WWII Camouflage Women

Retrieving the past

In WWII the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales (CWA-NSW) cottage-industry, included knitting and making wearing apparel including “40,000 sheepskin vests and 24,000 other sheepskin articles” for the forces; as well as hundred and thousands of camouflage nets, which surpassed the work done by women working from homes during WWI.1

Serving the Country

In her book Serving the Country, author Helen Townsend writes that in one year alone the CWA-NSW women, and other participating NSW women, made “more than half a million” camouflage nets, which “saved the Government millions of pounds as well as manpower and resources”.2

The CWA started making camouflage nets using balls of string, in 1941 and the process of making them was nicknamed “netting”.

Mass production

By 1942 the expertise of the CWA netting-work was recognized when the New South Wales (NSW) Eighth Division serving overseas requested the CWA make camouflage nets for them; the women worked so hard that by 1943 there were sufficient nets and they were informed by the Minister of the Army, Mr Forde, “that netting would cease shortly”, the women continued netting because they loved the activity until 1944 when the CWA women started to recondition army clothes (trench trousers, tunics and great-coats) – by the end of 1944 they had reconditioned 264,800 articles of clothing.3

A talented, mechanically minded Queanbeyan man, William Genge’s flat-feet prevented him from serving overseas – instead he served at the Sydney Commonwealth Aircraft Factory, at Lidcombe (a Sydney suburb) putting in and testing Bauefort Bomber engines in planes for the Australian Air Force – his children and wife, Catherine (known as Kate) lived nearby – Kate remembered the deafening roar when the factory tested the Bauefort Bomber’s engines for the rest of her life.4

With a brother and son serving overseas, and alarmed at the possibility of loosing all her family when the three Japanese midget-submarines invaded Sydney Harbour on the night of May 31, 1942, 5 Kate’s mother, Edith Pearl (Lodge) Cantle (still living in Queanbeyan) asked her daughter Kate (Cantle) Genge to send her 8-year-old grand-daughter Irene, back home to safety in Queanbeyan.6

Netting circles

Eight year old Irene went with her grandmother Edith Pearl, to the CWA rooms, in Monaro Street, Queanbeyan, which was just one of the 400 CWA netting circles, where women sat around a large frame “netting.” Eight-year-old Irene liked “netting” so much that her grandfather made her a small “netting” frame behind the kitchen door where she could do “netting” in her spare time at home in the 1940s.7

The CWA had a central role in organizing cottage-industry and provided the CWA rest-rooms as work-places where women like Edith Pearl, who was not a member of the CWA, as well as other women who belonged to other organizations (like the Red-Cross) could participate and contribute to the war effort together.8

Popular pastime

The Australian War Memorial, in Canberra, only ten minutes from Queanbeyan, has a great collection of private poems, photographs, diaries and memorabilia, collected from members of the forces by WWI Australian War Historian “Bean” 9 who set the standard in collecting and research, so any Australian could do research and write their own interpretation of the war based on words written during the war by the forces and not only rely on official records and official interpretation and propaganda.

The following poem was written by L/Sgt R.A Wickens, whilst serving abroad in 1942; during the Great War (WWI) when brothers often served together and were wiped out together; in this poem written in WWII the brothers are serving in separate forces – and the poem gives a picture of the war effort by an Australian family – abroad and at home – as Dad, Mum, sister and sons all serve. 10

Just Camouflaging Nets

Young Tommy’s in the Army,
With bully beef and stew,
While Jimmy drinks the salt sea air,
All dressed in Navy Blue. John is with the RAF
Just squaring up some debts
And poor old Mum just sits at home,
a’camouflaging nets

My Dad’s become a warden,
But considers it a trifle.
And sister Sue does her bit, too–
She helps make the rifle.
Now Billie’s left his scholarship
And joined the sea cadets,
So the only one who’s left at home is
a’camouflaging nets.

Now this may seem a lot of rot–
A silly waste of time.
To sit around and tie on rags
On piles of netted twine.
But just suppose your in Tobruk,
Then you’d pray they’d spend more days
a’camouflaging nets.

Now my Mum looked at it this way:
She’d tons of time for thought
And with us all so far away,
What price the memories brought?
Though I’m Mum’s son, a digger too,
Now she’s no time to fret,
Just plays her role, God bless her soul,
a’camouflaging nets.


Footnotes / Resources

1. Country Women’s Association of New South Wales: (i) The Golden Years: the story of fifty years of the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales. 1927. p. 26. (40,000 sheepskin vests and 24,000 other). (ii) Silver Years, Country Women’s Association of New South Wales, 1922-1947. pp. 23; 26. (iii) Note: All references to the Country Women’s Association (CWA) in this post refer to the CWA in the state of New South Wales (NSW) Australia, and not to the CWA in other states of Australia or other countries throughout the world.
2. Townsend, Helen. Serving the Country – The history of the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales. 1988, p.125.
3. (i) Ibid pp. 124-25. (ii) Golden Years, 1972. pp. 24-25.
4. (i) Connee-Colleen © “Queanbeyan Outlook (45), Women making camouflage at home”, The Queanbeyan Age. June 20, 2006, p. 5. (ii) Connee-Colleen. Interview: Catherine “Kate” Mary (Cantle) Genge (1912-2010), Queanbeyan, 2006. (iii) Note: Catherine “Kate” Mary Cantle married William Harold Genge (c.1934): There were four children from the marriage: Irene Edith Genge (born 1934); Catherine Francis Genge (born 1939); Rosemary Ann Genge (born 1941); William Robert “Billy Bob” Genge (born 1944).
5. (i) < http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/midgetsub/index.htm> (ii) Connee-Colleen. Interview: Catherine “Kate” Genge, 2006.
6. Connee-Colleen. Interview: Catherine “Kate” Genge, 2006. (iii) Note: Edith Pearl Lodge (1886-1968) married William Charles Cantle (1872-1960) in 1910, there were four children from the marriage: Edith Jean Cantle (1911; Catherine Mary Cantle (1912-2010); Robert John Cantle (1914); Arthur Herbert Cantle (1917).
7. (i) Townsend. p.125. (ii) Connee-Colleen. Interview: Irene Genge Queanbeyan, 2006. Irene Genge (born 1934) married Hilary George Bateup (1957).
8. Townsend. p.124
9. (Ref to come)
10. Ibid p. 126.

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