Archive number: 1793
Preferred name: Nicci
Date interviewed: 12 July, 2004
You are listening to the interview audio
Joan, the first thing I’m going to ask you to do is give a very brief summary of the main points in your life. If you’re able to do that now, that would be great.
Well I was born at Ashfield, in those days not in hospital, at home
in Queen Street on 29th of October, 1920. And I went to school at Kurraba, which was a small private school; at one time it was in Hillcrest Avenue, then moved to Tintern Road. Both those places are still there, but the school’s gone. When I left school, I went to business college at Stott
and Underwood’s near Central Railway. And my first job was for twelve months with an accounting firm called Hungerford Spooner, and Mr Spooner was a member of State Parliament. But that was rather boring and I went for another job and I ended up working in the office of the New South Wales
Club, which was a very expensive club for men only in Bligh Street. The building is still there, now but it’s no longer a club. But it wasn’t a club like our present day clubs. But that was a most wonderful working atmosphere, but the war broke out, our secretary who was in the Navy Reserve, his name was Freddy Green, he was called up and
went to Darwin and we managed for a while but I felt there were more important things to do, my brother had been, Ray, in the navy since the month war broke out and he was overseas from September ’39, until December ’44 without home leave or anything. And
by the time we were getting occasional letters from him, because he was with the Royal Navy, transferred into the Royal Navy from the Australian navy, we didn’t hear much from him. And I felt well things were getting worse so a couple of friends of mine had joined the air force as teleprinter operators and they said it was very interesting and I decided that I would. So it was April, early April
’42, I went down to Woolloomooloo and I joined up. And I came home, said to my mother, “Do you mind if I join the air force?” And she said, “No.” And next day when I came home, she said, “Well, did you join up?” I said, “I did that yesterday.” So, but I’d turned 21 so I could make my own decisions. But I didn’t get called up because
they didn’t at that stage require any more teleprinter operators, and there was a new mustering opened which they were calling ‘radio operators’. And I said, I didn’t think I would be any good at Morse code. And they said they didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t Morse code. But he said, “You’ve got to be good at maths.” Well, I’ve always loved maths, especially mental arithmetic. So I
signed up and I had to wait then until the rest of the mustering had got enough to start. So it was early June by the time I was called up and did my rookies course at Bradfield Park. And then from Bradfield Park, I had about two days at Point Piper, which was Eastern Area Headquarters and was then sent to Richmond.
And that was the coldest time of the year at Richmond. So it was, I think about, from memory, about a four week course. We had to learn to do shift work. So we did the course in shifts. Our first week was done in daytime, the next in the evening, which meant that by the time we got to our last week, when we were all being tested, we did it at 3 am in the morning.
When we’d finished, we’d just put our heads down and went to sleep. But we’d come off the shift of lectures and learning how to use the equipment and to have to go onto early morning parade, but we’d get up the back and the fogs and that at Richmond are so bad as you may know that we could disappear, so we’d often disappear and go and have breakfast. But it turned out it was radar,
but in those days, nobody knew anything about radar. And it was rather fascinating really, because we were learning to do something on equipment we’d never even heard about. Anyhow from there, I was posted to Brisbane and out of all of us that were posted up, I was the only one that had ever been to Queensland before,
because in those days, you couldn’t travel like you could now. Even to go by train, you had to get a permit to cross the border, because it was needed for troop movements. Anyhow, in Brisbane, there was like where the plotting room was, I was there for a while, we lived out over at New Farm, some of us
had accommodation in the back of a house. And then we used to just get there. But then I was posted to actually work on the equipment down at Lytton, and Lytton is Fort Lytton at the mouth of the Brisbane River but this was nearby. There’s now an oil refinery where the doover was, we called the operation room, where the doover was. But our
barracks for accommodation were in Wynnum. And the only way to get from Wynnum to Lytton was walk. And it didn’t matter what time of the day it was, because we were doing six hours on and twelve off. So it meant twice a day you were walking the two or three miles to get from Wynnum to Lytton. So if a Don-R, which was a dispatch rider, if he happened to come along
on his motorbike, one of us would catch a lift from him, because there was an army base nearby. But that was an operational one for Brisbane from point of view of tracking aircraft coming and going. Because that was the time when the Brisbane
Line had been nominated, as they would try to – if the Japs invaded, they would hold them at the Brisbane Line. So Lytton was very important and I was there for quite a few months. And then in February 1944,
I was posted to Townsville, but the Burdekin was in flood and there were no troop trains. So we stayed out at the showground in temporary barracks until the train could get through to Townsville. And then
in Townsville we were stationed in the Grammar School as a barracks; it’s still there, the Grammar School. And then some of them worked out past Sunshine in the operations room, where they had the plotting tables for all the reports coming in from the various radar stations. And then I was posted out to
oh no, wait a minute, I’ve made a mistake. Knew the time was wrong. From Lytton I went to Caloundra, and the operations there started on the 1st of February 1943. It was a new
radar station. And the first day of operation, our shift had been from six till twelve midday and we were coming back in the truck down the hill, to the barracks, to have lunch and then we’d have gone back at six o'clock at night. And the truck skidded on the sandy road
and rolled. I was thrown out; I never did see the truck. I was thrown out and a whole lot of gear thrown on top of me. And then the rest of them, one was very badly injured, a girl called, Harrison, she’d been on the same course at Richmond and of course, with a name like Harrison, everybody called her Harry.
And she was eighteen years old. She was from Adelaide. And she had bad internal injuries and she and I and one of the boys, one of the mechanics were transferred to Nambour Hospital and a few days later transferred from there to an army hospital outside Brisbane. But they operated on Harry but she passed away about
five days after the accident. So at eighteen years of age, she was a casualty of the war. She wouldn’t have been there if there had been no war. And her name, I’m pleased to say is on the wall in Canberra War Memorial. I was admitted with a possible fracture of the spine, pelvis and leg and I can’t
remember how many weeks I was there, but it turned out that no bones were broken, but there’d been a lot of damage to muscles and nerves. And I was given a week or so home leave after I came out of hospital. And then went back and I was there at Caloundra for the better part of twelve months and
then from there, went out to, February ’44 to wait to get to Townsville. But it was a wonderful group who worked at Caloundra. I think
the accident, the first day of the unit was in operation, it was a bonding that you mightn’t have had otherwise. We worked six hours on and twelve off, and there were four shifts, which meant you went on at – you came back from your day off and went on to work at midnight, came off at 6 am, went back at 6
pm. So that day you worked twelve hours. You finished at midnight, then the next day you worked from midday till 6 pm. And then the day after that it was six am till twelve midday and then you had 36 hours off till you started at midnight the following night, not that night. Which meant that every four days, you worked two and a half and had one and a half off. All controlled
really by hours. But they were a wonderful group. They were always out to help everybody else and I think all this had come about because of the accident. While I was in the hospital at,
it’s on the Ipswich Road the army hospital, there was a courtside hearing there into the accident. But of course, we didn’t know what had happened, there had been rain the night before and there was a lot of loose sand on the road - can only assume it had been the skid on the sand. But they asked about what treatment Harry had had. But I could
honestly say, they never left her bedside.
Joan, we might ask you about that episode in detail a bit later. Would you be able to tell us where you went after Caloundra and what you did briefly after the war?
Well, from Caloundra, it was to Townsville and Townsville there we worked part of the time in the plotting room. Where the reports came in from
all the radar stations. But then was transferred out to a new one which was just south of Townsville and it was called Alligator Creek. I never saw an alligator and we didn’t have a creek, but it was straddling the main south railway line and the barracks were on one side and the doover, or operations room, was on the other, so we had to cross the railway line every time we’d go to work. But that was
unknown to 99 out of 100 service people in the area that didn’t know we were there. It was for Townsville it was very, very cold it was actually below sea level and it was in a holding area for cattle, because on the southern side of the bay in Townsville there was the meatworks. And this was the holding area for the cattle and our operations room was in the middle of it.
So we were protected by cattle. But it was again, because we were a small unit, there were probably less than 30 people in any of these radar units, and because it was…there was small units, we were very compact unit, we were very close, everybody would do everything for everybody. I cannot remember a day when there was any
aggravation between two people.
And were you there until the end of the war?
I was there until about perhaps March or thereabouts in ’45. The war had moved away from Australia by that time. But
the radar stations were still needed because they were still checking on aircraft that were coming back from New Guinea and the islands. One other thing I didn’t mention, at the time when I was at Caloundra, we not only tracked aircraft from there, but if the radar station was in an elevated position, you
could adjust the antenna part, which was revolving, to pick up both aircraft and ships. And unfortunately we were tracking what we thought were whales, because the equipment we used was so sensitive, you could pick up whales. I mean, they were big enough and they did actually
show a blip on the screen and what we thought were the whales had disappeared but as it turns out it was the hospital ship Centaur, which had been sunk. And for weeks, they were patrolling up and down and they were getting debris that was floating ashore from the Centaur. It was a really emotional experience, but we
never knew what we were plotting, what our blips, because we would get it from one direction. Another radar station would pick it up from another and they would then with our readings and the other readings, then they would get the exact position of a certain object, whether it be a ship or an aircraft.
And then as the plots went in, you could then tell at what speed the aircraft was travelling. You’d know whether it was a fighter or a bomber. You could tell the height it was at because of the reports that we’d give in and it was very involved. And there was a device which they had
on our aircraft called IFF, which stood for “Indication, Friend or Foe.” And you would have to report whether it was giving IFF or no, because if it wasn’t and they knew of no aircraft that were expected, they would then send up a plane to either intercept or to at least check on whether it was one of ours or one of the enemy.
That was – it was very tense work. There was a lot of responsibility went with it and everybody realised their responsibility, but at the same time, because of the responsibility, we all had to share it gave a bonding that you only get when you’re in those sort of situations.
But anyway, by the time the war had moved away from Australia they closed Alligator Creek down fairly early because it was for high flying and Cape Cleveland, which is at the southern tip of the bay in Townsville, that was able to cope with most of it coming by that time. And so then we
worked out at the…as plotters. And then we were waiting for transfer home and we were more or less free to do what we wanted. We had a horse and sulky, we used to go riding around
Townsville on our horse and sulky. And there was a sports oval there on…and there were a lot of Victorians and they said, would I – cos I was a bit older than quite a few of the other girls - and they said would I organise a couple of teams to play Victorian Football and
I’d never heard of Victorian Football; it’s now AFL [Australian Football League]. So I didn’t even know how many, but they had plenty for both sides and we organised the first AFL games of football I’d ever seen in my life or ever heard about. But that was men waiting for transfer, they’d come back from New Guinea and they were there waiting and it was a case of trying to give them something else
to think about other than what they’d been through, while they waited to get home. Cos a lot of them hadn’t been home for twelve months or more. And then eventually I was transferred home and back to Bradfield Park and discharged. One thing I can’t understand is that I was discharged, I had to hand in my pay book. But Noel, my husband, he’s
still got his pay book now. And after 60 years he’s still got his pay book. I had to hand mine in the day I was discharged, but I don’t know why.
Could you tell me a bit about your mother and father and their background?
Well, my father was a marine engineer; he came from Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, which is in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland.
My mother was born here but her mother was from Scotland and her father was from Norway so I’ve got a bit of Viking blood in me. My mother never worked. I was the youngest of four. My brother was the eldest, then there were two sisters and myself. My brother took up marine engineering as well, he followed in my father’s footsteps,
that’s why he was an engineer when war broke out. But my mother didn’t have the best of health, and we had housekeepers. My father came ashore and started his own marine business with his brother and an old school friend, also from Scotland. And they were in
Sussex Street, at 65 Sussex Street, then moved over to Balmain on the waterfront, but the company went, there was no one in the family to continue it on, and they went into voluntary liquidation and closed because the shipping was all moving out of Sydney Harbour. But I had a good childhood.
We always had housekeepers and that, but we were allowed to have fun in the kitchen, cooking and so forth, which I’ve still got a passion for cooking. And no, I had a good childhood even though it was all through the Depression years. We weren’t wealthy, we
did have a car, which was unusual in those days. Not everybody had cars by any manner of means. The first one was a Dodge, an open tourer. The next one was a Buick. And we got ten children in there one day, in that car. But it was – no I think I was lucky, I think I had a good childhood. It
was strict upbringing, but we had a lot of friends of our age who went to Newington and Trinity Grammar. And we used to have wonderful evenings around the piano, one was he could play any tune he heard. And we’d have singsongs around the piano and you didn’t have to go out for your entertainment
then, you made it at home. And I think this was why it was a happy childhood. Of course, there’s always a few things you wish you had which you didn’t but no as such, it really was, looking back it was I think I had a good upbringing and I had the childhood that a lot of…would have rather have
had than the ones they had.
What do you remember of your childhood home?
Absolutely everything. There were ten people in it most of the time because it was opposite a place called The Home of The Good Shepherd, which was a Roman Catholic nunnery. But they also had a laundry and they
used to take girls who were in trouble from the courts and have them work in the laundry instead of going to jail. And this was right opposite us but other friends used to say ours was the home of the good shepherd, not over there, because there always seemed to be people staying, there’d be people from Queensland come and stay, people from here, there and everywhere and there’s always someone. My mother’s sister and her daughter lived with us
for years. My father’s aunt from Scotland had a stroke, she was brought out to the warmer climate, she lived with us for about sixteen or eighteen years. Everybody seemed to come; it was a home away from home for so many others. So most of the time there were about eight or ten people in the house and there was a housekeeper,
but there was always a lot of people around.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
One brother, he was the eldest and then two sisters and myself, but I’m the last one now, last sister who was three years older than me, she passed away on Christmas Day, three years ago. And my elder sister passed away two years before that
and my brother, not long before that. But he was a marine engineer. His experience during the war was probably one that should be written up and I would love to follow it up but I don’t know where to go to do it. But in 1938, through our marine connections, he
was able to join the Burns Philp ship that was built on the Clyde, it was called the Bulolo. It did its sea trials, and then was coming out through the Mediterranean at the time there was a scare, twelve months before war broke out. That was when the British Prime Minister came back and waved the paper signed by Hitler, saying there’d be no war. But
he then stayed on the ship, which in those days there weren’t very many diesel ships they were nearly all coal, steam ships and he did his exams for his engineering here and then went back and he was actually on the Bulolo back again after getting his tickets and they were in New Guinea
when war broke out. They came back here immediately and when the ship had been built the British government apparently paid a certain amount towards the building of the ship and it was what they call, double-riveting as compared with an ordinary ship that’d be used around the islands, on the understanding that if war broke out they would be able to
take it over. So when war broke out, the ship came back from New Guinea to Sydney, which was its home port, and it left before the end of September, I don’t know the exact date and went to South Africa to Simonstown where it was fitted out with all…cos a lot of the amenities for the passengers cos it was a lovely little ship compared with
today’s. They had deck armaments and so forth fitted on it. And then it was doing convoy work in the South Atlantic. And then when America signed this lend lease agreement with the British government, cos by this time it was a British navy ship, the only ones kept on were
the engineers, because diesel engineers were few and far between, and the electrician or ‘sparks’ as he was called. They were the only ones, all the deck crew were repatriated home and replaced by English Royal Navy personnel. So these few Australians on board were the only ones but they were on it the whole time. When the Americans signed this lend lease, which meant that
English ships could go into American ports for service and that, and it would be paid for and looked after by the American government and facilities. They were then the first ship under the lend lease agreement to go into Boston. And they were feted I believe in Boston. Then eventually they were back up
into the North Atlantic, more. And it was then fitted out as the command ship; they had something like forty odd wireless operators on board, which was a lot for a small ship, because it was then the control ship for the landings. And he participated although he’d never made actual
landings, but the ship itself was involved in five different landings. There were landings in North Africa; there was the landing in Anzio, which is Italy; and there was also the landing at D-Day. If I’m not mistaken, the ship was also used to take Churchill down to Casablanca. It also took Lord Louis Mountbatten
out to Burma. And while it was there, he managed to get a bit of a break and he went into the foothills of the Himalayas, which for a seafarer was quite a change. But it was a ship that I think should have its history written up.
When you were growing up, what work was your father doing?
Oh he was a marine engineer, so, but he started his own business,
but he used to leave the bookwork to his brother to do and he used to like getting down to the ships with the men that were working, even though he was the boss and he loved working with them. And they loved having him, he was that sort of person. He got on so well with the ordinary working man, he wasn’t like the boss to them. And
they’d do anything for him. And no, he was a wonderful, very, he had a sort of quiet personality that you couldn’t help but take to. But he was so broad that our housekeepers used to often say,
my father would say something and they’d have to turn around and say, “What did your father say?” They couldn’t interpret, he was…to us he wasn’t broad but he never lost his accent. But we had trouble with his brother, an uncle, and he didn’t, to me he was even broader.
No he was a broad Scot but he was a quiet man but I never heard anybody say anything bad about my father. He was
even Noel would say he was like a father to him too, I think.
And your memories of your mother?
