The years my mother Evelyn served in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) during World War II were her most formative. They shaped the strong, determined, loving and capable person I came to know. Evelyn’s time in the WAAAF was arguably the most exciting, rich and educative chapter of her young life. I came to this conclusion about her WAAAF experience in My mother, a young woman (May 6, 2016).
Evelyn lived long enough to receive a service medal in 2005 commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. At the time she was 89 years old and living with my husband and me in Brisbane. She was thrilled to receive this token of her wartime service. She added it to the two medals she was awarded at the end of her WAAAF service, the War Medal 1939-45 and Australia Service Medal 1939-45.
In 2006 I decided to write my mother’s life story. I wanted to record Evelyn’s recollections while I had opportunity and before her memory faded. When I came to her wartime service, I found my mother’s extensive collection of WAAAF photographs and memorabilia a great help. In fact, given her collection, I could write an entire book, fully illustrated, about this period of my mother’s life!
Evelyn Maud Beaumont was one of approximately 27,000 women between the ages of 18 and 40 who enrolled in the WAAAF during World War II.
The WAAAF was the largest of Australia’s World War II women’s services. It was formed in March 1941, after much lobbying by women who were keen to serve their country in this way and by the Chief of the Air Staff who wanted to release men serving in Australia for overseas service. [Ref. 1]
In October 1941, the Australian Labour Party under Prime Minister John Curtin won government and, in December 1941, Japan entered the war. In a broadcast to the nation on 8 December 1941, Mr Curtin exhorted the Australian people [Ref. 2]:
“Give of your best in the service of this nation. There is a place and part for all of us. Each must take his or her place in the service of the nation, for the nation itself is in peril. This is our darkest hour. Let that be fully realised. Our efforts in the past two years must be as nothing compared with the efforts we must now put forward.”
Like many Australians, Evelyn was eager to play her part in the war effort. At the time she was living with her parents on their property at Rannes, 65 miles (104 km) southwest of Rockhampton, Central Queensland. Mobile recruiting units travelled from the capital cities to country centres, including Rockhampton. Evelyn’s service records show that she applied to join the WAAAF on three occasions (May 1942, July 1942, August 1942). Clearly, she was keen to join and didn’t give up. On the third occasion she was successful.
Evelyn enrolled in the WAAAF at RAAF No. 3 Recruiting Centre Brisbane on 17 September 1942.
By this time, about 10,000 women had joined the service. At enrolment, in response to questions put to her, Evelyn made the following declaration [Ref. 3]:
“I, Evelyn Maud Beaumont, do solemnly declare that the above answers made by me to the above questions are true, and that I am willing to fulfil the engagements made, and that I thoroughly understand and accept the conditions governing enrolment, promotion, remuster, transfer and discharge from the Service.”
Evelyn was 26 years old when she joined the WAAAF. Her rank was Aircraftwoman (ACW) Level 1 and her “mustering” (trade or occupation) was “clerk signals”. Prior to joining the WAAAF, Evelyn worked for 5 years in Rockhampton as a dressmaker.
ACW Beaumont, a “rookie”
For Evelyn, a new recruit or “rookie”, induction came in two stages. The first was general training undertaken by all new recruits; the second was training specific to her mustering (clerk signals).
The day after enrolling, Evelyn travelled by train to Sydney for 4 weeks of “rookies training”. She was one of hundreds of rookies sent to No. 2 WAAAF Recruitment Depot, Bradfield Park (today’s Sydney suburb of Lindfield). The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) set up the training station at Bradfield Park in 1940 and, in March 1942, the WAAAF depot was added as a lodger unit. Men and women recruits were trained at Bradfield Park. The training included drill, physical training, lectures and organised study.
