Mary Bell (aviator)

Last updated

Mary Teston Luis Bell
Mary Bell commanding the Women's Air Training Corps, 1941
Born3 December 1903
Launceston, Tasmania
Died6 February 1979(1979-02-06) (aged 75)
Ulverstone, Tasmania
Service/branch Royal Australian Air Force
Years of service1941–1945
Rank Flight Officer
Unit WAAAF (1941–1945)
Battles/warsWorld War II
Other workFarmer

Mary Teston Luis Bell (3 December 1903 – 6 February 1979) was an Australian aviator and founding leader of the Women's Air Training Corps (WATC), a volunteer organisation that provided support to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during World War II. She later helped establish the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), the first and largest women's wartime service in the country, which grew to more than 18,000 members by 1944.

Royal Australian Air Force Air warfare branch of Australias armed forces

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), formed March 1921, is the aerial warfare branch of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). It operates the majority of the ADF's fixed wing aircraft, although both the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy also operate aircraft in various roles. It directly continues the traditions of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), formed on 22 October 1912. The RAAF provides support across a spectrum of operations such as air superiority, precision strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air mobility, space surveillance, and humanitarian support.

Womens Auxiliary Australian Air Force

The Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed in March 1941 after considerable lobbying by women keen to serve and by the Chief of the Air Staff, who wanted to release male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas. The WAAAF was the first and largest of the wartime Australian women's services. It was disbanded in December 1947.


Born Mary Fernandes in Tasmania, Bell married an RAAF officer in 1923 and obtained a pilot's licence in 1927. Given temporary command of the WAAAF on its formation in 1941, she was passed over as its inaugural Director in favour of corporate executive Clare Stevenson. Bell refused the post of Deputy Director and resigned, but subsequently rejoined and served until the final months of the war. She and her husband later became farmers. Nicknamed "Paddy", [1] Mary Bell died in 1979, aged seventy-five.

Tasmania island state of Australia

Tasmania is an island state of Australia. It is located 240 km (150 mi) to the south of the Australian mainland, separated by Bass Strait. The state encompasses the main island of Tasmania, the 26th-largest island in the world, and the surrounding 334 islands. The state has a population of around 526,700 as of March 2018. Just over forty percent of the population resides in the Greater Hobart precinct, which forms the metropolitan area of the state capital and largest city, Hobart.

Clare Stevenson Womens Auxiliary Australian Air Force director

Clare Grant Stevenson, AM, MBE was the inaugural Director of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), from May 1941 to March 1946. As such, she was described in 2001 as "the most significant woman in the history of the Air Force". Formed as a branch of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in March 1941, the WAAAF was the first and largest uniformed women's service in Australia during World War II, numbering more than 18,000 members by late 1944 and making up over thirty per cent of RAAF ground staff.

Early life and WATC

Born on 3 December 1903 in Launceston, Tasmania, Mary Bell was the daughter of Rowland Walker Luis Fernandes, an English-born clerk, and his Australian wife Emma Dagmar, née Mahony. She attended Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Launceston, and St Margaret's School, Devonport, before commencing work in a solicitor's office aged fourteen. She married John Bell (1889–1973), a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) officer and World War I veteran of Gallipoli and the Australian Flying Corps, at St Andrew's Anglican Church in Brighton, Victoria, on 19 March 1923. They had one daughter. [2]

Launceston, Tasmania City in Tasmania, Australia

Launceston is a city in the north of Tasmania, Australia at the junction of the North Esk and South Esk rivers where they become the Tamar River (Kanamaluka). Launceston is the second largest city in Tasmania after Hobart and the thirteenth-largest non-capital city in Australia.

Launceston Church Grammar School Anglican private school in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Launceston Church Grammar School is an Anglican co-educational private school in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia for Early Learning through to Grade 12.

