Kitty Kain


With her appointment as commander of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in March 1941 Kitty Kain became one of New Zealand's most senior women military leaders during the Second World War.

Frances Ida Tyson (known as Kitty) was born in Dunedin on 17 September 1908. She graduated from the University of Otago in 1933 with a bachelor of home science before completing her postgraduate training in dietetics in Melbourne. She was appointed as head dietitian at Hobart General Hospital. Here she met Maurice Kain, also from Dunedin who was working in Malaya as a mining engineer. They were married in Singapore in 1935. Kitty taught in local schools while Maurice worked in various mines in the region. As war approached, Kitty, now pregnant with her first child returned to Dunedin.  Maurice joined her later after he was able to escape the Japanese advance on Singapore.

The WAAF was established in mid-January 1941. The War Cabinet recognised that the Royal New Zealand Air Force could not release enough men for service overseas without mobilising women. At this time Kain was working for Muriel Bell, the state nutritionist and director of nutrition research at the University of Otago Medical School. Bell recommended Kain for the position of superintendent of the WAAF in March 1941. The WAAF was initially designed ‘primarily to take over messing, to control every phase of the choice, preparation, and serving of food’.

Kain’s background made her an ideal choice to head the new service. She moved to Wellington where the new WAAF headquarters were established at Rongotai. By late April she was organising and supervising the training of the first 200 recruits. The service quickly grew. WAAFs (as they were known) were eventually posted to every major station in New Zealand. By the end of 1942 WAAFs were to be found on 21 stations here while a number served overseas in Fiji and on Norfolk Island. At its peak in July 1943, the WAAF numbered over 3600. During the course of the war approximately 4750 women passed through its ranks.

Initially the WAAF employed women as cooks, mess-hands, drivers, clerks, equipment assistants, medical orderlies and shorthand typists. By the end of the war however they were to be found in many trades that were ‘not beyond their physical capabilities’. While a number excelled in mechanical and aircraft trades, others worked as wireless operators, dental mechanics and meteorological assistants.

Women were not granted service ranks until 1942, when the WAAF was incorporated as part of the RNZAF. From this point members of the WAAF held ranks equivalent to those of the men. By the end of the war over a hundred WAAFs were commissioned, mainly for cipher and administrative duties. Superintendent Kain became Wing Officer Kain, a rank equivalent to wing commander.

With the birth of her second child imminent, Kain left the air force in December 1943. She was made an OBE in 1949 for her military services.

Kitty was active in educational work after the war. As well as chairing various school boards and committees she served on the board of King Edward Technical College. She was also an active member of The New Zealand Federation of University Women and was a delegate at the international body’s conference in Germany in 1968. During 1963 she was employed as a dietitian at the Dental School at the University of Otago.

Kitty Kain died on 16 August 1997 at Eastbourne, Wellington. 

Adapted from the DNZB biography by Shirley Tunnicliff

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