Betty Sale: An Australian Woman in a Distant Conflict

Jessica Stroja shares the remarkable story of Betty Sale and the Finnish Winter War in a VIDA series based on articles published in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal.

The Winter War of 1939 and 1940 saw the invasion of Finland by Soviet forces, a conflict that captured the attention of international media. Geographically distanced from the conflict, Australians watched these events unfold with increasing trepidation. The Australian media began to view the conflict through a moral lens, debating the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of the conflict. Some Australians took action by fundraising for the Finnish nation, while others travelled to Finland to volunteer for the war effort.

‘Woman golf champion of Australia [Betty Sale] goes to Finland with ambulance unit,’ c. 1941, Argus newspaper collection of war photographs, World War II. Image via State Library of Victoria.

Many Australian newspapers wrote of these volunteers. In 1940, the Sydney Morning Herald drew especial attention to Betty Sale, a Tasmanian woman who was one of only ‘twenty-two first-class drivers’ selected to drive in the Women’s Transport Service for the Finnish War effort. Journalist Betty Wilson observed:

[As] a former amateur golf champion of Tasmania, Betty Sale often played in Australian interstate matches. For some years she held down a job as motor car saleswoman in Hobart – an unusual job for a woman – then, more unusual still, came over to London six months ago and was given a similar job with a well-known firm in London. They had never employed a woman before … to choose her as one of twenty-two first-class drivers was a tribute to her resourcefulness, capability, and – courage.

Leaving behind society circles, social events, family and friends, Sale captured the attention of Australian reporters.

Sale attracted the pride, admiration and support of her fellow Australians. While she was not the only Australian to volunteer for the Finnish war effort, she received heightened attention in the media. Sale encapsulated Australian values and morality at a time when the nation’s values were perceived to be under threat. In so doing, Australians could connect with the core of their nationalistic identity via their support for a woman in a distant conflict.

Finland was facing the devastating effects of conflict on its armed forces and civilians. A nation that had endured a history of oppression by foreign powers, the Winter War saw the Finns fight desperately to retain their right to territory and independence in the face of Soviet invasion. These challenges spoke to Australia’s own sense of isolation as a geographic outpost of the British empire. World War II had brought with it threats to the independence of many nations, and Australians were acutely aware of the ideological tensions and security concerns that abounded as a result of the conflict. When coupled with the belief that Finland was at risk of succumbing to Soviet forces as the ‘latest victim’ of Stalin’s tyranny, the Finnish conflict began to gain increased attention in Australian reporting.

Why, then, did Betty Sale, a young woman from Tasmania, draw so much attention, despite the many others who stepped forward in support of the Finns’ ‘brave fight’ for independence and freedom?

‘The Tyrant’s Latest Victim,’ Brisbane’s Worker, December 5, 1939. Image via Trove.

In 1940, Finnish Prime Minister Sir Risto Ryti publicly called for ambulance personnel who were desperately needed to assist the Finnish forces during the conflict. Sale, now a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (a Women’s Transport Service in the British Army), volunteered her services. The only Australian in the unit, the Mercury described how Sale was ‘chosen from hundreds of volunteers’; this, according to the Australian Women’s Weekly, was due to her driving ability and ‘knowledge of motor car engines’.

Once in Finland, the unit in which Sale was placed worked with the Finnish Red Cross. Her unit assisted Finnish nurses, military hospitals and first aid personnel by performing both transport and technical tasks. Sale worked with refugees and military casualties. Despite becoming temporarily stranded in Finland for six months, she eventually returned to England safely.

Upon her return, Sale was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the British armed forces. Throughout her time in the unit, she served in England, North Africa and the Middle East before returning to Australia as a liaison officer. Sale was awarded an MBE and a Finnish service ribbon (likely the Winter War Ribbon).

While Sale received public recognition for her war record in the Australian press, it was her work in the Finnish conflict which garnered the most attention. Sale was not the only Australian woman the media recognised, yet the press attention directed towards Sale is unique. Indeed, such press coverage did not completely reflect the ‘gendered identity and … feminine vulnerability’ which Christina Twomey notes as being so closely associated with wartime nursing roles.

Sale told an Australian Women’s Weekly reporter how ‘delighted’ she was once she was advised ‘a place could be found for me’ as a volunteer in Finland. But the Australian press nonetheless emphasised the proportion of male volunteers in the conflict, connecting these volunteers to masculinised concepts of citizenship. As Joan Beaumont notes, the ability of the male citizenry to assist in conflict was seen to be the fulfilment of a ‘proper’ role during conflict. This ‘role’ was seen to allow men to prove their bravery, and it enhanced the masculinised responses to conflict that had traditionally been prevalent.

