Women in World War 2, The WAAF
World War Two - Creation of the WAAF
Britain, along with other European nations were not immune to the idea that they would soon be involved in the war with Germany and so before war even began, the government were planning for war, even if at that time it did not seem inevitable.
The WAAF - Womens Auxiliary Air Force was formed in 1938, the year before World War Two began. It was originally organised as a support force of women volunteer charged with carrying on the work of the Air Transport Auxiliary which was subsumed as part of the WAAF.
Not unsurprisingly many women felt that they wanted to play a part or 'do their bit' for the pre-war effort and quickly joined the WAAF upon its official formation on 28th June 1939, in search of adventure but mainly because they felt the call to be doing something to support their country.
Some have mentioned the opportunity to wear the rather fetching uniform and trade their petticoats for boilersuits in search of a life a little less ordinary.
WAAF Jobs During World War Two
The early publicity for the WAAF advised women that their jobs would fall under three main roles -
- Clerical and Administrative Duties
Basically, they would be serving airmen from the various RAF (Royal Air Force) bases in the United Kingdom. Women packed their bags and left for whichever based to which they were stationed. It probably all seemed like a bit of a jape at the time, an opportunity to wear uniform and spend time with men in uniform.
At this time, women were employed in offices and factories and some even did high level jobs in the civil service. Nonetheless joining the WAAF must have seemed like an adventure.
When war was declared in 1939, the WAAF expanded significantly. It started with some 75,000 women in its ranks but by 1943, at the height of its support powers, it employed over 180,000 women.
Katherine Trefusis-Forbes - The Woman With A Plan
Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbes, always known as Jane Trefusis-Forbes was the woman put in charge of the WAAF at its inception in 1938.
Trefusis-Forbes had served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a Chief Instructor and had many years of Army Service behind her.
The ATS became part of the Women's Army Corps just before the start of Britain's involvement in the Second World War and Trefusis-Forbes was considered an ideal candidate in setting up what was to become a key support service to the RAF.
Trefusis-Forbes went to on do similar work for the Canadian Air Force in 1943, setting up a Canadian version of the WAAF. Her influence cannot be understated because the support services she set up carried Britain through the Battle of Britain, when the Luffwaffe were defeated but many RAF bases were stretched to their limits and beyond.
She retired from the role in 1944 in what would now be considered a 'strategic reshuffle'.
She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1944.
Jobs For The Girls - WAAF In World War Two Learn Men's Work
When the WAAF was first formed in 1938, it was filled with fresh-faced volunteers out for a bit of a lark but in 1942, the UK government introduced conscription for women and many found themselves employed as part of the WAAF. They were deployed to Fighter Command Air Force Bases, situated around the UK. The commands to airmen came from a bunker underground at RAF Uxbridge but the airmen were stationed all over the UK. The WAAF were key personnel in the Battle of Britain, stationed at bases like Biggin Hill, Leuchars, Hawkinge and Manston.
Soon, those 3 roles open to women had expanded. One WAAF recruit, Catherine Cokeham recalls signing up with a friend in 1944 at the age of 18 and being told the RAF needed carpenters. She was more interested in wearing the uniform. Her test revealed that she was of too high an intelligence to do manual work was she eventually worked as a flight mechanic fitter earning the princely sum of two shillings per week. Catherine moved between three different air force bases in her two years in the WAAF, one at RAF Halton where she did her training before moving onto RAF East Fortune in Scotland and finally her favourite posting working on Mosquito planes in Wales.
Her experiences show that even as an 18 year old with not much experience of life at all to fall back on, she was considered an appropriate candidate for a job normally done by a man.
The truth was that desperate times called for desperate measures and Catherine was fortunate enough to get a chance to train and do a job she would never have done in civilian life. Her bluff sergeant at RAF East Fortune told the women engineers in his command that he didn't rate them but even he came to respect them for their hard work. They did inspections on planes due to fly on missions and all in all they did an amazing job.
