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Women's historical contribution recognised on Anzac Day

Anzac Day provides an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on the contribution of all servicemen and women from our oldest to our youngest veterans.

Throughout Army’s 112 year history women have made valuable contributions to enhance the Army’s capability from the Boer War in 1901, to today in Afghanistan. The Army has made significant progress to enhance the opportunities available to women. Over the last 30 years the Army has moved from a recommendation to permit women to serve on active service but not in combat roles, in the early 1970’s, to the removal of gender restrictions in 2013. The Army acknowledges the efforts of all women in the Army today and in the past, who showed enormous dedication, sacrifice and professionalism. 

Among the many challenges faced by the Australian Government in 1941 was the shortage of men to support the economy and to fight in the Armed Services. Australia had a population of approximately 7.1 million with an available workforce of about 2 million. It was estimated that by mid 1943 Australia would require a combined Armed Services of 500,000, supported by 250,000 working in the munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft industry and another 50,000 directly supporting other war supplies. Relying on Australian men to fill these roles was unsustainable and the greater employment of women started to be seriously considered. 

During 1941, proposals were developed to create a women’s element in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Army and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The RAAF and the RAN commenced enlistment of women in February and March 1941. Their early success created pressure for a women’s service in the Army. 

Army planners were eager for women to assume responsibility for a variety of tasks. This would mean that men could be released to undertake combat related roles. On 13 August 1941, the War Cabinet led by then Prime Minister Mr (later Sir) Robert Menzies, approved the formation of the Australian Army Women’s Service. This name was changed by December 1941 to the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS). 

It was decided that no women were to be sent overseas without the approval of the War Cabinet. Although as a contingency, it was also decided that in the event this did occur, only single women without dependents would be eligible for overseas service. Women’s pay and allowances were also set at approximately 68 per cent of those paid to men in the Army. 

On 29 September 1941, Miss Sybill Irving MBE was appointed as Controller of the new service at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Lieutenant Colonel Irving commenced duties in early October with an aim to establish the service and initially recruit women to undertake a three week course for commissioning as officers. Twenty nine women were selected from an outstanding group of volunteers, each of whom had already proved themselves as leaders in their own professions and in the community. These Officers would form the core of the AWAS for the period 1941 to 1947 and build the service into an organisation that contributed significantly to Australia’s war effort. 

The women of the AWAS served throughout the war in many roles including clerks, typists, drivers, cooks, signallers, stewards, intelligence analysts, butchers, mechanics, provost, searchlights operators, canteen staff, and a variety of other roles supporting the Army throughout Australia. In addition, 3,618 women served with the Royal Australian Regiment of Artillery manning the fixed guns emplacements from Hobart to Cairns and in Perth. 

In early 1945 the War Cabinet gave approval for up to 500 members of the AWAS to serve overseas in Papua New Guinea in positions within the headquarters. Unofficially, some members of the AWAS served overseas prior to this. This approval was seen to give official sanction to the earlier deployments as well. In May 1945, 350 members of the AWAS sailed on the MV Duntroon for New Guinea and were posted to Headquarters 1st Australian Army.

The end of hostilities in August 1945 brought a rapid reduction in the size of the Army and this included the AWAS. Post war planning determined that there was no need for a women’s service in the Army and the AWAS was disbanded in June 1947. 

In recognition of the valuable service provided by women in the Army during the war, five members of the AWAS were selected for inclusion in the Victory March contingent that marched through London in June 1946. 

A total of 24,082 women served in the AWAS and at their peak, represented approximately five per cent of the total Army strength. During the war, 41 members of the AWAS died on active service, although no deaths were due to enemy action. 

The strong reputation and high esteem held by some senior members of the military and government of the dedication and service provided by the AWAS led to the reintroduction of women to the Army in 1951. The Australian Women’s Army Corps was created, although this was retitled the Women’s Australian Army Corps in April 1951. Two months later, King George VI granted the addition of ‘Royal’ in recognition of the wartime contribution of the women’s services, and it became the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC). The early leaders of the WRAAC were veterans of the AWAS and this influence lasted for many years.

Major Geoff Lever
Australian Army History Unit

Last updated
4 December 2016
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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