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Problems of 2 NZEF

CHAPTER 14 — Womanpower

page 207


ONE of the notable features of the Second World War in the Mediterranean was the way in which women from Britain played their part in the services, not only in sedentary tasks in offices, but in practical work in outdoor units. They arrived in the Middle East in their thousands, and their numbers were augmented by many thousands more recruited from Cyprus and Palestine.

New Zealand lagged in following suit, especially in comparison with South Africa, which set an example by employing girls from the Union in large numbers. Save for the nursing sisters in the hospitals, and later the VADs, the Government was reluctant to let New Zealand women serve with the force. The surroundings of a hospital are obviously suited to the employment of women; but presumably elsewhere the moral risks attendant on a few women serving among a lot of men, especially in the unsettling atmosphere of Egypt, were held to be too great. Surprisingly enough, most of the men in the force agreed with this view, and did not approve of New Zealand women working in the Middle East. This viewpoint does everyone credit; but surely time had marched on, women were already serving in the Middle East from both Britain and South Africa, and the modern girl, and the New Zealand girl in particular, can look after herself very well.

Having said all this, it must be admitted that in the early years we were not enthusiastic ourselves at HQ 2 NZEF. In July 1941 a conference was held at Headquarters on the possible employment of women, our conclusions being that except in hospitals, and in our one club, the employment of women was undesirable in view of (a) local conditions, and (b) the small number of men displaced by them. It took another two years for us to change our views; but the change was then a 100 per cent reversal of opinion.

The nursing sisters in the hospitals were with us of course from the beginning. They were not in themselves the cause of many problems, perhaps the most irritating one being that too many of them got married – and whether marriage to someone inside the force or someone outside it was the more troublesome it would be hard to say. We changed their ranks during the war by abolishing the rank of ‘staff nurse’ and having two grades of ‘sister’ instead. page 208 We also made an increase in the number of ‘charge sisters’ in order to give more scope for promotion, which otherwise tended to be slow.

The first draft of girls – they were all called ‘girls’ – to leave New Zealand was for work in the Cairo club. They were specifically asked for by the GOC, and left New Zealand in September 1941, thirty in number. It was then agreed that girls should be sent to work in hospitals as VADs (so called) and the first draft (200 strong) arrived by hospital ship in January 1942. The suggestion in this case, it should be said, had come from the Red Cross Society in New Zealand, and the Society helped in the selection. Thereafter at intervals reinforcements were sent for both these groups, soon entitled the Welfare and the Medical Divisions of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs).

In June 1943, when the whole manpower position was under review following on the furlough scheme, we investigated the possibility of employing women in place of men. We estimated that on clerical and other administrative work in and around Cairo (including Maadi Camp) we could employ some 900 women, replacing some 700 men. The GOC took the figures with him on his visit to New Zealand, in order to discuss the possibility of a real dilution with women; but the idea met with no enthusiasm and could not be pressed. However, it started us off on an agitation to get at least a party of shorthand-typists to relieve the unending strain on the various offices comprising HQ 2 NZEF. The reaction from New Zealand was still an inert one. However, we kept pressing, and after some months finally got approval for a party of twenty to join us. They arrived early in 1944. Subsequently the number was slowly increased, until at the end we had about 200.

To return to the welfare girls, the first to join the force: there can be no two opinions about their hard work and devotion to duty, which was just as we had expected. Where there is room for difference of opinion is whether or not their services achieved the original object, which was to raise the atmosphere of the Cairo club by the feminine touch, and by the mere presence of New Zealand girls, and so ensure a good standard of behaviour among the men. To begin with there were never many girls in any one club. The original draft numbered thirty and was concentrated in Cairo. Their final numbers were just over forty, but by then they were divided between Cairo, Bari, and Rome. They were only a drop in the ocean as far as the total staff of the clubs was concerned, for each club had a male military staff varying from fifty in Rome to seventy in Cairo; and each club had large numbers of civilian employees, the Rome club having retained the whole of the normal staff of the hotel in which it was located. In view of the need for page 209 time off duty – the clubs were open for long hours – there were never many girls in front of the public at any one time, certainly nothing like enough to have any influence on the hundreds and thousands of men who used the clubs every day.

In each club certain duties were given the girls, depending on the numbers available. In one club it might be serving ice-cream or tea, in another taking orders for purchases, in another reserving seats for opera performances or for bus tours.

The officer clientele of the clubs tended to monopolise the attention of the girls, both on and off duty, partly because of having more money to spend on suitable entertainment, and partly because of their having some form of transport in which girls could go sightseeing in comfort. Officers could afford to take girls to the opera, while the other ranks usually had only the attractions of a NAAFI institute to offer. Similarly the bulk of the purchases, proportionate to numbers, was made by officers. It is no wonder that the belief gained ground among the men that the girls were ‘officer conscious’, with the result that many of the men tended to avoid them and even sneer at them as mere decorations.

It would have been better if the number had been many times greater, so that their presence was obvious to all at all times. Their influence for good, which is a reality, might then have had a chance to show itself. As it was, while in other ways they did good work, their influence on behaviour in the one club that really mattered, Cairo, was negligible; but for this the girls were in no way to blame.

In the hospitals the girls again did valuable work, both in easing the strain on the nursing staff, looking after the welfare of patients, and in general administration. The number of 200 was enough to allow of from fifty to seventy being allotted to each of our hospitals. This is not the place, however, to speak of their value to the Medical Corps. From the point of view of HQ 2 NZEF the only trouble – or perhaps irritation is the better word – arose from the attempts of the Red Cross Society in New Zealand to control them while overseas. The Red Cross appeared to us to look on these girls as their special responsibility, almost their ‘private army’, and we were frequently taken to task by the Society for some action we had or had not taken. The girls were members of 2 NZEF and were paid by the Government; and we were responsible to the Government for our actions in directing their activities – but not to the Red Cross.

