A black and white photo of six female pilits and Mascot on 4 June 1930

Women and aviation before the Second World War

Anzac Memorial Research Officer, Dr Catie Gilchrist details the history of Australian women in aviation and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

"Women in the RAAF can look back on a proud and long history of female pioneers; from the civil aviation enthusiasts of the 1920s, to the air-minded volunteers of the 1930s and to the thousands of women who enrolled and later enlisted with the WAAAF during the Second World War."

Betty Mullins, an office worker from Burwood, was the driving force behind the creation of a women’s air club in 1938. On 19 June she publicly announced her bold plan in the Sunday Sun. The article, ‘Women as War Birds if Wanted’ informed readers that the Australian Women’s Flying Corps was to be established as a voluntary force to give women a similar opportunity to learn to fly as that available to men. Members would study how to service their own planes, and nursing and first aid would also be taught. It was to be a civilian rather than a military organisation, however, as the article title suggested and as Betty herself explained, ‘in the event of trouble threatening Australia’s shores, we shall be available to the authorities if needed.’[1]

Miss Mullins hoped to gain support for her scheme from the then Minister for Defence, Harold Thorby.[2] However, the honourable member for Calare held the rather traditional view that women belonged firmly grounded in the domestic sphere. He scoffed at Mullins’ idea in the Sydney newspapers on the following day,

 I do not consider commercial or defence flying a suitable sphere for their [women’s] activities. We don’t have women as railway engineers or tram drivers, and we don’t want them as pilots. As far as defence is concerned women will receive no encouragement from the Government at all. [3]

Asked in the House of Representatives, if he endorsed Mr Thorby’s statement that women were unsuitable for the Air Force, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons replied that he had ‘no views on the matter’.[4]

Notwithstanding Thorby’s disapproval and Lyons’ apathy however, women’s fascination for aviation had soared in the interwar years. Despite its dangers, many women saw little difference between driving a motor car and flying a plane. In 1927 Millicent Maude Bryant became the first Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence from the Ministry of Defence.[5] By 1938 many more air minded women had become accomplished pilots and had already won their place in civil aviation. Barbara Hitchins, labelled ‘the Australian girl aviator’ by the press had recently flown 6000 miles from Sydney to New Guinea and back in her Gypsy Moth, Felicity.[6]  

The Royal Aero Club was established at Mascot aerodrome in 1926 as a social flying school and club. It mainly comprised of well-to-do ex Australian Flying Corps pilots from the Great War, although women like Bryant were admitted as highly esteemed lady members. Peggy McKillop and Phyllis Arnott (of the famous biscuit family) both flew for fun and regarded flying as a thrilling and glamourous new hobby.[7] Others participated in air pageants and some found new employment opportunities after gaining a B licence (commercial pilot licence). The famous aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton started operating her own joy flight service in a salvaged Gypsy Moth aeroplane in 1935. Later she upgraded to a Leopard Moth and used her flying skills in aerial ambulance work across remote stretches of NSW and Queensland. For this vital and pioneering work, she was known as the ‘Angel of the Outback’.  Betty Mullins’ idea for an Australian Women’s Flying Corps in 1938 thus appealed to a wide audience of women and, regardless of what the men thought, plans for the scheme continued apace.


Early Meetings and Organisation 

 

On 6 July 1938, the inaugural meeting of the Australian Women's Flying Corps was held at the Feminist Club of New South Wales at 77 King Street, Sydney.

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AWFC metal badge with gilded outspread wings which doubled as a hat badge for the forage cap and as pilot's wings worn above the left breast pocket.

There were eighty women in attendance. More than two hundred showed up to the first General Meeting on 23 August 1938 by which time a further 500 women had applied for membership and the decision had been taken to change the name to the Australian Women’s Flying Club. The first Committee members elected included a number of remarkable women. Twenty-two-year-old aviatrix and A class pilot Margaret Adams from Turramurra was proclaimed President, with the redoubtable Barbara Hitchens serving as her Vice President. Betty Mullins was appointed Secretary and Florence Violet Mackenzie was made Treasurer. McKenzie had become Australia’s first qualified female electrical engineer in 1923.[8] In 1939 she established another voluntary organisation, the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps. More than 3000 women passed through her signal instruction school at 10 Clarence Street, Sydney where her students acquired essential skills in visual signalling and Morse and international code. [9]  Later she campaigned successfully to have some of her female trainees accepted into the all-male Navy, thereby creating the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service – the WRANS.[10] Other prominent women among the founding members of the AWFC were Nancy Bird Walton and Gwen Stark. Stark or "Starkie" as she was known, was a leading member of the Girl Guide movement and an aviation enthusiast who received her pilots license in 1939. She became a Squadron Commander in the AWFC and fervently hoped that the club would one day be recognised as an Australian Air Force Auxiliary. Later, she joined the WAAAF, and became one of the few women who attained the rank of Wing Officer.[11]

