Sunday 25th of April, marks the 106th anniversary of the landing of ANZAC troops at Gallipoli. It also marks a centenary of distinguished service by the Royal Australian Air Force.
Over this time more than 350,000 Australians have proudly worn the Air Force uniform and more than 11,000 have given their lives defending Australia – most during the Second World War.
A lesser-known fact is that 2021 also marks the 80th anniversary of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (affectionately known to this day as the WAAAF). Today I am here to talk to you about the lesser-known side of the Second World War and the role Australian women played and the barriers they broke down to serve their country.
My name is Tanya Carter, and I am honoured to be standing in front of you this morning as an old girl of Ipswich Girl’s Grammar and a current serving member of the Royal Australian Air Force. In the audience are four of my female colleagues from No 1 Squadron RAAF Base Amberley, my Mum and her sister, both old girls of the school, my partner and my eldest Son, Austin. How fortunate I am.
Despite the fact that I grew up in Ipswich, the home of Australia’s largest military base, I never considered a career in the military. Yet, here I stand before you. I found myself with an offer to join the permanent Air Force (from the Reserve force) in 2017, at age 44. It was an offer I could not refuse, and I have never looked back. It is a career that has been full of amazing experiences, culminating in September last year, when my Commanding Officer strapped me into the back seat of a Super Hornet and educated me on the other side of his job…. flying fast jets! It is important that everyone understands how jets contribute to the generation of Air Power – our core function. To help those of us not directly related to flying, the SQN conducts what they call Pax rides – passenger rides.
As the pilot took-off, the acceleration was exactly what I imagined it to be. In a matter of about 700-800m we had gone from standing still, to over 350km/hr and were airborne. As we hit about 900km/hr the pilot started a climb that felt like we were going straight up. In matter of only seconds, we were at 16000ft above Townsville, upside down and looking below us.
I hadn’t experienced anything quite like this before.
I went faster than the speed of sound (supersonic), flew some mock dogfight manoeuvres and even ‘survived’ a 7.6G break turn (I can’t remember, but it was over 7G) without blacking out, or feeling sick. Something to be very proud of.
It was something that I will always remember, and more importantly, was an experience that ensured not only I could understand how I fit into the bigger Squadron Air Combat capability but can pass onto others that haven’t had the same opportunity (yet).
But I am not here to talk about me, I am here to talk to you about the women who came before me and the sacrifices they made which helped to shape not only the outcome of the Second World War, but enable me to stand here before you, in uniform and proud. There are so many stories to tell, so many remarkable women. One of these women is the relatively unknown Florence Violet McKenzie a pioneer in the Women’s’ Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF).
Not only was she the first female electrical engineer in Australia, but she was also responsible for getting women into the armed services during the Second World War. With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s Violet thought war was inevitable and so she set up a school in Sydney and commenced training women in Morse code and radio, and it became very obvious very quickly, these women were really good! The Army, Navy and Air Force all desperately needed the skills of these young women to backfill the roles of the men who were being sent overseas BUT, the hierarchy were reluctant to allow them to join.
Why not I hear you ask? Well take yourselves back 80 years – “It will cause chaos having women serve alongside men, their beauty will distract and destroy the discipline of the armed forces.” and ‘aviation takes women out of their natural environment, the home and the training of the family.’
With her mature approach and strong intellect, Violet lobbied hard and pushed to have her voice heard. It paid off! and when the WAAAF was formed in 1941 Violet had female telegraphists trained and ready to go. In some instances, ‘Violet’s girls’ as she affectionately called them could do signals faster than the men and much more efficiently! Violet was too old to join the services by this stage (and she was married) however the Royal Australian Air Force appointed her as honorary Flight Officer in the WAAAF in appreciation of her services.
The Women’s Auxiliary Force needed a leader, Squadron Officer Clare Stevenson became first woman to be appointed head of a women’s service in Australia. She was selected because she had practical management experience and was not a ‘socialite’. Stevenson never married and continued to serve even after the war ended. In total more than 27,000 women served under her command.
During this period, women took on a diverse range of functions, some of which included flight mechanics, armament fitters, aerial cinematography, cooks, clerks and administrative officers. Working in the male dominated services in the 1940s wasn’t easy for these early trail blazers. Pay and conditions were vastly different to men, women were only paid a percentage of the equivalent male wage and married women were not allowed to remain in the WAAAF. Despite the fact that women were serving overseas, the WAAAFs were not allowed, even the Northern Territory was considered ‘too remote’ for women.
The WAAAF was progressively disbanded at the end of World War II. The quiet dignity with which the WAAAF served won praise and admiration, not just from the men of the Air Force, but from the entire community. The first women in the Air Force may not have flown, but they made a significant contribution to the war at home. The WAAAF was an Australian Wartime success story.
A new Australian women’s air force was formed in July 1950 after cabinet approval was given to the re-formation of all three women’s services. Unlike its wartime predecessor, it was no longer to be regarded as an auxiliary service, and this was reflected in its title; the ‘Royal’ prefix was granted and in November 1950 became the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF). There are a handful of these women still serving in the Reserve Force today.
WRAAF members were not permitted to serve overseas until 1967 and in 1969 married women were able to remain in service instead of being made to leave in order to take care of their families. It would still be another six years before women would be allowed to stay if they fell pregnant. Since the 1970s baby steps were taken, but they were steps, nonetheless.
In 1976 the RAAF employed its first female Air Traffic Controller and two years later, the first female Engineer. More importantly, 1979 signified the achievement of equal pay for women in the ADF.
The WRAAF was disbanded early in the 1980s and female personnel were absorbed into mainstream RAAF. I am proud to let you know that I have been asked to march alongside the WRAAF Brisbane contingent at the ANZAC day march on Sunday. I look forward to hearing their stories.
Since the integration of women into the RAAF, there have been many firsts and great achievements. Women continue to display that not only can they contribute to every area in which they are employed, but they do so with excellence and dedication. In the RAAF today, women work successfully alongside men in every branch and mustering in over 200 roles and they receive the same training, salaries and opportunities as men.
In 1986 the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) opened giving women identical degree training alongside men, and 1988 signified the first female Air Force Pilots. Two of my colleagues in the audience today are graduates of the Academy.
In 1999 Air Vice Marshal Julie Hammer became the first female one star in the Australian Defence Force and the first woman to command an operational Unit in the RAAF. She was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross for that command.
Wing Commander Linda Corbould became the first female Commanding Officer of a flying squadron in 2006 and in 2020 we gained our first female Fast Jet Pilot to qualify on the FA-18, she is sitting in the audience today.
While no war is positive, positive things can come from it. Technological advances, medical advances and the realisation that women are capable of so much more. If it wasn’t for the Second World War, women may not have seen service in the Australian Defence Force until much later and if it wasn’t for the tenacity, determination and sheer will of women like Violet, women may not be where they are – standing beside the men in the ADF rather than behind them.
If you take nothing else away from my presentation today, invest in education all through life, make it a priority to keep in touch with the school and your friends after you leave, be proud to be an IGGS old girl and be prepared to work hard. Consistency and perseverance will lead you into career paths you never even dreamed possible. But don’t forget those who came before you, the ground breakers, the rule breakers, those who stood their ground and paved the way, not only for themselves but for you.
We will remember them.
FLTLT Tanya Carter, IGGS Old Girl