You can find another WAAF story by fellow hubber, Nell Rose about her mum's service in the WAAFs by clicking here.
WAAF and World War Two Barrage Balloons
Barrage Balloons had been used during the first world war with some success in the First World War after the Germans attempted to bomb London in Gotha planes. The bombings resulted in the capital's skyline being dotted with balloons.
When war was declared in 1939, there had already been a considerable amount of work done in creating barrage balloons. The German Luftwaffe firepower was already well known and so it was decided that barrage balloons would cover the sky all over the UK. Not just dotted about as they had been in London but used in their thousands.
With the expansion of roles in the WAAF came one as a barrage balloon maintenance technicians.
They were responsible for fixing the balloons and then refloating them, no small feat when you consider the size of them - typically 18.9 metres long and 7.6 metres in diameter.
The work had previously been done by men but was considered one of the jobs which could be transferred to women when men were sent to work down at the base.
The balloons had to be 'wrangled' by a team of women who split into 2 groups, one either side of the balloon. They used a wince and pulleys when the barrage balloon was manoeuvred and it took brute physical strength to do this kind of work.
Leah McConnell worked as a barrage balloon operative at RAF Innsworth and recalls that you had to work shifts so that operatives were available 24/7 to either hoist the balloons 5,000 feet into the air or alternatively, take them out of the sky. Hard, hard work.
WAAF Women - Rising to The Challenge of War
As well as now being employed as mechanics, fitters and balloon maintainers the WAAF were also employed in several other key areas during World War Two.
- Radar Operators - key role for plotting enemy aircraft and allowing RAF attacks to be successful.
- Meteorological Forecaster - weather forecasting was key to flying planes.
- Reconnaisance Operatives - analysing photographs of German targets.
- Communications Operatives - working with high level radio and telegraphing machines using codes and ciphers.
- Pilots - the ATA continued to pilot planes between bases and from factories to RAF bases. During the war 12 WAAF pilots lost their lives. One of the most outstanding pilots was Mary Ellis - who died in 2018 aged 101. You can read her biography by the BBC here.
So we can see that Jane Trefusis-Forbes plans, borne of her own experiences as a auxiliary volunteer in World War One were all coming to the fore just when they were needed.
In 1943, The Battle of Britain would prove to be the Allies greatest test and the WAAF played a key role in its success and continued their amazing work right up until the end of the war and beyond.
When the war was over, some WAAF women took up roles in Brussels and Berlin, some even going as far afield as Japan in post-war roles.
One WAAF recruit, Noor Inayat Khan (also known as Nora Baker) was trained as a wireless operator. Indeed she became the first female radio operator to be sent into the war zone. She was captured during active service and died at Dashau Concentration Camp in 1944. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civil decoration for valour.
Another WAAF recruit, Eileen Younghusband worked at a radar station in England and then Belgium as a Filterer Officer. She tracked the Luftwaffe's attempted bombing of London. She has written two biographies of her experiences during the Second World War, the most well known of which is 'One Women's War'.
The media did not ever truly appreciate the role of these women in world war two - one newspaper pointing out that it took 16 women to do the work normally done by 10 men during normal employment but this disparity was only really due to sheer physical strength.
Even General Eisenhower was impressed with the contribution of women in Britain :-
"Until my experience in London, I had been opposed to the use of women in uniform. But in Britain I have seen them perform so magnificently in various positions, including service with anti-aircraft batteries, that I have been converted." (Dwight Eisenhower).
It is such a shame that we need to consider the post-war period as a time when these brave, hard working women were actually 'de-skilled'. They had been armed with some amazing skills during the time they were most needed but from 1945, these women were in no position to ever use them again.
We can never truly sum up the vital contribution made by these 183,000 women but we can at least acknowledge that without them, the Allies war effort would have been significantly diminished. They could not take a call to arms but they took a call to aid and support and for that contribution, we should thank them.
Many thanks for reading.