Devonport, Tasmania City in Tasmania, Australia

Devonport is a city in northern Tasmania, Australia. It is situated at the mouth of the Mersey River. Devonport had an urban population of 23,046 at the 2016 Australian census

From 1925 until early 1928, the Bells lived in Britain while John attended RAF Staff College, Andover, and served as RAAF liaison officer to the Royal Air Force (RAF). Interested in aviation since her teens, Mary learnt to fly in England and in April 1927 qualified for a Grade A private pilot's licence. [2] [3] Returning to Australia, she was the first female to gain a pilot's licence in Victoria, on 20 March 1928. The following year, she became the first Australian woman to qualify as a ground engineer. [4]

RAF Staff College, Andover Royal Air Force staff college

The RAF Staff College at RAF Andover was the first Royal Air Force staff college to be established. Its role was the training of officers in the administrative, staff and policy apects of air force matters.

Royal Air Force Aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's aerial warfare force. Formed towards the end of the First World War on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world. Following victory over the Central Powers in 1918 the RAF emerged as, at the time, the largest air force in the world. Since its formation, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history. In particular, it played a large part in the Second World War where it fought its most famous campaign, the Battle of Britain.

The Bells moved to Brisbane in 1939; John was employed as Queensland manager for Airlines of Australia Ltd, having left the RAAF in 1929. Mary became leader of forty or so members of the Women's National Emergency Legion Air Wing who had volunteered to assist with aircraft maintenance during times of war. Determining that their objectives would not be met in their existing organisation, on 17 July they formed a new paramilitary group, the Women's Air Training Corps (WATC), and elected Bell its commander. She soon expanded the WATC into a national organisation, with commandants leading each state's chapter, and herself as Australian Commandant. [1] [2] WATC members trained as drivers, clerks and telegraphists. [5]

Brisbane capital city of Queensland, Australia

Brisbane is the capital of and the most populated city in the Australian state of Queensland, and the third most populous city in Australia. Brisbane's metropolitan area has a population of 2 million, and the South East Queensland region, centred on Brisbane, encompasses a population of more than 3 million. The Brisbane central business district stands on the historic European settlement and is situated inside a peninsula of the Brisbane River, about 15 kilometres from its mouth at Moreton Bay. The metropolitan area extends in all directions along the floodplain of the Brisbane River Valley between Moreton Bay and the Great Dividing Range, sprawling across several of Australia's most populous local government areas (LGAs)—most centrally the City of Brisbane, which is by far the most populous LGA in the nation. The demonym of Brisbane is "Brisbanite" or "Brisbanian".

Keith Allison Virtue MBE was a pioneer Australian aviator. Sir Lawrence Wackett, in the Foreword of Keith Virtue's biography, writes that he was an experienced airman himself but he marvelled at the ability and skill of Keith Virtue and counts him as one of the greatest of the Australians who devoted their life's work to the task of pioneering airlines in Australia.

Womens National Emergency Legion

The Women's National Emergency Legion (WNEL) was an Australian female auxiliary and training organisation of the World War II-era that was based in Brisbane. It was established in 1938 and provided volunteers with training in first aid and other skills which were seen as being relevant to Australia's war effort. Following the outbreak of the Pacific War members of the organisation were attached to the US military units in Australia as transport drivers and clerks. They also undertook mine watching and other tasks. The organisation ceased to exist in or about 1947.

Bell wrote to Air Vice-Marshal Richard Williams, with whom she was acquainted via her husband and through aviation circles, advocating the establishment of a women's branch of the RAAF similar to the RAF's Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Among other things, she pointed out that female volunteers such as hers were already supporting the Air Force in driving, nursing and clerical duties. [6] The WATC was one of several women's voluntary organisations whose members were keen to support the military, arguing that their personnel provided a ready-made pool of skilled staff for auxiliary services, saving the government time and money training unskilled labour. [7]

Richard Williams (RAAF officer) Royal Australian Air Force chief

Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, is widely regarded as the "father" of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He was the first military pilot trained in Australia, and went on to command Australian and British fighter units in World War I. A proponent for air power independent of other branches of the armed services, Williams played a leading role in the establishment of the RAAF and became its first Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1922. He served as CAS for thirteen years over three terms, longer than any other officer.

