Women answered the call during the war

Name: Bonnie Pickup
Date: 1941
Unit: WAAF
Location: Sydney

In 1941 when Australia was threatened with Japanese invasion, the call came for women to take up the men's jobs to release them for the front line, and they were also challenged to join the armed services. As a result of this the girls left home and became independent and confident in their own ability to make decisions.

I enlisted in 1942 as a Stenographer but became seconded along with about 50 other girls from all over Australia, to the first Fighter Sector to be set up.

Firstly we were sent to New Lambton in Newcastle where we moved into the local school. We were billeted in the Assembly Hall with cold showers, wire beds and straw palliasses and food cooked in dixies in the school yard. We were trained here and then later posted to Sydney to work with the Americans who had just arrived.

They took over three floors of the Hotel Metropole and we had wonderful food and hotel beds (four to a room) and hotel linen! We marched each day up to Macquarie Street and down a hundred wooden steps into the railway tunnel between St James and the Quay where Fighter Sector had been set up. There were no trains there in the tunnel at that time. Here we worked eight hour shifts day and night with the Army, Navy and Airforce and we had a squadron of fighter planes located at Bankstown. We were connected to Radar Stations along the coast and to V.A.O.C. (Volunteer Air Observer Corps) by direct line.

The shifts were long and we were not allowed to eat on duty - just coffee made from condensed milk and hot water. There was a great pile of empty cans in that tunnel!

We knew a lot about unidentified aircraft and ships sunk off the coast of Australia but were sworn to secrecy. Actually we were on duty when the Japanese submarines were in the harbour and were anxious that their target may have been to come through the Botanical Gardens and throw grenades into Fighter Sector to disrupt Sydney's defence. They were in the harbour for a long time and one fired a torpedo which resulted in the deaths of some cadets on the training ship Kuttabul. One submarine was destroyed by depth charges, one became entangled in the boom across Sydney harbour and blew itself up, and the other escaped but never reached Japan.

Then the Americans were posted to north Queensland and the Australian Airforce moved us immediately out of the Hotel Metropole into a tenement building in Macquarie Street where we were back to wire beds, straw palliasses, apple cases for furniture and stewed chops in the basement!

After some months some of the girls became ill as the air conditioning was very poor in the tunnel. We were then moved to Bankstown into a disused picture theatre set up for Operations. Here we were much closer to our Fighter Squadron at the aerodrome.

I became Operations Secretary for the Controller, John Kingsford Smith (a nephew of the famous Charles), recording messages to and from the Fighter Squadron as they investigated unidentified aircraft and ships.

At the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995 the women were recognised for the first time and awarded a medal for their contribution to the war effort. I found it almost unbelievable when I attended, that all these older grey haired ladies who marched in Canberra to meet the Prime Minister and other authorities at Parliament House, were the vibrant young girls who dared to leave their homes and join the services in 1941.

Eila M.C. Fox

Last updated: 15 November 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Women answered the call during the war, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/women-answered-call-during-war
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