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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force

page 28

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force

THE Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was the first of the three women’s services in New Zealand. Beginning in January 1941 it reaped some of the advantages of being first in the field. By June 1942 its strength had risen to 2100, and it was planning an orderly expansion to 3500 by the end of that year. The R.N.Z.A.F., whose general policy was often more imaginative than that of the older Services, deserves credit for this early realisation that women could give it valuable help.

The Superintendent of the W.A.A.F., afterwards known as Director (Mrs F. I. Kain) and her assistant (Mrs E. N. Carlyon), who late in 1943 succeeded the former as Director, were appointed in March 1941. The W.A.A.F. chose its members carefully by means of touring selection boards which interviewed applicants. The W.W.S.A. was represented on these boards, and after the formation of the other two women’s auxiliaries took over recruiting for all three.

In its early days the W.A.A.F. did not provide living accommodation for its members on Air Force stations. The 200 women who entered Rongotai in April 1941 either lived at home or found lodgings for themselves, although they were served meals on the station. Most of them were engaged in catering duties. This first entry at Rongotai was in some degree experimental. The experiment was an entire success and led to W.A.A.F. detachments being added to the complement of nine other stations during 1941 and of many more in the succeeding years of the war. As the number of women in the W.A.A.F. grew and as they became employed in increasing numbers at remote stations or at stations far from their homes, private lodgings proved quite inadequate as accommodation and more and more women were found quarters on the stations themselves.

The W.A.A.F., in common with the other two Services, appealed strongly to younger women, but a number even of the first entrants were older married women, often the mothers or wives of men already with the Air Force overseas, who in this way made their own personal contribution. Many joined the W.A.A.F. (and indeed all three of the auxiliaries) who had never worked before outside their own homes; their domestic skill was not misapplied. The minimum age for enlistment in the W.A.A.F. was 18, but the upward limit was determined by physical fitness. The average age of the 1941 members of the W.A.A.F. was 27; it dropped to 23 in 1943, probably reflecting the compulsory direction into essential work of girls from 18 to 21, many of whom preferred a service to a civilian career, and had risen again to 27 in 1945.

Recruiting was hampered from late 1943 onwards by the more urgent requirements of industry. The recruit reception depot at Levin, set up in July 1943, was designed to take 100 new entrants every month, but by February 1944 the number of entrants had dwindled to the point where the establishment was disbanded. The three weeks’ course, which was encroached upon by kitting up, and necessary medical and dental examination, inoculation, and vaccination, was mainly devoted to instruction in drill and discipline, including lectures on regulations, service etiquette, and ‘such knowledge of Air Force Law as was necessary for an airwoman to know’. Previously, similar courses had been taken by W.A.A.F. entrants at the stations where they first joined.

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Owing to the acute manpower difficulties of that time the War Cabinet was unable, during the latter part of 1943, to allow direct advertising for recruits to the W.A.A.F. ‘It was found, however, that the best means of recruiting were the airwomen already enlisted who, by their good bearing and praise of the conditions in the Service, secured many recruits in their own districts.’* The total number of applications to enter the W.A.A.F. made between 1941 and 1945 was 7886; of this number 4753 were accepted for service, indicating the high standard of selection maintained in spite of the acute need for recruits at certain stages during the war. A number of the disappointed applicants were held in essential civilian work by manpower regulations. The highest strength of the W.A.A.F. at any one time was approximately 3800. It was officially stated in November 1947 that the W.A.A.F. is to be retained as a permanent part of the peacetime establishment of the R.N.Z.A.F.

In January 1943, at a time when the W.A.A.C. already had hundreds of its members serving in the Middle East or the Pacific, it was decided to despatch a W.A.A.F. party to Fiji. This was partly to supply a genuine need and partly to stimulate recruiting, which it was felt would be adversely affected by the greater opportunities for service overseas in the W.A.A.C. It is interesting to note that overseas service was regarded in the women’s services (the opportunity never came to the W.R.N.Z.N.S.) as the reward of efficiency, and the eagerness to serve in a more active capacity than at home was always intense. Only volunteers between the special age limits of 23 and 33 were permitted to go overseas; but the numbers needed were so small that a great many who were well qualified to go never had the chance.

The first party sent to Fiji had nineteen members. They were shorthand typists, clerks, drivers, and equipment assistants. Later a stronger emphasis was placed on signals duties, and W.A.A.F. wireless operators, telephone and teleprinter operators, and cipher officers formed a substantial proportion of the seventy-seven airwomen who served overseas at the time of the greatest expansion. Others served as meteorological observers and medical orderlies. In the tropical climate of Fiji service was limited to eighteen months but usually lasted no more than a year. Later it was further reduced, to nine months, to give a greater opportunity for overseas service to the W.A.A.F. as a whole. In spite of tropical conditions airwomen performed the same duties and worked for the same hours as they would have done in New Zealand.

A small W.A.A.F. detachment served also at Norfolk Island. The maximum number of airwomen at any one time on the island was nine—four cipher officers, four medical orderlies, and a clerk-librarian. Here the climate did not interfere with an eighteen months’ tour of duty.