Oh she was typical of – she never worked - but she was typical of women in those days who devoted their lives to their family. For instance
she would shut herself in her bedroom on a Saturday afternoon. We weren’t allowed to go in and when she’d eventually come out and she’d have crocheted a set of clothes for all our dolls. And she made all our clothes, we rarely bought clothes. She made those, she taught us how to make our own clothes. She was very clever with her hands, in
that respect, but she didn’t have the best of health. So this is why we had the housekeeper. But she was very clever with her hands with the sewing and she’d never knitted, she’d only ever crocheted. Knitting was foreign to her; she couldn’t fathom it, knitting. One needle was enough for her, she could make what she wanted.
But she used to take us to town, she’d go to town, we’d have lunch in David Jones restaurant up on the top, every Monday and every Friday, and she’d take us to town, you know, during school holidays and that. And she was interested in youth clubs around the area at the time.
She used to do work for them. Voluntary work. But things were so different then. We’d go off, because the people opposite owned the local picture theatre, we’d go off one night and see the first picture and go the second night and see the second picture, which would be on first. And she’d go with us but
no, she was a homely person. But she didn’t have the best of health and she was paralysed for quite a few years before she died. And after the war and I’d taken up nursing, so I’d ended up I was
able to help her quite a bit. But there weren’t the facilities then for people in that position that there are now and she coped fairly well. But it was at times it wasn’t easy but she never complained, I don’t remember her complaining about anything. Don’t think she ever had a complaint in her. No, I don’t think she ever complained, she accepted everything as it was. When we were first married, cos you couldn’t get houses, you had to pay exorbitant prices to rent, you had to pay the lump sum down and then the landlord could throw you out, so she said, “Well, stay here until you find a place”, which we did. It was eighteen months, nearly two years I think before we found a place we could afford to buy. But she just said, “No, you pay your board and that’s it.”
Interviewee: Joan Dobson Archive ID 1793 Tape 02
What do you remember about the time leading up to war?
Before war actually broke out?
Well, it was that twelve months before, after the British Prime Minister had met Hitler and said there wasn’t going to be any war. That was a very nervous time because being connected with shipping,
you were trying to sort of, you heard them trying to make plans that things could keep going. But I was in there, in a good job. Paid very well, for the job I had.
What job were you?
That was in the New South Wales Club. As a matter of fact, the building is now heritage listed I believe, but it is no longer a club, but I have heard that Paul Keating’s got his office in there. And that breaks my heart. It shouldn’t be political.
It was a lovely old building. And Freddy Green who was the club secretary, he had been a purser in the Orient Line and they’d persuaded him to bring his expertise to the club, which he did, and he was
an Englishman but he was well aware of the fact that the members were all well-to-do businessmen, there were no women, it used to cost two and ninepence for their lunch. They didn’t deal in cash, they had signed sheets for everything. I had to interpret signatures, and then send out the bills, but
it was a city membership was ten guineas. Do you girls know what ten guineas was? Ten guineas was ten pounds, ten shillings. And country membership was ten guineas a year, instead of a half year. And we had overseas members as well, which was two guineas a year. And
they were affiliated with one of the best known clubs in the world was the Athenaeum Club in London, which I saw from the outside some years later. But it was an interesting job because you were doing accounts, you were also doing catering, you were arranging menus, you had
also responsibility of on the purchasing side and I think it was the sort of job that you would like to have now, but with all the trouble that was brewing overseas, you felt that you were in a job that was superfluous there
was – it paid exceptionally well. But you just felt that money wasn’t everything then. And I gave up really good money, I suppose, when I joined up. But you didn’t attach the same importance to money then. It was no good having all the money in the world if you were going to
be invaded, and others were risking their lives, you felt you really had to do something. And I suppose in a way it was strange to think of giving up something, which everybody was envious of the job I had. I was getting more than my older sisters as far as money was concerned, as well that, had lunch provided, which was usually
roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But that all went with the job but you felt it was, there was something wrong, having that sort of thing, when there were all these other problems and then of course, by the time war actually broke out and my brother went away and then the secretary/manager Freddy Green – a terrific man – he
was sent away, it really brought it very close to home. And I don’t know, I just felt I should be doing something. It didn’t feel patriotic, no flag waving or anything like this, I don’t mean that. But you just felt well your job was superfluous, even the hall porter
and his offsider. Well, the hall porter was about 70-odd, his name was Baker, and the old bloke looked after the bedrooms was Woods, always called them by their surnames, but then the young hall boy, he joined the army and that’s I think, you thought well, if he joins up, what am I
doing here? His name was Keith Major and he won his…he joined the army and he won his…he became…the last I heard, he became a lieutenant but he won it on the battlefields in North Africa. These sorts of things were happening, and you couldn’t sit back and just be in a cushy [comfortable] job. You didn’t
feel guilty but you felt there could be something more you could do. But you didn’t weigh it up like scales or anything, you just felt, there was more you could do.
You mentioned that there was – you said money felt superfluous, given what was happening in the world. How did you know what was happening in the world?
Oh well you read it in the papers, you’d
I mean we did have wireless then, no television, but and I mean, the mere fact that my brother was away and we’d be lucky if we got a letter from him a month or six weeks apart. You’d never get anything less than a month. So you were always wondering at the back of your mind, where he was or what he was doing.
At that stage, there weren’t that many that well his – the lifetime mate, he’d joined the army, he went overseas, I don’t know of all his movements, but he came through eventually all right. But if friends were joining the forces, you didn’t feel you could sit back and sort of have a job that was
of no consequence. You didn’t sort of go all flag waving gooey and say, “I’m going to join up.” I just felt there was more I could do than that job I was doing.
Given your father was involved in the shipping business, marine business…
He tried to join the navy, but they
they laughed and they said, “No.” He put his age back so far it meant he had his chief engineer’s marine certificate by the time he was about ten. So they said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think that we can really take you on.” So he ended up, he joined the inspection group who were manufacturing 25-pounder guns. And he became a government inspector going around the different manufacturing
places, I don’t know any of the details, but he just did it because he felt he wanted to contribute. But he couldn’t put his age back, he really did look his age and he couldn’t put it back and get away with it. But he was an inspector at a manufacturer of 25 pounders. I don’t know any more, where or when, he didn’t talk about it.
What do you remember about the day war was declared?
A funny feeling, as if you’d sat…well it was night time, it was Sunday, and it was as if you should get up and do something, but there was nothing you could get up and do. But war had broken out and you felt something must be happening but you weren’t involved
but it was a funny feeling. There was an emptiness somehow. But it was, you see, the world’s a lot smaller now than it was then because communications were harder. There were no international flights coming in every couple of hours from overseas and that.
The quickest way to get there was by ship, which took six weeks. So you really felt you were involved, but you were so far away, what should you be doing? What should you be feeling? It was, you felt you shouldn’t go round the house
singing. You felt, there was things you should be doing, but there was no reason why you could do them or should do them.
What sort of things in that first year of war, prior to Japan entering the war, what sort of things were people doing for the war effort?
Well, we all did a course in NES, which is National Emergency
Services. And we did a course in how to fill sandbags believe it or not. And then we did a first aid course and we were all going round as if we had broken arms and black eyes and so forth. But there was a lot of people did that. That came in handy I suppose, quite a few times. It didn’t seem to be a bad thing to have it
as a course during some of the senior school days now, kids to learn first aid. And then went on and did a first aid, after that did a home nursing in case there were casualties brought back and you could go and help as volunteers, to help look after them. But that was
quite involved, for I suppose the better part of twelve months, eighteen months, for all those because you did it in the evenings and after you’d finished work.
So on the NES course, where would you go for that?
I think it was somewhere; I’m not sure whether it was Ashfield Town Hall, now or not. I’m not sure on that. Sorry, memory’s gone.
Do you remember
what the instructors were like?
No, not really. Wouldn’t have the vaguest clue on who they were. They were St John’s Ambulance trained, I know that. I can’t remember names, cos if I’m not mistaken we didn’t always have the same one, cos it depended what part of the course you were on. As to who, but you’d use, you know, someone who was sitting next to you they’d end up with a broken arm this day,
and then the next time it’d be your turn to have the broken arm. But that was something that probably without realising came in very handy for the rest of my life. As well as that, we used to roll bandages, and do up first aid kits. It was
all just voluntary work. Red Cross and the ambulance service, St John’s Ambulance Service it was then. I don’t know what it is now. But oh it was, I don’t know what happened to the staff but we used to do it, one or two nights a week if I’m not mistaken.
What sort of people
were joining the courses?
Oh, old, young, everyone, it didn’t matter, male, female, it didn’t matter; it didn’t matter about age or anything. No it was just, you’d be there then if anything happened here, you would all be able to lend a hand.
Did you have
female friends then who were joining the services?
No, two friends of my sisters joined. When they said they were enjoying this teleprinter operator’s job, a teleprinter was something that was quite rare in those days. I’d never heard of it until they’d started doing it and I thought, “That sounds interesting”.
That’s why I decided to try and join up as a teleprinter operator, and as fate would have it, I finished my working days as a teleprinter operator, but I didn’t do it in the air force. But I’ve been very lucky in the variety of things that I’ve done. I never thought I would ever be
a radar operator, because I’d never heard of it. That was fascinating, it was in a darkened room, not with all this extra lighting, cut out every bit of light and you worked with these; they were British radar equipment. And when they came out here because the radar equipment used to
be calibrated for the British coastline and so forth. So they would be calibrated to anything from 20 miles, which would get them across the [English] Channel, and to watch for aircraft coming in, or perhaps 50 miles farther up the English coast, and as soon as we’d get the equipment and be turned on, we’d have to recalibrate for 50 miles, nowhere, wouldn’t even get you out of Sydney in those days.
But we’d calibrate for 200 or 250 miles. And that funnily enough was the first time it ever struck me, of our distances, whereas in England it was a long way away to France, it was only 22 miles I think it was. But here, 22 miles you weren’t out of Sydney. Our distances then
we weren’t aware of that, we accepted them. We never realised the difference between our distances and theirs. I mean, you could put England, the whole of UK [United Kingdom] and Europe into Australia and still have plenty left over. But we didn’t think of distances, and they, of course, wouldn’t have, couldn’t have imagined. I used to write
my great aunt that came out from Scotland after she had a stroke, she was badly paralysed and she used to correspond with an old school friend. My memory’s all right on this, her name was Mary Gray and she lived at 87 Briar Hill Road, Prestwick in Ayrshire, in Scotland. And before I learnt to write at school, I used to put kisses on the bottom of the letters,
and then I would learn as I was grew older and I would write little notes on the bottom. And after my grand aunt died, I still kept in touch with Mary Gray. And in 1938, I think it was, I went to Coolangatta by train for a holiday
with my mother. And she took a couple of friends to keep her company so that meant I was free to do as I liked, but this is how we used to go on our holidays. I could do what I liked and go where I liked but she’d always be there and take a couple of friends to keep her company while I was off enjoying myself, but you know in a different way. Then I wrote to Mary Gray and told her about
how we’d been all night on the train, she never got over the fact that to go from one city to another you had to travel all night. And that was when she first realised, how our distances was so different from theirs and it was funny though, because it really didn’t come home to me until when
we first went onto operating the old UK radar equipment, that they had them all calibrated most of them were only about 25 miles. Was looking 25 miles in the direction for aircraft, everything was so close together there, they weren’t far away from fighter fields and which would send them up. But to us it didn’t get you
out of Sydney Harbour. And we were operating it out at Richmond, and there it was, it wouldn’t even get you to the coast. And that was all in one city.
I take it Japan was in the war at that stage?
Yes, Japan came in, December the 7th,
So to what extent did it make you feel that Australia was vulnerable given these distances?
Well they started coming down through the…I had one girlfriend, her husband worked
as an engineer in the tin mines in Malaysia and they’d just got out and got down to Singapore, he was taken as a prisoner of war and he died in the prisoner of war camp. The only way she could go to Singapore was on a ship that took her to East Africa somewhere and from there she had to get back to
Australia on another ship somewhere. So this is where, these sort of things that were happening, you realised it was getting very close to home. You listened to the news, but even the news wasn’t given out, there weren’t as many radio stations in those days but and not everybody had wirelesses
either for that matter, but you would read it up in the papers, or in those days we had a lot of papers, more than we’ve got now, but that was the only way you got your news. And you realised it was getting close and when it was very hard with this friend, she used to work with my sister, and
it was very exciting, she went to live in Malaysia and the tin mines there and that. Then she was lucky to get away with her life but she lost her husband. She just got out of Singapore; we’ve since got to know other people in Singapore and how they’ve lost relatives and that.
But it was getting closer. It isn’t easy for your generation to understand because communications are so much better now. It doesn’t matter, if someone dropped a pin over in London, you would know about it because someone would ring you up and say, “I just dropped a pin.” And you have, “Have you picked it up yet?” “No, I haven’t.” But you’d say, “Well, pick it up.” And you
are part of what is happening in London. But it took six weeks to get here in those days. You can’t imagine – although it was normal to us, we’d know - the difference now to what it was then. And you would these days, you don’t worry about getting letters cos people ring you up, but in those days
you used to watch for the mailman, who came twice a day. You had morning and afternoon mail delivered, but you watched for the mailman because that was the way you got your news from friends from overseas. Now, you ring them up and talk for ten minutes for two dollars. And you – it is so different from what it was then.
Also, I suppose, the fact that my brother was at sea for many years before the war actually broke out. He used to be with the Clan Line, he was on the Clan McQuirter, and Clan McCauley, I don’t know whether the Clan Line’s still going now but it was a very big shipping company in those days, and he was never in the Pacific area but he was in the Atlantic and the Indian
Ocean areas. But we used to look forward to getting his letters. But you see, that was the only way to correspond in those days. You had to do it by written letters. But you’ve got to realise how different it was to what it is now. But I think I’ve had probably a lot of variety in
my life, because not only was that club work very interesting and then the radar work but, for instance, at Alligator Creek, it was so remote. We went to Townsville a few years ago, I tried to find the location of it, but it’s just completely disappeared, nobody even knew it was there. Because even if you went into Townsville on your day’s leave,
and you ran into someone. “Oh where are you stationed?” And you’d say, “Alligator Creek.” “Oh yes, pull the other one.” And they all thought it was a joke, so nobody knew we were there. But then after that and I came back and I went back to my old job, but a couple of friends persuaded me to go nursing with them. And I
never thought of going nursing. Anyhow, we had our medical and we were to start. I turned up and they didn’t. I’ve never regretted it. I’m glad they talked me into it, it was again, it was a very, very interesting time of my life at Prince Alfred Hospital and it was because I was older than most of the girls starting.
When it came round to exams, which were every three months, the ones working in theatres would have to be relieved and because I was a bit older I would be the one that would be sent up to do some relieving. So I did a lot of theatre work, which was very interesting. I didn’t like it when they operated on bones or eyes. Because bones, I didn’t like the sound of the saw, and eyes,
I used to see this large eye, would follow me everywhere as soon as I closed my eyes at night. But that was a bit like when we did radar on the station. So much so that you used to start in groups and our group started in August, 1945, and at the end
of last year we had our 58th anniversary of our get-together, we get together. There was a companionship that was created then that you would never better anywhere or in any profession. And after 58 years, and there had been about 32 of us started, I was the mother of the group, because
most of the others were only eighteen or nineteen years of age and by the time I started I was 24, so I was old to them. And yet there was still about fourteen of us; others couldn’t come because of bad health. But after 58 years, that is a good percentage of a group. And it was the most wonderful…we met down at Dormy House, at Moss Vale
and they arranged a special lunch for us. And it was as if it was 58 years ago and there was only one I couldn’t recognise, because at the time she’d been the plump one and now she was slimmer than you. But you try and meet someone in 58 years time and see if you remember them and see if you
two working together now. See how you go if you meet in 58 years time.
We might not be here, Joan. Can I ask you about the day you enlisted? Can you tell me where you had to go and exactly what you had to do and what your impressions were as a young woman?
Oh, I don’t know about impressions. You had to report to Woolloomooloo.
The building’s still there, I’m not sure what’s in it now.
Can you describe what the scene was like down there; can you walk me through it?
You just went where you were told. And then I think we went from there straight up to Bradfield Park where we went in then and we were issued with our uniforms. But what we found then was up till a few months
before, they’d also been issued with underwear, we missed out, we were never issued with underwear. Had to go and get our own. No, there was nothing very impressive about it. When you got to your barracks, you had to go and fill your palliasse with straw for your bed. A lot of people sneezed a lot filling those.
You were issued with blankets; if you wanted sheets, you had to get them yourself. And you had to learn, not only the drill and marching, but you had to learn law, procedures, rank, all the different ranks. And had to be able to recognise a group
captain and give them a salute. Didn’t salute unless you had a hat on and this sort of thing. And with everybody wearing caps these days, we still recall the fact that hats off in the mess. You didn’t dare go into a meal in the mess hall without taking your hat off, which is something that a lot of young people these days with their caps could learn.
What did your barracks look like at Bradfield Park?
They were…I can’t really tell you much about those. The ones at Richmond were brick buildings, the ones in Townsville were temporary buildings until we were at the grammar school and then we were in the proper school building.
Oh, there was a mixture of buildings depending where you were.
So you mentioned the straw in the palliasse out at Bradfield Park, what were the overall living conditions like?
