52 Ancestors: Military – The War Diary of an ‘Ordinary Young Woman’

In the late 1930’s Phyl and her sister Noela set off for a working holiday in Australia.

by Kendall Gibson Wellington New Zealand

Phyl’s middle name ‘Dorothea’ was after her grandmother, Hanna Dorthea  Larsen. (Hanna and Nicolai Larsen had emigrated to New Zealand from Norway in 1873.) Phyl’s parents settled in Christchurch in 1925. Phyl was the youngest of their three children.

In the late 1930’s Phyl and her sister Noela set off for a working holiday in Australia. While this is a rite of passage for many young New Zealanders today it would have been unusual in those days. The sisters were joined in Sydney by Enid an Australian cousin from their father’s side, who had traveled from Perth to join them. Far from home and parental oversight these three young women had a wonderful time. They found jobs and just as they were beginning to enjoy the experience of living as independent young adults, it all came to a sudden end. A letter arrived from their mother strongly suggesting they return home. It looked as if a war in Europe was going to be a reality. Even though it was happening on the other side of the world, their parents wanted them home. They returned to Christchurch.

This is Phyl’s story of her war years (told in her own words)-

The story of an Ordinary Young Woman Joining the New Zealand Army in 1942

 ‘In 1936 I was 19 years old and was employed by the Hollywood Dressmaking School, making patterns.  One of the woman bosses married and moved to Melbourne [Australia] and opened up a branch there.  She asked me to come over and work for her.  ‘Mum and Dad were not too keen on the idea but agreed as long as Noela [Phyl’s older sister] went too.’

‘Late in 1942, I entered the army.  I was one of a hundred in the first intake of women soldiers into Addington Barracks.  I was a member of the Women’s Army Corp.  (WAC).  It was not that I really wanted to join the army but there was the fear of a worse fate.  All single women had to register themselves as available for work towards the war effort.  One could be assigned to virtually go anywhere and do anything regardless of personal preferences.  Many women were being sent into factories of various types, particularly those involved in food production.  I considered this a hideous option and so together with my workmate Joyce at Hollanders Dress Salon, I enlisted in the army.

 I enjoyed my time in the army but Joyce hated it. I was given comprehensive medical tests including sight and hearing and also had a lot dental work done including extractions.  In those days extractions were very common.  

 There were no women’s uniforms as yet so the women had to wear men’s old khaki stuff. We had to march in ranks through Christchurch to the barracks at Addington where we lived and trained for six weeks.  Having always been an active outdoors person I had no difficulty with the physical training programme.  

 I was posted to Godley Heads where I stayed for 13 months.  The women were given a choice of living in huts with six in each or living in barracks.  I chose the huts.  My group of six women were very house-proud and kept our little home well scrubbed and in order.  We were given weekly inspections by a superior officer, where we were required to stand to attention by our beds with our blankets rolled and everything in strict army order.

 Godley Heads had two 6 inch battery guns.  I worked in the observation post and carried a “tommy” gun which we had to clean and carry around.  I found it all, in some ways, a bit of a joke.  Initially, the post had been manned by male soldiers but most of these were sent overseas when the women were trained and available, with the exception of a few men who had medical conditions making them unfit for active service.  These men still generally manned the guns.  Many of the men sent away at this stage overseas were annoyed at losing their easy post at Godley Heads.

 The women had 24-hour shifts from 8.30 am to 8.30 pm the next day.  There were 10 to a shift and at least one of them had to be staring out to sea all the time.  They had telescopes trained out to sea and had target practice with live shoots.  One of the New Zealand ships would pull a target out to sea which the women shot at.  Sights had to be trained on the ship first then switched over to the target and guns fired.

 One of my friends was taking her turn at target practice one day which always made this woman very nervous.  The Brigadier was present on this occasion which made her even more nervous and she forgot to switch to the target before she fired.  The New Zealand naval ship was straddled with bullets.  My brother in law, Peter was on board that ship at the time.   There was an inquiry into the incident.

 Another girl I was friends with at the Godley Heads was Doris who lived down south so I often took her home with me on my days off.  She contracted a mild form of meningitis after a holiday and left the service.  Later she married my brother, Bernard.

 Life at Godley Heads was like a boarding school with lots of rules, regulations, and duties.  The women had every sixth day off.  I had different duties apart from the 24-hour watches. As I was one of the few women who could drive.  I became the official driver for Major Anderson.  The Major had a 2 – seater sports car which I kept clean and polished as part of my job.  I enjoyed this and considered being a driver a ‘cushy job’.

 Women soldiers also became ‘batmen’ to the male officers.  This was a job which I was opposed to and considered it degrading.  I felt because of my attitude which was well known, I was only asked to do it once and refused to do it again and was given no trouble on account of this.  I particularly did not like the idea of cleaning the officer’s boots.  I just spat on them and gave them a rub without the proper polish.  “They got no shine from me”.  

 I was invited to train to be an officer but turned it down because I liked being one of the girls too much.  One of my army friends, Rachel Russel Davis Montgomery stayed on in the army, and became a captain and went overseas.  She was the only titled ‘Lady” I had ever known. While at Godley Heads, I was selected to go to Fort Dorset near Wellington to attend a study course.  This was specifically for observation post staff and lasted for five weeks.  There were 25 soldiers on the course with only half a dozen of them being women.  We studied trigonometry, wind velocity, and similar subjects.  I came fifth in the whole class and first of the women.   In class, we had one young lecturer who was an officer, who kept looking directly at me and asking me to answer questions.  I felt I was being unfairly singled out and one day I burst into tears.  Later the officer apologized and said the singular treatment was only because I was the one whom he wanted to take out.  Overall I enjoyed the Wellington course as I was learning new subjects which I hadn’t been taught in school. I received my first stripe at Fort Dorset and was now a Lance Bombardier.

 When I returned to Godley Heads it was to discover that my group post was being dispersed.  I was reposted to Burnham Military Camp where I remained for one year.  I enjoyed Burnham in some ways but was getting restless and bored in other ways.  There was a feeling about that the war couldn’t last forever and would probably soon be over.  I had no desire to pursue a career in the armed forces.  It was early 1944 and the atmosphere that had prevailed in New Zealand since 1939, was changing and becoming less intense, “things weren’t so seamy”.   Some of the boys were coming back home and I met up with a boy I had known pre-war days.  His main pre-war girlfriend had been the love of his life but she had married someone else, so on the rebound, he proposed to me as he wanted to settle down and live a normal life after the war.  I accepted his proposal.  I was 26 years old and wanted to leave the army legitimately with an honorable discharge.’

Phyl’s story published with the kind permission of her children Jennie and David.

‘The Godley Head WWII coastal defense battery sits atop sheer 120 meter-high cliffs. Built in 1939, it is ranked in the top ten New Zealand coastal defense heritage sites.’


If you have a story you would like to share, I am happy to publish it on my blog.

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