and he was liaison between our operations room and the intelligence room. And he would know that there was activity on 10mg, which was one of our frequencies, and he would be ready as soon as you started to copy. He’d be beside you, waiting to take the frequency you were operating, and the message, straight into intelligence and then someone in there would advise the DF stations to get a fix. The plotting tables would be arranged so that they could quickly get a cross-fix on the position of the aircraft and then the DF panel would come into operation, giving all information to help with the plotting table. And then I understand, although I saw very little of it, that the information would be given to the teleprint operator, who would contact maybe Moresby, where we had squadrons waiting, or they would send the message on to somebody else. And if nobody else was listening to it, they would have it possibly checked and then they would go up to intercept the intruders.

Rebecca Fleming: There were moments when all this hard work paid off:

Joyce Linnane: It would be a very exciting occasion if we would be still copying the Japanese morse and we’d get the signal “I am being attacked”, which is a triple barbed Z, which in symbols was “He He He”, and of course there was great jubilation then because we knew that we had prevented one of our bases from being attacked and possibly one of our planes had despatched the Japanese plane. I know we were a bit blood thirsty but that’s what it was all about – to try to get the information very, very quickly to the people that were most concerned. We were only small cogs in the wheel, being operators, and there were a lot of very, very clever people that did so much to help with the war effort. But we always felt fully our responsibility, because all signals emanated through the intercept operator, and without our diligence we felt the rest of the work that was so important would either be delayed or not happen at all.

Rebecca Fleming: Another task Joyce performed during the war involved working with captured Japanese diaries. This required long hours working with American teams:

Joyce Linnane: I learned again, as we had been warned before, how dangerous diaries are. And they had stacks of diaries captured from Japanese troops, and various kinds of documents and this information was put onto punch cards and then into probably the first computer that was ever brought to Australia. And we were given the duties of sorting the punch cards and feeding it into the computer, which translated from Japanese into English. However this was done, I have no idea and unfortunately, we were told to operate the machines and not to read the results. I’m sure they would have been most interesting.

We worked very long shifts with the Americans, very hardworking people, and if they’re in a hurry they want things done yesterday and I thought I’d worked very hard before but they have a dreadful shift called a swing shift – 16 hours – and we would work 16 hours on the various duties allotted us and have 8 hours off and come back again for another helping of work. It was quite hard, but we enjoyed it and it was new to us because we had been sitting so long in front of a radio set that all of this different equipment and watching intelligence brought to life, it was really quite exciting.

Rebecca Fleming: Anne Curtis served as a coder, in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service. She worked in the Supreme Allied Headquarters, located in the AMP building in Brisbane. Allied movements in the South West Pacific were co-ordinated from the building. This meant Anne occasionally had opportunities to learn where her husband was serving:

Anne Curtis: We used to have to go and have a look in the big plan room, where the map was. Of course, they used to say to me, “That's where your husband is” – when I got to know Lori and them, they used to tell me where he was. So it was always a bit worrying, especially when we knew the Japanese were coming down fairly close. I suppose that was the part that worried me more than anything.

Rebecca Fleming: Anne was among a group of pioneers – the women who served in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service in the Second World War were the first women to serve in the Royal Australian Navy. They were not permitted to serve at sea or abroad, but they were pioneers who carried out important duties.

Ivy Hall served with the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service:

Ivy Hall: I was lucky enough to get into the AAMWS car company, which was run by women only. We had men mechanics, but all the ambulances were driven by ladies, who had to go through a driving school. A lot were country people who already had their licenses. It was hard work – it was not 9 till 5, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, and definitely night work. But it was fun when we came home at night, and we all had a laugh and a giggle about the day.

The majority of the ambulances were the old Austins from the Middle East; they had come and were cleaned up. We had them; we had a couple of others. I was not an actual driver; I was an orderly room clerk. So I had to organise to find people who were on standby. “Get dressed, you’ll be needed. We’re going to be busy” – and get people off maintenance and whatever they were doing around the place, or just sitting around, waiting. We did not work 9 to 5, as I said, because the trains would come in from up north, usually in the middle of the night, on account of traffic, though there usually wasn’t much traffic around in those days.

Rebecca Fleming: There was not a lot of free time to be had in the war, but when they did get some time off, women serving across Australia enjoyed lots of different pursuits. These varied depending on where they were:

Ivy Hall: We had to make our own fun. We had our own dances; somebody could play the piano. And we were given leave, and we used to go to the local dances, or to the movies. We got free movies. I think we had to pay for the dances, because it was a charity thing. We were lucky enough to have a leave bus. We got free train too. But we just didn't have time to go out half the time because we were tired, you know, it was non-stop.