The delay in sending the clerical staff overseas was a regrettable mistake. Male clerical staff was very difficult to obtain, and in addition there are many duties which women can carry out better than men. We could easily have staffed a large part of Second page 210 Echelon and the Chief Pay Office with women, and most of the clerical duties at HQ 2 NZEF and HQ Maadi Camp could have been allotted to them. To accommodate the girls in Maadi Camp required special measures, but in no way difficult ones. We built hutments of a superior type within an enclosure. In Italy the girls lived in requisitioned civilian houses. The services rendered by this belated party of clerical staff were invaluable, despite some gloomy remarks by the odd anti-feminist before their arrival. It is a pity that we waited four years to get them.

The official status of the nursing sisters overseas was easy to define, as they all ranked as officers and wore the same badges of rank as male officers. The position about the three divisions – welfare, hospital, and later clerical – of the WAACs was not so easy. Three or four were officers; but the majority were ‘other ranks’, wore no badges of rank – even the NCOs preferred not to wear their stripes – and in the eyes of all outside 2 NZEF were just private soldiers. Within 2 NZEF it was easy to make special arrangements for them. There were never more than a few hundred all told at any one time, all specially selected; and while every good New Zealander deprecates class distinctions, the fact remained that they had been chosen on account of good behaviour and good appearance, and represented the best of the community. They used the officer portion of our clubs, and a lot of their travelling was, in any case, in officer transport. They travelled first class on the trains when a move was made by rail (only in the Middle East), although we had to go through the motions of paying excess over second class to the British railway authorities.

Outside 2 NZEF, however, we had a few minor troubles, arising from the position of the WAACs from the United Kingdom. These girls were in every way counted as the female equivalent of the man in the ranks.

We were not prepared to see our girls treated in the same way as were these English WAACs, who travelled third class, who could only use clubs open to other ranks, and who were treated just like ordinary Tommies. We thought our select band deserved something better.

There was some trouble over our girls being admitted to hotels in Cairo which were open to officers only; but it is fair to say that this was overcome in most cases, as the escort was sure to be an officer. The same applied to British officers' clubs. In Italy the complications increased owing to the presence of American WAACs and American clubs, etc., and in increasing degree our girls found themselves treated as ‘other ranks’.

page 211

It was suggested at one stage that we should give them all honorary rank as officers, so that they could wear the badges of rank; but we thought this was going a bit too far. In the end we had special cards printed, stating clearly that within 2 NZEF the holder had all the privileges of an officer. Thereafter the production of this card almost invariably prevented trouble.

In any future war it is likely that the number of women serving will be markedly higher. This question of ranks and privileges will need to be tackled at an early stage.

The question of marriages is being dealt with in Chapter 15. It cannot be gainsaid that they must be accepted, whether entirely within the force or not, and the staff must just make the best it can of all the irritations that are bound to arise.

All our women's services received initially an outfit grant and thereafter an annual upkeep grant, combined with a small varying number of items of army issue. The nurses were all right for as long as we were in North Africa, for there they had access to good shops in Cairo and Alexandria and to large army clothing stores; but when we moved to Italy it was not so easy, as shops were empty of most articles of general utility, and the clothing stores were not so easy of access as in Egypt. In any case it had been found that the existing outdoor uniform was not as truly serviceable as was desirable. Finally, after much discussion the uniform was changed, so as to ensure that the bulk of replacements could be obtained through service channels.

With the girls, while the general arrangement was the same, i.e., part issue, part upkeep grant, it soon became apparent that the grant, which was a small one, was inadequate for them to maintain themselves in a reasonable manner. Again we held a series of discussions between the heads of the various divisions, the Matron-in-Chief and other nursing heads, and one or two embarrassed male staff, and in the end evolved a satisfactory scheme, which meant that most articles would be issued from army stocks, the upkeep grant being left for a few personal extras.

After the first party of girls had been overseas for some time, a legal point arose which made it necessary for us to know whether or not our women's services, including the nurses, were true official members of 2 NZEF and subject to military law. As the result of our communications with Army Headquarters, it transpired that the position was indeed obscure; and it was only after some months, in fact not until the middle of 1943, that all women's services were made subject to the Army Act, with some marked and reasonable reservations. There was, for instance, a definite restriction on the sections of the Army Act under which disciplinary action could be taken.

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Right at the end of the war, there was a case where disciplinary action was taken against a nurse for offending against the censorship regulations. It is doubtful whether the offender or the officer dealing with the case felt the more awkward; and in fact the whole business was silly. We ended the war without ever having to come to grips over the discipline of women's services, but it is likely to be more of a problem in the future.

Of all single items, probably more troubles arose out of the combination of the young officer and the jeep than out of anything else. Officer and jeep would call for a girl friend and away they would go, and either have a breakdown or return very late, or visit some place out of bounds, or go wandering into the divisional area, or otherwise break the law. In Egypt the trouble used to be the combination of the young RAF officer and the aeroplane. A lift would be offered to somewhere miles away, the assurance being given that the officer would be coming back the same day; but RAF routine stepped in, or the plane developed some defect, and the ‘liftee’ would find herself stranded. In 1940 we had a party of nurses left high and dry in Cyprus in just this way.

However, all these troubles were minor ones, and did not detract from the manifold advantages of having a few New Zealand women as a leavening among so many men. With us the sum total of the problems they created was small; but the administrators of any future expeditionary force, which will inevitably include a larger proportion of women, will have to do some serious thinking before the force embarks.