At Bradfield Park, Evelyn was issued with uniforms, clothing and personal items. The official “kit” included a kit bag, 1 thick blue greatcoat, 1 waterproof coat, 1 woollen cardigan, 3 pairs cotton lisle stockings, 2 pairs of ankle socks and gloves, 2 pairs blue bloomers, 2 pairs khaki bloomers, 3 pairs cotton briefs, 2 cotton singlets, 2 woollen singlets, 1 pair overalls, 1 blue service cap, 1 summer khaki felt hat, hat badge, 2 pairs shoes, 1 pair sandshoes, 2 khaki skirts, 2 khaki shirts, 1 pair khaki shorts, 3 blue-grey shirts, 1 black tie, 1 navy blue wool skirt and jacket, comb, toothbrush, clothes brush, shoe brush and 3 towels. [Ref. 4, 5]
In addition, each recruit received a cash grant of ₤3 (about $220 today) to purchase pyjamas, dressing gowns, slippers, foundation garments and other items of personal clothing. They were provided with 35 ration coupons to cover these purchases. By the time Evelyn joined the WAAAF, the Curtin Government had introduced food and clothing rationing. Rationing of clothing commenced in June 1942 and continued until June 1948. Each adult was entitled to a total of 112 clothing coupons per year. [Ref. 6]
Evelyn always wore her WAAAF uniform with pride.
She often told me so and it is evident from her many photographs.
The WAAAFs had three types of uniform: tropical, winter and working dress uniforms. The tropical dress uniform comprised a khaki cotton drill straight skirt (or shorts), khaki cotton drill short-sleeved shirt, black tie, flesh-coloured stockings, black shoes and fur felt hat.
The winter dress uniform consisted of a smart tailored two-piece dark navy blue skirt and jacket, pale blue-grey shirt, black tie and dark navy blue cap. The straight skirt was made from woollen serge fabric and unlined. The matching single-breasted belted jacket was fastened left over right (the men’s way). It had long sleeves and four front pockets. The cap, also made from woollen serge fabric, had a visor at the front and a flap that folded upwards at the back. Flesh-coloured stockings and black shoes completed the uniform. [Ref. 7]
The working dress uniform comprised khaki cotton drill overalls (“jeans”), khaki shirt, and beret.
“Rookie” training at Bradfield Park
At Bradfield Park trainees were housed in large dormitory-style huts. The huts were unlined and cold. Evelyn told me that when she arrived, she was given a big hessian bag, the size of a single bed, which she had to fill with straw to make her mattress. It was called a “palliasse”. The bed had an iron frame and wire mesh base. She was provided with four blankets and a pillow. There were no sheets. The mattress and blankets had to be folded in a certain way and placed at the bottom of the bed each morning, ready for inspection. The following photograph gives us some idea of these conditions.
As a trainee, Evelyn’s day went something like this. At 0600 hours a shrill whistle announced that it was time to get up, get dressed, fold her blankets and palliasse and tidy her sleeping area. Breakfast was served at 0645 hours. From 0715 hours, there was a roster for cleaning duties (“fatigues”), which included sweeping and scrubbing the shower huts and tidying the grounds. Parade was at 0800 hours. This was part of the daily drill. After parade, there were lectures until morning tea (1015 hours). At 1030 hours, trainees returned to the parade ground for drill instruction until lunch at 1200 hours. At 1300 hours, it was back to the parade ground for more drill, games and exercises, then more drill until afternoon tea (1515 hours). From 1530 hours until 1700 hours (dinner time) trainees attended lectures. After dinner they had free time until lights out at 2200 hours. [Ref. 8, 9]
Drill instruction was a major part of a rookie’s induction. What did Evelyn think about it? As far as I can ascertain, she liked it! Evelyn grew up in a time when life generally was tough and regimented, so she expected as much. Drill was about discipline, teaching the recruits to take orders smartly, move precisely, think quickly and work as a group, not as individuals. And, for young men and women like Evelyn, it was good physical training and exercise.
“The greatest women’s march in Australia’s history”
After 4 weeks at Bradfield Park and having passed their rookies’ exams, on Friday 16 October 1942, Evelyn and her fellow rookies had their “passing out” parade. This event was significant for Evelyn, but the one that took place the next day had a greater impact on her.