Rebecca Fleming: Heather Starr fondly remembered the ‘rest hut’ in Canberra, which Lady Gowrie – the then Governor-General’s wife – played an instrumental part in establishing:

Heather Starr: There was no grog there or anything like that, but it was lovely, it was entertainment. They had all sorts of things in the Lady Gowrie Hut, and every now and then you'd find that Lady Gowrie was serving you coffee and so forth. Of course she was a delightful woman.

Rebecca Fleming: In Wagga Wagga, Hazel and her friends would go for picnics when they had the chance.

Hazel Mayes: There were a few of us – I met up with one of the RAAF who had a bike, and quite often four of us would go out together for a bit of a picnic or down to the river for a swim and things. In the summer, we used to go down to the river swimming, which was, for the others, a bit of a walk across the bush there. Or right in Wagga, there was what they call the ‘beach’ in the river, where the locals mostly swam. That had a fair bit of sand, nice white sand and things there, but it used to get pretty crowded in the summertime, so we used to mainly find other swimming spots along the river.

Rebecca Fleming: The decision on who to socialise with sometimes created tension. When American troops arrived in Australia, resentment began to grow in some quarters about the amount of time Australian women spent socialising with American troops:

Anne Curtis: Oh, they used to hate it, and they'd let us know. We were always aware of this because we were – had Americans in offices down quite close to where we were. It was only natural if we went past, we were always friendly with them and that. But the boys, if they saw us with Americans, they didn't like it. They were very jealous, I think. [Laughs].

Rebecca Fleming: Sometimes recreation time was simply an opportunity to catch up on sleep. While stationed in Roseneath, Joyce suffered in the North Queensland heat. Whenever she had downtime, she would search for somewhere cool to catch up on sleep:

Joyce Linnane: There was one thing about our ablutions block: it was the coolest place in the camp. I’m not quite sure why, but we found – I suppose it had a stone floor, that helped. But on the very, very hot days – and it could be incredibly hot – you’d come off shift and you’d think you’d be going to bed and you’d sit on your straw paillasse and you’d be sizzled because the sun beating on the tin roof would just make the straw so hot, it was incredible. But it was impossible to sleep there. I used to get a couple of cane chairs and go down to the ablutions block, put my feet up and wear a swimsuit – or we didn’t call them swimsuits – playsuits, and step under the shower in a playsuit, put my feet up and hope the mosquitoes would keep away and get my sleep that way.

Rebecca Fleming: This strategy provided some relief, but what she wanted most was a refreshing glass of water, which was hard to come by given the base was using bore water:

Joyce Linnane: I remember Starkey, who was our CO in Townsville, paid us a visit one day and I was endeavouring to sleep and it was far too hot, and she said to me, “How are conditions, Sergeant?” I said, “Not very good”. She said, “Is there anything particular you want?” I said, “Yes, a glass of water”. She said, “Oh, a glass”. I said, “A tin pannikin will do”. She said, “You want a glass of water”. I said, “Yes”. She said, “Where do I get it?” I said, “Townsville”. (Townsville being miles and miles and miles away.) She said, “Haven’t you any water?” I said, “Yes, but it’s bore water”. She said, “Oh dear, that’s bad”.

So eventually she went off and I went back under my mosquito net, which she had inspected and found a hole in. There was malaria in Townsville, although it was kept quiet. And when I woke again it was the girls coming off the next shift with great shrieks and there was the most magnificent sight we had seen. Starkey had arranged for water, pure water with ice in it, and the ice was still floating, it must have just arrived. One was pure water, and one had, I think, some lemon juice in it, and there was the beautiful cold water in those – do you remember the great silver milk cans we used to have? There was one on each side of the door. And that was one of the highlights of our stay at Roseneath.

Rebecca Fleming: Women contributed to the war effort in many different ways. Their varied paths to victory took them all over Australia as well as overseas. They sweltered in the North Queensland heat, they laboured on farms and in munitions factories. They decoded messages and transported patients. They made new friends and they worried about loved ones serving overseas. They pushed the boundaries of how women could contribute to a national war effort and opened the way for women to eventually fill almost every role in the modern-day defence force.

In the final episode, we will listen to the stories of Victory in the Pacific. We will hear veterans reflect on the moment the end of the war was announced, and the challenges of returning and of settling back into the post-war world.

The interviews for this series are sourced with thanks from the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veterans’ Stories project.

To see some videos of veterans’ stories visit anzacportal.dva.gov.au

Thank you to all the veterans who have shared their stories of service.

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