South African Women's Auxiliary Services

ROYAL PHOTO: Elizabeth, the Queen Consort, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, poses for a photograph with 10 of the Provincial Commandants of the South African Women's Auxiliary Services (SAWAS) in the garden of Government House in Cape Town during the Royal Families tour of South Africa in 1947.

By Ivor Markman


Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Elizabeth, the Queen Consort of the United Kingdom, (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) summoned a group of ladies in unfamiliar brown uniforms to Gov­ernment House, Cape Town during the Royal Tour of South Africa.


The 10 women, all provincial commandants of the South African Women’s Auxilliary Services (SAWAS) were invited to join her for tea on April 21, 1947, when she thanked them for the honorary voluntary work they had done during the Second World War.


"Do tell everyone how much their kindness to service men and women during the war has been appreciated by us all in Great Britain.


"Before we left England the King and I received countless letters from wives and mothers asking us to say 'thank-you' to par­ticular families who had been good to their husbands and sons," said Her Majesty.


Since the war ended the role played by civilian women has largely been forgotten and now it’s time for us celebrate what they did and to give them the long overdue credit they so richly deserve.


Among these women there existed a special organisation - the SAWAS - composed entirely of honorary voluntary workers, and which was found in every town and village in the country.


Before the war began there existed an organisation called the Women’s National Service Legion the objectives of which were to serve the nation in any emergency, but when a decision was taken by General Jan Smuts on November 17, 1939, to have two women’s auxiliary services, the WAAF and the WAAS, SAWAS was founded to do the recruiting (through the Director of Recruiting) for the Department of Defence.


All the work done by SAWAS was voluntary and nobody, including the Auxiliaries and officers, received any payment for work done.


Where the communities were too small to muster the required 75 members for a proper branch, many country Sections were started which were attached to a proper branch .


By December, 1943 60,757 SAWAS women volunteers had enlisted at 483 branches in every corner of South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia).

TOP LADY: Provincial Commandant of Command 2 (Eastern Province) Nancy Anderson.

SAWAS BADGE: The badge which the volunteers wore.

TOP BRASS: The Port Elizabeth SAWAS women who ran the local operations of the organisation during the Second World War.

In 1943, for example, SAWAS collected £308 572 for war funds while £36 761 was spent on materials.


Funds raised by SAWAS during the war went to organisations such as the Union Central Fund, the SAWAS Prisoner of War fund, the Disabled Soldiers fund, the SAWAS Navy War Fund, the Navy Week Appeal, Children of France, Children of Holland, South African Gifts and Com­forts fund, Governor General's Fund, the Red Cross, the China Relief, various Soldiers Reserve Funds, Merchant Navy fund, Overseas Tobacco Fund, SA House for Raid Victims, Hillcombe Auxiliary Hospital, and St. Dun­stan's Military charity for Blind Ex-Servicemen.


In the segregated society of the time the Eastern Cape SAWAS, under the guidance of Mrs Currie in Uitenhage, assisted the Cape Coloured Women War Workers (CWWW) under Mrs Hendrickse and the Native Women War Workers (NWWW), who ran a knitting circle supervised by Mrs Limekaya, in catering for the needs of the servicemen of the Cape Corps and the Native Military Corps.


Nationally, between the CWWW and the NWWW there were 123 branches with 6,213 members.


SAWAS women performed duties as varied as running crèches and communal homes in order to look after children and the elderly, providing items and comforts to those in the forces and to prisoners of war (POWs), those overeas severely affected by enemy air raids, helping in hospitals, recruiting for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), recruiting for WAAS (Women’s Auxiliary Army Service) and a host of other tasks.


Many women took over the running of the family farms or stores and others replaced men in government offices. All this was done while still looking after their own homes and children yet still they managed to find time to volunteer for SAWAS.


Uniforms were optional but many women throughout the country chose to be seen in either their brown uniforms or white overalls with brown ties.


When they worked in canteens they wore white uniforms with brown ties and neat brown jerseys.


SAWAS, had its head office in Pretoria and was divided into 12 Commands - each of which had a Provincial Commandant in charge.


Under the Provincial Commandant came officers and section leaders . These women were responsible for the different kinds of work.