Oh you took…it didn’t matter, everybody was in the same boat so it didn’t matter, you didn’t take any notice and besides you were so tired, you slept anyway. But I suppose of all of it, the best was in
the twelve months I was at Caloundra because for a barracks they took over Kings Grand Central, which was a big boarding house facing the main beach at Caloundra, had it’s own tennis court and all. I mean, I had an upstairs room looking over the ocean. I mean, you pay quids for that but it was still
I don’t know how much we got a day, but that was probably a good time there because I’d go down probably at least once a week to Brisbane with friends, stay with friends there. But other times, we’d go round over to the local shops and the butcher had
horses for hire. And we’d ride out round the beach and round to Dicky Beach, which I don’t know what’s there now, but it was really only a pub around there, it wasn’t much in the way of housing there. And we could ride the horses along the beach. And then with no one in sight it’d be hot, so we’d just strip off our jeans and hop in and
have a swim, come out and when we’d dried off enough, we’d put our jeans back on again and ride home again. And swimming in the nude is nice but surfing in the nude is just extra nice.
So you didn’t wear your uniform when you were on leave?
Oh yes. But this wasn’t on leave, this was just out in open country, nobody, vacant area of the coastline.
No one in sight, no one around, no houses, no nothing. You drove a few miles up the beach and just have the place to yourself and it was usually only the girls on our shift you were on and we got two or three of us and we’d go horse riding. And it was just something because
there wasn’t much to do there. Or there was only, they had a tennis court but we didn’t have any tennis racquets, so we were…but it was a lovely spot there. We’d go down to the local hall and they’d have a dance sometimes but with the hours we worked, that wasn’t really very possible to go to
cos everything revolved in a four day cycle. So you couldn’t go to a Saturday night dance every Saturday night because with four day cycle, some Saturday nights you were working and no, it was something you – it’s hard to explain but to experience it,
it was something you couldn’t have imagined you would ever do. But it was strange to think that I couldn’t get into the air force as a teleprinter operator and yet I did the last sixteen years of my working life as a teleprinter operator.
What had attracted you initially to operating a teleprinter?
Oh it was just that these two girls, Marie Anderson
and I can’t think of her friend’s name. And they joined up as teleprinter operators and they said it was interesting and it was different and they were enjoying it, but there weren’t that many around for the job, like there weren’t many jobs in it, so that’s why the mustering had been changed. But I
think I was very lucky that the mustering had been changed because I had far more interesting experience as a radar operator than I would have ever had as a teleprinter operator. It was something that was new, it was interesting, it was took a lot of concentration, but it sort of thing
that got you in, you couldn’t help but enjoy doing it. It was like the four of us that’d be on shift, you had break. And I remember rightly we used to do 20 minutes and you would change positions because you had the equipment, then you had the plotting
board, and then you had the one on the phone and then you had the one having the break, their 20 minute break and we would go up on the roof of the doover, which was the operations room, we called it the doover, we’d go up on the roof of the doover where there was camouflage netting laying across and it made it sort of a lovely,
what do you call it? Strung between, not between two palm trees, like a hammock and you’d just lie in this and look up at the stars or the moon or the sun whichever time of day it was and then come down, 20 minutes and take your next job because it was hard on your eyes, working in the dark, on the radar screen.
You could adjust the brilliance but it still was hard on your eyes. That’s why we used to rotate the positions we worked in, then if you found anything of course you were plotting, you were controlling your antenna to plot and get extra positions on whether the aircraft was moving fast or slow or whether there was an IFF and that. But
there were never two days or two shifts the same.
Interviewee: Joan Dobson Archive ID 1793 Tape 03
Joan, I just wanted to go back to Bradfield Park and ask you what kind of training you did there?
We didn’t do much technical training there because that was where you learnt like, to do with rank, air force procedures, marching,
formation marching, all that sort of thing. Air force law, what you were allowed to do legally, what you weren’t allowed to do. You had to learn to do with your uniform, what you wore, what you couldn’t wear, for instance, not that we learnt it there, but you couldn’t…if you had your winter uniform on
all your buttons had to be done up. The only exception to that was a fighter pilot, who was allowed to have his top button undone. If you saw the top button undone on a pilot’s jacket and you saw he had wings, you knew he’d be a fighter pilot.
Why was that?
It was just a tradition that grew from nothing. I don’t know how or what but that was the sort of thing you learnt. You had to
learn law, as pertaining to what you were allowed to do. What you were expected to do, as well. Also had to go through your injections, your main two tests, for TB [tuberculosis]. You had to line up and get your jabs, half the time you didn’t know what they were for anyway. And
you had to have all those. You had to learn how to, believe it or not, make up your bed. Your blankets had to be folded in a certain way. Everything had to be…but you had to learn discipline of, not only your own actions, but a whole procedure. It was an introduction to
air force regulations, is really what it amounted to. But you all had to do the right thing, because everybody else had to know what you were doing and you had to know what they were doing. You had to be on parade at certain times, you had to salute the flag. You had to learn just air force procedure.
What was your uniform like?
It was all right. The winter uniform was a blue, air force blue as they called it. It was a light navy colour, wasn’t as dark as this navy. But when you
were posted north you had to hand that…no, didn’t have to hand it in, if I’m not mistaken, you sent it home, not sure, but I think you sent it home, because you were issued with your khaki or drabs as we called them, because you didn’t take your winter uniforms north or you wouldn’t want them up there anyway. But
for instance when we were at Alligator Creek, bit below sea level and winter time, it was very, very cold. And it was too cold to go to bed, because we only had one blanket. And other blankets we’d had, if you were down south, you might have had three blankets, but you only had…you handed the others in and you only took one north.
So we only had one blanket to keep warm and lying on the straw palliasse, there’s no warmth. So we used to build an open log fire out near the railway line, and we used to sit around that, wrapped in our one and only blanket. It was the easiest way to keep warm and we’d sleep sitting up in chairs around this fire at night to keep warm. But again, it sort of
created a comradeship, I suppose, that you wouldn’t have got if everybody just went off to their own bed and fell asleep. But for instance, there we had one rec [recreation] hut, as we called it, but that wasn’t ‘wreck’ spelled with a ‘w’, it was recreation hut and that was the only place for everybody to get together. And one of the padres would come out for one of the
religions and we’d hold a service there. And then as soon as he’d finished, you cleared the deck and you’d have a game of cards where you just had the church service, but that was because it was the only place indoors where we could all congregate. Because you couldn’t go back to your hut because someone would be trying to sleep there,
even in daytime, there was always someone trying to sleep, day or night. So you had to have any other activities away to give them a chance. But no, I’d say of all the original places, Richmond was the hardest because we had to do shift work, to learn how to get used to shift work, and working day or night, which
not many people beforehand were used to. And as a matter of fact, at the present moment we’re hoping for an improvement in the weather so that we can go out to Tamura, and they have the only Spitfire flying in Australia. And it was while I was at Richmond that the first squadron of Spitfires arrived. I can’t tell you any date or anything.
But we weren’t allowed to mention because it was a big secret and we weren’t allowed to mention Spitfires. So they were referred to as “ a packet of Capstan”. A packet of Capstan was a brand of cigarettes in those days, so a squadron of Spitfires was referred to as a packet of Capstan. So if you said you saw a packet of Capstan, it was only air force people who were supposed to know that
you’d seen the Spitfires. But I…this was it, we were working with gentlemen of the air and aircraft all the time, but we rarely saw one after we left Richmond. Cos to us the aircraft were all just blips on the screen. And it was only judging from where you
plotted them in one position then the next position, then the next position, then the next and of course you had the times written down on your plotting board and you could tell how fast they were flying so you knew whether or not it was a cargo plane or a fighter plane.
Could you tell me what your first experience was with the radar equipment at Richmond?
No, I don’t remember it.
What were you taught
Oh you were taught how to operate the machine, because you had control of the large antenna. You had the brilliance of the screen, which you had to learn to adapt because if you got a slight blip you might have to increase the brilliance so that you could pick it up better, because then you
had to get a reading as to where that was, and you’d get distance on your screen. You could give your distance, you did your angle from the station where the aircraft was, it was all done in figures and as you called these numbers out to the person who was doing the plotting, they would plot it on the board. Then they would
report it through to the control centre, who would be also getting perhaps reports of the same plane from other areas and they would be putting them on the table with a thing saying a certain number. And if you get two or three and they’re all together and everybody’s only reporting one plane, you
will know that these are all reporting on the same aircraft. But with the blips you learnt then also to read the number of planes because it’s like a drip of syrup. Iridescent syrup. And if you’ve got one that’s going like this, or quickly, you’d know that you might have had two planes, three, four or more planes. And if there’s four or six planes, you
would have them over a different angle. They can’t all be at the one angle and the same distance apart, or they’d be on top of each other. So when you were reading the distance, and the angle, if you follow me. You can then tell how many aircraft approximately you’ve got. So you would report that there were at least two or perhaps at least four.
I don’t think I ever remember reporting on more than about ten. But you couldn’t – there could not be ten aircraft you would get the same reading because ten aircraft could not all be at the same angle and the same distance from your radar station. One might be at 20 degrees, the other might be 22 degrees,
the other would be 24. So you can pick that you’ve got, you’re moving your antenna and you’ve got the angle. So you know what the angle is that you’re getting that reading. And one might be five miles the other twelve, because there’s different aircraft in at the same time, but they can’t all give the same reading. Only one aircraft could give the same reading.
That’s why you could then determine how many aircraft there were.
When you’re sitting down in front of the radar equipment, could you just explain what it looks like and what you’re actually looking at?
You’re in, not a dark room, but mostly dark. You know where your controls are and the only thing illuminated is
the screen, on the screen with the blips. You’ve got your, you know how to calibrate, because you’ve got both hands that are working and you observe there and then you speak and the only one that has a light in that room is the person on the plotting board, because they must be able to see then to mark
where that aircraft is that you’ve just called the angle and the distance. So from the position they’ve got of the radar station, they’ve got the angle that you call, the degrees, and then they move it to the angle that you call and then they go out along the rule and they then mark the distance you say.
What did the radar equipment look like if you were looking at it?
A big black wardrobe because the mechanic used to get to it from the back if anything was wrong. Electrical storms could throw the gear out at times. Most of the equipment was in another room that the mechanic stayed in.
But it was just like a lowboy with a desk on the front of it. That’d be about the size.
And what controls would you have in front of you?
Well, mainly it was just one for each hand, one was to calibrate for distance, the other was for moving the antenna to get the angle of the antenna.
You did have a few other knobs you know, if you wanted it a bit darker or a bit duller but generally speaking, when you’d get it in a set, when you first went on, you might prefer it a bit brighter, or a bit duller than the previous operator, cos we’d rotate in the positions because it was tiring on the eyes.
But it was tiring but it was so fascinating, you didn’t know you were tired until you stopped. And then when you took your break or you moved onto the next position, you sort of gave a deep sigh probably and as if to say, “Well, I’m a bit tired.” But you didn’t know it while you were still there, because it really was an absorbing thing. Cos even
if there were no aircraft around, you were still looking for them, you were still sending your antenna side to side. I mean, like from Caloundra, we would go to the southeast and we would go to the northeast. Well we very rarely went past due north. We’d never go northwest, because that wasn’t our area that we were concentrating on.
For instance, also, like in Townsville, our doover was in an area that was below sea level. That was because we concentrated on high-flying aircraft, whereas Cape Cleveland, which was at the southeast tip of the bay at Townsville there, just south of Magnetic
Island, that used to concentrate on low flying, they could also concentrate on shipping. But they were sitting high on a cliff and they used to focus more at low altitudes, we concentrated on high. So one station could not cope with both.
Why was it better to be below sea level if you were doing high altitudes?
I don’t know but you’d have to ask a mechanic that but that was the general idea. I mean, if you wanted to do high flying, you wouldn’t go and sit on top of a mountain. If you sat on top of a mountain you’d have to focus down. But when you’re down low and you want high flying, you focus up. But if you’re already up, there’s going to be a gap. But that was the idea, that you had certain ones which were for low flying and also
for shipping, and others which were high flying and you’d get them as low as you could. Once they closed the station there and we were stationed in Townsville. Just go back, mentioning Cape Cleveland, cos we did visit several times, we visited as a fellow unit, if you get what I mean at Cape Cleveland, but they
were only men over there. There were no women operators over there. I think that was probably because of the accommodation side, there wasn’t the space for both. But once we’d finished at Alligator Creek, and we were at the station in the barracks at the
Grammar School in Townsville, to fill in time, we used to go across to Magnetic Island a lot. And one of the girls had a boyfriend who was in the Air-Sea Rescue, who used to operate these landing craft to go out to rescue any aircraft that had come down in the vicinity or anything like that. So we used to raise money for the Red Cross, who had a convalescent home
on Magnetic Island round, might have been at Alma Bay, but I’m not sure on that. But anyway, we’d charge one and six or something like that, which these days would be fifteen cents, but we’d take everybody over to Magnetic Island, we’d give them a lunch,
the cooks and that used to save up extra rations for a week or so, and so we didn’t have to pay for any of the stuff we used towards lunch. But we raised a few pounds and give it to the Red Cross and then anything that wasn’t eaten, they’d give it to the convalescent home that the Red Cross operated. Except one day we were coming back and there
were a couple of cases of fruit that hadn’t been eaten. So we thought we’d take them back, they hadn’t been opened. So after everybody - these were like landing craft, you know the front goes down - so as everybody got on, and they were all just standing round talking, they’d had a good day, I said, “Let’s get rid of the fruit.” We opened a case of fruit and you’d just say,
“Here, catch.” And you know, it was one of the most memorable things that any of these picnic days we went on, because the competition to catch an apple, or an orange, if I’m not mistaken. And we got rid of both cases of fruit instead of having to take them back we had empty cases, because everybody made a fun game out of catching
to see who could catch the most. And I don’t think the convalescent home is still there any more. But they did a lot of very good work, so we were able to make donations, cos there were a lot of people brought back down from New Guinea and they were…that have a few days there before they’d come on down south, because they were pretty badly wounded and that. But no, it was
by this time the anxiety had gone, it was sort of halfway between service and civvy [civilian] life again.
Towards the beginning of your service, when you were at Richmond and also later in the other stations, you were explaining how the radar worked, you mentioned that there was someone on plotting where the planes were, what would they do, to do that? What equipment did they have?
A pencil and a large board, which was marked into squares, you had all the A, AB and you had the phonetic alphabet, ‘Alpha, Bravo’ and that’s when you would call the angle from the station, and you would call the distance.
Now those people had from memory it was attached there, on the side, and they had this rule, they would then turn that to the angle that you said, which was the direction from the station, then they would go along that rule, for the distance that you said, and they would then mark it and they would, if I think from memory, they would also mark the time.
And they would mark that, by this time you would be then calling another, so the angle may have changed by two degrees, and the distance by three or four miles, they would then mark that. And then they would mark a third one. Now, if you had one there, one there and one there, that is obviously, it’s the same aircraft, they would then connect those up. But as they’re marking them, and they are on this
chart which is done into squares and they would plot and they would then, cos they’d have a headset on, through to the control room. And they would then call that through, that if it was in the AB block, it’d be “Alpha Bravo.” And then they would read the reading in that block. As to whether it was five, six or whatever, which
would then make it possible for the person at the other end to put on the table an indicator that there’d been an aircraft at that particular spot. So what one person had got on the radar, another person had…what’s the word I want? Well taken your reading, and
they from that got a reading on the plotting board, which is out in squares. Then the girl at the other end, reinterprets that, back to where the plotting table was and marking it on the plot, the controller then can look down from a higher position and they see that’s
there. They know aircraft movement, they know what is expected, they know what has just gone. And if you’ve got something coming in that is not expected, they haven’t been notified, then they get others to check, and from another station and they’ll check and they’ll see if others are picking up the same aircraft. Also
then there comes in as to whether or not if IFF is notified, that is marked then on the little stand that they would… I’m sure you’ve seen it in movies where they’ve got this large table, it’d be 20 or 30 feet long but it covers the whole area of that district, and the plotting puts the position of that and
then say, two minutes later, there’ll be a second one and a third one and a fourth one, they can then realise that that is one aircraft and it’s flying in that direction and this is where they would check up. But once you’ve got IFF, it would be added to one of those little stands, they know then that it is a friendly aircraft.
How would you pick up IFF?
It comes in where the
drip, like an iridescent syrupy drip, it goes like this and you would have to time that. Because in timing it, then the controllers in the headquarters would be able to identify which aircraft it was, by the timing of the IFF.
Did each plane have an individual code in the IFF?
I don’t know all the details but that was, our part of it, we had to sometimes, it would be quite quick, other times, it would be quite slow, I don’t know, we never, we didn’t have to learn that, we just had to report. But the controller, controlling officer, would be able to identify from that.
So how many people would be in this radar room doing this work at any given time?
What, on the plotting table?
Well where you were
looking at the screen and the plotting?
Well there was a group; it was a shift of four. One would be off, one would be on the phone and one would be on the like, that was on the plotting and one would be on the radar itself. And the other was on well, stand-by, so if something was needed, but the mechanic never did any operating.