To ‘encourage unity of purpose and to aid discipline’ it was decided that members of the AWFC would wear a uniform, purchased at their own expense.[12] It consisted of an electric blue serge tunic and skirt with a forage cap, pale blue shirt and dark tie, gloves and shoes.

The annual subscription for the AWFC was 10 shillings and six pence, plus a shilling for attendance at the weekly meetings. Members were divided into Squadrons, each under a Squadron Commander. The twelve-month course included lessons from university lecturers and trained engineers on aeronautics and aerodynamics, navigation and meteorology. It also included physical training, first aid and home nursing. After a short time operating out of the Feminist Club, the AWFC established their own rooms at 8 Young Street and additional rooms were later acquired at 9 Clarence Street, Sydney. The Fort Street Girls High School grounds was used for parade drill and the school hall was used for instructional classes. In 1939, as the danger of another world war threatened, membership of the club increased again, and the training program was extended to include motor mechanics, gas and air raid precautions and camping techniques.

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NSW. c. 1940. Members of the Women's Air Training Corps (WATC) working on the engine of a Morris-Commercial truck. The women were trained in a variety of skills including aircraft engine maintenance, ambulance first aid, signalling and driving and maintenance of cars and trucks. (AWM P02777.001)


 Women’s Air Training Corps

It was the menace of war that saw the emergence of another voluntary female aviation organisation – the Women’s Air Training Corps. The WATC was formed in Brisbane in April 1939 as a voluntary auxiliary service for women interested in supporting the RAAF. State divisions of the WATC were quickly established across the country. Tasmanian born pilot and the first woman to qualify as a ground engineer, Flying Officer Mary Bell was elected Commanding Officer.[13] Members were trained in communications, transport and clerical work as well as aircraft maintenance. The main objective was for women to be qualified to work in the hangars and aircraft factories so that if the need arose, men could be released for operational duties in the air and for service overseas. It was to be a very prescient development, both for Australian women and indeed for the nation.

Both the Australian Women’s Flying Club and the Women’s Air Training Corps were volunteer, civilian organisations. Many women were trained and instructed under their tutelage, becoming accomplished pilots and highly skilled aviation workers. And so, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced on 3 September 1939 that Australia was again at war, many of these air-minded volunteers immediately offered their services. Membership of both organisations increased dramatically, as did lobbying for official recognition. Yet despite the fact that they were more than equipped to join up, women’s enthusiasm to help out was initially received with sneers of scornful derision. [14] The general view that war was a man’s job was both deeply entrenched and fiercely defended. There was also a fear that ‘a woman in uniform or a pair of overalls, working in the company of men would create all sorts of unmentionable difficulties.’[15] It took considerable pleading, much parliamentary debate and over a year of war before the RAAF received the official nod to go ahead and create a women’s air force auxiliary.[16] 

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Sydney, NSW. c.1940. Four members of the Australian Women's Flying Club (AWFC) outside Hyde Park in Sydney. Left to right; Laurie Barnes, Mollie Brinsmead, Terry Margetts and Bessie Byrers. (AWM P01803.005)


The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force 1941-1946

In the end, it was expediency rather than equality which led to the creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). By October 1940, there was an acute manpower shortage in the signals section of the RAAF. It took eight months to train a wireless operator and expenses amounted to about 175 pounds a man. It was both costly and timely and there were simply not enough trained men to complete the manning of all aircraft of service units in Australia, let alone the ground stations.[17] And yet there were countless skilled women who had been trained by the pre-war volunteer civilian organisations (at their own expense no less) who could immediately fill the vacancies, or at the very least undertake a short conversion course for ground duty.  