A few New Zealand girls went to England and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary which was charged with the duty of ferrying aircraft from factories to service aerodromes. Two airwomen were, in 1941 and 1944 respectively, specially released from the W.A.A.F. to go to England for this work, which was, of course, open only to those women who had already qualified as pilots in pre-war years. One New Zealand woman member of the British Air Transport Service, Second Officer J. Winstone, was killed in 1944 in an aircraft accident.

In 1942 a New Zealand woman, Section-Officer Florence Duff, the wife of an officer in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, lost her life at sea as the result of enemy action. She had been commissioned in the British W.A.A.F. in 1940 and was travelling out to undertake duty with

* Official administrative history of the New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, p. 25.

page 30 the R.N.Z.A.F., where her experience would have been of great value. It should be remembered also that a number of New Zealand women, who were in Britain at the outbreak of the war, served in the three British women’s auxiliary services, many of them with great distinction.

The W.A.A.F. began its service in the R.N.Z.A.F. in a spirit of modesty and experiment. It was designed primarily to take over messing, to control every phase of the choice, preparation, and serving of food. In this department it was conspicuously successful from the outset. It was found that only moderate help was needed from airmen once the W.A.A.F. had got into its stride, a man being needed occasionally to help lift heavy containers. The general ratio of replacement was five airwomen to four men. From the beginning the W.A.A.F. gave the responsibility for catering to its trained dietitians.

Not only cooks and messhands entered with the first detachments: clerks, shorthand typists, equipment assistants, medical orderlies, and drivers were also numbered among them. From early in 1943 the good service of the W.A.A.F. was recognised by the employment of its members to replace men in certain technical trades. These airwomen went through the same training and passed the same trade tests as the men whom they released for service in forward areas.

Women of sufficient education were recruited specially for duty with radar and meteorological units in the course of a campaign during late 1942 which brought in nearly 400 entrants; this was the only recruitment of women for a named task. All three women’s services posted some of their members to radar stations; the W.A.A.C. recruited 325 members as the result of the same campaign which it shared with the W.A.A.F. The usual policy, of course, was to give no specific guarantee to an applicant that she would do duty of any particular type. At the same time everything was done to suit the job allotted to the personal qualities, education, and training of the new entrant. Those entrants without special skill were usually first given duty in the messes, but this was for a period only and did not afterwards prevent their being considered for more specialised or responsible work.

It will be obvious that any airwoman concerned with the servicing and maintenance of aircraft was carrying a high degree of responsibility. Others too had men’s lives literally in their hands, for instance those who packed and checked parachutes. ‘Once you begin checking and packing a parachute you do not leave it until you finish …. Each cord must be checked and there must be no room for doubt. The parachute must open and you must be certain that it will open.’

Many jobs undertaken by the W.A.A.F. needed thorough training: it took three months to qualify as an instrument repairer, a job demanding special aptitude. One of the most thorough of all courses was that taken by members of the W.A.A.F. running marine craft. The Air Force had its own fleet of launches, a separate little navy that needed just as good seamanship to navigate inshore waters as the small craft of the Navy itself. These girls ‘must be able to handle any type of craft, from small dinghies to a whale-boat, or a 25-knot motor launch, recognise running faults and do running repairs’; they had also to be able to use charts and compass and navigate in and out of harbour. Their seamanship course included methods of salvaging marine craft, beaching them for repairs, laying and picking up temporary moorings for aircraft, sweeping for lost torpedoes, and a knowledge of the ‘rule of the road’ in narrow or thronged channels. They had also to learn visual signalling, first aid, and artificial respiration and pass a special test swimming 50 yards in all their clothes.

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The only airwomen taken for flights in the course of their duty were those passing through the wireless course at Wigram. They were taken up so that they might see at first hand the working of wireless apparatus in aircraft and thus gain a better insight into the problems of aircrew with whom they would be exchanging signals. Wherever possible airwomen were given passages in service aircraft when they were posted to other stations or went on leave.

Late in 1942 a qualified officer was appointed to organise airwomen’s leisure-time activities. Besides engaging in the organising of physical recreation, she trained a staff of W.A.A.F. instructors who were then posted to the larger stations. An instructress in handicrafts and domestic arts, paid from the funds of the Sarah Ann Rhodes Trust,* was lent to the W.A.A.F. for two and a half years by Victoria University College. She usually stayed ten weeks with each large unit in rotation, taking as many classes as possible in the airwomen’s spare time. Often at the end of her visit, displays of handicrafts and dresses designed and made by the airwomen themselves were held (this might take the form of a mannequin parade), and these very effectively demonstrated the good use to which her services were put and the practical appreciation by her pupils of her work. Many girls who had not previously ventured on any such activity learned from her to make clothes for themselves or to do different forms of needlework. Members of the W.A.A.F. were also able to take any course they wished through the Army Education and Welfare Service, which provided courses in handicrafts, music, and art as well as in various types of vocational training. The third anniversary of the foundation of the W.A.A.F., 16 January 1944, was celebrated by literary, musical, and handicraft competitions. A selection from the competing exhibitors including tapestry, needlework, etchings, leather work, and water colours was exhibited in Wellington.

* This is a fund administered by Victoria University College which enables the services of an instructress in home science, handicrafts, and dressmaking, whose headquarters are at Massey College, to be made available to women’s organisations and clubs in country districts. The scheme is part of the adult education movement.