Capt L. Steyn Historical Research Officer
The end of the Second World War led to the disbandment of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the last women’s camp at Valhalla being closed on 1 April 1947. The majority of women returned to civilian life, but a nucleus of former members stayed on and were accommodated in the Women’s Auxiliary Defence Corps and utilized in the Air Force.
The Women’s Defence Corps was established on 28 November 1947. Regulations however made severe distinctions between members of the WDC and male members of the Permanent Force, the most demeaning regulation was one concerning seniority – “Precedence: – Male members of the Force take precedence over those of the WDC of the same rank, irrespective of the date of appointment or promotion to the rank.” By early 1949 the Air Force had four officers and thirty other ranks in the WDC. On the 9th of May 1949 the decision was made that the recruiting of women for the WDC Permanent Force is to cease.
This was the beginning of a gradual phasing out of women in the Permanent Force. The WDC however remained for nearly two decades longer and was only disbanded on 1 May 1971, when women were permitted to join the Permanent Force.
The Civil Defence College in George was established in 1970 and to be able to train young women, an organization had to be created that would be “manned” by Permanent Force women. Seven women were recruited for this purpose in 1970, the most senior being Cmdt Hilda Botha (SA Army). No provision was made at this stage for the use of women anywhere else in the Permanent Force. The first intake of 128 single young women started their training at the Civil Defence College (later known as the SA Army Women’s College) on 1 February 1971. About a third of these women indicated that they would like to join the Permanent Force and the College became the recruiting source for the South African Defence Force. In 1973 three candidate officers (Adie Horn, Nancy Jennings and Annette Eloff) and five airmen (L. Muir, H.C.A. Heunis, H.P.J. Barnard, E.E. Swanepoel, H.C. Breytenbach) were recruited in the Air Force, all had completed their initial training at the SA Army Women’s College at George.
On 3 October 1972 the Minister of Defence decided that women could be recruited for direct entry into the Arms of the Services but that they would first be required to undertake the Arm of Service’s basic training. On 19 January 1974 the first direct intake of 33 Air Force women in the Permanent Force started their basic training at AFB Waterkloof. A number of the initial intake continued to serve in the Air Force for many years and rose to senior positions. Subsequent yearly intakes yielded a similar amount of members that rose through the ranks. Basic or Regimental Training for women were eventually moved from Waterkloof to the SAAF Gymnasium in Valhalla during 1976. Women from these subsequent intakes were utilized effectively in the various SAAF musterings e.g. Command & Control (Air Traffic Controllers, Mission Controllers), Personnel & Finance Functionaries, Supply & Support etc. Women selected to become Air Hostesses aboard SAAF VIP transport aircraft were for many years, the only selected females that could then be identified as part of an aircrew, albeit in a non combat role.
In the late 1980’s consideration was given to training of women as pilots. Socio-political pressure in most western nations brought about the introduction of equal opportunities for women in the military and the armed forces moved cautiously forward and began training women in combat aircrew roles.
In order to adhere to the Equal Opportunity policy, the Air Force embarked on a program to train women aircrew members. The first woman flight engineer commenced her flying training in 1995, followed by the recruiting of the first group of women for training as SAAF pilots during the same year.
The first five women to qualify as pilots in the South African Air Force received their wings at Central Flying School at AFB Langebaanweg on 11 December 1997. They were Lisl Bennett, Renét Venter, Kerryn Swemmer, Tanya Livingstone and Velma Scholz.
The Air Force Museum recently created a special exhibit on this theme and is always keen to expand on its content. Women that served during the era are welcome to visit and view the exhibition and to consider donating items of interest or historical value to the museum at Swartkop. Members can contact the Research Officer, Captain Leon Steyn at 012 351 2282 or 2290 for more information.
Acknowledgement for use and provision of information, material and photos:
Brig Gen Letitia Eksteen, Col Neels Nothling,
Col Gordon Lennox, WO1 Adri Geldenhuys, WO1 Christo Crous
and the Documentation Centre (DoD Archives).