Nowra part one
Nowra part two
Nowra part three
Nowra part four
Brisbane & North
Macrossan & Wedding
WAAAF Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force World War Two recollections of Margaret Clarke describing her experiences from 1941 to 1945
The first WAAAF arrived at Nowra on 9 August, 1942. I am guessing that an Officer or Officers, a Drill Instructor, and maybe a couple of others arrived before my group (three of us from our rookies) turned up about the 14th. They would have inspected the accommodation and other facilities, as well meeting the Officers in Charge.
I spent about 23 months at this Unit. Our arrival was a shock to many airmen and I don't think the Commanding Officer was too pleased to see us. On the first night at about 2300 hours, we were woken by an airman, who had been housed in our hut, before he went on leave. It took him a few minutes to realise it was filled with WAAAF. He had dropped his kit bag in shock then yelled out 'B----- WAAAF.' and ran out leaving the bag, banging the door as he fled. Somehow or other he did get it back and I am guessing our Drill Instructor was responsible.
Initially, there was only one hut for accommodation but by the time I left, there were three or possibly four. One was for shift workers - Wireless Telegraphists, Switchboard Operators and Mess Staff, so that they did not disturb the sleep of others.
We were housed in unlined huts - probably fibro. Also, the ablution and toilet blocks were made of the same material and they were very cold in the winter. The freezing winds blew over the hills from behind the Station and made our life miserable. Mt. Gibralter (near Bowral) was often covered in snow, as were surrounding districts.
At first, the abultion blocks were one large hut with a partition wall, half each for men and women. Soon after arrival, a decent, kind, married man advised our Drill Instructor (female Cpl.) that holes had been drilled into the common wall, so some of the men could look through. Our D.I. marched off to the C.O. and as quick as was possible, a separate hut was provided for our use. I can't remember if the holes were covered up in the meantime, but we were careful not to expose ourselves to possible prying eyes. It was rather comical, when an airman would recognise a girl's voice and arrange a date under these circumstances.
We were supposed to be issued with Modess sanitary napkins and our D.I. (ever mindful of our welfare) found out that there were none in the store and none had been ordered. Off she marched without any trepidation to the C.O. again to sort this out. He was a very shy, English, Wing Commander and was very embarrassed to even say the word. This matter was fixed very quickly.
We slept on paillasses (on a wire base), that were hessian bags filled with straw and not very comfortable. Each morning, they had to be folded in a S shape and placed at the top of the bed. The blankets were a dark grey with two deep blue stripes running the full length. These stripes made it easier to fold them in the manner prescribed and were placed on top of the folded mattress with the pillow and cap.
I have no memory of the gas mask or tin hat, as shown in the photo (taken at Mt. Gambier in S.A.) We did take the gas mask and tin hat when we were posted but I cannot remember ever taking them when I went on leave. Also, I do not recall putting towels on the end of the bed or where our kit bags were placed.
We were issued with pillows but as far as I can remember, we did not have any sheets at Nowra. When we returned from leave, usually some kind soul would have made our bed but there was always someone stumbling about in the dark, searching for objects and making noise. There were metal lockers for two girls between the beds.
Our mess tables were long unlike those shown in this photo.
At first, we worked in the H.Q. Building opposite to the Operations Hut and the girl I called 'Kay' went to the Base Torpedo Unit (a few miles away). It was mostly staffed by Americans. I thanked my lucky stars that I did not have to keep working with her. The third girl, Joan stayed in HQ in Accounts Section. Being older and more experienced, she received her Cpl. stripes (and more pay) soon after. This was an extra shilling per day. While at H.Q., we were able to see all the airmen reporting to Operations after flights. So many, mostly young and good looking fellows were very interesting to a young WAAAF like me. These buildings and the store were within the large V of two runways and the store was the nearest to them.
I think I must have had a guardian angel watching over me during my service because there were a few occasions I disobeyed orders, when I felt I was in the right. I was never even given a 'slap on the wrist'.
The first times happened soon after I went to Nowra. I was sitting at a large desk and needed it for the work I was doing. I was told by my NCO to change with another girl, who was older and a more experienced officer worker. She had a smaller desk and that was all she needed. It would have meant I would have to be getting up and down all day and I thought it was stupid and said so. I was told to move the next morning, so I missed parade and when the other two arrived was seated at MY desk. Again, I was ordered to move and refused. The NCO reported me to the Officer in charge next door and he confirmed the order. My response was to say loud enough for him to hear "Tell him to come and move me". Nothing happened. This officer was a nice, kindly middle-aged gentleman and maybe he thought I was too new to the service and innocent and decided to forget it or he did not want the bother it would cause. I will never know. That NCO was in charge of me for over 12 months following and the incidents were never mentioned.
