WAAAF - an Aussie wartime success story

March 14, 2001

Women in the WAAAF worked in more than 70 different musterings.

It's 1941 and the country is at war. The Japanese are advancing towards Australia and the Nazi's are moving across Europe. What would you do?

If you are a bloke the answer is easy: join the military - the Air Force, Navy or Army.

What if you're a woman? You can do what thousands did - join the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force or WAAAF.

The WAAAF was the first military organisation in Australia for women which focused on skills other than tending the sick or injured. The establishment of the WAAAF paved the way for similar organisations in Navy and Army.

Some women joined the WAAAF because they saw it as their patriotic duty, others to see the world, and some to escape the social confines of life at home with the men away.

Critics viewed the new organisation as a radical move and at least one national leader, the Minister for Defence, H.C. Thorby, opposed it.

'Aviation takes women out of their natural environment, the home and the training of the family,' he said.

Life in the WAAAF

It's no exaggeration to say that military life came as shock to some women: they had trouble adjusting.

The WAAAF was designed and run as an efficient military organisation.

In all areas except pay and entitlements women were treated the same as men in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Pay and conditions were vastly different to men, women were only paid a percentage of the equivalent male wage and married women were not allowed to remain in the WAAAF.

There have been numerous stories written about the lives of women in the WAAAF. Many are both entertaining and informative, and provide a clearer picture of what the women went through.

One 18-year-old recruit to the WAAAF was handed a hessian bag and told to use a pitchfork to fill it with straw for her bed and, thinking bigger is better, she piled as much straw into that bag as possible.

After a restless and somewhat painful night, she removed a good portion of the straw.

Another woman, posted to No. 1 Fighter Squadron, located in a poorly ventilated unused train tunnel in Sydney City, received a rare treat courtesy of the American Allies.

She was given a five-course meal including doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner - a far cry from the usual rations provided by the WAAAF.

Another WAAAF member complained of the apparent injustice of the authorities running Air Raid drills only when it was raining.

What they did

As the strength of the WAAAF increased, its members began to invade the traditional male dominated areas.

Women of the WAAAF worked in more than 70 different musterings across the entire organisation, including as truck drivers, signallers, electricians and anti-gas instructors.

They also worked on machine guns, in repair shops, in mess rooms, in hospitals and in parachute sections. They worked wherever they were needed.

The end of the WAAAF

With the end of World War II, the WAAAF was progressively disbanded, with the last members demobilised in July 1947.

The quiet dignity with which the WAAAF served won praise and admiration, not just from the men of the Air Force, but from the entire community.

In 1950 their skill, abilities and contribution were recognised in the formation of a permanent women's Air Force.

Some 27,000 women served with the WAAAF and many still consider their time in the Force as a highlight of their lives.

The WAAAF was an Australian wartime success story.

By Amber Doidge