He was always in the other room unless something went wrong. No, it was a real team thing. A real team thing. Because it wasn’t as if someone read something there and then they had to go and do this with it and that, they’d just verbally pass the information and the other, the third
one would be logging it anyway, cos you had to keep a log. Because at the time the Centaur went down, we weren’t able to identify whether or not we had had it on the radar or not. Because we really would often pick up whales, out from Bribie Island, they’d be thrashing around for hours
up there and you could go up on the roof of the doover and you could watch them, and then they’d disappear. Now you wouldn’t know whether or not you’d picked up whales or whether or not, you’d… We’d had the Centaur. We could never confirm it. I believe that the last twelve months they’ve got a memorial now there at Caloundra for the Centaur.
It was the hospital ship that was sunk.
When did you hear that the Centaur had gone down?
No, I don’t remember. I know that they checked the log but we couldn’t be sure whether we ever had it or not. I don’t remember how we heard,
I know we – the army had a base up there round Dicky Beach side, and for weeks they were trailing up and down the beach for different things that had been washed ashore. I don’t know what they ever found cos we really weren’t in touch with them to that degree and if we were you didn’t talk about these things,
especially with that sort of thing happening. But there was, for instance, there was an officer in charge of the WAAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force], but she wasn’t trained in radar. And she used to always get a bit annoyed, every station I was on, they never liked the
fact that they weren’t allowed to come in the doover, in the operations room, because it was only, well the guards weren’t allowed in either. We had a guard at the door. We had two guards on all the time. But they weren’t allowed to come in. It was only those who were actually operational staff who were allowed to come in near the equipment.
And it used to make the WAAAF officer a bit annoyed to think she couldn’t get in. In fact, the officer at Caloundra if I’m not mistaken her name was Dalton. Dalton. Wouldn’t swear to it, but I think it was. She always felt she was badly done by. Something
just occurred to me, when we’d had the smash the first day it was open there at Caloundra, we were taken to Nambour Hospital and from there out to the other army hospital in the Ipswich Road. And then when I came out of hospital, which was some weeks later, I was taken to the barracks and
the main barracks in Brisbane. Is there a North Terrace, or something like this? And I stayed there because I’d been given home leave. And visiting at the time was the head of the WAAAF. I can’t think of her name, you girls might have heard it, but I can’t think of her name, but her niece, had been on course with us
at Richmond and I can’t think of the name. Anyway, she was rather close to radar operators and she was very upset with what had happened to Harry. Anyhow when she knew that I was going home on leave on the troop train, she gave specific orders and I was
given a sleeper. And here I am in the carriage coming down from Brisbane, cos that was a big thing in those days, but I was on I think it might have been the first division of the Brisbane Express, but it was mostly army and that, service people who were on it. And here are all these colonels and majors and everything and I was a poor, lowly ACW [Aircraftswoman] and I had a sleeper and they were sitting up and the
looks that I got. They couldn’t understand, I don’t think they ever knew why. But she insisted that I be given a sleeper, which, well it was something I couldn’t have afforded then if I was travelling anyway under my own steam. But she insisted I be given a sleeper, I thought was very nice because I can’t think of her name.
How do you think the female officers in the forces were treated by their male colleagues?
Oh I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. I’ve got two stripes and because I stopped the officer going into the operations room one day, I just told her, “I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed in.” She resented the fact and I believed later that she was the one that stopped my third
stripe. But it didn’t matter, because there was only one sergeant on the unit, so you didn’t have a special sergeants’ mess, if you’d been in a big unit, you know, like Richmond or something like that, it was good to have had a third stripe, because then they had a sergeants’ mess and they had special things and all that. But you had nothing extra, except a bit more in your pay packet, as a sergeant on these units, you know, with about
well you can imagine, there were say, about eight guards, there were sixteen operators, there was a male officer and a female officer, and usually one cook and one first aid attendant. The first aid attendant at Caloundra, his name was Fogerty, and he was the most gorgeous old character you could have ever met.
His name was Fogerty. Fancy me remembering that. He was a man and a half, he was a lovable old creature, he really was. And that was how many there were on a unit. So it was no good – three stripes didn’t get you anywhere.
How do you think, generally, women in the forces were perceived
by civilians and also by men?
Oh I think that civilians they had a lot of respect for the people in them but you see, again, it was a totally different, where you’ve got the girls in the army and there were hundreds of them on a unit somewhere or something. We were so few and far between. Because even the way there’s say 28 or 30 people,
there were always, most of those were always on the unit. So as far as, like at Caloundra for instance, as an example, to see us around the town, there would only be two or three of us that were free to go round the town at any one time. No, it was
very different from if we’d been on a large unit. I think that really would have been a totally different experience, both from attitude of the public but, generally speaking, the public were pretty good towards any of the service personnel. But we didn’t experience much of it, because like for instance, being in such a small unit there was up at the back of Caloundra, there’s a place called
Maleny and there was a woman up there and she felt very sorry for us, all being away from home. And she’d have us up there staying overnight for a break. And we’d get up there somehow. Don’t know how. Can’t remember now. But she’d just look after us and give us a bit of her home treatment overnight. You know, a home-cooked dinner and this sort of thing. But our meals were more or less, because they were only prepared for
20-odd people at a time, they really were almost like home-cooked meals. Especially I think the one outstanding thing was that when I was at Lytton, and the chef there, it was a very awkward situation there because our barracks were in Wynnum, but we didn’t get any meals there. We had to walk a couple of miles to get our meals.
But he was an English chef and he was very good and he’d say, “Anyone who is going to be here for dinner tonight, leave your sweet plates.” So we’d leave…cos we had to always wash your own dishes and take them and bring them back for the next meal. And he used to prepare some absolutely fantastic desserts if you were going to be there for dinner. So you usually ended up walking that distance to get them cos
there was no transport. But then again, at I think it was Caloundra, we never had fresh milk. If there was any fresh milk, it was only enough for any cereal at breakfast. So it was powdered milk to have in your tea or coffee and it was never mixed properly and it didn’t mix like the new brands of powdered milk these days.
I haven’t taken milk in my tea since, because you always had the lumps floating around, and I haven’t had milk in my tea ever since then. Turned me off it. But I have it in my coffee. But I couldn’t – coffee was rare. We very rarely got a cup of coffee. It was tea. And that’s the same as I won’t eat spaghetti or baked beans now, because they were on every day. You might like them now, but if you had them every day for months on end, you wouldn’t want them again, either. I’ve never bought a tin of spaghetti or baked beans.
What other food would you eat? What would be the typical meal?
I don’t think there was anything typical. It was just a case of what they could get at the time. In some places they could get some local produce. Caloundra was the best place as far as off duty was concerned, in as much as that there were regular bus service which could get us into Landsborough to get the train down and I’d go and stay overnight with two different families that were close friends with in Brisbane, and the bus would get you back about half past ten at night.
Interviewee: Joan Dobson Archive ID 1793 Tape 04
Joan, can you tell me about what you did when you first got to Lytton?
Yes, well our barracks were at Wynnum in the Margaret Maher Memorial Home For Boys, but during the war it was full of girls. That was a strange experience to have to walk to work, especially as that was the
holding area, between where our barracks were and where the operations room was, it was a holding area for horses that were being sent overseas for the army. And if you were going on to start at midnight, you’d be walking along, a guard would come out and walk with us, he’d walk from the operations area, where the men were stationed, at
barracks as well. But he would walk and bring us on, then he’d have to walk again, to take the coming off shift back. Well you’d be walking along a road which was just elevated from the surrounding paddock area, which was all open, no fences, and you’d hear horses hooves. And you would put a torch, you all had torches, you put a torch up level with your eyes
and you see these pairs of eyes on these galloping horses, coming straight towards you. The only thing to do was to get behind the telegraph poles, so we’d line up behind the telegraph poles and that was our only safeguard against those horses. Nobody was ever hurt, but they were gorgeous creatures, but they were ready there for shipment overseas for the army. But the army were actually stationed down at
Fort Lytton, which is still there, it’s now a museum more than anything. But the army also then instructed us in how to use a 303 rifle. I never want to fire a rifle again after what it did to my shoulder. But we had to learn to use them but we were never issued with rifles. But if the need had arisen, we’d have known how
to use one. And thank goodness, I never needed it.
What sort of need would that have been, that you would need to fire a 303?
I hate to think. But it was at the mouth of the Brisbane River, I mean, if there’d been any invasion and at that time, that was when they were creating the Brisbane Line, which was where they were intending to hold fast. They were prepared to sort of let the Japs come down that far,
before they could get enough Australian defence force to protect the areas south of there. It was called the Brisbane Line, but it never came to that.
We know about the Brisbane Line now, how aware were you at the time of how…?
Oh we were aware of it, it may not have been in the papers or press or anything like that. But in those days, we rarely saw a newspaper ourselves.
Well, newspapers didn’t get out to those places. You might see one a week, perhaps, but you get your news in other ways, I mean we didn’t have radios. I wonder sometimes how we did get our news.
But you got a lot of mail from home. But then again, mail from home, came through official channels. They didn’t address it to us at the Margaret Maher Memorial Home For Boys or anything. I don’t know whether that’s still there. I’ll go and have a look one day.
What sort of censorship was there of those sorts of communications, given how sensitive the work was that you were doing?
Mail was censored, going out.
But we were aware of what we could or couldn’t say. I don’t know that anything I ever said was ever cut out of any of our mail. Well, if you were to put in something that you shouldn’t, you were only endangering your own life as well as other people’s, but you were putting yourself in danger. So you just didn’t do it.
It was totally different for the men who were up on the front line itself, because this is why the girls were taken into the radar. Because as they were gradually getting more radar stations and the equipment was coming, so that they could have them up around New Guinea area and the northern Australia area and that. They needed the men to go up there so we replaced
the men at the stations that were down here. They had a nickname, the men on the radar stations. The ‘voluntary targets’ they were called, because the first thing, if the Japs were wanting to attack the place, the first thing they tried to do was eliminate the radar, because the radar knew when they were coming. If they could eliminate that
and they got a nickname of ‘voluntary targets’. So the men were the only ones that were sent into the northern areas in the early days or into the islands later because there wasn’t that much of the equipment, the stations were few and far between. They did have a few down south. There was one at Unley in South Australia that
I know of, but I mean I never went south but I do know there was one down in Unley. I can’t remember offhand where the others were but you were very conscious of…I mean if anybody said, “Where are you stationed?” You’d just say, “Brisbane” or you’d just say, “Townsville” or you wouldn’t pinpoint
where it was, because even if you trusted them, you didn’t know who might hear. So you just then, because you were only putting yourself at risk if you said the wrong thing, but it was same as the people in Townsville. “Oh, where are you stationed?” “Alligator Creek.” You know, well they’d think you were pulling their leg, but there were no alligators and there was no creek. There was a creek up in the hills, we’d go up and swim in occasionally,
but no, you were conscious of it, because you were involved in the actual operations, you know, whereas if you’d worked in the stores somewhere or something like that, it didn’t matter what was happening, it didn’t affect you. But with our job, if the Japanese had decided to invade around the Townsville area or something, well
we were very much in the line of fire. And the same at Brisbane, they were down there at Lytton and also Caloundra. If they’d decided they were going to try and attack in the Brisbane area, well, they’d have been immediate targets. So it was for your own safety that you didn’t talk about it. But
no, I don’t know that anything was ever cut out of any of the letters I wrote home.
What was the security like for the doover?
Well we always had two guards on duty. I don’t remember at any of the units of ever hearing of a shot fired or anything. But no,
it was a precautionary thing.
As you’re approaching the doover, can you explain what it looks like from the outside?
A garage without a door, that’s all, it was just a square building, with square – and when I say, “square,” I mean a square - because it had a flat roof because the antenna was on it, and the antenna was large and partly curved like that.
And then the camouflage netting was draped around it but, other than that, it was only a concrete block, hollow at that. Only two rooms inside, I honestly can’t remember what we had as far as toilet facilities. I can’t remember.
Would you have gone in the bush?
No, no, you didn’t go in the bush, not up there
you didn’t. No, I can’t remember now. No, I can’t remember.
Why wouldn’t you have gone in the bush up there?
Maybe you just had to sit with your legs crossed a bit longer. Shouldn’t have them crossed, not good for you.
Why wouldn’t you have gone in the bush up there?
Snakes. No way. No, they were in isolated, even Caloundra, it was surrounded
by bush and there was a road down to the barracks but it came into the back of the barracks anyway, Kings Grand Central Boarding House, which isn’t there any more I believe.
So how far would it be from the barracks, how far would the doover be from the barracks?
Oh at Caloundra, half a mile, I suppose, might have been a mile, but wasn’t very far there.
Lytton was a couple of miles, I think. Alligator Creek, well you’d cross the railway line. It was only a matter of a couple of hundred yards. But we went looking for it, when we were up there and there was no use asking anybody, nobody knew it existed, I think they’d think you were making it
all up now. Although I did see, in one of the Veterans Affairs papers towards the end of last year, the secretary of the RSL [Returned and Services League] at Bribie Island was asking for a contact from anybody who had been in the defence forces in the Brisbane area during the war.
And at that time I would have loved to have got in touch with him but I wasn’t very well at that time, and but I thought he may not have even known about the radar at Lytton or for that matter Caloundra. Because Caloundra is just at the north end of Bribie Island, it’s the first surfing beach north of Brisbane, and
we used to go down to the Pumicestone Passage on our time off and, if it was between tides, you could swim across to Bribie Island but you had to be in a hurry and swim back otherwise you would have been carried either in or out with the tide, because it used to rush through Pumicestone Passage, to that degree.
What were the other women like in your unit?
Mostly from interstate. This is why I’d never kept in really close contact with as far as ex-service was concerned, because they were from Western Australia. There was Lynette Good, she was married to a doctor in Adelaide; there was Nicky Connors, she came
from down near Manjimup in Western Australia; there were girls from Victoria, but there weren’t many. I went to one reunion with a girl that, she wasn’t a radar operator she was a plotter, in the operations room, I went to one reunion with her, she was the only person
I knew there, because we were in such small units, that it wasn’t as if you’d been on a large unit where you knew 50 or 60 people. You just – there were more people from other states. And it was the only time I went because the only person I knew was the girl I went with and she lived out the other side of Parramatta anyway, so it
wasn’t as if you had sort of any close friends. I kept in touch with especially some in Victoria for years I think she must have passed away because I never had replies in the last few times. But this is why I suppose I appreciate the reunion I had with the nursing crowd.
I didn’t make it to their 50th get-together, because I’d just had a hip replacement but if you could have seen us after 58 years, you would find it hard to imagine. And the people at Dormy House, I think were just as flabbergasted as we were as to what it was really like. But we’ve had several but they were mostly country girls,
and we had one out at Bathurst and the last one down at Moss Vale and we were going down to Griffith but the weather turned nasty and being so dry out there and the locusts, we decided not to.
What sort of mathematical technical ability was required to be in the radar unit?
Well they said, you had to be good at maths, so while I was waiting for my call up, I went back to night
college and brushed up on some maths, none of which I ever used, but you had to be able to use your mathematical judgement because it was on mileages and like distance and angles and that sort of thing. I think that’s where they got the idea of being good at maths was concerned. But you didn’t have to put two and two together to make four; you just called it as you saw it.
It was up to the others in the headquarters – the headquarters for this in Townsville incidentally, where all our information went, was actually underground, it was built in under a hill. I went there for a while after they closed the station and you were underground; you went in through this hill and twelve hours later you came out. In the morning, when you were on night shift,
it was like going into a mine. It was a bit brighter inside than a mine, mind me, but I think I’d be claustrophobic now if I went into it.
And what was on the inside of it?
Well that was for safety and security, they only had to guard the door to get in, because that had a lot of information in there as to aircraft movement and that.
And that was the headquarters for…?
Well, no it wasn’t headquarters,
it was the main plotting – when I say, ‘plotting’, they weren’t plotting to attack anything, but they were plotting on a table, you see, and where the reports would come in and the aircraft positions had been nominated, then those who were the officers in charge could then track these and say, “Well those two are definitely the one aircraft and we know which one that is, it’s coming down from Rabaul to
Townsville or Cairns.” Or, “It’s flying through to Brisbane it’ll be.” And then they’d track it and it’d go off the board and by then it would be into the Brisbane area and they would, but it was the centre of like the web.
How was the information delivered from say, Caloundra to Townsville?
No, no, it didn’t go from Caloundra to Townsville,
Caloundra went into Brisbane, from Townsville there was, well Cape Cleveland and Alligator Creek, there were some others up the coast but, you see, one area would be covered there and that would go into Townsville from there, to the next would be go into Brisbane, but Townsville would be able to tell Brisbane something was coming
down, coming into their area. Brisbane would then pick it up. From there farthest north, I mean we didn’t even know where all the other stations were unless perhaps one of our operators had been moved there or come from there. But we didn’t know, but you didn’t go asking either because it was best not to. There was, just brought back a funny memory.