Womens Auxiliary Air Force British military service in World War II

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), whose members were referred to as WAAFs, was the female auxiliary of the Royal Air Force during World War II, established in 1939. At its peak strength, in 1943, WAAF numbers exceeded 180,000, with over 2,000 women enlisting per week.

World War II and WAAAF

Australian Commandant Bell (seated second from right) at a council meeting of the Women's Air Training Corps, 1941 An008038WATC.jpg
Australian Commandant Bell (seated second from right) at a council meeting of the Women's Air Training Corps, 1941

Australia having declared war on 3 September 1939, the RAAF Air Board met in November to discuss Bell's letter, but postponed taking any further action. She continued to lobby, as did several women's groups seeking to support the war effort and free male staff for overseas postings. [6] [8] In July 1940, the new Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, invited her to produce a proposal for a women's auxiliary, supervised by her husband John, who had rejoined the Air Force at the war's outbreak and was now a wing commander in the Directorate of Organisation at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne. Mary recommended forming the new service under the Air Force Act to permit women to enlist for the duration of the war under conditions similar to RAAF members, rather than enrolling on a short-term contractual basis, a radical idea at the time that would not be put in place until 1943. She also suggested a volunteer reserve or citizen force to augment the enlisted women, effectively the existing WATC, though this was seen as placing too much emphasis on her personal command. [9]

Some senior Air Force officers, including the recently promoted Air Marshal Williams, and the Director of Personal Services, Group Captain Joe Hewitt, opposed a women's service. Burnett, an RAF member who appreciated how the WAAF proved its worth during the Battle of Britain, championed its establishment as the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). [10]

Bell was appointed to the RAAF's Personnel Branch as Staff Officer (Administrative) with the probationary rank of section officer (acting flight officer) on 24 February 1941, to lay the groundwork for the new organisation. [11] Formally established on 25 March, the WAAAF was the first uniformed women's branch of an armed service in Australia, predating similar organisations in the Army and Navy. Bell led the WAAAF for the first three months of its existence, recruiting approximately two hundred women by June; of the first six officers she appointed, five were former members of the WATC. [7] [8]

I was given an office containing two tables, one chair, one form, one telephone and nothing else and told to get on with it... Luckily I had been associated with the R.A.A.F. since its formation when my husband was one of the original officers so knew most of the senior officers and my way about generally.

Mary Bell, on leading the WAAAF in 1941 [8]

On 21 May 1941, Berlei corporate executive Clare Stevenson was appointed Director WAAAF with Bell as her Deputy Director, effective from 9 June. [12] The Air Member for Personnel, Air Vice Marshal Henry Wrigley, chose Stevenson on the basis of her management background and because she was not a "socialite". [13] Notwithstanding her aviation experience and familiarity with the RAAF, he considered Bell to be "tangled up with the WATC", where she "waved the flag and obtained a great deal of publicity for herself". [11] Bell may also have alienated Burnett by not including his daughter Sybil-Jean, a founding member of the WAAF, among the initial intake of staff. [14]

Bell chose to resign on learning of Stevenson's appointment, rather than stay on and report to someone from outside the service fraternity; she later rejoined at Wrigley's request, on the condition that she received no promotion higher than flight officer. [8] Two of her original officer appointees also resigned when Bell was passed over, later describing her as "a thorough and effective organiser" and the "obvious choice" as Director. [14] Returning to the WAAAF on 5 October 1942, Bell served at RAAF Headquarters in several directorates, mainly that of Medical Services. [15]

WAAAF recruiting poster, c. 1942 WAAAF Recruiting Poster.JPG
WAAAF recruiting poster, c. 1942

Despite Bell's recommendation in July 1940 that they be enlisted into the WAAAF as permanent staff, women were at first enrolled only for renewable twelve-month contracts; they did not become part of the Permanent Air Force, with the benefits that entailed, until 1943. Pay was only ever two-thirds that of male equivalents. The organisation nevertheless grew rapidly, peaking in strength at over 18,600 members in October 1944, or twelve per cent of all RAAF personnel. [13] By the end of the war a total of 27,000 women had served in the WAAAF, at one stage comprising over thirty-one per cent of ground staff and filling sixty-one trades, all previously occupied by men. [16]

