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Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)

From Mallala
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Fast Facts
Type of organisation: Government

Town or locality: Mallala
Date established: 1941
Ceased operation: 1947
Established by: RAAF Chief of Air Staff
Business or purpose: Military
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The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed in March 1941 by the Chief of the Air Staff who wanted to release male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas. Women took up roles in clerical, medical, transport, catering, equipment, signals and radar positions and worked as telegraphists and meteorological assistants and over 700 women held commissioned rank.

The RAAF also opened up 73 of their 120 trades to airwomen who soon qualified as armament workers, electricians, fitters, flight mechanics, fabric workers and instrument makers, undertaking highly skilled technical work on aircraft. Airwomen were paid two-thirds of RAAF male pay for equivalent positions and the officers were paid less than male officers of equal rank.

No. 6 Service Flying Training School was formed on 25 August 1941. Personnel strength was around 1900, which included 281 trainees and around 200 WAAAFs who were engaged in a range of administration and aircraft maintenance duties. The school was equipped with Avro Ansons, Airspeed Oxfords, Moth Minors and Tiger Moths which needed to be repaired and maintained and much of this work was undertaken by WAAAFs who worked as fitters, flight mechanics, machinists, fabric workers and electricians. They also packed parachutes.

One of the WAAAFs, Merle Baxendale, later noted that, as the only female electrician on the base, she was teased by the men and often subjected to practical jokes. Although it was intended that WAAAFs would be posted back to duty in their home state, at Mallala there were women from all over Australia.

WAAAFs were not allowed to fly aircraft or serve as aircrew, however when maintenance personnel had finished a 240 hour inspection on a plane, they were allowed to go on a test flight to guarantee that their work had been done properly.

Many of the aircraft had fabric covered surfaces which were treated with ‘dope’ to waterproof and strengthen them. Five or six coats would be painted on by brush, with an hour between coats to allow them to dry. Dope emits toxic fumes that can damage the internal organs or even cause death and doping required well ventilated conditions. As a health measure, the WAAAF dopers were given an extra ration of whole milk to help dilute and neutralise any dangerous chemicals in their bodies.

Base personnel were accommodated in unlined, wood and corrugated iron huts. Temperatures could sink to freezing in winter and rise to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and dust storms were common, covering aircraft and people in a layer of dust. The WAAFS attempted to make their living area more hospitable by planting small gardens and edging the area with stones.

To save money on sealed runways the base had been established as an open paddock style airfield and sometimes the unpaved landing areas were unserviceable due to rain. Bad weather often restricted flying and on many occasions the base was closed due to fog or strong winds.

The base had an active social life, with Saturday night balls, movies at the Mallala Institute and revues performed by the base personnel in which WAAAFs featured prominently. On 19 February 1943 a large RAAF Revue was held at the Tivoli Theatre in Adelaide and the Mallala Museum holds a programme for a concert held locally on 4 June 1945. There were also Mallala WAAAF tennis and basketball teams that played successfully in inter service competitions and against civilian teams.

The Australian Comforts Fund was formed in 1940 to provide services to members of the Australian Forces, within and outside Australia. Medical services were provided through the Red Cross and when increasing numbers of women in the Forces called for a separate organisation to care specifically for their needs, Welfare Officers were drawn from the YMCA and later the YWCA. Welfare Officers were not commissioned but held honorary officer status and normally lived with the Officers. There were a number of Welfare Officers stationed at Mallala, the most notable being Marion Sinclair, the composer of the song ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’, who was posted there in 1943.

On 15 August 1945, the surrender of Japan was announced and all personnel were stood down for two days. The airfield continued to operate into September, when it began to wind down and personnel were posted out. The unit ceased to function as No. 6 SFTS on 31 December 1945 however the base continued as a RAAF facility until 1960. The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force was disbanded in December 1947.

In 2004, Merle Allen (nee Baxendale), visited the Mallala Museum and donated a number of photographs from her time on the base.

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