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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The W.A.A.C. in New Zealand

page 27

The W.A.A.C. in New Zealand

ONE OF THE immediate effects of the entry of Japan into the war, with its threat to Australia and New Zealand, was the expansion of coastal and anti-aircraft defences. Women had made a notable success in Britain of operating the coastal guns and the different types of defence against enemy aircraft. In New Zealand, with our manpower more and more fully committed, it was felt that women could assume the same responsibilities, even though this meant placing them in the front line of our defence. A proposal made in June 1942, shortly before the formation of the W.A.A.C., envisaged over 8000 women being enrolled in the Army—1800 for duty in bases and fixed establishments, 6400 in coastal and anti-aircraft defences, and 300 in signal units. This was, in fact, very much how the W.A.A.C. developed, at least in its first phase. By November 1942, 2200 women had enlisted in the W.A.A.C. and 135 of these were taking an artillery course at the Army School of Instruction, Melrose. By April 1944 the W.A.A.C. had 3172 members in New Zealand and another 733 overseas.

The decision made in June 1943 to curtail the development of coastal defence schemes in view of the improved situation in the Pacific checked the enlistment of women into the Army. They had been trained to operate artillery fire-control instruments, trained also in radio-location, the different branches of signalling, instrument-repairing, and driving and servicing motor transport.

In the meantime the members of the W.A.A.C. had proved their capacity to handle the delicate instruments that enable guns to find their targets and also their ability to lay and fire the guns themselves, whether the heavy guns pointing seaward from coastal forts or the light anti-aircraft Bofors and Oerlikons. That these women were never tested in war, as were their sisters in Britain, does not detract from the merit of their high standard of military efficiency, and the degree of our dependence on their services at what was potentially the most dangerous period in our history should be gratefully remembered.

Women in the W.A.A.C. served also in many more humdrum capacities. They were telephonists, telegraphists, wireless operators, teleprinter operators, coders, signal clerks; they gave excellent service as typists and pay and supply clerks and reigned supreme in the commissariat department. In New Zealand, as overseas, their very presence gave camps and coastal defence areas a better tone and greatly helped the morale of home-service troops who at times felt that they had almost the right, stationed so far from the glamour of great events, to become bored and cynical. The members of the W.A.A.C. had an indispensable contribution to make to Army social life.

Perhaps the best tribute that has been paid to the W.A.A.C. is that its retention as a permanent part of the armed forces of New Zealand has been decided. Women are still serving with the New Zealand troops occupying Japan. The report recommending this continuance of women’s role in our peacetime forces remarks: ‘It is generally acknowledged that during the war, the W.A.A.C. proved its worth. Apart from their value in replacing men, it was found that in certain tasks, women were superior to men’.