Later life

Ranked flight officer, Mary Bell was discharged from the WAAAF at her own request on 11 April 1945. [15] [17] Her husband John was an acting air commodore when he left the RAAF on 15 October. [2] [18] The WAAAF, first and largest of Australia's wartime women's services, was disbanded on 30 September 1946. [13] [19] It was succeeded in 1950 by a new organisation with a separate charter to the RAAF, the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF); members achieved a pay scale equal to the male service in 1972, and five years later were integrated with the RAAF. [20] [21]

After leaving the military, the Bells became farmers, first in Victoria and then in Tasmania. They retired in 1968. Survived by her daughter, Mary Bell died in Ulverstone, Tasmania, on 6 February 1979. She was buried at Mersey Vale Memorial Park cemetery in Spreyton, near Devonport, beside her husband, who had died in 1973. [2]


  1. 1 2 Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, pp. 37–39
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Thompson, Joyce. Bell, Mary Teston Luis (1903–1979). Australian Dictionary of Biography . National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  3. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, p. 335
  4. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, p. 27
  5. Tramoundanis, "The WAAAF at war", p. 97
  6. 1 2 Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, p. 42
  7. 1 2 Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939–1941, pp. 401–408
  8. 1 2 3 4 Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942, pp. 99–100
  9. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, pp. 52–54
  10. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, pp. 68–72
  11. 1 2 Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, pp. 72–77
  12. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, p. 338
  13. 1 2 3 Dennis et al., The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, p. 606
  14. 1 2 Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, pp.  92–94
  15. 1 2 Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia, p. 363
  16. Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 155–156
  17. "Bell, Mary Teston Luis". World War 2 Nominal Roll. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  18. "Bell, John Renison". World War 2 Nominal Roll. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  19. Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 203–205
  20. Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, pp. 205–207
  21. "Women in Air Force". Royal Australian Air Force. Archived from the original on 20 July 2008. Retrieved 10 April 2016.

Related Research Articles

Air vice-marshal (AVM) is a two-star air officer rank which originated in and continues to be used by the Royal Air Force. The rank is also used by the air forces of many countries which have historical British influence and it is sometimes used as the English translation of an equivalent rank in countries which have a non-English air force-specific rank structure. Air vice-marshals may be addressed generically as "air marshal".

Charles Burnett (RAF officer) senior commander in the Royal Air Force

Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Stuart Burnett, was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force during the first half of the 20th century. He was Air Officer Commanding Iraq Command during the early 1930s. During the Second World War, he served as Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Felicity Peake RAF officer

Air Commandant Dame Felicity Peake DBE was the founding director of the UK's Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). She started flying when her first husband took up the hobby in 1935, but in 1946 became the first director of the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). She was Honorary ADC to King George VI from 1949 to 1950.

William Bostock Royal Australian Air Force senior commander

Air Vice Marshal William Dowling Bostock, was a senior commander in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). During World War II he led RAAF Command, the Air Force's main operational formation, with responsibility for the defence of Australia and air offensives against Japanese targets in the South West Pacific Area. His achievements in the role earned him the Distinguished Service Order and the American Medal of Freedom. General Douglas MacArthur described him as "one of the world's most successful airmen".

Daphne Pearson Womens Auxiliary Air Force officer; George Cross & Empire Gallantry medals recipient

Joan Daphne Mary Pearson was an English Women's Auxiliary Air Force NCO and later officer during World War II and one of only thirteen women recipients of the George Cross to date, the highest medal for gallantry not in the face of an enemy that can be awarded to a citizen of the United Kingdom.

Corporal Betty Cameron was an Australian World War II servicewoman and WAAAF activist. Born as Elizabeth Katherine Twynam-Perkins, she was educated at Fort Street Girls' High School, Sydney and obtained her Leaving Certificate. From 1938 to 1940 she was a lady cubmaster.

