Blog Post: The Australian Women's Army Service

On Wednesday 10 May 2017 the Princess Royal Fortress Military Museum in Albany officially opened a new exhibit on the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).  This new exhibit presents to visitors numerous artefacts, photographs and stories that were brought out of the museum’s archives to help tell of the role they played in Albany during the Second World War. As the museum commemorates 75 years since the first AWAS arrived at the fortress, the exhibit is a timely reminder of their posting to the coastal defence site.

Even though the time spent in Albany was brief, some 12 months, they faced many challenges whilst here. Poor living conditions and feelings of homesickness were common among the young women, some having just turned 18 years old.

Others faced the cold and wet of Albany’s harsh winter with regret having come from more warmer and dryer climates. None-the-less they did their daily duty without complaint. However, the exhibit does not just look at life in the army but also sheds light on their personal stories of love and loss. For some women their love lead to marriage and children once the war had ended, whilst others heartbreak as fiancée’s, husbands, brothers and fathers were killed in action overseas.

For us here at the museum the sharing of family stories and photographs that are on show have been gratefully received over several decades. As with most exhibits without these contacts and donations, stories such as the Albany’s AWAS could not be possible.

Content from the Australian Military Forces Unit Diaries gave great insight into these living conditions and duties the women performed with many official reports being used. In addition many letters, notes and recordings have been used in the exhibit. It was important to allow the women’s words speak rather than interpreting or rewriting.

Another important object on display is the 1967 AWAS Association of Western Australia Inc. time capsule and its contents. The lead capsule was buried on 26 November 1967 and was unearthed in 2002 and was subsequently donated to the museum. Contained within are numerous artefacts and an account of the formation and service of the AWAS from November 1941 to October 1946. All are on display.

The museum was also fortunate enough to have a member of the AWAS who served here in Albany during 1943, Mrs Gwen Norman (nee Pierpoint) who was a sergeant during the war. Her story was captured through the Albany Centenary of ANZAC Alliance Oral History Programme in 2011 by the Albany History Collection where she still volunteers each Friday morning. I was also fortunate enough to ask Gwen a few additional questions recently that helped clarify a few queries I had about the AWAS in Albany. The answers helped the exhibit immensely and also gave us a photograph of Gwen that we never knew existed.

Currently the museum has 66 AWAS members on its Albany service list but believe this number may grow as further research is carried out. We’ve captured a big part of the AWAS history here at the fortress and in Albany but I think there’s more to discover. One previously unknown AWAS woman was brought to the museums’ attention just three weeks prior to the official opening by a family enquiry.

The AWAS exhibition runs until the 6 August 2017 and is free to enter however we welcome contribtutions to assist our continuing research. The Princess Royal Fortress Military Museum is located on Mt Adelaide and is open daily 9am until 5pm.

David Theodore, Princess Royal Fortress Curator

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this exhibition may include names, images, and references to people who have since passed away.