‘Esine Muistonauha’ (Winter War Ribbon), 1930-1949. Image via Tampereen museot [Museums of Tampere], Päänumero: TKM 1914, Alanumero: 2.

In contrast, Sale’s role was projected onto these masculinised responses. Despite the traditionally gendered perspectives towards citizenship and war service, Sale’s actions once again challenged masculinised wartime ideologies. Her actions also became representative of the Australian values that were under threat during a time of intense and ongoing conflict.

The hardiness of the Australian woman was another traditional ideal that further influenced perceptions of these events. An emphasis on what Angela Woollacott describes as the ‘physical strength and endurance’ of the Australian woman was paramount. It also became an ideal that was reflected in the representation of Sale in Australia’s newspapers. For the Australian press, Sale was unperturbed by the ‘arduous and sometimes heart-breaking work’ that she would face in Finland.

As Sale reflected in the Australian Women’s Weekly, ‘I have driven all over Australia, over all sorts of roads, under all sorts of conditions, but driving in the snowy wastes of Finland will be something new and exciting for me’. This statement reflected her desire to assist the plight of the Finns. It also revealed a connection between Sale and the Australian women’s hardiness. Indeed, this also acted as an allegory for the Finnish nation itself.

Was Sale’s challenge to the masculinised approach to conflict enough to draw such attention from Australian reporters? By the beginning of World War II, Australians had already developed a history of wartime volunteerism. Indeed, this capacity to volunteer during conflict had become an ideal virtue that was deeply valued. Sale’s actions drew connections between these ideals and events in Finland. Writing of Sale’s actions on the arctic battlefield, Australian reporters felt that her decision to voluntarily assist in the Finnish conflict reflected a ‘practical sympathy with the suffering people of Finland’. In so doing, parallels between perceptions of Sale and these Australian values began to develop.

Throughout this conflict, Sale’s actions became representative of a moral stand for the Finnish position. The Winter War became a conflict between the forces of absolute good and absolute evil. Australia’s position as an isolated nation meant that Australians viewed many conflicts from a geographic distance. But this did not diminish their ability to develop feelings of support for the perceived victims of conflict. Just as Australians felt a sense of suffering for Poland when the country was invaded by the Soviet Union, they felt compelled to support Finland. Just as Australians felt compelled to become involved in the Spanish Civil War, many felt the need to fight for the Finns, a nation that found itself facing concerns and tensions that so deeply reflected the Australian position.

‘Ruotsin Punaisen Ristin Savonlinnan sairaalan autoja [Cars of the Swedish Red Cross Savonlinna Hospital]. Savonlinna, 1940.01.02.’ Image via
Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive, SA-kuva.

As Sale told the Australian Women’s Weekly, Finland was ‘a land of 4,000,000 people, [which] has resisted the aggression of the teeming millions of Russia’. This fight became synonymous with Australian moral values and the nation’s desire for a sense of freedom in light of widespread conflict. Her position not only challenged traditional male masculinities, but it became a desirable moral stand for the plight of the isolated Finnish nation. In so doing, Sale also became representative of other Australian values. This gave Australians the opportunity to connect with the British roots of Australian nationalism. Indeed, Sale’s honour, the closeness of her unit and the ‘primitive arctic winter’ in which she volunteered allowed Australians to identify with values such as mateship, ANZAC and even the Australian landscape.

Despite the masculinised approach to some of these Australian values, Sale was perceived to provide a representation of the ideal Australian identity. She represented an ultimate moral stand of action. Furthermore, her work provided a tangible connection to a sense of honour, the British roots of Australian nationalism, and the physical qualities of the Australian landscape. Through the embodiment of these values, Sale provided a representation of Australian nationalistic identity. In so doing, she became the Tasmanian woman on the Finnish battlefield who captured the attention of those viewing the conflict from Australia.


For the full article, see: Jessica Stroja, ‘Betty Sale: How one woman fought with a nation, and embodied the values of another,’ Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 21 (2015): 19-32.


Jessica Stroja is a Ph.D. Candidate at Griffith University. Her research surrounds migration caused by conflict and the effects of wartime experiences. She was awarded First Class Honours for her research discussing Australian responses to the Finnish Winter War. She also maintains a strong interest in museums, local history and their relevance within the surrounding landscape. Her Ph.D. thesis focuses on the experiences of child Displaced Persons who migrated to Queensland following World War II. It questions the ways in which the legacy and memory of violence and displacement influenced the post-war experiences of child refugees and the relevance of this for refugees’ experiences today.

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