Ailsa Hale

Cipher, Signals Corps, Australian Women’s Army Service

"You were brought up to fight for your country."

It was tough work. It might not have been the frontline, but for three years Ailsa Hale and a crack team of young women laboured 24 hours a day to decode incoming messages from warplanes around the Australasian region.

Yet while the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) continually reminded them of the critical top-secret nature of their work, the service also insisted on the critical importance of attiring themselves properly in the AWAS uniform.

"We had to wear these dreadful hats. The hats were so small, I remember going out with the girls and my best friend Madge lost her hat, it was very funny."

With Darwin under repeated attack by the Japanese in 1943, patriotic fervour was at a high and Ailsa heard the call. Her father was in the Army and in the Hale family Ailsa says, "You were brought up to fight for your country." She enlisted as soon as she turned 18.

She trained as a "cipher" for six months in Bonegilla on the NSW/Victorian border, eventually learning to write in Morse code faster than most people could type. The course was demanding and the young women, who'd been carefully selected, spent long days practicing their code. Every Friday the women trainees were re-tested and by the end of the training only the top three were chosen.

They formed part of a 32-strong cipher team based in Ascot, Queensland. Ailsa says it was stressful work making sure she understood and transcribed the incoming communications accurately. Mostly these were messages sent by Australian Air Force planes heading out or returning from bombing, reconnaissance and transport missions. Because of weather, distances and the then crude radio technology, the messages were often garbled and any mistake might mean the difference between life and death for air crews.

Ailsa's team not only worked together closely over the three year period, but they lived together in the one hut.

"We all got on so well and we loved the work".

Like so many Australians who served during the war, the relationships Ailsa developed that time were ones that would last a lifetime. Like her friendship with Madge who last her hat. "I knew that lady all my life, she died last year. She was so clever." Sadly for Ailsa as the years have passed most of "her girls" have passed on and only a couple remain.

Among the cipher unit's duties was training some of the men to do cipher work up in New Guinea where they wouldn't let women go. It was particularly tough on the men who, unlike the women, had had no Morse code training.

Ailsa and her team were also aware of how unequal it was between men and women. On the pay front, she says most enlisted men were paid better than female sergeants.

Whether fighting the Japanese in New Guinea or relaying coded messages, every Australian who signed up during the war had a vital role to play and Ailsa and her unit were told their efforts had helped end the conflict by two years. And most of them were still only in their teens or early twenties.

Even after the war was declared over Ailsa stayed in the service for another year

"I didn't mind because being in the army opened my eyes to what was going on in the world."

She was only 21 with most of her life ahead of her when she left the service and her next step was as a schoolteacher then studying at university to become a physiotherapist. She was also married soon after enrolling to a man she'd met in the Signals Corps.

These were some of the happiest times of Ailsa's life.

"You make the best of whatever you've got. You made wonderful friends in the army and you never lost those contacts."