The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 5 - June 1982

Flying High: The Story of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force 1939-1945

by Major Marjorie Egerton Bird and Molly Botes

Editor's note: Maj Egerton Bird died on 4 January 1982, aged 82 years.

MARJORIE EGERTON BIRD: THE EARLY YEARS

James Sydney Bird was requested by the Transvaal Government to come out to South Africa to build a prison in Pretoria, and to run it the British way. James Bird had been a governor of the Portland Prison near Wentworth in England for very many years, and had run it well.
Marjorie and her brother, George, came out to South Africa with their parents in 1902. Marjorie was two years of age at that time, and George three years older. They all lived in Johannesburg for five years until they moved to Pretoria, where the small cottage behind the new Pretoria Prison Reserve became their home for the next 15 years. Marjorie's father became the Governor of the Pretoria Prison and this building became a well-known landmark for many years.

Eventually Marjorie attended the Diocesan School for Girls in Pretoria until her father's death in 1917. In the meanwhile Marjorie's brother George had been sent back to England to attend the Dartmouth Naval College from the age of 13. His subsequent career in the Navy spanned 55 years, ultimately residing in the United States, where he instructed the Americans in the art of torpedoes, until his death at the age of 68. George had two daughters. Cherry remained in the United States whilst her sister, Peggy, lives in Australia.
After the death of her father at the early age of 48 Marjorie and Mrs Bird returned to England, settling in Dover. In 1926, however, Marjorie's mother died and she returned to South Africa, eventually securing a position in the Reserve Bank of South Africa, where she remained for the following 20 years.

FIRST FLYING EXPERIENCE

In 1936 Marjorie had her first experience of flying. A friend persuaded Marjorie to accompany her to the Rand Airfield one Sunday for a 'flip' in an aeroplane. Marjorie was extremely excited and thought that this would be even better than driving a car (a veritable passion with her). Unfortunately, the pilot who took her up was a bit of a 'show off' and as a result this 'flip' was almost the cause of her never flying again. The foolish young pilot did everything no sane pilot would do with a passenger on her first flight. He looped the loop - he rolled - he spiralled down at a great speed then shot up again at the last minute. Poor Marjorie, after landing, declared that she never wanted to go up in a plane again. Her knees felt weak and wobbly and her stomach seemed to have moved its position. What a ghastly introduction to flying!

First photo

Major Marjorie Egerton Bird

However, the chief instructor had seen her performance and, after suitably admonishing the pilot, he insisted upon Marjorie going up with him half an hour later, as he was determined that she should have a better idea of flying - he had seen the excitement in her eyes as she had prepared for that first 'flip!' So now Marjorie was given another chance, and she realized that this was even better than driving a car. She enjoyed every minute of the flight and was forever grateful to the young chief instructor. Little did the instructor know the integrity and determination of the little lady next to him - and to what lengths she was to go towards improving the way for future women pilots and also the tremendous role that she was to play in the war effort of 1939-1945. Soon after her first flight, Marjorie received a small legacy from an aunt - and so now all her dreams could come true. She commenced serious flight training, at a cost of 3 (R6) per hour, eventually becoming the proud owner of her 'A' pilot's licence. In actual fact, she obtained her licence three hours after her first solo flight; and, after another hour, was competing with 22 men in the Aero Club Round the Reef Flying Race, in which she was placed in fourth position. Her licence was endorsed for several different types of aircraft on which she was trained by Doreen Hooper. Her licence also entitled her to pilot passengers. It cost Marjorie 70 (R140) to obtain the 'A' licence. When she thus qualified, in 1937, she became one of the ten women in the Union of South Africa to possess an 'A' pilot's licence.

THE SOUTH AFRICAN WOMEN'S AVIATION ASSOCIATION: AN IDEA IS BORN

Miss Egerton Bird relates her first conception of extensive flight training for women, which culminated in the South African Women's Aviation Association:
'One day, not very long after I had taken my "A" licence, I went out early to the Rand Flying Club to fly. After a few cheery words to my instructor, I climbed into the cockpit of my machine and eventually taxied out on to the runway of the aerodrome and flew away into the blue. It was very beautiful and a thought came to me - I wished that more women could have the opportunity of seeing such beauty as this. As I banked to turn towards Germiston, I saw another plane piloted by a man, a pupil under the Government's scheme and another thought flashed across my mind: "By jove there is something very wrong here - I am flying at a cost of 3 per hour and this man is flying for NOTHING!" Being completely overcome by this observation, I decided that something must be done to aid women, and some way provide cheaper flying for them.

