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Alice Springs RSL Club

Women -Women in the Armed Forces
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Women in the Armed Forces
Similarly, amongst the phenomenal number of army personnel that were either stationed at or passed through Alice Springs, a very small percentage were women. There were so few – around 200 were based in town between 1943-45 - compared to the thousands of servicemen involved in the convoys, that their significant contribution to the war effort in Central Australia could be easily overlooked.

The servicewomen were concentrated in five areas of employment, mainly in traditional supportive roles in the areas of health care, administration and domestic work, while a few broke into the then male domains of communications and transport.

Alice Springs, NT, 1945.
Switchboard operators from 48 Australian Tele-Ops Signals Section en route to Darwin.
Back row, from left: Aileen Cooper, Edna teasdale, June Higgs, Venice Macbeth, Lieutenant Molly Gately. In front: Billie Walker, Audrey Weston. All from the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS).
(Image supplied by Mrs I. Grant, image on loan from Australian War Memorial, Canberra)

Members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) and Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS) worked at the former government (opened 1939), now military hospital, which was turned over to the army in August 1942. It officially became 109 AGH (Australian General Hospital) reverting back to non-military status by the end of 1945. Before its army status, the hospital’s nursing staff consisted of 2 Sisters and a Matron. During the height of the war, female nursing staff (both AANS and AAMWS) averaged a little over 70 during 1942 and 1943, gradually dropping off to around 60 by the end of the war. Unlike today’s health profession, all other major medical positions at the hospital were solely occupied by men – army officers who were for example, trained doctors, surgeons, pathologists, pharmacists, optometrists, opthalmologists, dentists, radiologists and radiographers. The hospital cooks, orderlies and majority of the administrative staff were also male.

The Australian Army Women’s Service (AWAS) had been initially established in 1941 to train women in certain technical fields that would release more men to go to the front line. They began arriving in Alice Springs in 1942 taking on a variety of administrative roles within the army while there were also a small number of specialist trained AWAS Signalwomen and Despatch Riders.

AAMWS (formerly VAD)
The Australian Army Medical Women’s Service, members of which were known colloquially by pronouncing its acronym AAMWS as “Am-wars”) was officially formed in 1943 following Japan’s entry into the war and the resulting greater need for assistance in military hospitals. The role of AAMWS members was to help the trained sisters of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), or undertake non-nursing roles in the hospital such as in the laundry or administration. Prior to the formation of this particular women’s army service, the nursing sisters had been assisted by the Voluntary Aide Detachment, non-military volunteers who had received training in first aid and home nursing through a course designed by the St John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross. The Red Cross had first established this service in Australia during WWI (although formed earlier in the UK) and the Voluntary Aides or VAs were later absorbed into the AAMWS.

Alice Springs, NT, 1945.
Wedding in Alice Springs. Image courtesy of Adelaide House Museum, Alice Springs.

52 Army nurses staffed the 109 AGH when it was officially established in August 1942, dropping to 32 the following year and 24 by the end of the war. However prior to the army hospital coming into operation, the first 10 AANS to arrive in Alice Springs were part of No 44 Camp Hospital which moved into the government hospital grounds a few months earlier. [Camp hospitals, consisting of a small medical team of doctors and nurses and accommodating 5 beds had been established at Birdum, Newcastle Waters and Tennant Creek while the track was being developed as a defence road.]

Like all members of AANS, those in Alice were trained nurses, registered by the Nurses Board in a State of the Commonwealth of Australia. They were all aged between 21 and 40 (the age for enlistment was changed for nurses in 1941 from between 25 and 35 years for overseas service). Many had joined up at Keswick Barracks in Adelaide and some in Melbourne. This would have involved a full medical examination with chest X-rays and innoculations against typhoid and smallpox in preparation for overseas service) and then issued with outdoor and indoor uniforms, identity discs (to be worn day and night), pay-book, and even tin hats and gas masks. The ward uniform consisted of a grey button-through dress with detachable white cuffs and collar (pinned at the neck with the AIF Rising Sun emblem); a short scarlet cape and starched white head veil. Senior sisters wore 2 chocolate bands above the cuff of the ward dress while Matrons wore chocolate coloured cuffs. The outdoor uniform was a distinctive grey Norfolk jacket, knee-length skirt; and brimmed hat, worn with a shirt and tie. They were also issued with great coats, which were much needed on night duty during the cold Central Australian winter.

Like the army nurses, the AWAS girls enjoyed trips out bush. Signalwoman Anne Steele remembers staying at the Hayes’ cattle station at Undoolya with another AWAS colleague Isabel Cook whilst she was recuperating from an appendix operation. They had their photograph taken on a camel with a group of Aboriginal children. She also remembers that the Hayes had a pedal wireless at the homestead.

Australian Army Women’s Service (AWAS) worked as kitchen staff, clerks, switchboard operators and stenographers, based in buildings on what is now the Oval, beside Anzac Hill, at the Medical Centre for Intelligence and Administration. One of the important but often unrecognised tasks undertaken by female staff were those attached to the Amenities Unit who produced the army newsletter “Mulga”.

In addition there were a small number of specialist trained AWAS Signalwomen, attached to the Australian Corps of Signals, and based at the Signal Office at the Anzac Hill end of Todd Street. Those trained as DonR’s or Despatch Riders also did transport work, driving cars and trucks around town.


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