Baptism of Fire & Hilarity: The Rhodesian Women’s Services

Having started out as an experiment, the RWS became an invaluable part of the Rhodesian Army. The progress of women from all walks of life, to professional soldiers, was amazing.

The History of the Rhodesian Woman’s Services

by J.E.O’TOOLE Major (Retired), Rhodesian Forces

Joyce O’Toole holding a “Stirling”


In 1975, Rhodesia’s war against terrorism was intensifying. Her extensive Borders had to be protected against enemy incursions. Manpower was stretched to breaking point, and it was decided that women should be recruited into the Army and Airforce, on an experimental basis, for a period of twelve months.

They would be employed in administrative posts, thus freeing able bodied soldiers for active duty. The Establishment would be one hundred. Women between the ages of 17 and 50 years of age, married or single, would be eligible. Women over the age of fifty, with special qualifications, would also be considered.

Conditions of Service were basic. Members would wear uniform and be subject to Military Law. However, there was no Rank structure, and RWS members would be addressed as Mrs or Miss. The pay scale was, I believe, two thirds of the male counterpart’s pay, and reported to be on a par with the female members of the BSAPolice Force.

On 1 July 1975, the RWS was born, and a recruiting drive began.

It was recorded that 1,200 applications were received, and the first training course was fully subscribed within hours. The women of Rhodesia were ready to take part in the defence of our Country.

RWS Public Relations


The basic training course was styled on that of the Israeli Women’s Army. It was an effective course, but a great deal of work had to be done in a period of two weeks. It was therefore, essential to familiarize the women with as many facets of military life, as possible. Thereafter, the training would continue within their various Units. However, much of the time available was devoted to Drill and weapon training. The weapons used at this time were the Browning 9mm pistol and the Stirling sub machine gun, later to be replaced by the Uzi, FN, and Star pistol.

It is worth mentioning that most of the women, including myself, had never before been instructed in the art of weapon training. I recall the time on my basic training course, when we were subjected to mock ambush attacks. I have to say, the sight of African RAR soldiers disguised as ters (terrorists)…. accompanied by thunder flashes from every angle…. baptized us with fire… and we knew it was no joke. Having having said that, we later learned that the RLI Instructors were in hysterics observing our reactions to the mayhem. They took great delight in ordering us to use the bush for calls of nature, making sure we were directed to the area where they had set up more thunderflashes! I need not elaborate, merely to say they had a field day at our expense.

I hardly dare mention the time we were introduced to the “jungle lane”. This was when we were let loose, one at a time, down a trail, armed with the Stirling, fully loaded. Closely followed by an instructor. Along the trail were a number of targets which would appear suddenly. The objective being to dispose of the “enemy”. Most of us let rip, emptying the magazine, at the first hint of a rustle in the bushes… several of us almost ambushed the instructors. They gave us a right going over after the exercise…

yelling that we were the ters secret weapon, capable of wiping out the whole of the Rhodesian Army!

We rookies wondered what we had let ourselves in for…comforting each other with the thought that we would not be rookies for ever!

The course welded the women into a team, which was of course one of the aims. The Passing Out Parade produced a team of proud, confident new soldiers who were ready to tackle anything.

RWS in the Grey’s Scouts

In the early stage of the RWS, both Army and Airforce trained together at KGVI and RLI Training Barracks. Later, Airforce and Army separated and became individual groups.


In the beginning, as mentioned earlier, the RWS was formed on an experimental basis. Recruitment and training courses continued at approximately four week intervals, until the establishment figure was reached.

It took some time before the women were accepted as part of the professional Army/Airforce scene. I believe some of the “old soldiers” were somewhat skeptical in respect of how well suited we were to military life. However, it soon became apparent that we took our roles very seriously, and were of value.

The establishment was increased to three hundred, and the Airforce took over the training of the smaller group of RWS Airforce members. Army and Airforce then became separate bodies.

RWS Army Signals Corps

The women were posted to all Corps within the Rhodesian Army, many of them performing vital, highly sensitive, and skilled duties.

As RWS Commandant, I was privileged to be aware of the many sterling duties performed by the women. Although the women were categorised as “Non-combatant”, many served in the forward areas and were vital members of their Units.

I recall with pride the two RWS dog-handlers,(Egineers Corps), Sgts Beryl Sheehan and Jenny Wilkinson, who, each with their respective dogs, “Bracken” and “Sally” were qualified to locate land mines… along with other duties.

Sgt Beryl Sheehan with “Bracken”

There was little Cpl Yvonne Higham… no taller than five feet nothing, who was the only RWS member to become an Apprentice Mechanic… and a superb one at that, working happily alongside the men.

I cannot fail to mention some of the women who belonged to the Medical Corps, engaged in sensitive tasks, not known to many, and the women who operated in specialist Signal Sqns, performing vital duties. There was also the Joint Services Photographic Interpretation Section, in which the women played a role.

RWS Army Medical Corps
Army Health Unit

I could go on and on, but I believe the essence of the RWS is admirably illustrated by these few examples.