The RAAF submitted a proposal to establish the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force that would allow women to fill positions where trained men were unavailable. The proposal was emphatically rejected by the War Cabinet who insisted that extensive publicity should be employed to recruit more men and that the air force should see if it could speed up the training of recruits.[18] The then Minister for Air, John McEwen, was also deeply opposed to the recruitment of women.[19] Undeterred, efforts to enrol women persisted and finally, on 12 December 1940, the War Cabinet made a temporary concession. It conceded that until more men became available, the recruitment of women, for now at least, would go ahead. It was to be strictly temporary and it was to be made quite clear to the enlistees that they would not necessarily be engaged for the duration of the war. The Advisory War Council agreed that women should be enlisted but only ‘to the minimum number, for a minimum period.’[20]

A plan was drawn up for the formation of the WAAAF with an estimated strength of three hundred and twenty female recruits to work as wireless telegraph operators. A training depot and separate accommodation were to be provided at Air Force stations.  It received the approval of the War Cabinet on 4 February 1941, followed by the reluctant acceptance of the Advisory War Council on the following day. It was also decided that women of the WAAAF were to be paid two-thirds the rates of corresponding ranks of airmen in the RAAF. This was in fact an improvement on the practice commonly followed in industrial awards at the time. However, when McEwen made a ministerial statement before federal Parliament announcing the formation of the WAAAF, ALP member Norman John Oswald Makin voiced his stringent objection.[21] On the surface, his oratory expressed a deep concern over the issue of unequal pay. However, this was little more than disingenuous politicking - for his real protestation was to the spectre of women performing jobs which Makin quite clearly viewed as male occupations and which belonged to them alone. As he stated;

There can be no justification for the employment of women on duties similar to those carried out by men if equal payment be not made for equal service…In our view, all of our resources of man-power suitable for work of this kind should be exhausted before the employment of women is permitted. We recognise that many women earnestly desire to serve their country, but we believe that they could be well employed in other and more suitable avenues… We ask the Government to give further consideration to this matter in order to see that full justice is done to the men of Australia who are prepared to serve their country in these callings. If an earnest appeal were made to our youth, we are confident that they would offer their services as trainees for this work and there would be no shortage of men.[22]

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WAAAF recruiting poster. ‘Keep them flying! There's a job for you in the WAAAF. Apply at RAAF Recruiting Centre or Committee in Your District.’ This poster was created by Walter Lacy Jardine who was commissioned to produce posters for the Department of Defence during the Second World War. (AWM ARTV01114)

Makin’s objections went unheeded however and ‘with a marked lack of enthusiasm on the part of some male officers’, recruiting had in fact already commenced ten days previously on 15 March 1941.[23] By the end of the year over 1500 women had joined the WAAAF.[24] The first Commander appointed was Acting Flight Officer Mary Bell, however she was replaced by Squadron Officer Clare Stephenson in May 1941. Rising to Wing and then to Group Officer, Stephenson, who was affectionally known as ‘Stevie’ stayed in the role until March 1946. Lady Zara Gowrie, wife of the Governor-General, became the First Honorary Air Commandant and was later succeeded by H.R.H. the Duchess of Gloucester.

Women were initially enrolled temporarily as auxiliaries for 12 months rather than enlisted. However, this changed in 1943 when the WAAAF was legally constituted as a part of the RAAF and women were enlisted for the duration of the war plus a period of 12 months. At first, and as promised, they worked only as wireless telegraphists. However, after Imperial Japan entered the war in December 1941, it became imperative that the maximum use should be made of all available women. With the country now committed to go “All IN” on the home front, together with increasing manpower shortages and the need to release male personnel serving in Australia for overseas service, women began to take on a much broader range of roles.  

Eventually, WAAAF members served in more than 70 musterings, some of which were highly skilled and technical.[25] Aircraftwomen served as ground staff, electricians, flight mechanics, drivers and meteorological assistants.  Many others worked in clerical, transport, catering, signal and radar fields of employment. Women worked with machine guns and ammunition, in repair shops, in mess rooms, in hospitals and in parachute sections. They worked wherever they were needed. Some jobs were dirty and physically demanding, others were in intelligence and performed under conditions of strict secrecy.  A few roles, such as cleaning and catering were merely an extension of traditional female duties, albeit very vital ones. Yet for all, the hours were long, the living quarters were often basic and the deportment, dress code and behaviour of the WAAAF was at all times firmly governed. But there was an upside to this too. In her memoirs,  E. M. Robertson recalled,

 

… with food, all clothing and housing, medical and dental attention, half fares on public transport, free travel on duty and recreation leave, there were not many expenses, other than small personal items, and it was possible to save money.’[26]