On Saturday 17 October 1942, Evelyn participated in “the greatest women’s march in Australia’s history”. She was one of 2500 Australian servicewomen, including 1000 WAAAFs, who marched through the streets of Sydney that day, amidst the cheers and applause of an estimated 250,000 onlookers. The Minister for the Army (Mr Forde) and the Minister for Air (Mr Drakeford), who were among the onlookers, described the march as “a wonderful inspiration to a 100 per cent war effort and a great morale builder”. They were right: Whenever Evelyn recalled her WAAAF days, she would recount this event with enormous pride and gratification. Her wartime memorabilia included numerous newspaper cuttings and the following photograph of the march. [Ref. 10, 11, 12]
Induction stage two: Point Cook
The next day Evelyn left for Point Cook (Victoria), where she was to receive instruction in her assigned mustering, clerk signals. The RAAF Base Point Cook, the first military aviation base to be established in Australia, was the focus of RAAF (and WAAAF) training during World War II. The airbase occupies an area of about 250 hectares southwest of Melbourne on the shores of Port Phillip Bay [Ref. 13]. Evelyn attended the Signal School there for 2 weeks, from 20 October 1942.
Evelyn’s first appointment: Headquarters RAAF Command, Brisbane
Once her training at the Signal School was over, Evelyn was appointed to Headquarters RAAF Command, located in the AMP Building at the corner of Queen and Edward Streets, Brisbane. The building also housed the headquarters of the United States (US) General Douglas MacArthur.
General Douglas MacArthur became the Supreme Commander of the South-West Pacific Area on 18 April 1942. Initially he set up his headquarters in Melbourne, but in July 1942 he and his staff relocated to Brisbane. The first American soldiers had arrived in Brisbane on 22 December 1941. By mid-1943, there were 150,000 US servicemen in Australia, mostly in and around Brisbane, Rockhampton and Townsville. [Ref. 14, 15].
The US Signals Section was located on the 8th floor of the AMP building and as the WAAAFs used the lifts they would chat with the American servicemen.
Evelyn and her fellow WAAAFs worked on the 7th floor of the AMP building.
For each shift, the staff comprised about 10 wireless telegraphers, 5-6 teleprinters, 4-5 clerks signals (“clerk sigs”) and a telephonist. Wireless telegraphers received and sent morse code messages. Evelyn’s job as a clerk was to “head up the messages”, which were to be sent to New Guinea. These messages were then passed on to the Cypher Office, where staff coded them ready for transmission.
The WAAAFs employed at Headquarters RAAF Command worked in 8-hour shifts: 0730 – 1530 hours; 1530 – 2330 hours; 2330 – 0730 hours. After a block of night shifts, the women were entitled to 4 days of leave (more about this later). When Evelyn and her colleagues were on night shift, they usually went to a dance first, as they were not due at work until 11.30 pm. They attended the dances in their uniforms. At the end of a night shift, they often had a breakfast of scrambled eggs and coffee at a café in Adelaide Street (near the Coconut Grove dance hall). They also frequented the Anzac Café, in Elizabeth Street, where (according to Evelyn’s colleague Dot Ries) “you could buy a good meal for 1s.3d”.
From time to time the WAAAFs participated in street parades.
At least twice while Evelyn was based in Brisbane, the WAAAFs joined men and women of other Australian services in a march along Brisbane’s city streets. Typically these marches were conducted to promote the war effort and encourage civilians to invest in war bonds. On 8 January 1943, as part of “WAAAF Week”, 600 WAAAF servicewomen (including Evelyn) marched through the streets of Brisbane. The march and display, a first for the WAAAF, was organised to bring the work of the WAAAF to the public and stimulate recruiting. [Ref. 16]
A personal slant on one of these marches:
Dot McDonald (ACW Dot Ries) recalled working all night (her shift ended at 0730 hours), then “having to march for war bonds” at 0800 hours. Dot told me that the WAAAF, the “junior service”, always marched last. She remembered a spectator saying to her on one occasion, “You look terrible,” to which she snapped, “You would too if you worked all night.” Dot said she was so tired, and her starched uniform, which she had worn for the last 10 hours, was crushed and unkempt.