When they first went to Townsville, you had to wait until the Burdekin River went down and we went from their exhibition grounds, which is like the showground, we went by troop train and we were in one of the old carriages that just had a seat along each side, and then had toilet facilities in the centre of the carriage and so we had half a carriage. There wasn’t enough room for us all to lie down; there was enough room for us to all sit
down but we were on that for two nights, because it was very slow. To lie down, we had to lie on the floor, two of them preferred to lie in the outside part, but when we’d stop for meals, no meals were served on the train, we’d stop and we were at different places for meals,
on the railway station, anyhow, then before we got to Townsville we were told, “We’ll get to Ross River tomorrow morning.” So we wake up the next morning, “Oh there’s water, that must be Ross River; we’ve stopped for breakfast.” And the girls were still in their underwear, wrapped in their rugs out on the end of the carriage, you know where the entrance was, and they were still asleep
there. But it turned out it wasn’t Ross River, they’d made up a bit of time and we’d arrived in Townsville and here they were, they became quite notorious, these girls that were…cos there were a lot of them going to different units. But it was quite an experience on that troop train in Queensland. Because they had a hymn they used to sing,
I’ll walk beside you. You know, the hymn.
Can you sing some of it for me?
Well, it was a hymn but that was how slow the trains were, you could walk beside it. So that hymn became the theme song of the railways during the war. But it was, used to stop at a place just outside St Lawrence and one time, the watermelons were in season and
this truck would pull up beside the train, and the boys would buy a whole watermelon for two shillings in those days. And they used to give it to the girls, because the girls were only about half a carriage full of girls. And they’d give us all these big slices of watermelon, so when the train pulled out, cos there was no air conditioned trains, but every window of the train would be open with people hanging out, eating watermelon.
If you can imagine that sight, it brings back memories, it really does. But that was near a place called St Lawrence. But I think it was at Rockhampton, we used to stop for one meal, and we were in Rockhampton a few years
ago and we just happened to mention this and one of the women said, “I used to work in the canteen there that used to serve meals to the troop trains.” And chances are, she’d served me a meal, you know, during the war.
So where would the canteens be? Were they temporary?
No, well you know on a platform, you can go in and there’s a refreshments, well they used to serve all meals. One of
the platforms had built an extra one at the end, I can’t think where, which it might have been Mackay, I’m not sure. They’d built an extra bit at the end and you’d go up there and they would give you free fruit, they would give you pineapples, they would give you paw paws, mangos, whatever was in season. And they would give it to you. And they
were all volunteers and all this had been provided from growers in the area, and they would give it to people on the troop trains.
How busy was this movement of troops all the time in Queensland?
Oh, it was huge. I did it five times that troop train between Townsville and Brisbane, five times in one year. I only once managed to get on an aircraft. And then
that was – I’ve forgotten what sort of aircraft it was now - but they were only aluminium seats, which was an aluminium bench but it sort of had a dip that you sat in and we no sooner left Townsville than we got up to the height that they had to fly out. They got ice on the wings and I’ll tell you what, those aluminium seats had ice on them too, I think.
I’ll never forget how cold they were.
Who else was on the plane?
I can’t remember now, can’t remember. Only our Australian forces, you know.
Do you know why you were put on a plane instead of a train?
Oh you always tried to get on a plane if you were coming home on leave because anything was better than the troop train. You got an extra day or two at home as well.
But I think that was when I was coming down December ’44 because that was the year my brother got home for the first time since ’39 and I had asked for special compassionate leave, which was granted.
And what was that reunion like with him?
Oh, unbelievable, he’d already arrived home before I’d got down. But no, it was unbelievable. Well, we hadn’t seen him for all those years. But at that time, it was only later he started to talk about his experiences. And one of his –
which affected him in later life - was in one of the landings in North Africa, there’d been a shell had fired and landed not very far from the ship’s propeller, and they didn’t know whether it was damaged and of course, being mostly Englishmen on board, very few of them could even swim, let alone dive. And so he volunteered to dive in and
see if any damage had been done to the propeller. And not sure whether it was two propellers or three, they had on it. But anyway, they tried to rig up a breathing apparatus for him. And then he had a cord, which he pulled for this and two pulls for that. And he
thought he was signalling for them to bring him up after he’d checked it, but he kept pulling on the air hose and it was cutting off his air for a while and it did affect him in later life. He did suffer some brain damage, which affected him more later than it did in the immediate future. But
he was a very good swimmer in his day.
What was the role of the ships that he was posted on?
Well first of all, it was doing convoy work. He was only ever on the one ship. He’d been on the same ship since 1938 until 1944 when he came home. But that was,
well, it did convoy work at first, and then it was used as a command and communication ship. One newsreel showed it, I believe, I never saw it. But one after the landings on D-Day, it showed it and it said, “Mother
hen keeping all the chicks in order.” And it was a very fast ship. And it was the overseer for all of them; it had all the controls on board. But it was a lovely ship.
When you were back in Sydney on leave and seeing your brother in ’44, how had Sydney changed as a
result of the threat from the Japanese?
Oh I don’t know. We were down at the Hotel Pacifica Manly as a matter of fact. We were down there; the whole family went down there. And I
thought he was tanned because he’d had the time on the ship coming back when he wasn’t working, so he’d been getting a bit of a tan, and they said, “Oh see his tan.” But then they saw the tan I had from being in Townsville, but no, it was the first time the family had been together since September ’39.
How did your parents feel about you being in the services?
I don’t know, they never really told me, but they backed me with what I decided to do. You know they were there, if I wanted them. My father, when especially at Caloundra, cos Caloundra had a very good fish shop and we’d
go down there at time off and we’d buy fish and chips, and my father used to put a ten-shilling note in the letter and this was to buy fish and chips - or we used to call it ‘chish and fips’ - for all those on the shift. And that was a lot of money in those days. But
‘chish and fips’. No, there were some good times, and there was a lot of very close friendships but because you were moved around and then when the war was over you got on with your own private life, you couldn’t keep up a very close friendship with someone who lived in Perth, cos see, couldn’t fly in those days.
There weren’t the airlines that there are now. Never even heard of half, you know, I mean, Qantas, only started in 1920, you know that? Same year I was born, that was a big year: Qantas started and the NRMA [National Roads and Motorists Association] started and I was born. And the Pope, he was born that year too.
What sort of physical contact or training did you have with aircraft when you first
joined the air force?
So when was the first time you actually flew on a plane?
Might have been that time down from Townsville, I don’t think I’d been on one prior to that.
I’d been out to see Amy Johnson arrive at Mascot. But you didn’t think about aircraft then like you do now. Like, when Melbourne – it was the sesquicentenary I think - but Melbourne had an air race from London, but you used to keep track of it
by buying the evening paper, that’s how long it took. Also, you don’t realise aircraft didn’t always fly 20 hours, London to here. Was more like 20 days. I don’t know how long it took, but it was a long time, and you followed it by buying the paper to see where it got to and who was leading.
So how were
women actually selected for the radar unit in training?
No, you chose which mustering you went into.
Can you explain how the musterings work?
Well, if you went down to enlist, you fill in a form and they would tell you which mustering had a vacancy at the time, you see. That’s where they said, “Radar operator.” I said, “Oh I don’t want anything
to do with Morse code.” And he said, “We don’t know what it is, but it’s nothing to do with Morse code.” So I said, “Oh well, all right.” And I didn’t know any more than that. I’d never heard of radar.
So did they test you on particular skills that you had?
They tested me on maths. I don’t know because I did more testing on maths than I ever used maths for. You had to be able to use a
judgement, that was mainly what it was, to operate it.
So what were the tests like that they gave you?
Oh I can’t remember that now. I don’t know, I can’t remember. But no, I’ve always liked maths. I’m better at figures than I am at names.
So what did you want to do when you were at school then?
I don’t know, I just went and did office work. Went to business college and did office work, probably because that was what my two sisters had done before me. Learnt bookkeeping, typing, shorthand, never used shorthand, hated it. Never that good at typing but that was where with typing I could have gone in,
you see, as a teleprinter operator. But the mustering had closed; they didn’t need any more at that time. So this is where he made the suggestion, he didn’t know what he was suggesting any more than I knew what he was suggesting, but I think I was just in the right place at the right time. It really was, because it was an unknown thing, it was something
completely different from anything you’d even, you wouldn’t have even read about it, you know. And it was fascinating because no two days were ever the same. No two shifts were ever the same. What was happening at the beginning of a shift could be totally different from what happened at the end and I think
that there was nothing in it that was monotonous. Everyone would think that being six hours on and twelve off would be monotonous but because the work was never the same, you never knew what to expect. You didn’t – you couldn’t ever be tired of it. You were never bored. Because even if there was nothing happening,
you were always looking for something to happen, because you had to still keep scanning for the skies, to see if there was any sort of blip of an aircraft. So you were never bored. And even the person sitting on the plotting board and they were on the phone to the other end, they could be chatting away to someone who was in Brisbane or Townsville that was in there,
and they’d be saying, “No, it’s pretty quiet at the moment.” But then if anything happened, the conversation stopped and from then on, it was just plotting information. And but it was an unpredictable thing cos you never knew when aircraft were going to be passing or which direction or
what they’d come from. I mean, I suppose I could go for weeks and not even see an aircraft. But I saw a lot of blips, because it was like an iridescent drip of honey or something, but green, greeny colour.
Was there a time or a place you remember where that activity was the most
Oh no. No, I couldn’t say one was any more than the other. No, I couldn’t say, wouldn’t try, especially now, you know, after so long. No, they all had their moments. Didn’t matter where you were. But then again you’ve got to realise that what was coming through at Townsville would probably end up coming through at Brisbane and coming down into Sydney. So
it was more or less similar all the way. But no, it wasn’t as if it was routine because none of these movements were according to schedule. Not like a Qantas schedule now, or any of these airlines, because they flew at different times of the day according to what the need was.
But also could be according to which army chief was being flown back or flown up or whatever. Sometimes there’d be an aircraft where we wouldn’t know why, but we’d plot it flying out in the opposite direction, probably had some big wig on board or something. That didn’t happen very often. But this was where, if
you started plotting an aircraft and it was flying out then you wouldn’t; you’d be told, “There’s no need to follow that any more.” But no, it was unpredictable and it was, I can still see it in my mind’s eye now, it was
Interviewee: Joan Dobson Archive ID 1793 Tape 05
I wanted to ask you, when you first arrived at Caloundra, you mentioned that you had an accident. Could you explain what happened?
All I know is that there had been heavy rain the night before, it was an unmade road, there was a lot of loose sand and I mean, I don’t remember it actually
happening. But the truck apparently, we’d climbed in to get it right back to the barracks, not that it was that far, but if there was a truck you got on it obviously and it skidded on the sand on the road and rolled. I never saw the truck, there was a steep hill, whether it rolled down the side of the hill or not, I don’t know. I didn’t ever see it. But we all had to carry our gas masks, and
steel helmets everywhere – every time we went on duty. And unfortunately, those are what I was told, smashed into my back and smashed me up. I couldn’t move so I didn’t ever see the truck. And I think I was out to it for a while. But
I don’t remember terribly much except Doc Fogerty, our first aid, I think he was a sergeant and he was like an old mother hen, he was so worried about all of us. He endeared himself to everybody because he was so good. But then the doctor and the ambulance, were all taken up to Nambour, which was
the nearest hospital. And every time it went round a bend, I felt my spine was being broken again. And I think it was only about two days we were there, but because we were service personnel, we weren’t allowed to stay in a public general hospital so we were transferred down. Harry was taken down in a separate ambulance but one of the boys that was injured, he
was taken out to Greenslopes, which at that time was a service hospital, and then he was taken out and then I was taken on out to the other one, which was out at, where was it? Yeronga, or Bundamba, something name like that, which is just out on the Ipswich Road, which was an army hospital. I did
know, because she was the eldest daughter of one of the families I used to stay with in Brisbane, and she was in charge of the Red Cross workers there. And of course she got the shock of her life when she saw a name she knew, which was mine, being admitted, with a possible fracture of the spine, pelvis and leg. The first thing she did was contact my family down here in Sydney
and she kept them informed as to how I was. But it was – they had – I didn’t have any surgery, I had loads and loads of X-rays there. But I’m apparently a hard nut to crack, the bones didn’t break but it was the muscles and nerves that had been crushed and so forth. But Harry unfortunately she suffered
a ruptured spleen, which they weren’t successful operating on. I’m not sure but I think it was about five days after that she passed away. But I was several weeks being X-rayed, one leg was shorter than the other and they couldn’t make out what was happening. But eventually they
decided there was nothing broken and I would be able to get up. All this time I’d been lying on a hard mattress on fracture boards with no pillow. But because then I’d been approved for me to get out of bed, I was listed for washing up duty - as soon as I could get out of bed. But well that happened, so as I couldn’t even stand up straight. Others filled in for me
and then as I got my feet and got my balance back, I filled in for them. But that’s what you did cos you still had your chores to do even though you were in hospital. But I’m not sure now how long I was in – it was several weeks, I don’t have dates.
Was it an army truck that had rolled over?
It was a service
truck, yes. It had been, because it was a new unit, there was still things that were being done there and, I mean, if there was a truck there and it was coming back to the barracks, the guards usually in those situations were given transport but we weren’t. So if there was transport there, we were quite at liberty to use it but, oh it wasn’t a civilian truck or anything like that, it
was a service truck but well it was just one of those things.
How many of you were injured?
Three of us ended up in hospital. The other chappie, I think his name was Eddie, he went to live in central Queensland somewhere I believe. He lost his sense of taste,
believe it or not, which – Harry was hurt - but he lost his sense of taste, which used to always upset him when he went round to the pub that was round at Dicky Beach and go round to have a beer with his friends. He couldn’t taste the beer. So that was…he got over it apparently in the end. His taste came back. But they said it was shock that did it.
You mentioned there’d been a bedside hearing?
Yes that was an inquiry into her treatment after she passed away and she had all the possible treatment, but they never left her. And she was,
I never went to the, but she’s in the war cemetery at, is it Lutwyche in Brisbane. But I did check down in Canberra and her name is on the Wall of Remembrance as a casualty of the war, which she was.
How did her death affect the unit?
Well, it really is hard to say, because I was away you see, then for some weeks. And there hadn’t been that much time; well, that was the first day the unit was operating so there’d only been a matter of a couple of days before that that any of us…I probably knew her better
than most of the others because of the fact that we’d been on the same course at Richmond. But you just had to get on, you just had to carry on, you couldn’t stop because of one. I mean, there was a war on and she was a casualty of war, which has
always been my contention when they say, “Oh yes, but someone, they didn’t go overseas to fight.” But she didn’t either, but she still lost her life and she gave it because she was doing what she felt was right. She came from South Australia somewhere, that’s all I remember.
For the young women who came,
many of you as you said, from interstate, what was it like to be away from home during this time?
Different for different ones.
What was it like for you?
I don’t know that I really had much feeling one way or the other, because
it wasn’t as if you’d been sent away. You did know when you joined up that you wouldn’t stay within distance of your own home. That was most unlikely, so mentally I suppose you were prepared for it, therefore you didn’t let it affect you in any way. Just if you’re living in the country and you decided to go to university, you know you’ve got to go to the city, you won’t be home every night in your own
bed in the country to go to bed or anything. You’d just accept that and I think that’s probably what it was, I don’t remember having any feelings, one way or the other. And a posting to another state in those days was in a way an exciting prospect, because so few had travelled interstate. You’ve got to realise in those days ordinary families didn’t have cars.
There were very few cars in private homes and private ownership, and trains were plentiful but they weren’t cheap for what the wages were, so there was not many people would travel long distances by train, so when
you were being posted to another state, it was part of the job and if anything, it was exciting, your chance at someone else’s expense to go and see another state. But you knew that was quite on the cards when you joined up anyway, cos very few people that would join up would ever just stay put in their own home town, and
if they did, they’d be off their rocker. Wouldn’t you just, now the job you’re doing, you wouldn’t expect to get on the same train every morning at nine o'clock, get out at the same station, go into the same office and work there until five and then come home on the same train in your job that you’re doing now. Well you can’t predict
where you’ll be this time next week and we were more or less the same.
How much discipline was there?
Oh more on a big station than there was on small, because being shift workers, you didn’t have early morning parades, and that sort of thing that you had to attend. Once we left Richmond, I don’t think I attended a compulsory parade.
Ever. Because there was no time when everybody was there to attend. Never ever a time. Because there’d be one shift going on, one shift coming off and another one sleeping after the one they’ve done, and one shift on leave. So by the time you’ve taken that, there’s no point in holding a parade. And this is where life on our small units was totally different to life
on places such as Richmond or any of those. So out at Garbutt Airfield out there, Garbutt Airport in Townsville, have you been there? Well, it is named after a family up there and, believe it or not, the Garbutt twins were also radar operators. I only ever met one of them but they were twins
and they were both in, but the airport for some reason was named after the family.
How much freedom would you have?
We did – you didn’t look on it as freedom. You had time
to yourself, yes, we used to go down for swims, like at Caloundra for instance, we’d go down and have a swim. But for instance if you were going back on at twelve o'clock midday, it was your duty to do the sweeping up and cleaning the bathrooms and toilets; you had to do that in that time between 6 am and midday. So
you didn’t – there were certain things allocated to you at certain times - so it was you didn’t look on it as freedom. As long as you did what had to be done and when it had to be done, then your time was your own, but you didn’t sort of look on it as being freedom because you were never locked up so you were never, you could come and go as you pleased on those small units.
