Mum’s career in the Signals during WWII was written and read out at the John Forrest High School ANZAC Day ceremony by my daughter Rebecca de Beer.
Anzac Day is a time that we reflect on the contributions of Australian and New Zealand Service people who have contributed in times of war. It is a time to think about their stories, and remember that they were ordinary people, following the requests of governments to do extraordinary things.
Today I would like to tell you the story of Hilda Sly, who was born in 1922 and joined the Australian Women’s Army Service in World War 2. Hilda grew up, living in tents during the Great Depression as her family struggled to make ends meet during the worst economic downturn Australia had ever experienced. She left school at 14 and worked in various jobs to help support her family.
In November 1941, the reality of war became apparent to Hilda when the ship, HMAS Sydney was sunk off the coast of Western Australia, after a battle with the German cruiser Kormoran, which also sank. All 645 crewman on board the Australian vessel died. This loss of life inspired Hilda to consider enlistment. Initially, she applied to join the Airforce but she was told they were not recruiting women at that stage. However, on June 12, 1942 the government published a statement in the West Australian stating that 1,000 recruits for the Australian Women’s Army Service Signal Corps had been selected for training after undergoing rigid adaptability tasks. It also called for more recruits from Western Australia to undertake duties in the areas of wireless telegraphists, line operators, signal clerks, teleprinter operators, cipher personnel and switchboard operators. These were the key communications tools used during WW2, long before instant messages and mobile phones.
Hilda made an application to join the AWAS. She thought she would be trained to undertake a trade, study mechanics, learn to drive or work in a kitchen. She did a maths test, had a medical and went to ‘school’ for 2 months of training. However, she then got a telegram inviting her to go for an interview and join the Signals Corps in Melbourne. She had no idea that she would be de-coding secret messages within a Special Unit of the Signallers Corps.
Hilda Sly was formally enlisted on July 31, 1942. After a short training period in Brisbane, Hilda’s unit were each given a steel helmet, a gas mask, a water bottle and a pistol – nobody understood why that had been given a gun, none of them had handled a gun or had any training with firearms.
Hilda did shift work behind closed doors, all the time deciphering a wide variety of messages. The messages were sets of numbers on sheets of paper and they were deciphered by using only a set of books containing the number systems for deciphering codes. Messages they deciphered ranged from receiving and passing on requests for stores, especially fuel and food, instructions regarding wounded servicemen and other troop movements including those of the US servicemen. They were required to sign a sworn secrecy statement, and advised not to take shortcuts by trying to guess the meaning of a message or memorise the codes as that would make them vulnerable if they were captured by the enemy.
Hilda went to work in Townsville in 1942 while Australian troops fought against the Japanese in Kokoda, New Guinea. During this period ‘hundreds of thousands of US military personnel’ passed through Brisbane as it was the headquarters of US General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in the South Pacific.
A most traumatic occurrence for Hilda during her time at Townsville was the forced removal of all her teeth. She had all her teeth removed while sitting up in a chair with only a local anaesthetic. She didn’t have any problems with tooth-ache or gum disease, but was informed that it was to prevent problems in the future, and she was issued with false teeth at 20 years old.
This barbaric and unnecessary procedure was the result of policy developed by the Army because of difficulties experienced by troops during WWI. Men serving in the trenches of the Western Front suffered extreme ‘ulcerative gingivitis’ and could not eat, let alone fight! Dental treatment was considered essential for Army recruits in order to avoid dental health problems arising while they were serving in remote areas or overseas and a separate Australian Army Dental Corps was established in 1943. However, it seems unlikely that all men sent overseas had all their teeth removed ‘just in case’.
The Signal Office where Hilda worked was situated in a disused Bank of NSW uncomfortably close to the wharf. The cipher office was situated on the top floor and Hilda found it hard to understand why they were situated in such a vulnerable position. Whenever there was an air raid alert all of the equipment was carried in a tin trunk, down the back stairs to the cellar. It was easier carrying it down than carrying it all back after the “All Clear”.
Incidents which resulted in important news coming through the Cipher Unit included reports on the conditions facing Prisoners of War, the Sandakan March, and the training of the Z Force. They were extremely busy during the ‘Battle for the Bismarck Sea’. This battle took place early in March 1943 in the South West Pacific when aircraft of the U.S. Fifth Air Force and the RAF attacked a Japanese convoy transporting troops to Lae in Papua New Guinea.
All the members of the Cipher Unit had been promoted to Corporal at the end of the training in Melbourne, and were promoted to Sergeant while in Townsville, without having to attend Non-commissioned officer school or take an examination. Although they received basic training in Melbourne, they learnt more on the job in Brisbane and Townsville. A highlight of their social life was that when they had free time they attended dances at Magnetic Island. On one occasion Hilda recalled dancing with an Aboriginal boy she had known in Kalgoorlie. She said he had been too shy to dance with her at home but on Magnetic Island they danced so well together that the floor cleared and everyone stood around to watch them!
In 1943, Hilda was given leave from Townsville and went home via Brisbane. Before going onto Kalgoorlie, Hilda stopped off in Northam to visit family. While waiting for the train to continue her journey a day or two later, she found herself mingling with a large group of soldiers when one who was nearby looked up at her and said ‘Hello Sergeant!’. She replied, ‘How are you doing Private?’. This man eventually became her husband and he later told her that he had said to his mate, ‘I am going to follow up with that girl’. His mate replied, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, she’s a Sergeant’. But Wally Johnson was determined and he made contact later and he and Hilda kept in touch throughout the war, although they had very little opportunity to spend time together until after the War.
After spending some time working in Darwin, Hilda was re-assigned to duties at the Swan Barracks in Francis Street, Perth. On the morning of August 6, 1945 when she got to work a 300 word message had arrived in two parts to ensure its security. It was the ‘Peace Message’ declaring that the Japanese had signed an agreement to surrender. As she was the Sergeant in charge, and the only person on duty at the time she decoded the messages. By the time she went off duty in the evening the news had been officially released and people were dancing in the streets. She later wrote:
As I was the only person on duty I decoded both. As I went home about 1600 there was much excitement in the streets and young ones were jitter bugging in the foyer of the Piccadilly Theatre to the tune of “I danced with a dolly with a hole in her stocking”. … I felt relief that our troops would be coming home and did not realise that POWs were still to be tortured and murdered. Although I had heard rumours they were nothing like the reality.
A total of 24,082 women served in the Australian Women’s Army Service, 41 died on active service but none of these deaths were due to enemy action. The women’s pay and allowances were set at approximately 68% of those paid to the men. Hilda has said that working as an AWAS Signal girl provided her with the best years of her life. She felt intellectually stimulated, productive and appreciated. She also had the companionship of like-minded women who worked together in sociable teams. Hilda has been an inspiration to her family, her great grandson recently wrote about her for a school project for International Women’s Day about a Woman who inspires him. She has provided me with a lot of stories to tell my History classes, she is my Grandma, and she would have loved to have been here today to commemorate this occasion, unfortunately she is in hospital at the moment, but at 98 years old she is still happy to tell me stories of her time in the army and give me insight into how much things have changed in her lifetime. My life has certainly been enriched from having such a strong woman as a role model in my life.