It is often said “truth is stranger than fiction”. The following tale from Evelyn’s WAAAF days is true.
Evelyn’s friend ACW Joan Evatt’s leather wallet went missing at work. Joan reported it stolen. To catch the thief, the officers decided to use a “dummy” wallet as a plant in the women’s locker room. They put silver nitrate on the coins in the wallet. When Joan saw it, she was elated. Here was her missing wallet! She found it.
As soon as the officers discovered that the “dummy” wallet had been taken, they ordered an inspection. Of course, Joan’s hands were stained black! They had found the culprit. In front of all her colleagues, Joan was accused of theft. Without giving her a chance to explain, the officers ushered her downstairs and “roughed her up” (as Evelyn put it). In Evelyn’s words, “It was just awful.” By the time Joan was able to convince her superiors that the “dummy” was in fact her own wallet, the damage had been done. Joan was a mess.
Evelyn said that Joan sobbed uncontrollably all that night (Joan’s bed was next to hers). Her friend was in such a state that Evelyn had to go and get medical help for her.
This was one incident Evelyn never forgot.
• • •
During her time in Brisbane, Evelyn resided at two different locations.
The first was “Whytecliffe”.
The Whytecliffe barracks were located high on a hill off Whytecliffe Street, 6 km from the city centre, in the suburb of Albion. Evelyn lived here for about 7 months.
The property took its name from the large private residence that was built on the site for the Crown Solicitor, Robert Little, in 1875. Whytecliffe had changed hands a number of times since then and, by the 1940s, it was being used as a private hotel and boarding house. The upper level verandahs had been closed in and there were 22 bedrooms. Whytecliffe and adjacent homes were taken over by the WAAAF during World War II as barracks for its servicewomen. [Ref. 17]
The Whytecliffe barracks were not intended as the permanent “home” for rank and file WAAAFs like ACW Evelyn Beaumont. Another location was being prepared for them.
The second: the Victoria Park Barracks.
In June 1943, Evelyn and fellow WAAAFs moved into their new barracks, set among gum trees on the side of a hill overlooking a golf course. The new camp was located in Victoria Park, 27 hectares of undulating land in the Brisbane suburbs of Spring Hill and Herston. A public park, it was taken over by the armed forces for the duration of the war. Besides Australian service men and women (of the RAAF and WAAAF), thousands of American service men and women were based there. In 1942 the Brisbane City Council offered it to the United States Forces in Australia (USFIA) as their Brisbane base.
The WAAAF barracks at Victoria Park comprised a number of prefabricated huts, an office, two recreation huts, four ablution blocks and laundry facilities. The long brown huts had white roofs and white and cream paintwork. The sleeping huts were built to house 28, but could accommodate 32 if needed. Each hut had 28 windows, which made them quite airy. [Ref. 18]
WAAAF servicewomen were responsible for washing and ironing their own clothes. In the new camp, there were plenty of drying lines and, in each of the ablution blocks, there were eight troughs, two coppers and four ironing boards. Dot McDonald (nee Ries) told me that they had to starch and iron their tropical dress uniform (cotton skirt and blouse), which was quite arduous. The ablution blocks were well-equipped. They had hot and cold showers and sewered toilets.
Evelyn described her new home-away-from-home as “out among the trees”.
On the back of one of her photographs she wrote, “I live right up the back, at the back fence”. On several occasions, Evelyn and her friends “boiled the billy” and had morning tea “in the bush” at the back of their hut.
Another time, Evelyn and two of her WAAAF friends had a picnic with three “Yanks” (American servicemen) “out the back” of the Victoria Park barracks. Given the close proximity of their respective barracks, it is not surprising that they met in this way. Evelyn wrote of the picnic “it was not much”, but clearly (as the photos show) the six of them enjoyed their time together.