I flew, with wide-open throttle, to Germiston, circled round the aerodrome, made a terrific landing, and taxied back to the Rand Flying Club; jumped out of my machine, sought out my instructor and told him I was going to try and get cheaper flying for women.
He gave me a look of astonishment and then roared with laughter! When he had recovered from this he said, "My dear Miss Bird, if you live to be 90, you will never start anything to reduce flying rates for women - and even if by a miracle you did, what on earth could they do? The air would then be as unsafe as the roads." I laughed and said, "Well you wait and see." I went off to find the secretary of the club, who was also very amused at this idea.

As the days went by, I got in touch with friends who were interested in flying and then, one day, when talking to Miss Joan Blake, we decided to get up a petition and send it to the Government to ask if something could be done about cheaper flying for women. This was done and a petition signed by 150 women interested in flying was sent to the Honourable Oswald Pirow, who was then Minister of Defence. He promised to give the matter consideration. The petition was duly acknowledged and the reply stated that, "Perhaps after the first thousand men pupil pilots were trained then something might be done for women."
The training of a thousand pupil pilots would take approximately two years. This answer was most discouraging. So again I went forth and this time I got in touch with Miss Doreen Hooper, who was a flying instructress and a girl I was very proud to know. She had proved that women were capable of functions outside their traditional roles, and she promised to give us every atom of help she could.

The response was immediate. A meeting of six women interested in the concept was called. The six involved were: Miss Doreen Hooper, Miss Joan Blake, Miss Elaine Percival-Hart, Miss Sylvia Starfield, Mrs Toy Celliers and myself. The meeting convened in Miss Hooper's flat. Over many cups of tea, and much discussion, we decided to form a committee, placing Miss Hooper in the chair. Joan Blake was made the treasurer and I the secretary, the remaining three being members of the committee.

We decided to ask Mrs Deneys Reitz, who was the Member of Parliament for Parktown, if she would take the chair at a meeting to be called later at the Wanderers' Club. Mrs Reitz consented and appeared very interested in the idea. We advertised this meeting in the press, expecting about 50 women to appear. In actual fact, when the meeting was held on the evening of 5 December 1939, we found the hall packed to overflowing; 110 women having enrolled for the evening. Everybody was most enthusiastic, and it was decided that we wauld call ourselves the South African Women's Aviation Association (SAWAA). Mrs Bertha Solomon, Member of Parliament for Hillbrow, was also at the meeting, and she and Mrs Reitz and the committee of six were thrilled with the support which the idea was obviously receiving.

Now we had to decide what to do with these 110 women. At last an opening was made when Mr Haswell, Secretary of the Rand Flying Club, who had been approached, gave us the idea of forming a unit of 32 women. He offered to have eight girls every weekend at the Rand Flying Club. He realized that these girls were all keen to do any work given to them, as long as they could learn about planes and flying. Soon after this other Flying Clubs followed suit, and before six months has passed, the 110 members were split into units of 32, working during weekends learning how to handle aeroplanes and everything appertaining to aircraft. As the secretary of the SAWAA, I was receiving letters from all over the Union of South Africa asking for advice as to how to start women's aviation associations in their particular areas. At the end of one year, branches had been formed throughout the Union of South Africa, and the SAWAA possessed between 3 000 and 4 000 members. Each branch was collecting money to give bursaries to any of their members who showed an aptitude for flying.'

The formal objects of the Women's Civil Air Guard (as the SAWAA became popularly known) were:

  1. To release men from civil aviation in time of National Emergency.
  2. Ferrying and transport work.
  3. Ambulance work.
  4. Flying mail and despatches, and all normal civil aviation work.
  5. Charter work, urgent medical work, etc.
  6. Instructing.
  7. Technical work.

The rapidity with which the idea spread may be deduced from the fact that when, in February 1939, the women of the East Rand had formed their own branch of the SAWAA, in less than one week 100 women had joined in one town - Benoni. The first parade of a Flight of 32 members of the SAWAA was held at the Rand Flying Club, Germiston, on 6 March 1939. In the February of 1940 the SAWAA achieved another 'first'. Six of its members flew over Johannesburg in formation flight. Marjorie was one of the pilots, and this was the first time in the world that women had flown in formation flight.
The need for the SAWAA may be deduced from the fact that, in 1939, there were only 600 licensed civilian pilots in the Union, compared with approximately 30 000 in England, France and Germany and 60 000 in America.