Joe Hewitt (RAAF officer) Royal Australian Air Force senior commander

Air Vice-Marshal Joseph Eric Hewitt, CBE was a senior commander in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). A Royal Australian Navy officer who transferred permanently to the Air Force in 1928, he commanded No. 101 Flight in the early 1930s, and No. 104 (Bomber) Squadron RAF on exchange in Britain shortly before World War II. Hewitt was appointed the RAAF's Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in 1941. The following year he was posted to Allied Air Forces Headquarters, South West Pacific Area, as Director of Intelligence. In 1943, he took command of No. 9 Operational Group, the RAAF's main mobile strike force, but was controversially sacked by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal George Jones, less than a year later over alleged morale and disciplinary issues.

Women in the Australian military

Women have served in Australian armed forces since 1899. Until World War II women were restricted to the Australian Army Nursing Service. This role expanded in 1941–42 when the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force established female branches in which women took on a range of support roles. While these organisations were disbanded at the end of the war, they were reestablished in 1950 as part of the military's permanent structure. Women were integrated into the services during the late 1970s and early 1980s and can now serve in most positions in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), including combat roles.

Frank Lukis RAAF senior commander

Air Commodore Francis William Fellowes (Frank) Lukis, CBE was a senior commander in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). A veteran of World War I, he first saw combat as a soldier in the Australian Imperial Force at Gallipoli. In 1917, Lukis transferred to the Australian Flying Corps and flew with No. 1 Squadron in the Middle East, where he was twice mentioned in despatches. A member of the Australian Air Corps following the war, he transferred to the fledgling RAAF in 1921, and became the first commanding officer of the newly re-formed No. 3 Squadron at RAAF Station Richmond, New South Wales, in 1925.

Henry Wrigley Royal Australian Air Force senior commander

Air Vice Marshal Henry Neilson Wrigley, CBE, DFC, AFC was a senior commander in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). A pioneering flyer and aviation scholar, he piloted the first trans-Australia flight from Melbourne to Darwin in 1919, and afterwards laid the groundwork for the RAAF's air power doctrine. During World War I, Wrigley joined the Australian Flying Corps and saw combat with No. 3 Squadron on the Western Front, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross; he later commanded the unit and published a history of its wartime exploits. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for his 1919 cross-country flight.

No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School RAAF

No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School was a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot training unit that operated during World War II. It was one of twelve elementary flying training schools employed by the RAAF to provide introductory flight instruction to new pilots as part of Australia's contribution to the Empire Air Training Scheme. No. 5 EFTS was established in June 1940 at Narromine, New South Wales, and primarily operated Tiger Moths. It ceased training in June 1944, after more than 3,700 students had passed through.

Air vice-marshal is the third highest active rank of the Royal Australian Air Force and was created as a direct equivalent of the British Royal Air Force rank of air vice-marshal. It is also considered a two-star rank. The Australian Air Corps adopted the RAF rank system on 9 November 1920 and this usage was continued by its successor, the Royal Australian Air Force.

New Zealand Womens Auxiliary Air Force

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force was the female auxiliary of the Royal New Zealand Air Force during the Second World War. Established in 1941, it began with an initial draft of 200 women, reaching a peak strength of about 3,800, with a total of about 4,750 women passing through its ranks, of who more than 100 achieved commissioned officer rank.

Air Commandant Dame Mary Henrietta Barnett (1905–1985), known as Henrietta Barnett, was a senior officer of the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). From 1956 to 1960, she served as its Director.

Margaret Adams was an Australian aviator.

Air Board (Australia)

The Air Board, also known as the Administrative Air Board, or the Air Board of Administration, was the controlling body of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) from 1921 to 1976. It was composed of senior RAAF officers as well as some civilian members, and chaired by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). The CAS was the operational head of the Air Force, and the other board members were responsible for specific areas of the service such as personnel, supply, engineering, and finance. Initially based in Melbourne, the board relocated to Canberra in 1961.