After a block of night shifts, the WAAAFs had 4 days’ leave.
Many, like Evelyn, took the opportunity to spend a few days away from the barracks, with friends or family, in a more homely environment. Two hostels in Brisbane that opened in early 1943 catered especially for servicewomen on leave and provided an ideal setting.
One was Kelvin House.
It was located at 28 Adelaide Street, between the Brisbane City Hall and the rear of Lennon’s Hotel. Two floors of the building were set aside as a hostel for servicewomen on leave in Brisbane. It was operated by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) with financial assistance from the Australian Comforts Fund and the Queensland Patriotic Fund. Kelvin House (also known as Kelvin Leave House) was officially opened on 19 March 1943. It could house approximately 100 servicewomen. [Ref. 19]
Another was Wairuna Hostel, located in Hampstead Road, Highgate Hill.
Evelyn described Wairuna as “a lovely old home”. A former private residence, “Wairuna” was purchased in December 1942 by the Presbyterian and Methodist Welfare Association for the express purpose of providing a “home-away-from-home” for servicewomen on leave in Brisbane. It opened on 12 February 1943. This huge house was transformed to accommodate 60 women. It comprised six dormitories, a matron’s room, lounge and dining rooms, servery, kitchens and bathrooms. A verandah extended the entire length of the home. [Ref. 20, 21]
• • •
Evelyn and her WAAAF companions stayed at Wairuna once or twice. These photographs of the women at Wairuna (Evelyn wrote on the back of one of them) “were taken with the camera I had given to me”. It was a Kodak brownie box camera. Evelyn told me that a soldier leaving for New Guinea gave it to her. “I’ll never forget that,” she said. Indeed, all the photographs (“snapshots”) Evelyn took during her WAAAF days were taken with this precious camera.
Although life in the WAAAF may have been austere and highly regimented, Evelyn’s WAAAF years were filled with novelty and delight.
During her time in the WAAAF, Evelyn visited numerous places she had never been before, gained new work skills and experience and made many new friends (two of whom became lifelong friends).
Prior to enrolling in the WAAAF, Evelyn had never been to Brisbane, let alone Sydney or Melbourne. She was a country girl, who had worked for a number of years in Rockhampton, a city of about 30,000. Evelyn had no experience of living and working in a big city. She had never worked in an office and had no experience of shift work prior to her appointment to Headquarters RAAF Command.
On days off, Evelyn and her colleagues went on outings together.
This was their opportunity to visit some of the attractions Brisbane and district had to offer. In Brisbane they visited the Botanic Gardens, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and Manly. Further afield they made day trips to Redcliffe, Southport and Ipswich.
• • •
On occasions, the women were joined by US servicemen. Unlike their Australian counterparts, the American soldiers sought the company of the Australian servicewomen. According to Evelyn, “the Australian men didn’t like us (WAAAFs) very much.”
On Sunday evenings, when off-duty, Evelyn and friend Joan Evatt attended various church services in the city. In so doing, they experienced several different styles of Christian worship and expressions of faith, which were instructional for both of them. More often than not, the church minister and his wife invited them home for supper, a demonstration of hospitality that made a lasting impression on the young women. I know, because my mother always spoke wistfully about this experience.
Dancing was a popular form of entertainment in Brisbane during the 1940s.
Evelyn loved to dance. Having grown up in country Queensland, Evelyn couldn’t remember a time when she and her family didn’t go to the dances. In fact, as I wrote in My mother, a young woman (May 6, 2016), on the same day she enrolled in the WAAAF, Evelyn went to a dance! She and a friend who also enrolled that day sought out Brisbane’s Coconut Grove, a very popular Brisbane dance hall in those days.
During the 1940s, dances were held at various venues throughout the city. They included the City Hall (King George Square), Coconut Grove (opposite David Jones’ in Adelaide Street), Railway Institute (Edward Street, above Central Station), Caledonian Hall (Elizabeth Street), Trades Hall (Edward Street) and the Trocadero (Melbourne Street, South Brisbane). The Trocadero, for example, was huge. It had a dance floor that catered for as many as 2000 patrons and featured a full orchestra. Dances at the Trocadero and Coconut Grove venues were held every night, except Sunday. [Ref. 22]
Evelyn loved going to the dances at the City Hall.