This is another order I ignored. One night, I had gone into Nowra to the dance and knew nothing of any trouble along the coast. When I got to my bed, the Drill Instructor greeted me with the order that I had to go out and get into the slit trench, as there had been an air raid alert. It had been raining and they were muddy with water in the bottom. I asked if there had been any bombs or gunfire and the answer was negative, so I told her that I was going to bed. I was disobeying a direct order and could have got into trouble but I was so tired, I did not care. She just went outside again and later the girls came back into the hut. I told them I knew nothing of the alert and she never said anything or took action. I was one WAAAF who had not caused her any bother, so I was lucky again. The 'all clear' sounded soon after. I met her quite a few times post war and even stayed at her home.
I was allocated to Stores and moved to that large building before all the supplies had been moved from somewhere in Nowra. The Avro Anson aircraft were hardly noticed coming and going but the noise from the Beauforts taking off was very loud, though the landing was not as bad. I became used to it and after short period, hardly noticed it. Two years of this helped to cause my current deafness. There was a different Equipment Officer-in-Charge and as soon as I heard his name, I realised he came from a well-known pastoral family at Rankins Springs, where I had spent some years of my childhood. I asked him if he knew my father and his response was "The flies knew Charlie Johnston!" Dad worked on quite a few of the properties there during the depression, when he lost his own farm. This O.I.C. was another kind, middle aged gentleman.
For a short period, I was a very amateur gossip/news writer. A young airman arrived at the unit and I am guessing he was a journalist of some type. Why he asked me for news items of interest, I will never know but I was able to supply him with lots of short stories that were edited by him. I even wrote some about myself, so that no one would guess I was the author. No names or hut numbers were ever given, so I was never exposed. However, the persons concerned knew who the items were about and were curious. I cannot remember much about the gossip sheet that went around the Unit but as the airman was posted within a few months, it all ended quietly.
One day, when I was alone in my room at the store, one of the officers entered. He asked me out to dinner, much to my surprise. He was very overweight, middle aged, looked like Mussolini, walked with a waddle and wore Bombay bloomers. Not an ideal companion for a 19 year old. I just smiled and said "I can't do that Sir."
O. "What if I made it an order?"
M. "You would not do that Sir."(Still smiling).
O. "Why not?"
M. "Because of Order AFO (Forgotten the Number)."
This order said something about the fact that an officer could not order a WAAAF to do anything that was not part of her duties. This time he smiled and walked out. He never gave me any problems after that and the whole matter was never mentioned again. Actually, I believe that Air Force Order meant anyone with authority, not just officers.
Winters were exceptionally cold and wet when I was there and all had dreadful trouble with wet shoes and greatcoats (overcoats) and had no way of getting them dry. Our intrepid D.I. arranged approval for us to be issued with a third pair of shoes. Most of us had bad colds and there was a great line up at Sick Parade almost every day. I remember having my head (covered with a cloth) over a bowl of hot water with some smelly concoction in it. Then, it was back to work.
Two girls I knew, fell in love with married men and because the feelings were not shared, they ended up with broken hearts. I do not know if the men were aware of this or just chose to ignore the situation. As they were officers with responsible positions, they made a wise choice.
Two ground staff airmen I knew had lucky escapes from Singapore. I am guessing it was by ship. One was the Cpl. I disobeyed soon after arrival. After that earlier interesting event, he was a great 'boss' and warned me of prowling airman that he did not trust. The other was the Flt./ Sgt. in charge of the store. The latter, told me of an embarrassing and uncomfortable journey he had going up to Inverell on leave by train. There was a nursing mother in his compartment and he felt he had to close his eyes, when she was feeding her baby. Nappy changes caused him to exit for a while. Possibly that was a few times during the journey.
This occasion was a WAAAF dinner c. 1944 and we were served by men from the Sergeant's Mess if, I remember correctly. In the group photo below, I am 4th in the middle aisle on the right.
Often, married men joined groups of girls going in buses to the dances but as far as I noticed, they behaved themselves. A couple, who frequently asked me to share the music on the floor, were excellent dancers and told me I was very light on my feet. I particularly loved the jazz waltz.
