Joan Frances McLean (nee Smith)

Cipher, Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force

“I was never scared, although we’d still have go to the air raid shelter across the road which was just a trench or dug-out.”

It was March 1942 when 18 year old Joan Smith fronted up to the recruitment office in Sydney ready to help Australia’s campaign to stop Japanese imperialism. 

Her specific aim was to join the ranks of the growing Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force.

“Well, I was a bit of a joiner, I liked to be part of a group and I’d already been learning Morse Code.”

Joan describes herself as very patriotic. Her favourite brother had joined the RAAF in 1939 and Joan herself had been in the Air League, a junior service aimed at getting teenagers ready for what lay ahead in the air force. This was where Joan had first studied Morse Code.


A black and white portrait of Joan McLean in her WAAAF uniform

Joan McLean

The WAAAF was so desperate for ciphers for the Signals Division that when Joan went to Melbourne for her training she and the other young women spent only 10 days there instead of the normal six weeks. Shortly after, they were posted to Townsville where they would continue learning on the job.

The plan was for the women to take the role of men being sent overseas to New Guinea and later Borneo.

Before enlisting, Joan had done office work and then for a short time worked at the Akubra hat company where she was the first woman given the sought-after role of packing the slouch hats famously worn by Australian soldiers. She had grown up in the working class Sydney suburb of Waterloo and was excited by the prospect of contributing to the war effort.

Joan felt she was a natural for the role of cipher. 

“I have a mathematical mind and I’ve always enjoyed crosswords and puzzles.”

Because there were so few women in her division and therefore a shortage of women officers, they automatically promoted Joan and her ciphers corporals.

Corporal Joan Smith and 11 other women slept in a requisitioned classroom with a single bulb. This was an improvement on conditions when they arrived where they slept on the floor without mosquito nets or covers for the first six months.

There were three shifts a day, the afternoon shift being the busiest and the midnight ‘dogwatch’ shift the quietest. The women were grouped so that they always worked on the same shift to minimise disruption to the others from people starting and finishing.

Joan felt they were reasonably safe, the Japanese air raids having finished the week before their arrival. Occasionally there’d be an air raid warning about enemy planes nearby.

“I was never scared, although we’d still have go to the air raid shelter across the road which was just a trench or dug-out.”

The messages they coded and decoded contained confidential information sent by officers about operations. Occasionally there were messages from planes and ships in the region but mostly they were from other bases and postings. 

“It wasn’t really hard but we did work hard. I liked that kind of thing, a mental activity. Sometimes a message would be incomplete, there’d be a letter missing, and you’d have to work it out.”

As part of her role, Joan operated a Typex machine which was the famous British equivalent to the German's Enigma machine.

“It was like a big typewriter and it had great big wheels in it and every day it had to be set to a different number. You’d type on it and it would put the message in code and then the people at the other end would use their Typex to de-code it.”

Much later in life she would visit Bletchley Park, Great Britain’s intelligence centre during WWII, and when her granddaughter mentioned to staff about her mum using a Typex machine during the war, Joan was ‘treated like royalty.”

The two years she spent in Townsville passed quickly and Joan didn’t want to leave. They were a tight-knit group who rarely if ever argued. One of Joan’s fondest memories was sitting together with her gang in the doorway with a candle, playing poker. But that wasn't all. 


“Sometimes we’d get off the dogwatch shift and spend the day at Magnetic Island. It was lovely there, a real oasis.”

One of her duties was teaching men who’d been through pilot training how to do cipher work. The men were on their way to New Guinea where ciphers were needed. (The furthest women were sent was Cairns.) “They were all very nice men, very polite.”

Many of the women had boyfriends and husbands who were off fighting. One of the husbands was in the 8th Division when it was captured and he spent the rest of the war as a POW but survived and eventually the couple were reunited.

Joan had been re-posted back to Sydney and was based at Point Piper signals station at the harbourside mansion Altona when she heard the news of the end of the war. 

“I had just returned home and was getting ready to go to church when the bells started ringing. It was about seven in the morning. My friend was still on duty and she heard the news and I heard it a little later. I felt relief that it was over.”

Normal life resumed and Joan tried different areas of work, firstly as a market researcher and then as an assistant to a professor of theology and philosophy. Then eventually she married a man who’d also been in the services. She also remained lifelong friends with two of her wartime colleagues, Mim and Lorna.