Episodes & Studies Volume 1
The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
THE New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps grew out of the W.W.S.A. almost imperceptibly. Although technically the W.A.A.C. was the last of the three women’s services to be established, on its formation in July 1942 (its Controller, Mrs V. Jowett, had been appointed shortly before), a number of women were already attached to the Army and carrying out certain duties, both in New Zealand and in the Middle East. The first women to go overseas in any of the three Services were the thirty welfare workers, usually known as ‘Tuis’, who sailed for Egypt in September 1941 to work at the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo. They were followed to the Middle East in December 1941 by 200 more women, clerical workers and Voluntary Aids. All these women were formally enrolled as members of the W.W.S.A., which had recruited them, but were de facto members of the Army. In New Zealand itself a number of women were employed in the Army as whole-time typists, clerks, cooks, or waitresses; most of them afterwards became members of the W.A.A.C. This is to ignore for the moment the very wide range of part-time voluntary service given to the Army by the W.W.S.A., and others, in camps or military establishments throughout New Zealand.
The formation of the W.A.A.C. did, however, mark a change of policy: the decision to employ women in the Army wherever possible to release men for active service or, in special cases, for industry. It was realised that, with the growing threat from Japan in the Pacific, and the decision to leave the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Middle East, it was necessary to call on the women of the country to serve in the three auxiliary branches of the armed forces. The women of New Zealand made a vigorous response to this call.
The age limits were wide: 18 to 50 for home service, 23 to 40 for service overseas. More women applied for service outside New Zealand than ever had the opportunity of going. By April 1944 more than three thousand were serving in the W.A.A.C. in New Zealand and 733 overseas, of whom some 200 were in the Pacific. By the middle of 1944 the original attempt to recruit 10,000 women in the W.A.A.C. alone had had to be modified. The numbers serving at any one time never exceeded 4600—the demands of essential industry had become too insistent. Moreover, many women had been released from all three Services because their soldier-husbands or fiancés had returned from overseas for furlough or discharge.
The New Zealand women arriving in the Middle East in late 1941 made a vital difference to the atmosphere of the forces clubs in which they served. Before their arrival some misgivings had been expressed whether they would not be ‘spoiled’ by being too much run after and entertained. General Freyberg himself told them on their arrival that while their duty was to supply, as they alone could, the ‘home touch’ in the clubs, they were not expected to gain the admiration of individuals but rather that of the whole of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. These qualms proved unwarranted. Although a number of girls married, none could have been accused of neglecting her duty for the sake of a personal good time. Their service was given as unselfishly and as fairly as had been expected of them and justified the care with page 8 which they had been selected. In their ‘smart green and white uniforms with embroidered N.Z. badges and the N.Z.F.C. epaulettes’, the Tuis became an essential element in Army life in the Middle East, Italy, and the Pacific, and gave a tone of their own to the clubs.
The functions of the W.A.A.C. welfare workers were not exclusively social. Each had a practical job to do, as well as being at all times, and often in trying circumstances, an indefatigable hostess. At the Cairo Forces Club the Tuis immediately took charge of the preparing and serving of sandwiches and fruit salad, looked after the cash desk and the clerical work entailed in running the club, and served in the library or at the information desk. They also undertook the regular visiting of patients in the New Zealand military hospitals in the Cairo area. It was not long before they energetically conducted concerts and revues and took part in debates with the men. They acted as partners at the dances held at the club and at the different army messes. They attended these dances and concerts in evening gowns, and both they and their partners enjoyed this escape from uniform. They also wrapped parcels to send to men in the forward areas, carried out shopping commissions for men in the field, and were always ready to accompany them on shopping expeditions in the city when they came to Cairo on leave; many servicemen’s womenfolk at home benefited indirectly from a Tui’s shrewd knowledge of Egyptian shops and shopkeepers in the intelligently–chosen presents they received from the Middle East.
In November 1943 sixteen of the Tuis from Egypt—the original thirty had been meanwhile substantially reinforced—left to help staff the New Zealand Forces Club in Bari. Here regular dances and picnics for men on leave were held and hospital visiting continued. The gift-buying service was enlarged by the opening of a gift shop. They even found time during leisure that tended to grow ever scantier to make forays into the surrounding countryside for wild flowers to decorate the club. Tuis served in other clubs opened in Italy, at Rome and Florence, with the same cheerfulness, efficiency, and good humour. Their hours of duty were always long, and it was difficult for them to get much leave to see something of Italy, perhaps the most interesting to the tourist of all European countries. But most had managed to do some sightseeing by October 1945 when, except for a party in the Fernleaf Club in England, they were sent back to Egypt for repatriation to New Zealand. Throughout the whole of their service overseas these girls all owed very much to the care and interest in their welfare shown by Lady Freyberg.
In the Pacific, members of the W.A.A.C. gave equally valuable service as welfare or clerical workers. From the latter part of 1942 five carried out specially responsible cipher duties in the office of the British agent and consul in Tonga, and later a W.A.A.C. detachment of twenty took over welfare duties at a leave centre for New Zealand troops. In Fiji a few members of the W.A.A.C. were seconded to undertake special duties for the local government. In New Caledonia much larger numbers were employed as welfare workers, cashiers, clerks, or cooks. Nearly 200 served with the 3rd Division in these capacities and as Voluntary Aids.
In August 1944 an important change was made in the status of the New Zealand W.A.A.C. in Italy and the Middle East: its members were given the privileges of officers, while retaining their own rates of pay, and the new designation of ‘welfare secretary’ or ‘secretary’.
Mention should be made here of a small group of women who went overseas as members of the Y.W.C.A. During the war fifteen left New Zealand to work in service clubs in the Middlepage 9 page 10
WRENS ON DUTY
COMMODORE’S BARGE Auckland
MRS ROOSEVELT AT THE NAVAL BASE Auckland
DEGAUSSING RANGE Wellington
ENGINE MAINTENANCE Auckland
NAVAL WIRELESS RECEPTION Waiouru
DEGAUSSING TECHNICIANS Wellington
FORCES CLUB, CAIRO
HOSPITAL STAFF near Tripoli
LABORATORY WORK Caserta
SISTERS AND SOLDIERS Syria
SERVICE HEADS Mrs F. I. Kain (W.A.A.F.), Mrs V. Jowett (W.A.A.C.), and Miss R. Herrick (W.R.N.Z.N.S.)
W.A.A.C. IN NEW ZEALAND
W.A.A.F. IN NEW ZEALAND
PHOTOGRAPHIC SECTION Whenuapai
REFUELLING AIRCRAFT New Plymouth
OPERATIONS ROOM Auckland
W.A.A.F. IN NEW ZEALAND AND OVERSEASpage 25
East, India, Malaya, Ceylon, or Burma. One Y.W.C.A. worker was captured at Singapore and remained three and a half years interned in Japanese hands in Java. Ten of these workers had their salaries paid by the New Zealand Patriotic Fund Board. Another New Zealander, Miss Jean Begg, rendered service of outstanding quality as the chief British Y.W.C.A. representative in the Middle East and India. The services of these New Zealand members of the Y.W.C.A. to the British forces as a whole were devoted and untiring. It is noteworthy that since the end of the war twenty more workers have been sent by the New Zealand Y.W.C.A. to India, Malaya, and Japan.