They were held two or three nights each week and every Saturday night (except when any special entertainment was on that night) and on Sunday nights when advertised. Thousands of American and Australian servicemen and servicewomen, and civilians, attended these dances. I’m sure Brisbane’s dances spawned many a wartime romance.
It was at one of these dances, in October or November 1943, that Evelyn met Lieutenant William (“Bill”) Proposch, an officer in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF). This is how it happened.
Evelyn and friend Joan were rostered on the evening shift so, while they waited for their shift to start, they went to the dance at the City Hall. Bill said to Joan, “I’d like to meet that girl” (meaning Evelyn), so Joan obliged. When Evelyn left to go to work, Bill asked if he could meet her “down town” the next day. Evelyn agreed. She didn’t need much persuading. However, she soon learnt that Bill was about to return to New Guinea, so they exchanged details and promised to correspond with each other.
In late 1943 and early 1944, Evelyn’s brother and parents visited Brisbane, but for very different reasons.
First, Evelyn’s youngest brother Allan joined the RAAF. He had just turned 19 when he enlisted in Brisbane on 21 September 1943. Prior to enlisting, Allan and his older brother Leslie had been members of the local Volunteer Defence Corps. Evelyn, now 27, has been in the WAAAF for one year.
Evelyn remembered Allan visiting her in hospital in Brisbane around the time he enlisted in the RAAF. She had been admitted to the RAAF Hospital at Sandgate, for isolation and convalescence. She had a bout of the measles! Evelyn spent 10 days in hospital, from 18-28 September 1943. She recalled having sore eyes and the medical staff keeping the blinds pulled and the room dark.
Allan was posted to the RAAF Training School at Point Cook (Victoria), where he trained as a technician and armourer. He was there for 6 months until April 1944, when he was assigned to overseas service with the 8th Squadron RAAF in New Guinea. There he remained until the end of the war. A leading aircraftman, he was discharged from the RAAF on 8 February 1946.
Second, in early 1944, Evelyn’s father Donald took ill. He had bowel cancer and he and Flora (Evelyn’s mother) came to Brisbane for Donald to undergo surgery. Evelyn recounted visiting her father in hospital and the staff teasing her and calling her “Sergeant Major”. Of course, Evelyn was delighted to see her parents again and spend time with them, but she was greatly disturbed to learn of her father’s illness.
Evelyn’s parents remained in Brisbane for some time after Donald’s operation and, during that time, as Donald regained his strength, Evelyn accompanied her parents on a number of outings. I think it was their first stay in Brisbane. One of the places they visited with Evelyn was the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary at Fig Tree Pocket.
• • •
Because of her father’s illness, Evelyn applied for a transfer to Rockhampton.
Evelyn wanted to be closer to her parents, who lived about 2 hours’ drive by car southwest of Rockhampton. Happily, her application was successful.
Evelyn performed her last shift at Headquarters RAAF Command on 21 March 1944. I’m sure she was sad to be leaving her post in Brisbane, after establishing herself in her role, embracing city life and making many special friends.
However, new challenges, opportunities and friendships awaited Evelyn at the RAAF No. 21 Operational Base Unit in Rockhampton. I will share these with you in My mother’s years in the WAAAF (Part 2): Rockhampton, coming soon to my blog.
I am deeply indebted to my late mother, Evelyn, who shared her WAAAF stories with me many times throughout her long life. In particular, I am so thankful for her extensive collection of WAAAF photographs and memorabilia, which she so lovingly preserved and passed on to me.
Similarly, I acknowledge with much gratitude, the contribution of Dot McDonald (nee Ries) who shared her WAAAF stories with me and who identified people and places in Evelyn’s photographs when my mother could no longer do so.
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