By 1943 the WAAAF were serving at Air Force Headquarters and in almost 200 Air Force stations throughout Australia, although the government refused permission for them to be sent overseas or to advanced areas in the north-western area - notwithstanding shortages in the ranks of the RAAF here.[27] None served further north than Cairns and Charters Towers.[28] When General Douglas MacArthur requested WAAAFs move with him and Allied General Head Quarters to the Philippines, the government refused to budge their stance and MacArthur had to request American servicewomen be sent in place of Australian women.[29]  Unlike their British counterparts serving as civilian pilots with the Air Transport Auxiliary, and their American sisters in the Women Airforce Service Pilots organisation, members of the WAAAF were not permitted to pilot an aircraft even for non-combat reasons such as ferrying planes from station to station.[30]

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WAAAF’s at Mascot July 1944, SLNSW

Despite these limitations however, and the rigorous discipline that was stringently enforced in their daily lives, many women found their experience with the WAAAF as one ‘characterised by independence, camaraderie with other women and gender equality.’[31] It was a momentous and adventurous period of their lives and most took immense pride in their wartime work. After the war, a number of women wrote books based on their time in the WAAAF and many told personal tales of a very positive experience.[32] Demobilisation commenced in October 1945 and the WAAAF was all but disbanded by 1947.  Some women encountered difficulties on leaving the WAAAF, with the pressure to settle down and raise a family. Others returned to civilian life and fully embraced domesticity, later remembering their war time service as merely something they ‘just did’ during the war. A few remained single and looked forward to the annual WAAAF reunion which was an important commemorative acknowledgment of their work during the war, the experience of which, for many, would remain integral to their sense of identity in the post war world.

The WAAAF was the first and largest of the three women’s services formed during the Second World War. At its peak in October 1944 it consisted of 18,664 women or 12 percent of RAAF personnel.[33] In aircraft depots and radar stations, on RAAF bases and at Operational Units throughout Australia, women made a vital contribution to the air force during the war. According to E. M. Robertson, ‘the Chief of the Air Staff was known to have said that the RAAF could not have functioned as it did without the WAAAF.’[34] In essence, they more than  fulfilled the exhortation of the recruitment posters to ‘keep them flying’. By the end of the war, approximately 27,000 women had served with the WAAAF, proving that women could fulfil tasks and roles previously undertaken solely by men.[35] They worked long and difficult hours yet the value of their work and skills encouraged the formation of the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) in 1950.[36] The women’s service was finally fully integrated into the RAAF in the early 1980s and since 1987 women have been eligible for flying roles in the RAAF. In 1995 the last remaining restrictions were lifted, permitting women to train as fighter pilots.  

Today women in the RAAF can look back on a proud and long history of female pioneers; from the civil aviation enthusiasts of the 1920s, to the air-minded volunteers of the 1930s and to the thousands of women who enrolled and later enlisted with the WAAAF during the Second World War. All of them and in myriad ways very much embody the motto of the RAAF; through adversity to the stars.

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Melbourne, Vic. 1944-05-26. The Honorary Commandant of WAAAF, Lady (Zara) Gowrie (centre), discusses a book with several airwomen outside their recreation room during her farewell visit to HQ Wireless Transmitting Station, RAAF Frognall, Canterbury. At the back (standing) is the Director WAAAF, Group Officer Clare Stevenson, who accompanied Lady Gowrie during her visit. (AWM VIC11908)


Endnotes


[1] ‘Women as War Birds If Needed’, The Sun, Sunday 19 June 1938, p 3.

[2] Harold Victor Campbell Thorby’s biography is available here https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thorby-harold-victor-campbell-8798

[3] ‘Thorby Bars Women Aces’, The Labour Daily, Monday 20 June 1938, p 1.

[4] ‘Women will fly, not fight’, Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 21 June 1938, p 5.

[5] She was also first in the Commonwealth outside Britain. Tragically, Bryant was one of the forty victims of Sydney’s worse peacetime maritime disaster when the Sydney ferry Greycliffe collided with the mail steamer Tahiti just off Bradley’s Head on Sydney Harbour on 3 November 1927.

[6] ‘Woman Flier’, Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 17 June 1938, p 13.

[7] In the above photograph, Phyllis Arnott is second from the right. In 1978 Peggy Kelman nee McKillop was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her services to women’s aviation.

[8] She was also the first Australian woman to be granted an amateur radio operator’s licence (station VK 2FV).

[9] During the war years some 12,000 servicemen also passed through her signal instruction school in Sydney. To the thousands of men and women who trained as 'Sigs' on Clarence Street, Florence Violet McKenzie was affectionately known as Mrs Mac.