The first provincial commandant of Command 2 (Eastern Province) (based on the 6th floor, United Buildings) was Lady Walton,  but following  her resignation in July, 1940, Nancy Anderson took over.


Command 2 stretched from Knysna in the west to Port St. John's in the east while the northern boundary ran just south of Graaff-Reinet and Cradock.


It had 38 Branches, 13 of which were in the Western Transkei and were under the special care of  the Assistant Provincial Commandant at Umtata, Mrs Taylor.


Other provincial Commandants were Mrs E R McIlwraith (Western Province), Mrs A C Kiddie (North-Western Cape),  Mrs M van Rensburg (North-Eastern Cape), Mrs N von Geusau (Trans­vaal), Mrs E Nogarb (Johannes­burg), Mrs A Hepker (South Natal), Mrs M M Ryksen (South­West Africa) and Lucy Bean, (Cape Peninsula).


In June, 1942, the canteen section formed a guard of honour on the Port Elizabeth City Hall steps during a special ceremony when some mobile canteens - donated by SAWAS - were handed over to representatives of units based in the Eastern Transvaal.


Among those present were the Mayor, represen­tatives of the Services, and many others, including Mrs E Till, Comman­dant of Branch No. 9.


Col. V C Lewis, MC, said SAWAS was  doing the same for the com­fort and cheer of the troops as the canteens in the field.


By the end of June, 1943, SAWAS had raised £41,261 for the Navy Fund and £19,192 for the Prisoners of War Fund the latter of which was handed over to the Red Cross.

HUNGRY SERVICEMEN:  As the good smell of apetising food wafted through the air, servicemen waited for the SAWAS and WVAF volunteers to serve plates of appetising food at the Service's Club in St Andrews Street, Port Elizabeth. 

DORMITORY:  They may have been packed like sardines, but these men were only too pleased to have a bed in which to spend the night at the Port Elizabeth Services Club in St Andrews Street.

BILLIARDS ROOM: Navy, Air Force and Army servicemen enjoy a game of billiards at the Services Club in St Andrew's Street.

READING AND RECREATION ROOM: Service personnel relax in the reading and recreation room at the Services Club in St Andrew's Street.

In downtown Port Elizabeth a most attractive Services Club was opened in St Andrew’s Street thanks to the efforts of Mr H O Frielinghaus, MPC, Defence Liaison Officer of the Defence Liaison Committee (who headed the main thrust to raise funds from the public to finance the building alterations and for equipment) the Women’s Voluntary Auxiliary Force (WVAF) and the SAWAS.


The premises were made available thanks to the generosity of Mr J S Young.


2nd Lieutenant (Mrs.) Hough, Officer Commanding the WVAF in the Eastern Province, and Mrs J B Anderson, Provincial Commandant, Command 2 of the SAWAS, were joint chairwomen of the house committee in charge of running the club. 


The club was officially opened by the Lord Bishop of Grahamstown in the presence of many dignitaries, including Colonel V G Lewis, MC, VD, Officer Commanding the Eastern Pro­vince Command, Commander Delius, MBE, RN, the OC of 42 Air School, Group Captain Cottle, MBE, DFC, RAF, and Mr Adolf Schauder, Mayor of Port Elizabeth.


Visitors, such as Col the Honourable Deneys Reitz, a Boer soldier who later fought alongside the British in the 1st World War, and Col G C G Werdmuller, the Director of Recruiting, said they were very impressed with what the facility had to offer.


The club was open to the men and women of all services, and, from the day it opened was extremely popular.


Visitors entered the building from St. Andrew's Street and stepped into a large dining-room, decorated with orange curtains and a lettuce-green dado rail edged with gold and orange to give the room a cheerful mood, on the ground floor.


Then one moved from the dining-room to the bright and well-equipped kitchen with  the aromatic smell of appetising food wafting through the air. This food was devotedly cooked by women for the men and women of the fighting forces who were keeping their homes safe. 


The kitchen was situated right next to the dining-room and  it was nothing to see volunteers in their white outfits cooking160 dinners in the course of an evening.


For nine pennies members of the forces could buy a three course meal including a cup of steaming hot coffee.


To the left, through an interleading room, visitors stepped into the billiard-room, where two full-sized tables were constantly in use.


A large white-walled and green cur­tained dormitory for the men was situated directly above the billiard room, and was accesible via a staircase at the rear of the building.


