Women at War

A typical working day for an Air Evacuation Sister began at 3am; breakfast at 3.30am; as flights over New Guinea had to be before the heat of the day. Conditions over New Guinea were quite difficult because of the terrain and the quick build-up of clouds. We flew over the sea whenever possible... Some of the girls of No.1 Air Evac. were based in New Guinea. All of us bringing out battle casualties. The boys were all tired, ill and weary.

Mrs Joan Patterson, Formerly Sister Joan Loutit, No. 2 MAETU (Medical Air Evacuation Unit), RAAF Nursing Service. Read more of her story.

The Second World War changed the lives of women in many ways. At home, they faced the responsibilities of caring and providing for their families alone. At the same time, they were dealing with grief and loss, and fearing for the future. But, like men in the service, they were courageous, resilient and proactive.

Many were eager to contribute to the war efforts in Australia, Papua and New Guinea. They took on 'men’s work'. They joined the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA), growing crops and rearing livestock. More Australian women worked during the Second World War than ever before.

After a nationwide campaign featuring colourful recruitment posters, 66,000 Australian women enlisted in the Army, Navy and Air Force. Thousands more left home to join auxiliary services attached to the military. They joined:

  • Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service (RANNS)
  • Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS)
  • Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS)
  • Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS)
  • Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)
  • Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS)

Through volunteer, civilian organisations, women contributed to the war effort in other ways, including:

  • Women’s Australian National Services (WANS)
  • Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC)
  • Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC)
  • National Emergency Services (NES)
  • Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment

Many other voluntary organisations gave women more independence and responsibility.


Around 24,000 women joined the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS). To enlist as a volunteer, the women were required to be single and aged between 21 and 35 (40 in the case of officers). It was the only non-medical women’s service to send personnel overseas during the Second World War. They had the widest range of jobs of any women’s services, and included:

  • Australian Red Cross Letters Association
  • Australian Comforts Fund
  • Women’s Air Training Corps
  • Women’s Emergency Signallers

In November 1944, 500 AWAS personnel were deployed overseas. From May 1945, 385 AWAS members served in Lae, New Guinea under the Headquarters First Australian Army.

Air Force: Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU)

The Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU) was formed to retrieve and care for the wounded in the jungles of Papua and New Guinea. MAETU recruited 15 nurses to join the No. 1 unit from the RAAFNS in early 1944.

The nurses received training in:

  • in-flight medicine and care
  • emergency survival procedures
  • tropical hygiene

The nurses then flew in and out of combat zones delivering supplies and evacuating wounded to Australia.

Dubbed the 'Flying Angels', the teams, comprised of a sister and an orderly, flew in Douglas C47s. Each aircraft carried up to 18 stretcher cases at a time. They were stacked three high on each side of the aircraft. This allowed enough room for moving around the wounded and cargo, which was often loaded after the wounded. In the first year alone, they evacuated and transported 8,000 patients.

On 18 September 1945, two MAETU nurses and 27 others lost their lives when a Dakota crashed into a mountain during evacuations. The wreckage wasn’t found until 1967.

In 1945, No. 2 MAETU was formed with 10 new nurses,. They continued their service after the war, helping with the return of thousands of prisoners of war.

Sister Beryl Chandler’s story

Sister Beryl Chandler was one of 25 nurses accepted into MAETU.

While completing her nursing training in 1939, Chandler made friends with Florence Trotter, Joyce Tweddell, and Pearl Mittelheuser. Her friends were sent into active service before she completed her training.

Left behind, Chandler was encouraged to join the RAAFNS. She soon found camaraderie there, despite a harsh introduction to military life with cold showers and hard beds of hay.

In 1944, Chandler heard of the plans to train nurses for medical air evacuations. She liked the idea of being a 'Flying Sister’ and was accepted. Her days were long. Starting as early as 3:00 am. She flew an average of 75 hours each month.

She braved nights stranded in thick jungle, nursed soldiers with burns, gunshot wounds and shell shock. At the end of the war, Chandler was on a repatriation mission to rescue prisoners of war. There she discovered one of her emaciated friends from nursing college, Joyce Tweddell was among the survivors.

You can find Sister Beryl Chandler’s memoir, letters, photographs and some newspaper clippings in the Australian War Memorial archives. She concludes her memoir saying:

We who have had the privilege of serving with the RAAF feel a great deal of pride... and congratulate all who have served and are serving today with the RAAF and wish it the great future we know lies ahead.

Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS)

Initially, RAAFNS nurses were posted to RAAF base hospitals, Medical Receiving Stations (MRS) and other units around Australia. Later, they served in receiving stations in Papua and New Guinea in Port Morseby, Milne Bay, and Madang, then expanded to the South West Pacific Area on Morotai Island, and Labuan in Borneo.

It wasn’t until the nurses arrived in New Guinea with their white uniforms that the Australians realised they would be too visible from the air. To stop them from being an easy target, the nurses dyed their white ward dresses with strong tea to help them camouflage.

Medical services

From 1942, servicewomen such as nurses and physiotherapists were posted to 2nd/9th Australian General Hospital at 'Seventeen Mile', near Port Moresby. They cared for many men wounded in the jungles of Kokoda.

By the end of the war, hundreds of nurses were posted to hospitals and casualty clearing stations in:

  • Bougainville
  • Jacquinot Bay
  • Morotai
  • Labuan
  • Balikpapan

They worked long days under tough conditions with the threat of air raids in some areas. When nurses arrived in Buna, they received men from the fighting around Finschhafen in New Guinea. They cared for as many as 2,000 men in a hospital at a time. None of the nurses stationed at Buna had a day off for the first six weeks of their post.

Stretcher after stretcher of filthy bloodstained bodies; the extent of their wounds was unforgettable.

-Sister Dorothy Gellie

Among the wounded men were many suffering from tropical illness, such as scrub typhus. They were extremely ill and needed constant nursing.


The Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) was formed in 1941 because of a shortage of telegraphists in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Men in non-combat roles were released so they they could join the fighting. Women took over their roles as:

  • telegraphists
  • coders and clerks
  • drivers
  • education officers
  • mechanics
  • harbour messengers
  • cooks
  • medical assistants

By the end of the Second World War, more than 3,000 women served with the WRANS. Sixty of those women joined the Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service (RANNS).

The servicewomen weren’t allowed to work offshore or outside Australia until 1983.

Facts about women at war

During the Second World War, 66,000 women enlisted in the three women’s Army services. By the war's end, more than 24,000 served in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).

Almost 3,500 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) sisters worked in Australian general hospitals and casualty clearing stations.

The AANS suffered the highest casualty rate of any of the women's services.

72 nursing sisters died after the Japanese torpedoed their ships or later, as prisoners of war.

Around 8,000 other women served with the Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS). This evolved from the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment.