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Think Piece: Our WWII Servicewomen

Thursday 10 March, 2016


Dr Barbara Orchard

Dr Barbara Orchard

In WWII, some 70,000 Australian women served in eight women-specific Services, in the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC) and as Voluntary Aides (VA’s) in Detachments of Red Cross volunteers.

Except for 3,500 Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) personnel serving with the Royal Australian Artillery,  servicewomen did not carry, load or fire weapons.

Of 72 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) deaths, 53 – virtually three quarters – were due to enemy action. This is an atypically high figure for non-combatants. Two Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) personnel died in aircraft accidents outside Australia after war’s end, and a VA died of illness en route to Egypt in 1941. Other servicewomen deaths, usually illness or accident related, occurred within Australia.

Nurses served virtually world-wide – AANS always near the 2nd AIF, RAAFNS in Australia, New Guinea, the Islands, in the Empire Air Training Scheme and Medical Air Evacuation Transport Units, and RANNS in Australia and New Guinea. VA’s were nursing aides in army hospitals and convalescent homes in Australia, the Middle East and Ceylon, and with expanded roles in the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS) in Australia, New Guinea, the Islands and Japan.

Many women aged 18 to 45 years, some well-qualified in non-health-related disciplines, wanted to “do their bit” too, but were rebuffed repeatedly by government. In 1941, manpower shortages forced change. Successively in February, April and October, the War Cabinet authorised the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF), Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) and the AWAS. Outstanding women were appointed to lead them.

Today it’s hard to credit the small numbers stipulated initially for recruitment to these three Services. So too their overseas deployment ban (modified in 1944 for 500 AWAS in New Guinea) and their assumed duties as mostly “traditional” women’s work – cooks, clerks, drivers, and stewards. Even harder to credit is War Cabinet’s ‘justification’ for forming the first of them: “Men are seldom satisfied with these duties and invariably try to transfer to other duties….These duties can be completely carried out by women.” 

When Japan entered the war, an unexpected new government introduced civilian workforce conscription, took control of business, industry and agriculture, and authorised two additional women’s Services, the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) and the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS).

AWLA helped increase agricultural production, but never reached its full potential. Inexplicably, women already working on the land were barred, and despite promises, it was never fully endorsed as a Women’s Service. Official recognition came in 1994 with the award of the Australian Civilian Service medal. AAMWS was formed to distinguish enlisted from unenlisted VA’s, to facilitate administration and to enable expanded roles.

The new government set two goals – maximising (1) production and maximising (2) the number of men in operational units. Under the slogan, “We’re all in it together”, it stipulated that wherever possible, men were to be deployed to operational units and replaced by women.

Many non-health-related servicewomen earned wages for the first time in their lives often working in occupations and trades previously peculiar to men. Some were common to all women’s Services, others unique to particular Services. Appendix 1 of “Australian Women at War” by Patsy Adam-Smith, herself a VA, lists them.

Inevitably there were problems and challenges. Not least were critics who claimed working women would “lose their femininity”, become “coarse, hard, cynical” and “disinterested in home life and motherhood”.

Servicewomen wore trousers and did men’s work. They didn’t receive men’s pay, but they replaced some 65,000 men to serve where they were needed most – in operational units.

In WWII, servicewomen were uncommon in my part of suburban Adelaide. I didn’t know numbers, what they did, why, where, or the social milieu in which they operated. Today I’m informed and experienced and admire them enormously. Honoured to be invited to address a reunion of theirs in a Victorian Regional Centre some years ago, I was pleased to accept and gratified the audience enjoyed hearing about a former AWAS cook, as tall as she was broad, ward-Sister at the Royal Adelaide Hospital while I was a student and resident medical officer. But that’s a story for another time.

War emancipated Australian women from what Adam-Smith described as “the tyranny of the house, family and conventional society”. They revelled in their new-found freedom and changed Australian society forever. Because of them, Australian women today have opportunities unimaginable in their grandmothers’ and great grandmother’s day.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the formation of WAAAF, WRANS and AWAS. Those women’s Services are long gone, but their influence is manifest in today’s university enrolments, in civilian work-force patterns, ADF roles and in the perception of women’s worth in Australia. I’m pleased to have this opportunity to extoll them publicly.

Adam-Smith, Patsy., 2014, Australian Women at War, Five Mile Press Pty. Ltd, 1 Centre Road, Scoresby, Victoria 3179, Australia
Orchard, Barbara 2010 (np) “They Also Served….”: Women’s Work in WWII


 Service    Formation  Number  Deaths
1 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) July 1902 3,477


Voluntary Aid Detachments


Sept. 1914



2 Australian Army Medical Women’s Service


Dec. 1942



3 Australian Women’s Army Service


Oct. 1941



4 Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service


Apr. 1941



5 Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service


Oct. 1942



6 Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force


Mar. 1941



7 Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service


Jul  1940



8 Australian Women’s Land Army


Jul.   1942



Australian Army Medical Corps:


  • Dietitians



  • 9 Doctors



  • Occupational Therapists



  • Pharmacists


  • Physiotherapists


  • Scientists
Unknown Unknown



1 Matron-in-Charge

Grace Wilson – retired due to ill-health, Annie Sage

2 Officer-in-Charge Kathleen Best – Managed formation of AAMWS and was its first Controller, May Douglas
3 Officer-in-Charge Sybil Irving Stella Bowen and Nora Heysen, War Artists wore AWAS uniforms
4 Officer-in-Charge Sheila McClemans Olive Boye, Coast Watcher wore WRANS officer uniform
5 Officer-in-Charge Annie Laidlaw
6 Officer-in-Charge Clare Stevenson
7 Officer-in-Charge Margaret Laing
8 Officer-in-Charge (SA) Dorothy Marshall
9 Two outstanding doctors: Lady McKenzie – Australia’s first woman military doctor and Deputy Assistant, Director General of Army Medical Services Josephine MacKerras – Medical Scientist, (Malaria Research), Land Headquarters, Medical Research Unit
10An outstanding scientist: Jean Kahan – Officer in Charge, 1st Australian Blood & Serum Unit


PLEASE NOTE:   Some figures differ from other published figures. Those listed here should be regarded as indicative, not definitive. A number of Allied Health Professionals were moved between Services.
For convenience, all are listed here under AAMC

Dr Barbara Orchard is an Adelaide University medical graduate with a life-long interest in military history. She is a former Medical Adviser for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Voluntary Guide at the Australian War Memorial, Trustee of the SA Women’s Memorial Playing Fields Trust Inc. and Member of the Service Nurses’ National Memorial Planning Committee. She has been Key-Note Speaker at the Bangka Day Memorial Service in Adelaide, at Anzac Day Services in New South Wales country towns, and at an International Nurses’ Conference in Canberra. She has lectured at the Australian War Memorial, the Naval, Military and Air Force Club of  Adelaide, and the University of the Third Age. Barbara has also delivered addresses to various other groups including Legacy, the United Services Institute and the RSL.

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