The upkeep of the beds was made possible by sponsorships from members of the public to the tune of 10 shillings a month and even though there were 66 beds on the premises, demand was sometimes so great it was often insufficient.


In a room leading to the main recreation room where a fine dance-floor was laid down, there was a linen-room,  a bookcase with books from the State Library Scheme, miniature billi­ards, ping-pong tables,  writing-desks and  as well comfortable chairs in the central portion leading to the main recreation-room.


As billiard ­balls clicked, WAAFs and WAASIES challenged each other to games of ping-pong. The colourful combinations of air force blue and khaki with orange tabs respectively, the attractive uniforms of St John and the Red Cross, the beech-brown of the SAWAS, the clear green stripes on the khaki shoulders of the WVAF, the dark blue of a sailor, the khaki of a soldier and the air-force blue of a pilot, all blended together to create a happy and colourful sight. 

DINING ROOM: Volunteers  in their crisp white overalls and servicemen and women wait for the next meal.

Through its Provincial offices SAWAS ran a hospitality system which was linked all over the country. This is where servicemen and women went to spend their leave - in various private homes and farms.


In those days nearly every woman could knit and sew and knitting and sewing sections were started in most places.


Hundreds of pairs of socks and other knitted goods were made by SAWAS women and then sent to the troops “Up North” through the South African Gifts & Comforts Fund.


The women also knitted for Prisoners of War, the Navy and for various British troops.


Wool spinning was popular in many branches and the wool was later used to make socks for sailors.


SAWAS sewing machines churned out large numbers of garments for air raid victims and other survivors of enemy action and large amounts of supplies were sewn for hospitals, the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and some branches ran Emergency Nursing Stations.

LIBERTY CAVALCADE: The SAWAS stall in St George's Park during the Liberty Cavalcade illustrated some of the jobs done by women volunteers during the war.

Canteen sections were everywhere - in country areas far from military camps - where the needs and comforts of the servicemen and women’s were taken care of .


The white and brown SAWAS uni­forms were a familiar sight on most of the larger railway stations.


All the YMCA canteens in camps and air­ stations were serviced by  the women workers and many fine clubs for the men and women of all services were run by the SAWAS.


For those who were unable to leave their barracks, the mobile canteen, well stocked with cakes and hot drinks in insulated jars, went out, wending its way between the huts.


Be­sides helping at the Services Club, Branch No. 9 of the Canteen Section, under Section Leader Mrs. Frieling­haus, SAWAS ran four canteens in Port Elizabeth.


Two of them were owned by SAWAS, one at the Olympic Ground in St George’s Park known as the “Fun Canteen”, (next to the WAAF camp, it was the first canteen to be opened) and one at Humewood, both of which had the most amazing sausage rolls for in one day 950 vanished in little under an hour.


The other two canteens run by SAWAS were owned by the YMCA, one at 42 Air School and one at another of the military camps in town.


Also sold were dozens of cool drinks, multiple cups of steaming tea and coffee and hundreds of cakes, (125 000 cakes sold in one month) all of which seemed to dis­solve into thin air.


The most expensive item on the menu was the meat pie, priced at two pennies, while everything else cost one penny.


As all work was done by voluntary helpers, meals and accommodation were offered at very low prices.



ENTRANCE: The entrance to the South African section of the Liberty Cavalcade which was held in St George's Park in 1943.

SAWAS STALL: The stall run by SAWAS was built against the back of the old "B" stand at St George's Park.

Wednesday and Saturday evenings the pleasant and large hut (Dolrico Café later the Palm Grove Café) in Humewood came alive when the 42 Air School jazz band played dance music where many a romance was sparked. 

FAIRMILE: A wooden Fairmile ship slides slowly into the water after being launched in Knysna.

SAWAS branches undertook to look after the boat and crew and provided all sorts of "homely" fittings for the boats such as food, pictures, curtains and other things. A number of these little ships were built all around the world during the war and were based on a British design.

This particular boat was launched just before the war ended so its unlikely it saw any action.

VICTORY DAY PARADE: SAWAS members march proudly past the Cenotaph, behind photographer, in Rink Street, Port Elizabeth, at the conclusion of the Second World War.

All Text and Photographs:  © 2016  Ivor Markman. All rights reserved.

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