Serious business: Women in the Army
This month (July 2022) marks the 80th Anniversary of the formation of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. Formed in July of 1942, it was the last of the three women's services to be established. In this article, Gail Romano (Associate Curator, War History) discusses the history of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps from its inception.
‘"If a soldier is wearing a crown on his sleeve, is he a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer? Will the fourth girl in the seventh row answer that, please?" The selection is haphazard, but the answer is by no means so. Without any hesitation the selected girl replies, "Non-commissioned officer."’
Thus was the reading public invited to glimpse a preliminary training experience of a Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) recruit in September 1942. The women in this class held at the Auckland Drill Hall in Rutland Street (where AUT now stands on the corner of Wellesley Street & Mayoral Drive) were among the first waves of recruits to a service which was formally organised in New Zealand in July 1942. In choosing to lead the news item with this example of fairly standard and superficial seeming classroom training the reporter may have been hoping to show the enthusiasm and dedication to learning that the recruits were bringing to their new roles. But it also emphasises the seriousness with which women were being brought into the organisation and discipline of Army life.
The First World War brought women into prominence in the home front, not only in the health, welfare and support sectors in which they had traditionally been cast and in the voluntary organisations driving fundraising and the collection and distribution of material comforts. Women became visible through their wholehearted and capable takeover in essential production and management roles in work that had previously been the domain of men. In addition women volunteered for work overseas as Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) workers or through other service organisations such as the St John Ambulance Brigade or with British services or those of other Allied nations. While this was often in nursing or welfare support, New Zealand women also drove trucks and ambulances, produced goods including munitions and aircraft wings, and managed programmes, processes and places. But the wider expectations of how women should live in the community did not change markedly and many of these different opportunities faded away after that conflict ended. However, it could be argued that the Second World War flipped the script for New Zealand women in a sustainable way. A key part of this shift in societal worldview was the establishment of the women’s military auxiliary units.
After the start of hostilities in 1939 women asked for more opportunities to provide meaningful war service. New Zealand had set up the Women’s War Service Auxiliary (WWSA) in 1940 ‘to co-ordinate the war efforts of all women's organisations’. Initiated following a visit by Dr Agnes Bennett and a small group of women to the Minister of National Service, Bob Semple, the service was described as ‘essentially a women's effort so far as possible controlled by women but naturally the ultimate control must rest with the State with the least possible interference’. There was not universal approval. The Auckland Transport Board made headlines by rejecting an offer from the WWSA to begin training women as tram conductors. The comment by one Board member that women ‘had forced themselves on the Government in order to get into uniform’ earned some particular attention.
In September 1941 thirty WWSA members were the first New Zealand women in auxiliary services to go overseas. The ‘Tuis’ as they came to be known worked in the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo under the command of New Zealand's first female officer, Second Lieutenant Meryll Neely. This first commission was an initial sign that things might develop differently. The Tuis were joined in Egypt a few months later by a larger continent of WWSA members who came to serve in administration and hospitality roles. All these women were de facto members of the Army.
An Air Force service was the first separate force-specific women’s auxiliary unit to be set up in early 1941 followed a year later by a Navy service. When the official WAAC service was implemented shortly after, women were already well-involved informally in army activities under a different umbrella, as we’ve seen. The WWSA continued its overall support work and managed recruitment campaigns for all services before eventually becoming absorbed into the WAACs, as the women members were popularly called.
In Auckland an average of 70 women enlisted every week for WAAC service through July 1942, rising to 100 towards the end of August. Parades and armed forces equipment displays were organised as incentives. The limitations of the Auckland Drill Hall as a training centre were readily apparent and by the end of the year two training camps were prepared for WAAC training in the Northern Military District, allowing recruits to live on site and increasing the focus and efficiency of the training. WAACs received the same leave privileges as men in training and lived pretty much the same routine. Public interest in the service was high and comments were universally positive, from their superior turnout and marching on parade to their capabilities and dedication to the jobs they were doing.
