Volunteer Air Observer Corps


V2020Today is Anzac Day Down Under and many genealogy bloggers from Australia and New Zealand will be writing about their families’ military history. This year I was inspired to write about my mother’s (Joan McSherry) civilian service during the war, after listening to an excellent talk from Caloundra Family History member, Ian Edwardson via Zoom. Sometimes we focus so much on members of the military forces that we forget that civilian life continued on the home front and many people contributed to support the military in some way. As my direct line family members were railway workers, they were regarded as essential services and so did not join the forces. It makes me feel like a bit of a fraud when it comes to Anzac Day services. When they called for experienced railway workers to service the trainlines at the Western Front in World War I, my paternal grandfather, Denis Kunkel, enlisted in late 1917. You can read his story here.

Volunteer Air Observer Corps

My mother’s service was civilian but with military overtones. She joined the Volunteer Air Observer Corps (VAOC) when she was about 16, or close to 17. She served with them for two years until the end of the war. I’ve read that there were interviews and tests before people were admitted but Mum doesn’t recall this and says she joined after seeing an advertisement – perhaps the one included here? The purpose of the VAOC was to monitor the skies for enemy aircraft and alert the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) if they were seen. Recruitment for the VAOC was undertaken through the Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC) and it was through this organisation that observers were trained to identify different types of Japanese aircraft based on profile, engines etc. The training was done at Archerfield aerodrome in Brisbane’s south-west. The WATC was also regarded as a training ground for women who later might wish to join the WAAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Airforce. Goodness, all these acronyms – it might even be the military!

WATC VOAC Telegraph 17 Nov 1942 p4

Aircraft Recognition Classes (1942, November 17). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 4 (CITY FINAL LAST MINUTE NEWS).  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172597476

Perhaps unsurprisingly (because it’s about the women after all and they were civilians), it’s hard to find detailed information. There is a book about the VAOC that looks pertinent but it’s in the Queensland State Library, and so currently in lockdown. So, turning to Trove (again) is the solution. In addition to which I’ve tried to pick Mum’s memory and that of a friend who was also in the VAOC.

These are Mum’s words which she’d written down a while ago:

Volunteer Air Observers had to have a thorough knowledge of all types of Japanese planes. You went to a beautiful old home on the hill in the Clayfield (a suburb of Brisbane), overlooking Eagle Farm Aerodrome, then the only one in Brisbane. Archerfield was the Air Force base. This beautiful home had a particular area, separate to the house, which was laid out with required facilities for observing. This included a pair of binoculars to watch the airport and a telephone. If a Japanese plane landed at the airport (or presumably was sighted), you immediately notified Head Quarters via the phone set up in the room.

In conversation Joan told me that she’d catch the tram from Buranda to Clayfield every Sunday after Mass, then walk up the hill to the house, and would be on duty for two hours. It must have been tiring peering out through binoculars or looking at the sky consistently for two hours. Fortunately, they were spared the anxiety of an enemy aircraft, though as the North was bombed in 1942, it must have seemed entirely possible. Mum would be dressed in civvies when “spotting”, not her uniform, which would only be worn for meetings or special events. When she was promoted to sergeant, she was required to wear her khaki uniform for these events.

WAAAF Staff room

In a W.A.A.A.F. Staff Room (1942, February 19). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 5 (Second Edition). http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172698162

The WATC held a stall on Saturday morning selling a variety of things including small hand-made toys. This raised money for the free lunches they served to the WAAAFs at a canteen at Old Courier House (corner of Queen and Edward, which is now a bank, I think). A special relaxation area had been fitted out and made available for the WAAAF women when off duty – a place to just relax. Mum’s friend, Donna, who was a bit younger and hadn’t been trained to do the plane spotting was very involved in this side of the activities of the WATC.

Apart from learning about identifying planes, mum also went out to Archerfield to see some of the WATC work there and learn a little about motor car engines. We didn’t own a car until the late 1960s so it’s a shame she never got to put that to use.

