111548 Aircraftwoman Marie Isabel WILSON (nee COOTE)
Marie Isabel COOTE was born at Victor Harbour on 20 November 1924, the youngest daughter of Horace Reginald COOTE and Vera Marion COOTE (nee Sedunary). Her father Horace had enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during World War One and served in Egypt and on the Western Front with the 5th Pioneer Battalion.
Molly, as she was known, was educated at the Victor Harbor primary and high schools. Upon leaving school at the age of 16, Molly worked for R.G. BASTIAN, owner of the Southern Bakery. The Bakery in earlier years had been owned by her grandfather. She worked there for 18 months and was employed as a shop assistant and “jack-of-all-trades”, including icing smalls and other pastries and buns.
On 24th January 1941, Molly’s mother Vera died suddenly. She was 47. Horace later married Mona Muriel Tiller and there would be three children from that marriage.
Molly was next employed by Ethel APPELT in Coral Street, Victor Harbor as an apprentice dressmaker for about two-and-a-half years. When her employer announced she was going to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, or the WAAAF as it was known, Molly herself decided to enlist in the service.
On 8 October 1943, Molly applied for enlistment in the WAAAF and as she was under the age of twenty-one, she was required to obtain the approval of a parent. Her father Horace duly signed his consent that day. Aptitude tests followed and on 25 October, the recruiting selection panel duly assessed her as suitable for training in one of the technical areas. She was described as of “neat dress, bright manner and should prove to be an efficient airwoman”.
Recruiting for the WAAAF in South Australia had only commenced in April that year although the service had been formed in Australian in March 1941. The formation followed lobbying by women across the country and by the Chief of the Air Staff who wanted to release male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas. The formation of the WAAAF set a precedent and the establishment of the two principal other women’s service organisations soon followed – the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS).
Following a medical examination, Molly’s formal induction in the WAAAF took place on 15 November 1943 at No 5 Recruiting Centre in King William Street, Adelaide. Molly’s enlistment term was “for the duration of the war + 12 months”. Her service file records the following description of Molly.
Age: 18 years 11 months
Height : 5 feet 4 inches
Weight: 8 stone 6 pounds
Chest measurement: 32-34 inches
Vision: 6/6 r. eye; 6/6 l. eye
Religious denomination: Church of England
Wounds, scars: appendix scar; slight scars both knees
Basic training for Molly and her fellow enlistees was undertaken at No 4 Initial Training School (ITS) at Victor Harbour. This training school, located in the sprawling Mount Breckan property, had been established in November 1940 as part of Australia’s commitment to the Empire Air Training Scheme (E.A.T.S.).
Molly arrived at Mount Breckan on 22 December 1943 and although the training lasted for four weeks only, it was intense and demanding. Most of the basic training courses had been reduced in length in order to get the maximum number of trainees into the technical training courses being conducted around the country. On 22 December 1943, Molly was mustered as a trainee technician and posted to No 4 School of Technical Training (STT).
The School was located at the Exhibition Building, North Terrace, Adelaide and had been based there since April 1940. The unit had grown rapidly since then and the Dunlop Building, the Implement Company Building and St Mark’s College were taken over and used as accommodation barracks for the airmen and women. The Commanding Officer of the School was Squadron Leader (later Wing Commander) J.A. Broadbent, a veteran of the First World War.
The intense training continued until 18 March 1944, following which Molly was posted to No 1 Engineering School (ES) at Ascot Vale, Victoria. Another training unit set up to meet the demands of the E.A.T.S., and by August 1942, some 20,000 trainees had graduated. In 1943, training commenced of WAAAFs as flight mechanics and the year finished with over 12,000 tradesmen and women completing courses. In April 1944, the first WAAAF flight mechanics graduated and two more courses commenced, a pattern that continued all year.
On 19 June 1944, with her technical training completed, Aircraftwoman Marie Isabel COOTE was posted to No 3 Air Observer School (AOS) at Port Pirie. The unit had been established in December 1943, having been converted from No 2 Bombing and Gunnery School. It provided training of aircrew in navigation and bombing skills, as well as running conversion courses for navigators who had been trained on other aircraft. Training was carried out in Ansons and Fairey Battles and the all-important servicing of these aircraft was carried out by a large groundcrew component, including a number of WAAFs, of which Molly was one. The School’s Commanding Officer at the time of Molly’s arrival was Wing Commander F. Headlam who would soon be replaced by Wing Commander W.G. Leer on 27 September.
Whilst Molly and her female colleagues undertook the same training and service employment as their male counterparts, their pay was only two-thirds the male rates. This inequality would continue throughout the war and would not be addressed by the three services until the late 1960’s.
Training of aircrews during wartime was hazardous as training times and methods had been shortened and streamlined in order to meet the urgent requirement of supplying aircrew to Britain. Like other air force training establishments around Australia, the School at Port Pirie saw its share of accidents. During Molly’s time at No 3 AOS there were a number of fatalities, as the Port Pirie General Cemetery register reveals. Of the 28 burials of World War Two, 21 are RAAF casualties (1942 – 5 deaths; 1943 – 9; 1944 – 6; 1945 – 1; 1946 – 1).
Molly’s principal duties as a flight mechanic involved work in the aircraft electrical section on magnetos, generators and spark plugs.
Entertainment at the unit was in the form of pay night dances and sports such as football, tennis, basketball, soccer and badminton. On 2 March 1945, the School received a visit from the Governor of South Australia, Lt-Gen Sir Willoughby NORRIE, and on 7 May 1945, HRH The Duke of Gloucester visited the unit. In August 1945, 29 Anson aircraft were transferred to stored reserve, consequently reducing the number of aircraft available for training.
With the surrender of Japan, victory was celebrated throughout the unit and the day following VJ Day, about 900 members of all ranks from the base marched through the main street of Port Pirie. On 23 August, Molly was admitted to No 7 RAAF Hospital (Frome Road, Adelaide) where she remained until 19 September.
On 27 November 1945, Molly was posted to No 6 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Mallala. The role of this training school was rapidly diminishing as demobilization gained momentum. On 1 January 1946, 6 SFTS ceased to function as a training unit and was reformed as Care & Maintenance Unit, Mallala. Two weeks later, on 15 January, Molly was posted to the 4th Personnel Depot at Springbank and commenced discharge procedures. On 23 January 1946, Molly was discharged from the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force.
Molly returned to her employment as a shop assistant at Southern Bakery and then as a dressmaker at The Normac School of Dressmaking, 54 Flinders Street, Adelaide, for about 18 months. On 18 October 1947, Molly married George William WILSON at St. Peters and there would be three children of the marriage.
Molly now lives in retirement in Kapunda, having moved there in 2001. Her eldest daughter Irene also lives there.
Service file of 111548 Marie Isabel COOTE purchased from the National Archives of Australia ( www.naa.gov.au ).
Royal Australian Air Force History Unit, Units of the Royal Australian Air Force – Volume 8, Training Units, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra (1995).
Commonwealth War Graves Commission database ( www.cwgc.org ).
Letters and emails from Mrs Irene KELMAN, daughter of Molly WILSON.
Compiled by the Victor Harbor RSL History Research Team, November 2011.