THE FOUNDATION OF THE WOMEN'S AUXILIARY AIR SERVICE

The gathering of war clouds led to a certain change of emphasis in the functions of the SAWAA. The idea of cheaper flying for women was rather overshadowed by the new concept that its members could also be useful in the workshops as well as other work appertaining to aviation, and thereby release men for more important roles at the war front. Consequently, instruction in first aid, fire-fighting, alarms, clerical and administrative work was provided, in accordance with this new emphasis. Military drill was also taught - not without amusement in the opening stages, in which officers had to learn the necessary commands to relay to the novices.
When the Second World War broke out on 3 September 1939, the Association sent a telegram to General Smuts which stated: 'The Women's Aviation Association offers its services to the Govenment.' It was a few months before the offer was accepted. On 24 May 1940, at a parade of the SAWAA, a message was received from the Chief of Staff, General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, which read, 'I and the Air Force need you, and need you badly.'

On 10 June 1940, the following notice appeared in the 'Government Gazette':

WOMEN'S AUXILIARY AIR FORCE
WOMEN'S AUXILIARY ARMY SERVICE REGULATIONS

It is hereby notified for general information that I, Jan Christiaan Smuts, in my capacity of Minister of Defence, have been pleased, under and by virtue of the powers in me vested by Regulation 30 of the National Emergency Regulations set forth in the Annexure to Proclamation No. 287 of 1939, dated 17th November 1939, to make the following regulations:-

  1. There is hereby established a Women's Auxiliary Air Force which shall be associated with and shall act in co-operation with, the South African Air Force.
  2. There is hereby established a Women's Auxiliary Army Service.
  3. The conditions of appointment to and duty in either of the organisations mentioned in Regulations 1 and 2 and all other matters appertaining thereto, shall be as prescribed by further regulation.
J.C. Smuts,
Minister of Defence.'

Second photo

Lt Col (Mrs) Doreen Dunning. Portrait by Neville Lewis (1941)

On 1 June 1940, Doreen Hooper was the first woman in South Africa to be called upon to volunteer for full time war service. She was at that time 22 years of age, and entered the WAAFs with the rank of Major, being then known as Major Dunning. Marjorie Egerton Bird was the second woman to be called up ten days later, and then Miss E. Percival-Hart, both with the rank of Captain. Twenty-eight days later 100 girls from the SAWAA volunteered and were accommodated in military camps in Pretoria. Five months later there were 800 WAAFs proudly wearing the orange flash. *[Editors' note: Those who had volunteered for overseas service] The vital role which the SAWAA had played in providing an essential basis for the WAAF was recognized in the re-designation of the SAWAA. On 10 October 1939 Miss Bird announced that she had learnt from Col J. Holthouse, Director General of Air Services, that the Association was henceforth to be recognized as an air auxiliary unit of the South African Air Force, and that the official name of the Association would, therefore, henceforth be 'The South African Womens' Voluntary Auxiliary Air Unit of the South African Air Force.'

THE ROLE OF THE WAAF IN WORLD WAR II

During the Second World War there were some 10 000 WAAFs at one time. They performed in all some 75 different types of work. The military authorities called with increasing frequency on the services of the WAAFs and every one of them was determined that when the call came they would be fully trained and prepared.

In December 1940 the first detachment of WAAFs were sent 'up North' with Miss Muriel Horell in charge. They went to Mombasa in a troopship and from there by train to Nairobi, where a camp was established in a grey stone building rather like a castle. Soon this became too small to hold all the WAAF girls, and they moved to another camp of wooden huts.
In September 1940 the WAAF was sent to the Middle East, where their headquarters were in an hotel in Cairo.

