The lives of many Australian women changed dramatically between 1940 and 1945 when there was pressure for young women to participate in the war effort, particularly in the armed services.
A few hundred Australian nurses had served both during the Boer War and World War I – nursing being the only available service role for Australian women at that time. It was not until World War II that women were asked to serve in non-nursing roles.
During 1941, it became apparent that women would need to be employed in the armed services so that servicemen in non-combatant roles could be released to combat units. Brightly coloured recruitment posters encouraged young women to join up and more than 66,000 of them enlisted in the three services – just under 7% of the nearly 1 million Australians who served.
Thousands of young Australian women left home to join the new women's auxiliary services: the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) and the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS). Newly qualified, as well as experienced, nursing sisters joined the two new nursing services: the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) and the Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service (RANNS) as well as the existing Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). In December 1942, the Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS) was established and members served as nursing aides alongside army nurses.
The Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was the first and the largest of the three women's services formed during War II and opened the way for the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) and the Women's Royal Australian Navy Service (WRANS).
Between 1941 and 1946, almost 27,000 women enlisted in the Air Force as members of either the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) or the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). A number of the recruits were already volunteers in the Women's Air Training Corps (WATC) and the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) and they brought valuable skills with them to the new service. As in the other two services, women were paid less than the men doing equivalent jobs – often half or two thirds of the men's salaries.
The women in the WAAAF worked in more than 70 so-called 'musterings' alongside airmen in Air Force hangars, stores depots, radar and signals sections, operations rooms, kitchens, messes and offices. Members were posted to bases throughout Australia but unlike their nursing colleagues in the RAAF Nursing Service, they were never permitted to serve overseas. The WAAAF was disbanded in 1947 and reconstituted as the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) in 1951.
The Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) was established in July 1940 and during World War II had a total enlistment of about 600. RAAF nurses tended the sick and wounded airmen in RAAF hospitals in Australia and a small number flew with Medical Air Evacuation Transport Units, bringing patients from the front line in Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian archipelago to hospitals at home.
In 1977, the WRAAF and the RAAFNS were integrated into the RAAF.
The Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) was formed in April 1941 and by the end of the war more than 3000 women had served with the WRANS. Approximately 60 women joined the Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service (RANNS).
The first women to be recruited into the WRANS were volunteers from the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps, (WESC) who were employed as telegraphists and based at naval stations around Australia. Others became signallers, coders, wireless transmitter operators, cipher clerks, telephonists, couriers, cooks, stewardesses and drivers. WRANS were not allowed to work either outside Australia or on ships at sea and their pay rates fluctuated during the war. Generally they received approximately two thirds of the amount paid to RAN personnel.
The service was disbanded at the end of World War II but manpower shortages in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) led to the service being re-constituted in 1951. It was made a permanent part of the RAN in December 1959. WRANS personnel were gradually absorbed into the RAN during the early 1980s and in due course the service was disbanded. In 1983, women were permitted to serve in ships.
On 13 August 1941, the government authorised the formation of the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS), the last of the women's auxiliary services to be formed. More than 24,000 eventually served in the AWAS, the only non-medical women's service to send personnel overseas during the war.
Initially the women performed essentially domestic or non-specialist tasks – like the WRANS and the WAAAFS – but they soon spread into other areas and served in signals and ordnance work. Almost 3600 AWAS members served with Royal Australian Artillery formations on searchlight, coastal defence and anti-aircraft batteries and they often worked in very isolated areas. The AWAS had probably the widest range of jobs of any of the women's services during World War II. In November 1944, the Australian Government finally approved the sending of up to 500 AWAS personnel overseas. In total, 385 AWAS members served in New Guinea, with most arriving in May 1945 and stationed at Lae.
By 30 June 1947, all members of the AWAS had been demobilised but a severe manpower shortage four years later led to the formation of the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC) in April 1951. In the late 1970s female soldiers began to be integrated into the Army at large and the WRAAC was finally disbanded in 1984.
All in all, nearly 36,000 women enlisted in the three women's Army services during World War II. Nearly 3500 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) sisters worked in Australian General Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations in every Australian theatre of war, suffering the highest casualty rate of any of the women's services. Seventy-two nursing sisters died when their ships were torpedoed by the Japanese or later on, as prisoners of war.
Approximately 8000 other women served with the Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS) which grew out of the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment. Members served as nursing aides alongside army nurses and worked both in Australia and overseas in the Middle East, New Guinea and the islands.
It was not only the servicewomen who left home. Some of the women who joined the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment worked on hospital ships and in convalescent hospitals. Others left home and joined the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA). A number of other women joined either voluntary or salaried entertainment groups and travelled around performing for the troops both in Australia and overseas.
Many women were unable to volunteer for the women's services. Some had young children, others were in what were considered 'essential' occupations such as munitions work. For these women organisations such as the Women's Australian National Services (WANS), the Women's Air Training Corps (WATC), the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC), the National Emergency Services (NES), the Red Cross and numerous other voluntary organisations, provided an outlet for their desire to do something for the war effort.