There were a few married WAAAF who misbehaved, gained a bad reputation and were then often posted to other stations. A N.C.O. in Charge of the Store, when it was in Nowra, was having a romance with a married girl and both of them disappeared, when the Store was moved on to the Station.
When more girls arrived, occasionally dances were arranged in the Recreation Hut and our D.I. would chase all the fellows (especially those who seemed shy) and make them ask a girl to dance. There was no sitting down or standing about, when she was around. I can still hear her shouting, “Come on youse blokes, get up and dance.” Her grammar was not always the best and she usually referred to airmen as 'blokes'. Most of us had wonderful times, (I know I did), as there were plenty of partners and when it was over, we could just trot out the door unescorted and we were 'home'.
One of my duties in the store, carried out every afternoon, was to send a report in code to Headquarters in Melbourne regarding the status of all aircraft on the base. It was very important but a bit of a farce to me, as the code was so easy, any one could have read it. Another, was to type out orders to Tailors to make Officers' Uniforms to fit, when an airman was promoted. It seemed strange to me, that none of them seemed to be able to be fitted at the store.
One air gunner I knew was ‘fortunate’ and the only survivor or four crashes (according to him) and these happened at another Station and possibly in different aircraft with less crew. When he wasn't on duty or joining a group at the dances, he spent his time in the Sergeants' Mess, drinking to excess.. He found it hard to cope with the loss of so many friends. He was an excellent dancer and often spoke to me on the dance floor about his mates and sometimes was rather tearful.
Photos taken in Sydney in 1943-44. At that time, there were a lot of street photographers around the city. The middle one was taken in Eddy Avenue, near Central Station.
Two girls in my hut lost their husbands during the time we shared accommodation. One was a pilot in the Middle East and shot down by the Germans. The other was a soldier and lost his life in an ambush in New Guinea. The latter was the son of a well-known artist/author, who worked for the Daily Telegraph for a period. It was a terribly sad time on both occasions and there were lots of tears. Our D.I. was a 'rock' for the two girls and I am sure her support/guidance for them and a lot of anxious WAAAF was appreciated. Most of us were not sure of how to respond to this tragedy. I cannot remember if the bereaved wives took leave to go home but we all did what we could to comfort our friends.
Clerical staff were given leave every second weekend. We left the unit about lunch time on Friday and caught a train to Sydney and returned on the 2000 hours train from Central on Sunday, to go back to the station. We arrived about 2330 to stumble around in the dark to get to bed. Because I lived in Sydney, this was very convenient for me, as I loved to get home to see my parents and siblings. I remember sitting up in bed in the dark setting my hair with bobby pins to be presentable for the next day.
After some trips, I noticed some of the men I knew saying loving goodbyes to wives and children at Central. When the train started, they went up to the front of the train to be with their 'girlfriends' or returning to the Station to continue with their romances. This did not sit well with me and I became very distrustful of males in general. When I was asked out by an airman, I made sure he was not married. I was able to do this easily because I had access to their pay-books on paydays for coupon issue. Some were puzzled as to how I 'guessed' their status.
I had to go to Laverton, near Melbourne to attend a Clerk Stores Course for one month during December and January 1943-44. Another girl from the unit, went with me. She had gone to St. George High School and had been a friend of a school friend of mine. At Nowra, we had arguments quite often, as she was very like me in some ways but we had no bother here. Our main differences were that she was always trying to boss me around and if I did not ‘obey’ her, she tried to belittle me. Also, she had no right to order me around anyway.
As the weather over that month was very cold and windy, instead of being hot and summery, and it was a miserable time with boring lectures. I already knew all the information that was presented. Apart from visits to a private home of one of the other girls who attended the course and a visit to Luna Park, I stayed in camp.
On the way down to Melbourne by train, a middle aged, slightly balding, sailor attached himself to me. He kindly helped me with my luggage at Albury, where we had to change trains and after much pestering, I let him take me to dinner, when we arrived in the city. I remember ordering lobster and then we went to see a movie. He accompanied me to the train station at Spencer Street (destination Laverton) and insisted on buying me some flowers and chocolates. I was so loaded up with these unwelcome gifts and my luggage, I lost my wallet that included my Movement Order, money, a lovely gold compact and clothing coupons. I was really upset but fortunately did not get into trouble. He made a date (that I had no intention of keeping) to meet me the following Saturday. He tried to contact me by phone but I dodged the calls and a few enqiries. This was not a nice thing to do and I did feel guilty but I did not know then, how to let him down lightly.