National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Women and the War Effort

During World War Two, over 75,000 women volunteered for work to assist the war effort and this effort was co-ordinated by the Women’s War Auxiliary Service (WWSA). Formed in 1940, the WWSA kept a registry of all women and organised voluntary workers as required.

In 1941 a Hospital Division of the WWSA was formed with the idea of bringing women from New Zealand to serve with the 2 New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in Egypt.

The women of the WWSA Hospital Division took on a variety of roles in and around hospitals from working in the wards to laundry and clerical duties. It was decided that nursing orderlies be used together with clerks. The requirement for those working in the nursing section was that they must have 60 hours hospital training, whilst those in the clerical section was that they must be highly qualified and be able to show a high standard of efficiency. Matron-in-Chief, Miss Nutsey insisted that they be referred to as ‘nurses’ however many referred to the women as Voluntary Aides (VAs).

In December 1941 a cable arrived from the Middle East approving a contingent of 200 who were dispatched for 3 Hospital, Cairo, Egypton December 22nd with 4 officers, 182 nursing orderlies (nurses) and 14 shorthand typists (clerks) aboard.

The HS Maunganui stopped off in Australia and due to overcrowding unloaded 59 of the women. One was sent back home due to illness and the rest remained in Northam Perth for an extra month before sailing for Cairo. These women became known as the “Northam girls”.

On 24th January 1942 in Egypt, the WWSA (Hospital Division) was formed as an official unit of the 2 NZEF. The nursing orderlies worked as assistants in the wards. Their duties were bed-making, taking temperatures, serving meals, sweeping, cleaning and helping in the kitchen. The rest worked in the clerical section, in hospital offices, replacing the men who were sent into the field, and some were employed in Quarter Master (QM) stores and hospital X-ray departments where their duties included shorthand, typing and other office tasks.

One of the Northam girls was Second Lieutenant Martha Denman Grigg. Martha attested in 1941 aged 30 and worked in admin for the WWSA in Egypt and Italy. She was Mentioned in Despatches for distinguished service. The National Army Museum was lucky enough to recently receive a number of her personal items including her medal group which is currently in preparation for mounting to go into the museum’s Medal Repository.