It wasn’t all work and no play. Occasionally the WATC and VAOC would have balls or dances to raise funds. They also had some picnics and we’re lucky enough to have a couple of photos taken at one of these. The WATC celebrated their 5th Birthday week from 9th-15th July 1944 and Mum has a souvenir booklet from the day on which there are many signatures including that of the Queensland Commandant, Yvonne Jones, and Australian flying ace, Nancy Bird Walton, who was the Australian Commandant . I wonder if any of my readers will recognise the names of any of the women who also signed. Two of mum’s long term friends are included in the list, Joyce and Donna.

On 15 August 1945, Victory in the Pacific Day, when the war ended for Australia, there was great excitement in Brisbane and mum and her friend were allowed to leave work to go and celebrate. Dad was less fortunate, as the shift workers were required on duty and missed out on the day’s exuberance.

family scan091 (2)

Found in mum’s autograph book. I wonder if she entered it on VP Day. 3 dots and a dash mean the letter V  in morse code.

 

jol-files-2015-08-vpday

Brisbane people will see the humour of this: the City Hall celebrating joyfully.

After the war finished, life returned to normal, but Mum missed the verve of those years. They were given a celebration at Victoria Barracks after the war, but apparently it wasn’t written up in the paper. How rarely does Trove let me down?

KUNKEL Joan WATC reunion

Joan receiving her “Australia Remembers” certificate: L to R: Y McComb King, Senator Parer, Nancy Bird Walton, Joan Kunkel wearing badges of both the WATC and VAOC.

In December 1995, surviving members of the WATC were invited to a morning tea at the United Services Club in Brisbane to receive an “Australia Remembers” commemorative certificate for serving with the WATC during the war years. The event was hosted by Senator Warwick Parer[i],  Mrs Yvonne McComb King (formerly Jones) and Mrs Nancy Bird Walton were honoured guests and co-hosts. Both Mum and her friend Donna were able to attend, and I was surprised to discover when reading the advertisement for the event, that mum had been a sergeant, which she had never mentioned previously.

You can click on any of the images to make them large enough to read.

family scan023

An example of the VAOC from the Australian War Memorial.

VOAC AWM 4085497

 

 

[i] Liberal Senator for Queensland and Shadow Minister for Tourism, Aviation and Customs.

16 thoughts on “Volunteer Air Observer Corps

  1. Posted with much love. Is your mother well enough to read and comprehend your article?

    I had not heard of this group, thanks for highlighting the work of these young women. We will remember them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jill. She’s not doing go badly and I’ve printed off what I’ve written to take tomorrow. You should see my study after trawling through memorabilia. Her friend Donna has also helped me. It was Ian’s talk last week that made me realise I should write this up while I can. I’ve suggested he should submit his excellent talk to FHDU.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is excellent Pauleen. I really enjoyed reading this and learning something new. Also a great tribute to your mother on this unusual ANZAC day. Those photos in uniform are amazing and your mother looks to be a beautiful and strong lady.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sharon…and the biggest surprise to me was she reached Sergeant! And she only mentioned it herself when I asked about the two uniforms 🙂 Amazing to think she was still a teenager when the war finished.

      Like

  3. This is a Wonderful post, and tribute to your Mum and the great work of these women! Often the women were forgotten though they did tremendous works at home. Sometimes just keeping their families together and fed was a feat!
    My Mum was a riveter in an airplane factory, but her older sister joined the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division … their slogan was “She serves that men may fly!” She met her husband there, he was a pilot. After the war her husband went to college and there met my Dad, also taking engineering after his stint in the war. He invited my dad to his house for dinner, and my aunt invited her sister, my mom. Both were seeing other people at the time but ditched them and soon got engaged. My dads father loved my mom because she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty helping my dad work on cars. “She’s a keeper “ he told my dad! And here I sit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • On such coincidences life takes a turn. Love the slogan of the RCAF. I know many women flew aircraft across the Atlantic for delivery to the men flying raids. So much we still don’t know, and sadly, the stories may never be told. Did your mum tell you about stories of the rivet factory?

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  4. My paternal grandfather did similar home-front plane-spotting service in the U.S. Your excellently documented post inspires me to do more research on this aspect of his life.

    Like

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