But at Richmond for instance, when we’d have leave, you were supposed to be back by say, used to say, “23:59”, which is one minute to midnight. But the train used to get back, if you went to the pictures in town and went back after that, the train would come back after midnight, so we used to get out at the neighbour station and go through a hole in the fence so we didn’t have to go past and
report in late, through the guards. But that sort of thing was only on big units such as Richmond and that was the only time I was on a big unit where that applied. Because on the others, even when we were at the grammar school in Townsville, there were so many coming and going, I mean, you did night shift there where you were taken by truck about five o'clock in the afternoon, you didn’t get back until seven o'clock in the morning.
You weren’t on duty all the time, but when you weren’t on duty, you crawled under the table and had a sleep, because you were there for about fourteen hours so and there was no transport to get you back to the barracks. So if you could snatch a few hours sleep, then when it came to daytime and you were back at the barracks, you had time to go down to the stream for a swim or something. But you just
made the most of any time that was free, but you still just did what your duty called you for, no matter what it was, but you knew what your duties were.
How much socialising was there among the women and the young men in the forces?
Oh, well, as far as the radar was concerned, not much because there was only one mechanic amongst four girls.
So we were mates, but there was no love life between them because it was everything was out of balance, number wise. And not only that, but it wasn’t as if you worked Monday to Friday, nine till five and you had every evening and the weekends off, because I mean,
it was a seven-day job, but it was a seven-night job as well. And it was only when you both happened to be off at the same time and one of the mechanics might be off and he might go out with two or three from other shifts and they go down and go to the local pictures or somewhere, or if there was a dance down at the local hall. But I honestly don’t remember any love attachments, if you get what I
mean, because the time and the work was so much a case of bits and pieces. And our bits didn’t always fit in with their pieces as far as ours were concerned, you know, though theirs may have been regular, morning until evening, if they worked as a clerk or something like that, whereas ours
were daytime, one day and night time the next. So it didn’t lend itself to you know, pairing off. One of them, for instance, in Townsville this was, when I was working out at Sunshine in the barracks, she met an army chap and a month later they were engaged, and a few weeks later they were married.
And they were married for over 50 years. But he was in the army, she was in the air force.
Did you have much contact with American forces?
Not overmuch, because no, not being on a big unit, first time I ever drove a car was an American army staff car. I don’t know how I happened to be given a chance, but
there were several of us and he was teaching us the fundamentals of driving. It was on an emergency airstrip. I don’t know how – I don’t know how or where. But no, not much contact with American forces at all. Well, not much with Australian for that matter either.
Was there much interaction with the civilian populations in the various places where you were based?
No, again, that woman that was out at Maleny, her house was called High Tor, which means ‘High Mountain’. T-O-R. No and there was another one up in Townsville and she used to have us over to give us afternoon tea and you’d sit there being so polite,
little finger out, having your tea, and then cos in our mess we didn’t have saucers, you had a mug and no saucer, and I remember one day and one of the girls was trying to be so polite with her cup and she moved the saucer out and put the cup on the table. But no, some people used to invite the girls over to give them a bit of home cooking or a cup of tea or homemade
cakes or something like that. But that was few and far between from when we were actually on the radar stations, because nobody knew we were there. The town people in Caloundra for instance, they didn’t sort of speak about us very much, because
it wasn’t supposed to be general knowledge what was going on there and more or less the same at Lytton, because we were nowhere near the unit like as far as operations are concerned. As to where our, cos Wynnum is near Manly on the bay side and the other was down on the point at the mouth of the river. And
so the people there probably wondered why on earth all the girls were stopping in the Margaret Maher Memorial Home for Boys and we were a bunch of girls. But it was all – I’m not saying hush–hush - but it was all very quiet in that respect.
What was the accommodation like at Lytton?
In the home?
Well, it was very comfortable. Except one girl from Western Australia ate a mango one time and she was allergic to them. And we each had like as well as our bed, there was a wardrobe like a men’s lowboy but two sides; you had one side of that for your clothes anyhow.
There was a wireless going on top of one of them and she had this allergic reaction to this mango she’d eaten. She got up to turn the wireless off and then fell and hit her head. She was off for six months because she fractured her skull, all from eating mangoes. She was from Western Australia.
Was that dormitory accommodation?
Well, I believe they were dormitories they were just sort of
large rooms and there were as many in as could fit in. It wasn’t like dormitories, not bed after bed, after bed. Not like that at all. Probably four or six was the most I think in any one room from memory. But it was nicer than straight-out barracks though, it was a little bit more homey.
And the accommodation at Caloundra? What was that like?
Well, it was a very large boarding house. And in those days, there were no such things as motels, and hotels were very expensive, and there were a lot of boarding houses and this one was a two storey one, right opposite the main beach, Kings Beach at Caloundra.
The bus passed down at the foot of the big grassy slope in front of it, the bus went along there going into Landsborough, where you’d connect with the train to Brisbane. But no, that was good, because the rooms were only small, but mostly we had a room to ourselves, because there really weren’t many on the unit. So therefore there was enough for us to
have our own rooms. But then again, like when it came to the clerks and that, they might have been sharing, if I’m not mistaken they did, but they were only working daytimes whereas we were working odd shifts and we had to sleep at odd times. So this was why we were given the upstairs rooms that were quiet for sleeping in the daytime and that. But
no, in that respect, I think we did very well for accommodation compared with on some of the bigger units, where they were long huts that were – you had a bed space and not much more.
If I could just ask you – you were talking about the accommodation, what kind of personal belongings were you able to have?
Oh, well you didn’t have much in the way of jewellery, at all, because you didn’t wear jewellery with your uniform. So your personal belongings really were only things like
your underwear and that sort of thing, but you didn’t often wear civilian clothes. Apart from anything else, at that time you had to have coupons to buy civilian clothes and because you were in the services, you weren’t issued with coupons. So not many had them and you weren’t supposed to wear them anyway.
And mostly you couldn’t afford them anyway. But you always had things like writing compendium, you know with the writing pad and that sort of thing. And if you were lucky enough to own a camera, you’d have a camera and if you were lucky enough to get a film when they came in, those sort of things were few and far between
in those days. I’d say the majority of them didn’t have a camera, if anything they would use someone else’s or get a print off someone else’s film. But not everybody even had cameras. Certainly not the digital, minute things they have now.
You mentioned earlier in the accident that you had your gas masks and your
helmets with you. Could you explain in as much detail as you can, what the actual uniform was that you had and what you would carry with you at all times?
Well if you were going on duty, you always had to have your gas mask, which was in a knapsack thing, and your helmet was on the outside of it, but you didn’t take that when you went on leave. You left that at the barracks.
Or you went down the town for the day or just down to buy the fish and chips I told you about. But you had to take them on duty and then bring them back. That’s why we all had those, but you had to have those because we were a target if the Japs had decided to raid any part there. That’s why
not that far away, there was a small army unit, I don’t know but I would assume they had anti-aircraft guns there but although we met, you didn’t talk about things. You didn’t ask them what they had and they didn’t ask you what you had. They didn’t ask you what you did. They knew by your uniform you were air force in Queensland, usually you were in your khaki, your drabs as they called them. But
when you were working, you were on shift, you wore your jeans, which was a one piece overall. So you only had two of those and one winter outfit. You didn’t have an over amount, cos you had your kit bag, but whatever you had, you had to carry yourself, so you made sure you didn’t have too much. And the most anybody
else would have, besides a kit bag of stuff, would be perhaps one case full and that would be all because otherwise you couldn’t carry it. And there was no one to carry it for you. You had to carry it yourself, so you had as little as possible so that you could manage it yourself. Because for instance, you were going on the troop train, there was nowhere else, you just had to have everything with you. You didn’t check your luggage in or have anyone else look after it and pick it up when you got to the other end.
You looked after it all the way and carried it on and carried it off.
When you were writing letters home, what would you tell them about what you were doing?
Oh nothing. It was mainly about places and the people but nothing about what you were doing. I’m not even sure that my mother knew I was a radar operator. You didn’t talk about it. You talked more
about whether you’d had a swim, or whether you hadn’t had it or whether you’d been horse riding or whatever, it was mainly the sort of…or if you happened to have been at the pictures, what you saw, whether it was good or bad, but those were the sort of things you wrote about and then you sent – the letters were never censored.
You mentioned that when the Centaur was sunk, you thought
you picked it up on the radar. Were you monitoring ships as well as aircraft?
You would report any blip you got. And then when you reported, the second report on it, or the third or the fourth, that would determine whether or not it was a ship or whether it was an aircraft, because of the speed at which it was travelling and how far it went in the amount of time. So
we never, if it was a ship, we never ever knew which ship it was unless we could go outside and look and see it, in the distance. That would be the only time because we were fairly high and you could see a fair way out to sea. But it was only if you were particularly asked, have you got a visual on a particular aircraft you’re reporting or any particular
blip. You would be asked if you had a visual, that was when one of the others that were on, you wouldn’t leave the machine, you wouldn’t leave the radar machine to go out, but then you would get the instruction coming through from the headquarters then wherever it was, Brisbane or Townsville, for a visual. Like, for instance, if it was a visual of an aircraft, a Japanese Zero, everything
that you reported which identified as a Japanese Zero, was one: it had one motor, one single wing, one tail fin, everything was ones. Whereas others had perhaps two engines, two wings, one wing, two tail fins, there were differences, but the Japanese and as soon as you reported a visual, then there would be all ones, that meant then
they would go for perhaps send an aircraft up to check on it. But we weren’t often called on for visuals.
What do you mean by “a visual?”
Use your vision. Look if it’s something that they thought was within sight of us, we’d be asked for a visual. But there were also civilian
spotters. They used to – they had a special name - and they used to be, even up in New Guinea they were in the jungle and they would be supposedly carrying on an ordinary life but they would be spotters and they would spot an aircraft and they would contact by radio,
to say, “One, two, ten, whatever, aircraft had flown over” so they could identify them. Because they had all the silhouettes, they had all the details of all the aircraft that were flying in their area and they would identify which aircraft had passed over, and this would be radioed through. But we didn’t have anything to do with them,
but they were in New Guinea. They were living spotters. They were specially trained, but they had no security, no nothing. And there were a lot of them disappeared without any…you know, for no reason. Obviously they’d been found and they had no equipment that you could see, like you could see
a radar. But they did a very big job in the New Guinea islands.
Did you have binoculars when you were looking for a visual?
I can’t remember having them, no.
How much study did you have to do on the different planes?
Oh you had a chart, which showed a lot of them, but we didn’t go in much for visuals.
So we didn’t really have to do any studying but if there was a plane that was flying low over us and we could just describe it and it was up to someone else then to decide what sort of aircraft it was, it wasn’t up to us. Because the aircraft, we saw, we usually saw them as blips on the screen.
Did you ever find out whether you had picked up any enemy aircraft?
No, we never. They didn’t tell us.
No we’d track them until they were out of our zone and that was it. I don’t remember that we ever thought we had picked any up. But of course quite often there’d be a plane coming back and it was in trouble and we’d pick them up and they were able to then monitor from there and send out an escort to guide them in, it might have had something wrong with their navigation.
But they knew they were coming, that did happen a couple of times. But no, we didn’t often see aircraft. Sounds strange, you know, but then again, not everybody in the army fired guns and not everybody in the navy went to sea. But that’s how it was. It was just another aspect of the job.
On the radar were you able to see whether a plane was having difficulty navigating? Was that something you were able to determine?
Well, we couldn’t see it, but we could suspect it, because it might have been plotting its course was very erratic. But that wasn’t up to us, cos all we had to do was report its position and then again so many minutes and the next position,
and if it was zigzagging, that was up to the controller in at the fighter sector to decide whether or not it was a plane in trouble or an enemy aircraft that was looking for a certain object it was going to drop a few bombs on or something. It was up to them, it wasn’t up to us. But
no it was, see ours was only a case of reporting and it was up to them as to what was done. You could also tell if there was a whole flight of aircraft because that was like great batches of syrup at one time, you would just report perhaps, four plus, ten plus aircraft. It was then up to,
you know, we didn’t act on anything we reported, it was up to them then to filter the information coming in from perhaps four different areas and they would filter that information and decide what it was.
How great was the radius where you were plotting planes?
Oh we did it to, from memory, two hundred-odd miles. Is that what you mean? But
never two hundred miles west. North, northeast mainly and if needed we’d do south, but the position of the station itself, the position of the radar unit, was such that it was focussed to the east through the north. But you weren’t interested in what was coming from the south because that was us.
They could turn the antenna around but that’s why you had the control over the antenna as to which direction you were, because you didn’t want it to just go all the way round, like it does out at the airport. The radar out there turns around as it does on the ship now at sea, it’ll turn around. But we were only doing fanning from one area to another because we had a specific area
we were on watch over.
Interviewee: Joan Dobson Archive ID 1793 Tape 06
Joan, can I ask you to go back and tell us about what your school life was like?
Well, it was a very small school, very rarely more than three or four in a class; it was almost like private tuition. From all accounts, it was very expensive and I used to want to leave and go to the public school
because there were more people there. But I got as far as intermediate and then went to business college, but we used to come down to Brighton Le Sands once a week in summer for our swimming lessons. A bus used to bring us down from the school. We played tennis one afternoon a week. That was the tennis courts opposite St Andrews
Church of England church and Summer Hill. We used to play netball in the grounds of the school but it was a very small school. It was a preparatory school for boys from
kindergarten to primary for Trinity Grammar School and this is why I think we got to know quite a few of the boys of our own age when they were at Trinity, which wasn’t very far away, but it was a preparatory school, they’d do kindergarten there and then go on to Trinity. But it wasn’t an exciting school life whatsoever. It was
run by a Mrs Curtis and her sister, Mrs Spong, two sisters, but it was almost like individual teaching and I was no good at languages, but I loved maths and they’d have, for mental arithmetic, they’d have
all written up on the blackboard covered over and then they’d lift it and you had to then just work it out and write down your answers, and the first one finished got ten points – usually I got a hundred and ten percent being first finished and getting them all right. I did like figure work.
So why did you say to me that you didn’t consider yourself an academic?
Oh, no, I wasn’t an academic.
I wasn’t that keen on history and wasn’t much good at art. It took me twelve months to make a petticoat in sewing. No, I was interested in maths but that was it.
Where was the school and what was it called?
It was called Kurraba. It had its 25th Anniversary and we changed our uniform from navy blue to grey.
It used to be in Hillcrest Avenue at Ashfield then it moved to Tintern Road. It was a nice environment, but it was a very small school. Doesn’t even exist now so, I don’t know when it closed. But my two sisters and I all went there. My
brother went to the local public school.
So what was the reason that your parents sent the girls to this private school?
They hoped we’d learn manners, I suppose, no it was a nice school. I don’t know how they picked it, but it was quite handy to walk there, whereas the other private schools you had to go by bus and train to get to.
But they were at Croydon and Burwood, so I think that was probably the main reason why it was chosen.
How important was your success at school to your parents?
Oh I don’t know, they never mentioned. I suppose they were satisfied so nothing was ever said. No, I don’t think they were…I had no great academic ambitions so I suppose it never came up that I can remember.
Was there every any talk about you finishing school?
Oh no, it just went through to university and then, same as my sisters had done, you see, I went to business college at Stott and Underwood’s, when they were down at Railway Square, upstairs from the Bank of New South Wales on the corner of some street but I don’t know which one at Broadway.
So what sort of opportunities were there for women in
the workforce then?
Oh, I don’t know. The college would find you a job when you’d finished; they would find you a job according to what you’d done, because some of them only learnt typing or shorthand and typing or some had, like I did, the full thing of bookkeeping as well. So they would find you a job according to what you’d done.
And they were good in that respect. I don’t know whether they’re still going. No, the first job I had was at this Hungerford Spooner, the accountants, but their Spooner was in state parliament and they brought in two-piece costumes and he objected and he made quite a name for himself about
objecting to two-piece costumes. Just as well he’s not around these days. See some of the bikinis. But they were handling cases where the courts had taken over financial affairs for a lot of country stores and there was a lot of figure work in it, a lot of figures, and then it was interesting but
when I first went there, there were about four girls senior to me and within a few months they all left. And I as the junior was left doing the seniors, the most complicated ones, and it really was too much and that was why I looked for another job and I was lucky I found this job in this club, which was paid nearly twice as much, with half
the hours and lunch provided.
Why were the working conditions at that job so good compared to the other one?
Oh, it was the environment, it was a residential club for country members coming down; if they came down to Sydney on business, they could stay there. It was an exclusive club. I mean, a man could keep a family on a couple of pound a week and they were paying ten guineas
for six months, so half-year subscription. They were paying ten guineas just to belong. No, it was an… There were three exclusive clubs for men in the city, mostly for businessmen. There was the New South Wales Club, that was in Bligh Street; there was the Union Club on the other side in Bligh Street; and then there was the Australian Club, which was up in Macquarie Street.
The New South Wales Club was the smallest, but in lots of cases, the men reckoned it was the friendliest, and they were pretty wealthy men that were there, but the working environment and the working atmosphere was lovely. There was only another girl – or she was no girl, she was middle aged, the woman I worked with.
