Margaret Spencer: the Little Colonel

Simon Mitchell
Wednesday, 27 January 2021

A digitised Second World War service record sheds new light on the career of a pioneering Australian servicewoman.

Margaret Spencer was born Margaret Joan Henry in Hobart in 1912. After graduating from Hobart Ladies College, she was admitted to the University of Tasmania to study commerce.

A keen aviator, Margaret was the first woman to win a flying scholarship from the Tasmanian Aero Club and received her ‘A’ level pilot’s licence in 1937.

Margaret married Alfred Spencer the following year and threw herself into the duties of a 1930s housewife. When Alfred joined the army in 1940, Margaret took over his old job – selling cookers and washing machines.

Alfred went missing in action in January 1942. Two months later, Margaret joined the war effort herself, enlisting in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).

The Australian Women’s Army Service

The Minister for the Army, Sir Percy Spender, established the AWAS in August 1941. Spender wanted women to take on traditionally male military jobs so that more men could be freed up to fight overseas.

AWAS members worked as drivers, cooks, typists, signallers, cipher clerks, military police, translators and more. The service even had an anthropologist who communicated with Indigenous groups.

Commissioned as a temporary captain, Margaret Spencer completed her officer training at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart.

Her service record, held in the National Archives’ collection and available to view online, reveals that her instructors saw her as ‘one of the best officers in the school’. She was ‘very keen on and good at games’ and had ‘sound ideas which she puts over very well’.

Active service

Margaret was promoted to temporary major in January 1943 and appointed assistant controller for the Tasmanian Lines of Communication Area. Later that year she was chosen to lead the 4th AWAS Training Battalion. In July 1944 she was appointed assistant controller, AWAS, First Australian Army, Queensland.

When the government decided to send AWAS members to New Guinea, Margaret Spencer was chosen to command a group of 350 women in the country.

Arriving in Lae in May 1945, Margaret had her troops operating at full capacity within three days. The contingent stayed for about 12 months, working in communications, intelligence and administration.

Now a lieutenant colonel, the five-foot (152 cm) tall Margaret Spencer earned herself the nickname ‘the Little Colonel’.

After the war

In 1945 Margaret learned that her husband had died in Malaya in 1942. With the war over, the Little Colonel returned home with her troops and transferred to the reserve forces.

The AWAS was demobilised entirely in 1947. That same year, Margaret Spencer was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her contributions in New Guinea.

Her service record includes a copy of the OBE recommendation from General Thomas Blamey, the commander-in-chief of the Australian Army. Blamey noted that:

‘There is no doubt that the outstanding service rendered by members of the AWAS and the high standard of efficiency and discipline they have reached in their most difficult tasks performed under far from ideal conditions, are largely attributable to the untiring work of Col Spencer.’

Margaret never remarried. She finished her commerce studies before leaving Tasmania for Melbourne, where she worked a variety of jobs including Director of Administration at the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults. She died in Melbourne on 12 May 1990.

Margaret Spencer’s story is one of over a million contained in the National Archives’ collection of Second World War service records. We’re digitising these records over the next few years to make them easily available to all Australians.