Womens land army played an important role during World War II

Name: IsobelĀ Anstee
Date: 1943-1944
Unit: Australian Women's Land Army
Location: Victoria, Australia

One of the most important products during World War II was flax. It was used for all sorts of clothing and equipment from coats to parachute harnesses, from ropes to tarpaulins and even to cover gliders used to transport troops.

When the British Government lost its traditional flax supplies from Russia, Belgium and Ireland, it was forced to look elsewhere and sent stocks of flax seed to Australia to fill the gap.

Meanwhile, the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) was formed in 1942 to find replacements for the men who had joined the services.

The Government was under constant pressure from farmers seeking the release of their former workers in order to meet war production contracts. Introducing women to the work force went much of the way to solving the problem.

Picking apples and grapes or testing herds of cattle, it was all the same to Isobel Anstee. As a member of the AWLA, she was called on to do a number of different jobs.

"In my case, I picked apples in the country town of Ringwood, then I was sent to the Chateau Tahbilk to pick grapes and then on to Lake Bolac to work with the flax, Isobel recalled.

But arrangements were not always perfect and the girls were often called upon to use their initiative in order to get to their jobs.

"I remember when sent to Bolac, my friend and I were dropped off at a lonely railway station approximately 4ft by 8ft [1.2m x 4.2m], just enough for two girls and two cases," she said. "We looked around - no sign of anyone to meet us, just miles of flat brown earth in every direction.

"So we sat on our cases and later were picked up by a truck where we had to stand in the back with our cases. It was a very bumpy ride.

"Eventually we arrived at our hostel where we were to work - approximately 30 cabins with two girls to each cabin and an old farm house where we had our meals."

Her work in the flax mills at Lake Bolac was the most important job she did during the war - even though it was the hardest with long hours and involved working in dusty conditions.

"Britain sent 400 tonnes of flax seed to Australia where it was grown in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia," Isobel said.

"The Land Army was formed on the model of the British Land Army with the object of stepping up production of flax fibre, mainly for Britain, as well as food products and many other crops for canning. These products were for the fighting forces and also for export and there was a very great shortage of help to harvest the crops.

"From 1942-45 the strongest claim for help was for flax work," Isobel said. "No soldier's coats or packs etc could be made without linen thread. The RAAF needed parachute harnesses all made with linen thread. The RAN needed canvas ropes, so did the Merchant Navy.

"Canvas hose pipes were needed by the ARP and civilian fire brigades. Tents and tarpaulins were needed for all services.

"The Aussie flax producing the parachute harness and fire hoses complied with strict specifications of the British Admiralty and was used extensively also for covering gliders for the D Day landing and parachute drop into Normandy.

"They soon found that the often untrained help possessed initiative and ability to stand long hours in all weather," Isobel said. "The women also adapted themselves to the isolation of jobs of many assignments.

"Recruits for the AWLA were assessed for fitness and we had to accept the condition that we must go when and where directed. Our uniform was exactly the same as AWAS. Our hours were 28 days work with two days off each month (and nowhere to go).

"My 2 3/4 years spent in the Land Army were very rewarding and worthwhile," Isobel added.

"I picked apples, grapes and stooked oats. I went on to the flax mill at Lake Bolac, where approximately 60 girls worked.

"We spread flax and sometimes worked in the flax mill. The hours were long and it was hard and dusty work."

Isobel was asked to work on the weigh bridge for a season where she suddenly had to decide the quality of the flax loads coming in. - A, B and C grades.

"While at Bolac, we had severe bush fires which threatened our flax stacks," she recalled. "The girls took tea and sandwiches to the firefighters and camped in the ashes overnight, where it was comparatively safe. Some people lost their lives during these fires, but thankfully, no Land Army girls."

Despite the long working hours, the girls were still able to put on a great concert in the local hall at Lake Bolac during 1943.

Isobel's next assignment was to attend a crash course in herd testing at Burnley Agricultural College.

"I bought an old car, a Chenard Walker which had gate gears outside the cabin near the running board, and drove from Melbourne to Leongatha in Gippsland - learning to drive on the way," she said. "I was responsible for testing herds in a 10-mile radius of Leongatha.

"When I was demobbed I was exhausted. I met Corporal John Tipping who was recovering from his war experiences in New Guinea. He was hospitalised at the Heidelberg Military Hospital for three months and I was warned that he would have trouble in his middle years. We married and had three beautiful children, but he died at the age of 44 years."

Isobel was a widow for seven years until she married Captain William Ballard and until his death in January 2001 had been married to him for 25 years..

The material for this article was supplied by Isobel Ballard (nee Anstee) of Victoria
8/01/2002 10:37:18 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Womens land army played an important role during World War II, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/womens-land-army-played-important-role-during-world-war-ii
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