But we got on exceptionally well. And then when Freddy Green joined the club as a secretary, he’d been on cruise ships you see, as the – well they weren’t just cruising, but on the Orient Line, so he was the purser and he knew all about catering and everything and he was a very lively and
vivacious person. And he was English, brought his family out and bought a house in Manning Road at Double Bay. Don’t ask me how I remember that.
What was the background of the members, what was the purpose of the club?
They were all businessmen, except there were country members too; they were graziers and that. All the Faulkners, the
family you might have heard of the Faulkners, they’re very prominent, they were all family members and there were a lot of big country families and because then when they came down they didn’t necessarily want to stop in a hotel. If they were just coming down on their own, they came down and they could stay there and old Woodsy would look after them, their clothes and iron their clothes and get their laundry done and these
were the sort of things they didn’t get if they were in a hotel. And they always found they met someone there that they knew. So – see things were so totally different then than what they are now. And the old hall porter, his name was Baker, I can’t think of the chef’s name but he
was a good chef.
Was it a gentleman’s club?
Yes, gentlemen. And they were gentlemen. Sir Arthur Cox, who is long before your time, used to arrive every day for his lunch in a horse and buggy in a hansom cab, with the cabbie up on his platform at the back, you know you’ve seen photos of them and he used to arrive
at the club every day for his lunch. He was Sir Arthur Cox.
Were there restrictions on membership that you were aware of?
Oh, the restrictions were that you had to be able to afford it. But there was, on the second floor there was a billiard room, but on the first floor where the secretary’s office was, then our office
and our lunch room, were on the first floor, but they also had a domino room and they had all the special beautiful tables and these men used to play dominos after they’d had their lunch. It was very, very popular. Domino room. You’re laughing but that is true.
I believe you.
Were there restrictions in terms of religion?
No. No, religion didn’t come into it, no, didn’t come into it at all.
What were you paid at that job?
Too much for what I did. According to my sister, because she’d been working for AWA [Amalgamated Wireless Australasia], which was Australian Wireless, and she’d been there for some years,
and I started off getting more than her and then at Christmas they - cos they didn’t tip staff, cos there was no money being transacted every day, everything was signed for - so when it came to Christmas the members would sign a chit for a Christmas fund for the staff. And the first year I was there, I was allocated 25 pounds
out of the Christmas club. That was a lot of money at the time, my sister was earning one pound and thruppence a week, I started off I was getting 35 shillings, that was one pound fifteen. And she said, “It’s not fair, you’re getting more” and they then had their Christmas bonus cut out because of the war. I
didn’t get my 25 pounds cut out but because we were managing on our own after the secretary had been called up and sent to Darwin, the committee themselves then doubled our Christmas, so I got 50 pounds for Christmas after war broke out because we kept the place going on our own, between the two of us. And she said she lost her bonus and I got mine doubled.
So what were your day-to-day
tasks, once the war broke out?
Oh it was all things such as arranging menus and this sort of thing, and all trying to identify the signatures on all the chits that they’d signed for their lunch and their drinks and whatever. But no, it was a lovely atmosphere and lovely ‘olde
worlde’ sort of furnishings and that. And it was a lovely atmosphere to work in. I don’t know why, when I went back there, I don’t know why I ever left to go nursing, but I’ve never regretted going nursing.
What did you spend your pay on at that time as a young woman working there?
Oh I don’t remember. Nothing
Did you socialise? Did you go out?
We used to go to the pictures a lot and we used to see all the live stage shows in town. But no I didn’t ever pay to go to the pictures because the people opposite owned the local picture theatre and where there’d be two pictures on, in one order and then the next night reversed, we’d
go out and see the first half, and then go up the next night and see the second half, which would be on first if you get what I mean. So we didn’t often pay to go to the pictures in those days. You’d save up your money for when your holidays came due and that. But totally different,
there weren’t the things to spend your money on and you didn’t have the money to spend on them anyway in those days. And you didn’t have credit cards, so you only bought what you could afford. And you’d save up then for when you were going on holidays, but no, it’s hard to describe, compared with what things are now. But we used to do a lot of
our fun was at home. For instance, with our group of friends all our own age, you know, went to Newington, Trinity and that, and we arranged one night, we had a mock wedding, and all the boys got into the girl’s wedding outfits, someone
was picked out, one of them to be the bride, complete with veil and everything, and one of the boys wanted to be a minister of religion and he wrote the wedding service with the omission of the occasional word or switching of an occasional word, which was very funny. The girls all went in men’s outfits.
Some of us with cream trousers on, tails and bow ties and a straw boater, because all the schoolboys wore straw boaters in those days. Do you know what they are? So we were all dressed up in boy’s wear. Anyhow, we held it at my family’s house, which was big and roomy, and the parents all came as observers at the wedding you see.
We set up the lounge and dining area with pews, rows of chairs for pews, but because it was held there, everybody contributed towards the supper and one boy brought half a watermelon, I’ve never forgotten that. I mean for a wedding breakfast that was half a watermelon. But anyway, we had this and our parents were
observers at it. We were guests at the wedding, but they were interested spectators and they were nearly falling off their chairs at the wedding service, but that’s the sort of thing we used to do. You made your own entertainment and you’d thoroughly enjoy it and those memories, I doubt if anybody’d have memories such as that now,
from going and you know hell-raising with the car and brakes and all this, burning up the roads, and so forth. But these are memories that are good honest fun, of your own making, that hurt nobody. But
those were the sort of things that…and we had a pianola, one of those that play the rolls, and we’d either be playing those or one of them, his name was Norm Mitchell, if he once heard a tune, he could play it. He was an absolute natural. I don’t know whether he’d ever had a lesson but he could play any tune he ever heard. He’d hit a couple of notes and then away he’d go.
And we used to get round the piano at night, you know, six, or seven or eight of us and we’d just be singing and say, “Oh, have you heard the new one.” And we’d sort of hum it a bit and he’d get it and we’d sing it. And also in those days we used to have – Charlie Lawrence, he used to have community
singing and you’d buy a songbook and you’d go along and there’d be hundreds there, everybody singing their heads off, and you come back and you would feel absolutely alive. They might have a bit of a comedian act to give you a break but all the songbooks and I can’t think who used to print them now. But
you’d go along there and you might pay one and six, and you’d come out and you’d feel great because you’d been singing your head off all night. Didn’t matter whether you were flat or not. Nobody took any notice and that was Charlie Lawrence used to conduct those, all over the place and we used to go up to Ashfield Town Hall for that.
Once the war started, how did it affect this sort of recreation and…?
That sort of thing stopped.
No, well Jo Keel our old friend, she joined up the week that war broke out, her number was 292. 292, 294, but she was in the first few days, and she was sent over the 2/1st AGH, which is
Australian General Hospital. She served in the Middle East and that. Sometime later her sister joined up, she was also a nurse, and she was with the 2/5th, she went up to New Guinea. They both came through it all right, but it had a profound effect on Jo Keel, with what she saw from over in the Middle East.
But everything just completely changed. Priorities changed, everything changed, and you just took each day as it came then. So, I don’t think politics played the part that it plays now.
Although we knew our local member very well, he was often a guest in our house, and he and his family used to come down to Cronulla at Christmas time, and we’d have the house on the sand hills, he’d have a house on the esplanade and we’d all get together and have a swim, have fun on the beach.
You said earlier, Joan,
that when war broke out material concerns seemed superfluous, how much were you actually getting paid in the WAAAF and how did it compare to what you…?
I don’t remember how much, it was only about two and eight pence a day or something like that. But it didn’t matter because you had all your meals, everything provided, that was only for incidental personal things. It really went quite a long way.
You got the same whether you were on leave or not and if you were being sent home you had a leave pass given to you and you also had your, I’ve forgotten what they call it now, like a voucher though for your transport. I don’t think people worried about money to the
degree then that they do now. I don’t remember that we ever worried to that extent about money like some of them carry on now about it.
How did your pay compare to the men, do you know?
I don’t know. It really didn’t concern me. I think they did get more once they were overseas, I’m not sure,
but I wasn’t concerned about it. As a radar operator, I was on the highest rate for the WAAAF, but didn’t worry about things like that then. You got your three meals a day, if you never went out of the place you got your three meals a day and a bed to sleep in, so
it was, you know, that was it. I couldn’t tell you, anyhow I’ve often wondered why, I had to hand my pay book in and Noel’s still got his. Nup, I don’t know.
Was becoming an officer or getting three stripes
important to you?
No, didn’t make any difference once were in the unit. It might have if you’d been on a big unit because then there was the sergeants’ mess, or the officers’ mess and things were a bit more social in those, but it didn’t matter on the small unit, because the CO [Commanding Officer] of our unit, he had to eat, he could eat at the same table as the guard who was, or whoever was, you know, anyone.
There were no special facilities for them because it was just too few of us. Couldn’t have an officers’ mess for two people, one WAAAF and one RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force], so you know there was no advantage. I thought it was a bit of a joke when this WAAAF officer, so I believe, knocked back my third stripe, but it didn’t worry me, I thought,
“Oh, it wouldn’t make any difference”, it wouldn’t have changed anything. I might have got ten pence a day, a shilling a day more, I don’t know, but it never worried me and she got satisfaction from it, I got a couple of stripes, that was pretty good. Didn’t worry me one way or the other, because it didn’t get you anywhere. You follow what I mean, you know.
If you were on a big unit, and you did an officers’ course, you had all sorts of extra things, but there was nothing more in ours. And we had more freedom and more liberty than they had, they used to have to attend parades and you name it, we didn’t have any of that. I mean, there are not many units where they had their own horse and sulky, but we did.
We even had our own dog, Shep, I think he was called, Shep. He was everybody’s dog. But you know, you wouldn’t have any of that sort of thing on big units, you were one of a crowd, whereas the other you were one of a small group.
You mentioned that there was an incident in terms of
that officer accessing the doover, can you tell us what happened?
Oh yeah, no, she came up and wanted to come in one day and I just said, “No, we’re not allowed to let you in.” You know, it wasn’t our instructions, we were carrying out instructions and she was a bit put out, but there was nothing we could do any more than there was anything she could do. So no, but she was only
literally, she was only a clerk, she was doing office work and she hadn’t been passed as an operator, so she wasn’t allowed in, any more than the guards were allowed in. So we were only carrying out the instructions, that was all. And you know, I mean, it was very early days of radar,
they didn’t even know what it looked like, cos even from the door the best they could see was the back of it, it was like looking into the back of a TV [television] now. You wouldn’t know what the picture was like on the front. But that’s what it was like. But I mean, she probably was upset but then again, if she’d walked in, she could have then had us up on
a charge of allowing an unauthorised person to enter, so it could have been that she was trying to trap us but we didn’t know. I don’t think she was, but it could have been, to see if we were obeying instructions on who could and who couldn’t enter. But she didn’t try it twice, I remember that.
No, but I think she got the message though.
How did she respond when you refused her access?
Oh, I suppose like anybody would but no, she could have been trying to see if we were obeying orders, but I think she came to realise then that she
wasn’t supposed to and she shouldn’t have put us in the position, but I didn’t take any notice of her though. In a way it was a bit of a joke, if you wanted to get away from her you used to go into the ops [operations] room and you’d be right. But no, she knew how far she could go and she tried to go further and we wouldn’t give in.
Were you interested in a career in the
No, not really. No, it was there just while it was needed. I think it was the fact my brother was away and so many friends that had joined, one thing or another, and Jo and my sister had both gone into the army, but they were both qualified nurses earlier, she was older than me. But I think
you felt that there were more things that you could do, you know, to just do your bit, that was it. But no, there was no way I would have ever wanted to stay in, make a career, you know.
Were you interested in overseas postings?
Not really. No. No, I didn’t think of overseas then like they do now, because different outlook altogether. No, didn’t even think about it. I do know that
we put our names down to volunteer for overseas in our jobs, if we were needed. But there was no way they were going to send the girls, not in radar, but some of them medical offsiders, that they called them VADs in those days, Voluntary Aid Detachment, they did go. They were helping in the hospitals and that, but they weren’t actually in combat
situations, they were literally under the Red Cross sign. So that was totally different to what it’d be if, like now, the girls are in the army and they are in combat units and that, and they are in combat units in the air force and the navy. But things are totally different now, it would never have been thought of then, to send them in those situations. And even
then, it took a lot of time to get them to do it and allow it now, because, you know, the equal opportunities comes into it now, which didn’t exist before.
So what is your opinion of women having those opportunities to be in combat?
Now? Well if it’s what they want, good luck to them.
I think it does take a certain type, but if the army for instance or the navy is in the family, in the blood, that would be the first thing they’d probably think of doing. But then again, they join the navy now, they don’t all go to sea but some of them do, and some of them like it and some of them don’t. But then again that’s same with the men; some of them don’t like it and try to get out of it.
But oh no, there’s a lot has happened in the last, well you can say 60 years now, that has changed things.
How did repairs and maintenance work with the equipment?
Well the mechanic was on duty 24 hours a day. He had a few things as far as spare cathode ray tube, which was where the picture actually came, like that’s like a television, the old television cathode ray tube, that was the same shaped thing, which gave the picture for the
for the radar. He had a few of these sort of things spare, but there were a lot of things as far as valves and all that and if anything started to play up, he was there but well we didn’t have to do any maintenance or anything. But no, the mechanic’s course for radar was quite
long and very intense because when they were on a unit, they were the only ones that knew anything about it. They had no one to turn to except one of the other mechanics because you know, there were no gradings, or four of them, say one for each shift, but that was it. And what one didn’t know, the other one tried to help out but, and they used to just have to
get their heads into books if anything started to go wrong. But funnily enough, well there was a lot less to go wrong with the equipment then I think than there is now, because it wasn’t quite as sophisticated then as it is now.
So overall how reliable was the equipment?
I don’t remember it ever breaking down. I don’t remember it.
No, I don’t remember it ever breaking down. A friend of ours is an air traffic controller out at Sydney Airport. I’ve always tried to talk him into letting me go out to see what the radar is like now, compared with what it was like 60 years ago, but he’s not senior enough.
But I think he’s been at it a long time and he’s one of the seniors out there, but I don’t think I’d ever bother again now. But it would be interesting to see it. You know, what it’s like now, by comparison. Cos in my mind’s eye, I can still see what the screen was like then. But
it was a real eye opener, you know, when I first…cos nobody had heard of radar and we – it didn’t even exist here and then suddenly you find that you’re operating something you didn’t know existed. But it was interesting.
It was interesting and it was fascinating, because you felt you were in control of it. But you were learning something that you didn’t know it was possible to learn. You were seeing something you didn’t know was possible to see. And this is why, it really was interesting, you were never bored. Even if there was nothing doing, it wasn’t boring. And
you always had to recalibrate and make sure that you…see, you could also pick up if you turned around the other direction, you’d pick up a mountain, you could use that as a guide as to whether or not you were calibrated to the right distance. Because you knew that how far away that mountain was from where you were, and if you found that mountain had suddenly moved 20 miles, you knew your
calibration was out. But no, for something that was so new and it was second-hand, they were all second-hand, I had forgotten the numbers that the types of, like they were AV10s or AV40s or something, I’ve forgotten the different types of equipment, you know, they give them names and numbers. But considering most of them we had at the early part were second-hand from UK, they really were very reliable for second-hand stuff. They really were.
Interviewee: Joan Dobson Archive ID 1793 Tape 07
Joan, I wanted to ask you, after you left Caloundra, you went to Alligator Creek, did the work change, the further north you went?
No, no. No it really didn’t. At that time the war was moving away, so literally you can say we were at the same proximity to the war in
Townsville as we had been in Caloundra. I don’t know about the radar stations that were down south, I don’t know anything about them at all. I’m not sure what they were used for in that respect because having always been in the Lytton, Caloundra and Alligator Creek, in
all in Queensland, they were all connected up with the war zone in the Coral Sea area and New Guinea and the islands. It might have been a different situation had we even been somewhere like in Darwin or over towards Broome. But what was there, as far as radar is concerned, I don’t know.
No doubt they had some sort, but what they had, I don’t know. But the units that I was with were always literally in the same war theatre. So I can’t really say what it was used for in any of the other situations or locations.
Did you move with the same people or did you go and join
another unit when you moved?
No, you usually moved on your own. It was only when we all went north together from the one course, that was about the only time we moved en masse, but then we accumulated again, cos you did catch up with the ones from your own course or later courses as the time when by, but when we went from exhibition
grounds to go north, obviously there were others we had known previously and we accumulated, then we got there and quite a few of them went in different directions, even once we got there. But I’ve got a very big soft spot for Townsville area now because they really did, they took a hell of a lot
of…they weren’t bombed or anything but there was a lot of disruption to everyday life in Townsville because it was the army passing through, the air force passing through, in both directions that was. Shipping-wise, it was a busy port.