Of course, we had our special “characters”… The wonderful, eccentric, Capt Jo Whitaker who served with the Social Service in the Chaplain General’s outfit. She went to extraordinary lengths to care for soldiers, of all Races, and their families. She was one of the over fifties specialists. She had formerly served in the WRAF, in one of the RADAR sections, during the Second World War. She ignored most of Army protocol… and ventured where angels feared to tread in order to help anyone in her care.

She would mutter “I am old enough to be their Mother anyway!” and got away with it.

Another character was little Welsh Taffy Roberts, from Signals. She had been in the Brit Army, and knew her stuff. When she needed a break, would burst into my office for a good chin wag and a joke, then toddle off back to her section.

Who would ever forget our own Sgt Maggie “RADAR” Finch? She was a carbon copy of “Radar” from the Television show “MASH”. Not only did she look like the original, but her character was similar. She would also burst into my office, and her opening line was usually “Bloody “ell Ma’am!” She was pure Rhodie, with the sense of humour of a Cockney!

 Lt Jess Brunton, Sgt Maggie “Radar” Finch and Lt Audrey Sanderson

I will finish with, what to me, is a delightful illustration of the spirit and willingness to serve Rhodesia. I do not recall her name. She was an over fifty recruit (well over fifty… nearer to sixty) and had served with the ATS during WW Two. She was tiny, wiry, and wore a hearing aid. Her fellow members affectionately called her “Gran”. She was known to switch off her hearing aid whilst on parade, and could be seen marching into the sunset until grabbed back by one of her mates! I recall delivering a lecture to her Basic Course. She had given her all on the Parade Square, switched off her hearing aid, and nodded off. We all decided to let her carry on with her nap!… What a great bunch of women.

Sgt Strydom with the RWS Mascot

In 1977, there was talk that RWS members should be fully recognized, and given the same conditions of service as the men. A Defence Reporter, Chris Reynolds, reported in an article published in the National press:

“The Women’s Service is known to be held in high esteem by the Prime Minister Mr Ian Smith. Earlier this month, the Minister of Defence, Mr Mark Partridge, said that Rhodesia was not making enough use of its Women and he proposed to go into the matter in “some detail”. “

Shortly after, Government approval was given for the introduction of rank structure, and a new deal for the RWS. “Continuation” Courses were held to further military knowledge, and to assess members for offers of suitable rank. On 1 July 1977, it all became a reality. RWS members were now Regular soldiers, and opportunities for promotion and career building were on an equal with the male soldiers. It was accepted that pay scales would be 80% of the male pay. An Officer Selection Board was convened, and about twenty five Potential Officers were appointed.

RWS Potential Officers Course

The first RWS Commissioning Course was held at Military Studies. The course duration was eight weeks. It was an extremely tough and testing course, covering such subjects as, Drill/Weapon Training, Radio Procedure, Map Reading, Phases of War, Revolutionary Warfare, Intelligence Gathering etc…. Command and Control, Military Law, Basic G/A/Q Staff Duties, and so on. After hours were taken up with preparation of Service Papers, both long and short term. There was an eight hour written examination during the last week. Finally, the Potential Officers had to undertake two Military History Presentations, which took the form of theatrical productions in the Beit Hall, upon which, the producers were judged.

RWS Commissioning Course
November 1977 with First Lady Janet Smith

On 30 November 1977, eleven RWS Members were commissioned as Lieutenants (Tech/Adm). They were:

790001Lt.B. A. TrowArmy HQ
790002Lt.J. E. O’TooleMilitary Studies
790003Lt.A. J. MillerGSO3 (SD)
790004Lt.P. TriggolCOMOPS
790005Lt.M. GuerreiroOC R Tp
790006Lt.A. SandersonQSO3 (Mov)
790007Lt.M. K. WoodQSO3/Welfare HQ 1 Bde
790008Lt.W. AckhurstASO3 (Pers)
790009Lt.J. McIllwaineSVCS DIR
790010Lt.S. C. BardoASO3 (PS)
790011Lt.J. K. B. BruntonMED DIRECTORATE

The RWS “Brown Birds” went from strength to strength. The following years saw some RWS Officers change their status from Tech/Adm to GD, due to the fact that we became eligible to take up Permanent Contracts, and meant the sky was the limit in terms of promotion.

RWS Officers Passing Out Parade, 30 November 1977, First Lady Mrs Janet Smith reviewing


Having started out as an experiment, the RWS became an invaluable part of the Rhodesian Army. The progress of women from all walks of life, to professional soldiers, was amazing.

No one was prouder than me, when on 4 August 1978, the RWS held their Anniversary Parade, and I was Parade Commander. Over three hundred women marched on to KGVI Barracks Parade Square to the tune of “Jellalabad” played by the Band of the RAR, and marched off to the RWS Regimental March…”HELLO DOLLY”.

April 1980, and it was over. We had experienced times of sadness, pride and comradeship throughout the years of war, and will never forget those who died for Rhodesia. The RWS is privileged to have been part of it all.

J.E.O’TOOLE Major (Retired)

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