October 1942 saw another big win for women with those holding officer commissions being granted the right to receive salutes. In June 1943 WAACs became officially ‘subject to military law and liable to punishment for breaches of discipline in the same way as men in the army … to be tried by court-martial, to be confined to barracks, and to be discharged from the army.’ These steps signalled change for New Zealand women even though it would continue to take years for women’s application and capability to be viewed and discussed in the same professional manner as was that of their male counterparts. Published reports continued to refer to ‘girls’ and to feature personal attributes and details.
Once training was complete the women were posted ‘as far as possible’ to specialised work assignments of their own preference. They replaced men in jobs that included anti-aircraft instruments, signals (including operators and telephonists), cooking, driving, stores, mess orderlies, secretarial, canteen, medical and dental. Twenty-year old Nada Priest who went into camp in January 1943 asked her mother later in her training, ‘What do you suggest I take up for the Army Educational scheme. Practically everything is available. I thought of hairdressing but it is very common. I mean 1 in 2 girls seem to learn now.’ Her final choice was very different (if choice it was) and she was posted to the 67th Anti-Aircraft Search Light Battery serving in Devonport. You can read some of her letters from camp here. Among the objects in her collection held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum is a small searchlight charm or ornament. It may be that she was among the first training group of 15 who began their first on-station experience ‘near Auckland’ in April 1943. The timing would be right.
Around the time Nada Priest enlisted, the greatest reported need was for women to train for anti-aircraft units. Anti-aircraft batteries were a critical part of New Zealand’s coastal defence network which became a focus after Japan’s entry into the war in 1941. The system included gun batteries, observation posts, tunnels and searchlights whose function was to defend essential New Zealand facilities and areas against attack from the sea. In addition to the searchlight crews, WAACs trained in plotting, range finding, equipment maintenance and other operational activities associated with an anti-aircraft battery. In mid-August 1942, Gunner Jean Stanley became the first New Zealand woman to give the firing order for a live shoot using a predictor, an anti-aircraft fire-control system.
Both Chief Commander Vida Jowett (Officer [OBE], 1944) and Meryll Neely (Member [MBE], 1945) were appointed to the Order of the British Empire (Military Division). And this time fewer opportunities for women ended with the war. Women had proven themselves in military contexts and although numbers dwindled once hostilities ended, the WAACs became a regular New Zealand Army Corps in 1948, the New Zealand Women's Army Corps. In 1952 the Corps was renamed the New Zealand Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC). By 1977 women’s inclusion in the armed forces took another step with all separate women’s services being fully integrated into the defence force.
A class of army recruits today would look very different to that 1942 class of hopeful WAACs with whom this post began. If the question were to be asked of the fourth recruit in the seventh row now, eighty years later in 2022, it would be ‘If a soldier is wearing a crown on their sleeve, are they a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer?'
A New Zealand National Film Unit 1942 recruiting film has been digitised by Archives New Zealand and is available here. Unfortunately, the sound quality is poor but it features a recruitment message from Chief Commander (later Lt. Col.) Vida Jowett following footage of British WAACs: 'Women’s Army …. The WAACs' (1942)
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 ‘Women Soldiers’, Auckland Star, 14 September 1942, 4
 ‘Cheap Jibes’, Auckland Star, 17 October 1940, 9; ‘Women as Conductors’, New Zealand Herald, 17 October 1940, 15; ‘Women’s War Work’, New Zealand Herald, 18 October 1940, 10; ‘Let All Help’, New Zealand Herald, 18 October 1940, 10.
 ‘Women’s Forces’, New Zealand Herald, 13 August 1942, 4
 ‘Women’s Army’, New Zealand Herald, 25 January 1943, 4; ‘Girls on Parade’, Auckland Star, 26 March 1943, 5
 ‘W.A.A.Cs. Now Subject to Military Law’, Northern Advocate, 11 June 1943, 4.
 Vida Jowett, , Supplement to the London Gazette, 8 June 1944, 2577; Meryll Neely, Supplement to the London Gazette, 21 June 1945, 3226.
 Bronwyn Dalley, ‘New Zealand Women's Royal Army Corps Association 1961 – ‘, NZHistory, 2018. Originally published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand, 1993. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/women-together/new-zealand-womens-royal-army-corps-association
Cite this article
Serious business: Women in the Army. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 July 2022. Updated: 28 July 2022.