[10] The WRANS were established in April 1941 to make up for the shortage of telegraphists in the Royal Australian Navy. Mrs Mac’s first girls served on HMAS Harman. The women’s auxiliary navy service was disbanded after the war but reconstituted in 1951 and became a permanent part of the RAN in 1959. Despite this, it was not until 1983 that women were permitted to serve aboard RAN ships.

[11] Joyce Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1991, p 34.

[12] Joyce Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1991, p 33.

[13] Bell stayed in this role until the formation of the WAAAF in March 1941. Between July 1942 and November 1944 Nancy Bird Walton acted as the NSW and Australian Commandant of the WATC.

[14] Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941, AWM, Canberra, 1952, 1956, p 401.

[15] Norman Makin, ‘Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force; Ministerial Statement’, House of Representatives, 25 March 1941, p 149; Paul Hasluck, Australia in the War of 1939-1945, AWM, Canberra, 1952, 1956, p 403.

[16] This is remarkable in light of the fact that in Britain, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force had been established even before the Second World War began; on 28 June 1939 King George VI assented to a women’s auxiliary for duty with the RAF in time of war. It was mobilised on 28 August 1939 and within the year tens of thousands of women had volunteered to serve. By 1945, a quarter of a million women had served in the WAAF in over 110 different trades, supporting operations around the world.

[17] Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941, AWM, Canberra, 1952, 1956, p 403.

[18] Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941, AWM, Canberra, 1952, 1956, p 403.

[19] As Minister for Air, McEwen directed Australia’s contribution to the Empire Air Training Scheme. See https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcewen-sir-john-10948

[20] Paul Hasluck, Australia in the War of 1939-1945, AWM, Canberra, 1952 , 1956, pp 404-05; Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942, AWM, Canberra, 1962, pp 99 - 100.

[21] During the Great War, Makin was a vocal opponent of Prime Minister W. M. Hughes’s efforts to introduce conscription in 1916 and 1917. During the Second World War he was a member of the Advisory War Council (1940-1945), served as Minister for the Navy and for Munitions (1941-46) and Minister for Aircraft Production (1945-46) in the Curtin and Chifley Governments. See https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/makin-norman-john-14673

[22] Norman Makin, ‘Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force; Ministerial Statement’, House of Representatives, 25 March 1941, p 150, cited in Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941, AWM, Canberra, 1952, 1956, p 405.

[23] Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942, AWM, Canberra, 1962, p 100.

[24] The WAAAF’s strength as at 31 December in each year of the war period was ; 1941, 1583; 1942, 14,195; 1943, 16,892; 1944, 17,999; 1945, 7180; 1946, 500. Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942, AWM, Canberra, 1962, p 492.

[25] Peter Dennis et al, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed, 2008, p 606.

[26] E. M. Robertson, WAAAF at War; Life and Work in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, Mullaya, Victoria, 1974, p 100.

[27] Patsy Adam-Smith, Australian Women at War, Nelson, Melbourne, 1984, p 231.

[28] Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942, AWM, Canberra, 1962, p 492.

[29] E. M. Robertson, WAAAF at War; Life and Work in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, Mullaya, Victoria, 1974, p 97; Patsy Adam-Smith, Australian Women at War, Nelson, Melbourne, 1984, p 232. Some 350,000 women served with the US Armed Forces during the Second World War, both at home and abroad.

[30]In Britain, women serving with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were not permitted to pilot planes however they could fly as civilian pilots with the Air Transport Auxiliary. In America, he Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was a civilian women pilots’ organisation whose members were employed as federal civil servants. During the Second World War they were stationed at 122 air bases across the USA and transported cargo and every type of military aircraft for the USAAF.

[31] Bronwyn Love, ‘Reflections on Gender and Memory: Personal Experiences of Women in the WAAAF during the Second World War’, Melbourne Historical Journal, Vol 39, 2001, p 159.

[32] See in particular E. M. Robertson, WAAAF at War: Life and Work in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Canterbury, Victoria, 1974; Essie Over, Ad Astra and all that WAAAF, Kalamunda, WA, 1995.

[33] Peter Dennis et al, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed, 2008, p 606.

[34] E. M. Robertson, WAAAF at War; Life and Work in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, Mullaya, Victoria, 1974, p 103.

[35] During the Second World War over sixty-six thousand women including nurses, served in the auxiliary services attached to the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force.

[36] The Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) was formed in 1950, however women were not permitted to serve overseas until 1967 and before 1969, marriage meant discharge.