The range of WAAF activities during World War II may be gauged from the following summary of the Service's functions:
Artisans Metal workers, welders, wood workers, doping**, fabric work, fitters and turners, inspectors, all mechanical work.
[**Editors' note: 'Doping' refers to the impregnation of materials with chemicals in order to prevent deterioration (e.g. on aircraft wings and parachutes)]
Armament Instructors Qualified officers, who lectured at WAAF stations.
Administrative and Camp Staff Organization of discipline, stores, clerical (i.e., work in registry, records and filing; general office duties.)
Cooks and Caterers Camp staff. One fully qualified dietician.
Communication Pilots Officers with 'B' licences, used in the Communications Squadron of the WAAF.
Despatch Riders Carrying communications from one station to another.
Hygiene - Aerodromes Details (trained) working on SAAF stations.
Intelligence Used on Signals Staff. Generally girls who spoke four or five languages.
Link Trainer Instructors 'A' licence WAAF pilots (with approx. 100 hours) trained to instruct on the Link Trainer.
Motor Transport Details used as heavy transport, lorry drivers and also light transport drivers (e.g., cars and light vans).
Meteorological Assistants and Observers
Photographers Work at developing and printing, etc.
Parachute Packers Fully qualified details who packed parachutes and supplied parachutes. Some were instructors.
P.T. Instructors Trained officers who were responsible for all P.T. Instruction at the WAAF camps.
Shorthand Typists Used as private secretaries and for general shorthand/typing in SAAF offices.
Stores Used in air stores and 'Q' stores. *** [*** Editors' note: 'Q' stores refer to items of personal equipment]
Wireless Operators Used on SAAF stations. Fully trained at SAAF radio signals.

The WAAF's activities with regard to communication pilots and Link Trainer instructors point to the role of women pilots in wartime, and it is apposite to expand upon this role.

WOMEN PILOTS WITH THE WAAF

There were 36 'A' licence pilots in the WAAF in 1941, and the following concerns a few of them.
Best known was Doreen Dunning (better remembered as Doreen Hooper). At the outbreak of war she had more than 2 000 flying hours to her credit. At the incredibly early age of 24 she was the youngest officer in the British Commonwealth to attain the rank she held. Fair haired and blue eyed, she had a quiet, forceful personality combined with outstanding ability and tact which made her eminently suitable for the responsible administrative post that she held.
She took her 'A' flying licence at the age of 18. A year later she qualified as an instructor. Before passing her 'B' licence, she took second place in the Union's first air race when pilots competed for the Governor General's Cup over the Vereeniging-Durban- Vereeniging route.

Marjorie Egerton Bird was second-in-command of the WAAFs, and her early background has been discussed above.

The Assistant Deputy Director of the WAAF, Miss Elaine Percival-Hart, was also a pilot. She had her first lessons in 1928 from Dick Bentley who flew out from England in a 'Moth'. Miss Hart got her 'A' licence in 1936, had a passenger endorsement and had many hours flying, with Doreen Dunning as instructor.

Two women who were well known in South African aviation were Miss Rosamund Everard (in private life Mrs Steenkamp) and Miss Sybil Starfield. Rosamund Steenkamp was the first woman in the world to pilot a jet aircraft in Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary Service (ATAS) (whilst still holding the rank of Captain in the SAWAAF). In August 1945 she flew a Meteor Mark III, the type which regained the world's air speed record for Britain with a speed of 606mph (975 kph). She was killed in a flying accident at Littlewick Green, 5 km west of Maidenhead, in Berkshire, England. There was low cloud at the time, and the Spitfire that she was piloting crashed into a hill. She was at that time 33 years old and had over 4 000 flying hours to her credit. She was attached to the Communications Squadron of the WAAF, which ferried important officials to various military centres. Membership of this particular unit was one of the most envied and coveted jobs in the WAAF.

Third photo

Rosamund Steenkamp. This photograph was taken when Capt Steenkamp was an instructor at the Witwatersdrand Technical College. She was killed in 1946.

Miss Sybil Starfield was one of the founder members of the SAWAAF in 1938 - one of the original six, in actual fact. She was a qualified pilot and for some years a leading figure in women's aviation circles within South Africa. She played a prominent part in recruiting campaigns for the unit, travelling to all the principal centres of the country. Most tragically, in September 1944 the news was cabled that Captain Starfield was missing at sea presumed drowned, as a result of a torpedo action against her ship whilst she was en route to England. She had sailed from South Africa in June 1944, having been seconded to the ATAS.

Another well known personality was Miss Rhenia Slabbert of Kroonstad, who, like Rosamund Everard, was attached to the Communication Squadron of the WAAF.

MAJOR RE-ORGANIZATION

In 1942 a major re-organization occurred within the WAAF. This re-organization consisted of the amalgamation of all administrative work with the SAAF administrative functions. The fundamental reason for this rationalization of functions was that the WAAF was maintaining a very large WAAF directorate, and most of the work was being duplicated by the SAAF sections. The merger with SAAF administrative duties was therefore dictated by the necessity of saving overlapping and duplicated staff. The directorate remained, but with only a few senior officers serving within it, their function being to direct the policy of the WAAF organization and to maintain a watch over the general welfare and well-being of all the WAAFs on full-time service.