As far as the air traffic was concerned, it was very busy, but traffic coming down from New Guinea would always stop at Townsville and then onto Brisbane because in those days most had to refuel and that, and Townsville I think was a terrifically big, busy centre. It was even more so than Sydney perhaps for headquarters, yes,
Brisbane even for on-forwarding of troops and that, but I think Townsville took the brunt of it, they were the first stop on the way back for so many, they were the last stop going north for so many. There were a lot of them were brought down then from there, invalided home from there, and I think it probably took as big a brunt as, well maybe
not as Darwin, because they were bombed, but I do think that Townsville must have grown from a village to a city if you get what I mean. And the people there were quite extraordinary, I think they were just very grateful for everything that was being done, because otherwise they would have been wide open for invasion there.
It would have been a great place for the Japs to land and invade, to then move south, even more so than Cairns, Cairns was a bit remote by comparison, but Townsville had so much going for it, with plenty of safe harbour and as well as that, a big airport area, cos Garbutt was very big and it was always busy.
You mentioned earlier that troops who’d been injured in Papua New Guinea were in Townsville convalescing, how much contact did you have with those men?
Oh not individually, no. Nothing.
Could you see what kind of condition they were in?
No, no. I’m sorry but no. No, the Red Cross had the place over at…it wasn’t Horseshoe Bay, it might have been
Alma Bay or the one round from that, but no, I didn’t ever visit or speak to any of them there.
Your accommodation at Alligator Creek, what was that?
Huts. Long huts, that’s all, cos they were only temporary buildings, with…they weren’t windows, they were
ones that you pushed out with a piece of wood and anchored them, that was all, but in that climate you had to allow for plenty of circulation of air. But no, they was a very basic. It was clean, it was comfortable, it was, you know, but it was very basic.
How did you cope with the heat
working in the doovers?
Oh, in younger days, you coped a lot better than I would now. We used to go round, when we were in Townsville itself, we used to go down to the – they had enclosures, on the Strand but we never swam in the daytime, it was too hot to be on the beach - so we used to go into these enclosures along The Strand and swim at night.
I know in Townsville proper, I’d have as many as…I never liked…I also got tropical dermatitis and I wouldn’t use anything in the way of deodorants or anything. And I’d have as many as five showers a day rather than use deodorants; well, I couldn’t use it. I still have, it comes up occasionally, which is one of the
other things that contributes. But no, well everybody, it’s no use saying, cos everybody’s got the same heat to put up with. It’s just that some was affected more than others but no, I’ve never particularly liked the heat, but we’d go swimming at night and
just hoped you didn’t pick up a coral bug, which you could, if you got it in your ears.
What would happen then?
Oh, if you got a coral bug going in your ear, you could lose your hearing in 24 hours and have to have surgery to get it out. That was one thing on the
small units, we didn’t have the same proximity to medical or dental help, which others did have because they had them on, if they were on a big unit. And that was a disadvantage. But I think
we had more going for us than against us, on the small units. If anyone was to give me a choice now of going to a small unit, such as a radar unit, or onto a station such as Richmond, I’d pick the small radar unit any day. It was a lot less formal. You had
just as much to do in lots of ways more to do, but no, it was a great atmosphere.
When you were working, you mentioned the overalls before, were you allowed to wear those overalls all the time, or what was the uniform?
Well, it was uniform. They were issued. They were called jeans and boys’ were called goons.
From memory you had two pairs, you had to wash them yourself, but they were comfortable to wear and that, but they were awkward to get into till you got used to them, you had to climb in and then get them up. But no, they were all issue. But as I say, with
your kit bag, you had to keep your personal belongings to a minimum, because if you were moved, you had to carry everything.
What’s the final job you did in Townsville? You left Alligator Creek, and you went to Townsville proper, what was it that you were doing there?
That was in pool. That was
where everybody’s being sorted out at the end of the war. Some were being transferred to other jobs and some eventually were just brought back down south for discharge. But you had to wait until everything was sorted out, because there were a lot coming back from New Guinea, they were obviously entitled to more urgent
attention than we were. But they called it ‘pool’ cos it was like one in, all in. But, oh I can’t remember how long that was for. It wasn’t that long.
You’d also been receiving radar messages, is that
correct? Had you also been receiving messages that people were monitoring? Have I got that right?
No, I’m sorry, don’t know what you mean.
So when you left Alligator Creek, were you receiving the messages that units were monitoring when you went to the other job in Townsville?
I don’t follow.
When you left Alligator Creek, where did you move to?
Into Townsville itself, but I wasn’t getting any messages from anyone else. See you were posted, it was as if you worked in Myers and you were transferred from the shoe department to millinery,
you just went, you started doing your work there, but you wouldn’t be getting messages from the shoe department. You moved on, I’m not even sure whether Alligator Creek closed down there and then, from memory, I don’t remember, whether it was still operating when I left there. I don’t remember.
I think it was closing down, but then again, it had to have all the technical crew would have to go in to close down the equipment, you couldn’t just close the door and walk out because it was all too high tech [technology] to just leave there. It would take probably trained experts to move it to then, where it would either go into storage or be used for somewhere
else, because it was still the sort of equipment that still could have been used to bring down to one of the airports down south here and used for watching incoming planes, whether they were for war use or otherwise. I mean, they still have to have radar now for air traffic controllers, because there’s so many, but it can also be that there’s an aircraft’s gone missing and
it could have been that they might have put this radar out on some other airport somewhere, I honestly don’t know what happened, but that would have been up to the technical side to cope with. But once the war had moved away, and things were starting to sort of wind up,
these wouldn’t be kept going, not in places like Caloundra, and Lytton. But they would be at airports, so it could have been that the equipment is moved to places like Amberley and that sort of thing. I don’t know.
How much notice would you get that you were moving on to another unit?
Oh, it might be 24 hours. You wouldn’t get that much notice.
It was a totally different thing when you finished your course at Richmond, you knew that you would move on but to be posted from one unit to another, could be 24 hours notice and that was it.
What do you remember of hearing that the war in Europe had ended?
Oh, not much
really because by that time those that I knew that were over there were back. No, I don’t remember anything of any significance.
And what do you remember of victory over Japan?
Well, by this time I was nursing and we just had to keep on working.
I wasn’t in a position to join in any celebrations or anything. Was just, you know, you knew when it was finished, but by that time, I’d gone off on a different tack altogether so I can’t remember anything of any significance. It was a great relief and that.
When did you leave Townsville?
It was May or June, might have been May. May or June ’45. I wouldn’t know now. If I had my pay book I’d know. Actually I’ve got a form to fill in
from [Department of] Veterans’ Affairs, I’m going to try and get details of the dates I was everywhere, and also my medical record, get that. I’ve got the form to fill in, but I haven’t done that yet.
So how did it come about that you left Townsville? What do you remember of getting the news that you were leaving?
Oh it was a bit sad to leave because Townsville had been very homely sort of place. The people there were fantastic to everyone in uniform, or so we found, anyway. I did. And you knew it was entering another phase, but by that time we were all starting to make plans about our futures. So you really
weren’t only closing off one chapter, you were getting ready to start the next. And this is where these other two girls and I were going nursing – they more or less talked me into it. And we were all went and had our medical for the hospital and anyhow the day I was supposed to start, and
cos you did a two months preliminary training or PTS, preliminary training school, where you learnt how to make beds, etcetera, etcetera and all that sort of thing and they didn’t turn up. There were a couple of girls there who had been in the army, but they only lasted about six months or so.
I was the only one that ended up going right through and I think I surprised myself really, because they were finding it was the discipline was too hard, they’d had enough discipline and it was very disciplined in those days in the hospitals too. It didn’t worry me. It just seemed to make sense and it fitted in with everything that had to be done.
And I loved it from the day I got there. And yet, if you’d told me before I went in the air force, I’d end up doing nursing, I’d have said, “Oh, stop your joking, now, no way.” But I loved every minute of it. And I met some of the most marvellous people I think I’ve ever known in my life.
Where did you do your training?
Prince Alfred [Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney]. But I’ve never watched the TV show from there,
I didn’t want to see the changes. No, it was I think it’s the biggest mistake that any politician has made was to change it from the way the training was done then to what it is now with the university degree. They come in from doing their university degree
and they don’t like it. They’re not at home in the hospital, they’re just out of their depth, they’ve got all the knowledge but they don’t know how to apply it, whereas learning it from the basics up, you grow into the job and the job grows into you. And the funny part about it is,
I have had quite a few spells in hospital, and when they – Noel usually lets the cat out of the bag that I’m a trained nurse - and they come round, oh, they’re frightened of doing this, that and the other the wrong way. And I say, “For heaven’s sake, don’t worry. You’re lucky if someone can tell you you’re doing it the wrong way, better change before someone sees you”. And but it’s just the opposite to what it
used to be. It’s not nursing any more, they’re medical assistants, they’re not nurses any more.
How do you think your time in the air force prepared you for your later work?
Well, probably the discipline at the hospital probably was easy for me because of the fact of having had the discipline in the air force, I think. You know
what your limitations are, what you’re allowed and you don’t go ruffling the waters, you’re the only one that has repercussions if you ruffle the waters, so you just didn’t bother, I don’t take everything for granted by any means, but I do think that if you learn to live by the rules and discipline that you’ve got in any of the services,
it becomes that way that you find, well that’s the best way anyway and you go along with it. It doesn’t mean that you just give in to it, but you find it is the best and the least amount of hassle or worry or trouble and everything runs smoothly. Because someone’s worked out the system right from the start so that things will run
smoothly, and they’ve worked out systems and methods and discipline that should go with it. And if you accept it, well everything goes along without any hassle. And I’m not one for hassle. I just like…no, this is why I think I was lucky also in a way when I did go nursing, because I was 24 when I started
and most of them were only eighteen, nineteen at the most and because of that, every time there was an exam on and there were to be girls who were doing their final exams or annual exams or something, were to be relieved, because I was a bit older, I got some of the top jobs, like in theatres.
I did theatres right from my first year and usually only did them in your final year, which at that time was four years. But I did the theatres about three or four times a year, relieving while others were doing their exams. And then, it came to night duty at the end of first year, you do so many weeks of night duty, and I was chosen for theatres, for emergency and what they call, the surgical
night extra. And that was a job and a half but it was great, because you were all over the hospital, wherever you were needed, so of course, as soon as you got to where you were needed, you were appreciated. And if there was emergency surgery on, you were in the theatres, other than that, you’d go and help at some of the bigger cases of the day. So there was a hell of a lot of variety in the job and
you’ve seen the paging numbers up on the ceiling in those, whether they’ve still got it now, they’ve probably got mobiles in their pockets or something, but you even had your own number and you had to watch for that. And then you’d pick up the nearest phone and find out which ward wanted you. So you were anywhere and everywhere right through the hospital. But no, I was lucky also, neurosurgery was very big at the time
and very new. And I did one stint down there because I’d been picked out because I was older, and they wanted someone who was mature, mentally mature, rather than someone who was just getting used to well I won’t say adulthood, but at 24 you are a bit more mature than you are at eighteen. And I worked with some of
them down there and what they did was absolutely amazing and they were extraordinary cases.
What do you think changed for women, as a result of their involvement in the forces?
Oh I think it’s all that’s happened now. Of equal opportunity and that. I think, and it’s not a hundred percent equal now, but I think
what they’ve got now is due to the fact that women proved during the war they could do all these things. And whereas some of the men failed dismally, because they were trying to do things they just weren’t suited for, so they found. I think this is why the women now have ended up with more than they had then, because the women proved that they could do these things. So this is just as a
result of it I think. And it’ll go on, even improving over the time, you know. That if a woman chooses to go and fight with a rifle in the army, well, there’s nothing to stop her now.
How important was it for you personally, to be given that opportunity to work in the air force during the war?
Oh I don’t think I attached any importance to it.
No, I don’t, I wouldn’t have attached any importance to it. I went down, joined up and said, “What jobs need doing?” They told me and I said, “Right.” And he suggested one and I said, “Okay.” That’s literally all it was, cos I’d never heard of a radar operator that was going to operate radar before, I went down and signed on. I’d never heard of it. Then I ended up operating it.
How important was it for you to be involved in the war effort in that way?
I think it was more an involvement that was – my brother had been already, by that time, for some years, and so many I knew that had joined and I just felt I should – and I was in a very comfortable job and all that, but you felt that you could be doing something and
it was just a case of I’d turned 21 and I decided to do it.
What are your fondest memories of being a part of the WAAAF?
Oh I don’t think there are fond memories. No, I think there’s a comradeship
in these small units. I’m probably better in small units, rather than big crowds as a result, but no, I just take things as they come. I think it’s taught me that, more than anything, because when you get a setback and I’ve had several, you just have to
look ahead and not behind.
When you were discharged, do you feel that the role women played in the services were recognised at that time?
Yes, I think so. I think for a while then it was forgotten, but I think afterwards then they started to realise that women had really
played their part. But they were more of a back-up part then, now they’re more or less into it as well as the men and with the men, where before they were more in – like 60 years ago - more as a back-up. But no, I didn’t think of that, you know,
I don’t sort of try to think on those things but no, I think as time’s gone by what they did has been recognised as being bigger than people had given them credit for at the time.
You said that perhaps initially it had been slightly overlooked, were there any examples of how this showed?
I couldn’t, I wouldn’t say that there was, I couldn’t quote any example. No. No.
What does Anzac Day mean to you?
Well, I don’t usually go to Anzac
Day. I might have, had I not gone nursing, but when it came to nursing those sorts of days were the same as any other day. Had I been free to go to Anzac Day for the first four years, I might have gone for every one since. But for those first four, I was nursing
and you didn’t get a day off just because it was Anzac Day; that was the same as any other day in the hospital. I think that probably is why I’ve never bothered, but another thing is because of the injuries I sustained in the accident, I couldn’t march and I wouldn’t have wanted to join in unless I could. So I think that’s just sort of…
I always liked to watch the march on TV. I was always keen for Noel to go with his mates and his unit and I’d have the medical prescription ready, waiting for him to give him his, cure his hangover before it hit him. But no, I left it for him to join his mates and I’d be there when he got back. But no, I
mainly because I didn’t know, there was no point in me even joining the women’s organisation. I joined the RSL as soon as I was able to, but there was no point in joining there, because our units were so small, and there were so few of us that it would be a case of me getting to know strangers, not renew friendships but meet up
with strangers. Well I wasn’t interested. See the ones at the hospital, they’d taken the place of the ones that I’d trained with at Richmond. I was going through that Richmond situation all over again when I started hospital, 30-odd of us starting together all starting from scratch, and that’s what had happened when we went to
Bradfield Park in the first place. Well, I was doing it all over again. Now those were the ones that I’ve kept in touch with all that time and since.
Were you able to join the RSL straightaway when you got out?
No, you could – I don’t know how many years it was, probably twelve or fourteen years, before I was actually able to join the RSL.
And then they were the ones that changed the rules; see they used to also say that if you hadn’t been overseas, you weren’t entitled to join at one time. Well then they changed their by-laws and you were able to join. Noel was in it right from the start, but I didn’t bother with any of the other associations until such time as when they…all ex-servicemen be admitted
well then I joined.
Was that important for you to be able to join?
Oh well, it was nice, but I wouldn’t say it was important. As far as I’m concerned, Veterans Affairs, even before I was eligible to join the RSL, Veterans Affairs had always been very, very good to me, for on-going treatment that I needed,
and acceptance of the problems I had as being from my service, so I mean I wasn’t worried about the RSL, I didn’t want them to help me claim this and claim that. Veterans Affairs, even when I’m on a pension now, I literally never applied for it. Veterans Affairs
right from when I first left the air force, even when I was nursing and I got my tropical dermatitis back again, and they arranged everything for me then. Even though I was in the nurses’ sickbay, and Veterans Affairs were concerned about the fact that I had a repetition of it. So they’ve always done the right thing by me, they really have. Another time,
one of the back injury problems, and middle of the night I had to be transferred out to Concord into traction, that time was a repat [repatriation] hospital. And Veterans Affairs, I can’t complain about anything, they’ve always been exceptionally good, I was given a form once to fill in to apply for a pension, and when I took it back in they took
one look at it and saw what else I was, what other forms I’d filled in and they tore up the one for the pension, they said, “Oh, you won’t need this” and I didn’t, I didn’t ever, ever apply. They granted me the disability rate and then a panel of doctors examined me and they put in their assessment to Veterans Affairs and Veterans Affairs accepted it and it was literally out of my hands. But no, they have always been very
good to me. When I’ve needed treatment, they’ve always approved it, arranged it and I have no complaints whatsoever in that respect.
Joan, how important do you think women were to the war effort in Australia during the Second World War?
How important can you be? They
were absolute necessity, you couldn’t be more important than a necessity. Absolutely, whether it be keeping things going on the home front, or backing the men, or even we used to arrange parcels, to go and pack parcels, this was before I went in, to go to men overseas and you pack a little
few little luxury things like; favourite biscuits that they had, Iced Vovos and this sort of thing. All these sort of things and women at home would be packing up these things and sending them to the men. And the men over there getting bully beef and baked beans and spaghetti, and they get a parcel from home and there’d be a chocolate cake in it and there’d be a packet of Iced Vovos. You
probably wouldn’t ever have an Iced Vovo now. But they were things that were reminders of home but women used to go down and spend their days packing these boxes of either things like that, had been from running raffles and getting the money to buy them or had been donated by different companies and no, even though the women were only on the home front they were an absolute necessity.
Joan thank you very much for being part of the archive today, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.