RESIGNATION OF LT COL DUNNING: REPERCUSSIONS

The resignation of a senior officer in the WAAF provided the occasion for a manifestation of Gen Smuts's great courtesy. In October 1943 Lt Col Dunning resigned on a point of principle affecting her work. Maj Muriel Horrell took over her duties as senior officer responsible to Air Headquarters.
After Lt Col Dunning had telegraphed the news of her resignation to Maj Egerton Bird, then stationed in Port Elizabeth, the latter was stunned and flew to Pretoria to interview Gen Smuts. Maj Bird informed Gen Smuts that she was convinced that there must be some mistake.

A short while after the interview Gen Smuts had an apology to Lt Col Dunning inserted in the press, which read as follows:- 'I find that I owe you my amends for a statement I made in Parliament last session in connection with questions put to me about your resignation from the Defence Force. I then said that you had resigned without permission and that I would not have tolerated this in the case of a male officer. My attention has since been drawn to the statement as being incorrect and unfair to you. I have, therefore, made enquiries and have been informed by the Adjutant General that you did ask for permission and were given leave to resign. I can but express to you my regret about a statement that was made inadvertently, and under a mistaken impression of the facts. I thought too highly of your services to have intentionally cast any reflection on you.
My only feeling was probably one of regret and annoyance that such good service should have been terminated without previous consultation with me. Please accept my assurance that in my own mind there remains nothing but regret at your leaving us and gratitude for the part you took in a movement for women's service which led to fruitful and far-reaching results.
I am giving a copy of this letter to the Press to remove any wrong impression my remarks in Parliament may have made unintentionally.' There can surely be few instances of a head of state publicly apologizing to a member of the armed forces, especially in war-time.

DEMOBILIZATION

Maj Egerton Bird was placed in charge of the Women's Dispersal Section of the Directorate of Demobilization. By the end of December 1945 1 955 women had been demobilized. In January 1946 alone, 626 women had been through the dispersal camps. In her new role, Maj Egerton Bird was responsible for the demobilization. of former members of the:
WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force)
WAAS (Women's Auxiliary Army Service)
WAMP (Women's Auxiliary Military Police)
SWANS (South African Women's Naval Service)
SAMNS (South African Military Nursing Service)

Extensive assistance was provided to enable women to overcome the profound transition from war to peace. This help consisted of:- grants for educational and vocational training; vocational guidance officers who assisted women to choose training suitable to their capabilities; the provision of courses, both full-time and part-time (two of the most popular were shorthand-typing and nursing); demobilization readjustment officers, who assisted women who were not physically or mentally fit; schemes for sheltered employment for women, which were put into operation when the need arose; assistance for those exservice women who wished to establish businesses (including the establishment of guest farms). Perhaps the greatest problems confronted those women who had been trained as artisans during the War; as there were not sufficient factories in the country to absorb all these girls. All the discharge benefits available to men were also provided for those women with equivalent service. The Headquarters of the entire operation was in Pretoria, and the Director of demobilization was Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) Geo E. Brink, CB, CBE, DSO.

CONCLUSION

Editors' Note: There can be few service institutions which owe so much to the tenacity and enterprise - initially within a hostile environment - of a handful of individuals as the WAAF. When one considers that the South African Women's Aviation Association (or Women's Civil Air Guard) held its inaugural meeting on 5 December 1938, and its first flight at the Rand Flying Club, Germiston, on 6 March 1939, and when one then considers the role and size of the WAAF during World War II, its development compares most favourably with that of the Royal Air Force (which, as an independent organization, pre-dated the SAWAA by some 21 years and which, moreover, had extremely influential personalities guiding its development, including Gen Smuts). Throughout the WAAF's development - from its origins in the SAWAA to demobilization in 1945 - certain personalities recur as dominating forces, moulding and directing its purpose; Maj Marjorie Egerton Bird, Lt Col Doreen Dunning (Hooper), Capt Sybil Starfield, Maj Elaine Percival-Hart, and others. Indeed, this powerful theme of continuity had its distinctly tragic overtones; in so far as Capt Starfield died in the service of women's aviation. It bears emphasis that the WAAF's role included duties which were far from sedentary; Rosamund Steenkamp was the first woman to pilot a jet aircraft and, indeed, was killed whilst on flying operations. In a major respect, the efforts of Maj Egerton Bird and her founder-colleagues of the WAAF (as it ultimately became) anticipate by some three decades the struggle for women's equality which has been such a prominent feature of contemporary social history.

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