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Women in World War 2: The WAAF

Jools has been an online writer for over seven years. His articles tend to focus on pop culture and the rock industry.

Katherine Trefusis-Forbes

Katherine Trefusis-Forbes

World War Two: Creation of the WAAF

Britain, along with other European nations, was not immune to the idea that they would soon be involved in the war with Germany and so before the war even began, the government was planning for war, even if at that time it did not seem inevitable.

The WAAF—the Women's Auxiliary Air Force was formed in 1938, the year before World War Two began. It was originally organised as a support force of women volunteers 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:

  • Driving
  • Clerical and Administrative Duties
  • Cooking

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 base they were stationed at. It probably all seemed like a bit of a jape at the time, an opportunity to wear a 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.

Women in World War Two had to learn to march as well.

Women in World War Two had to learn to march as well.

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 for setting up what was to become a key support service to the RAF.

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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 Luftwaffe was 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 three 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. 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 Nell Rose about her mum's service in the WAAFs by clicking here.

Eileen Younghusband who filtered through to the German's Big Ben message threatening the bombing of London by V2 bombers.

Eileen Younghusband who filtered through to the German's Big Ben message threatening the bombing of London by V2 bombers.

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.

The growth of the WAAF included the hiring of much-needed barrage balloon maintenance technicians. They were responsible for fixing the balloons and then refloating them, no small feat when you consider their size—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 two groups, one on 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 being employed as mechanics, fitters and balloon maintainers, the women 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 from the BBC here.

So we can see that Jane Trefusis-Forbes' plans, borne of her own experiences as an 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 Dachau 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 Woman's War.

The media did not ever truly appreciate the role of these women in World War Two, with one newspaper pointing out that it took 16 women to do the work normally done by 10 men during normal employment; 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."

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 Allied 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.

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

Women of World War Two, The WAAF Comments

Lyle R. Rolfe on November 24, 2018:

This was a very educational film and entertaining at the same time. These women were real pioneers in their time and certainly made it easier for women to enter aviation afterward. In addition to flying these aircraft they also were helping build them and then be the first to fly each one as it was delivered to an airfield or air base where it was needed to help win the war. I would have loved to have an opportunity to fly with any of them. I was just born many years too late.

Margaret Collins Fairgrieve nee Stead on November 11, 2018:

I would like to find out more about what she did

Jouke Dantuma on May 28, 2018:

I've forgotten to write that Janet Hind was joinde the WAAF. She wrote a story on:

Jouke Dantuma on May 28, 2018:

I'm looking for information on Janet Hind. Her brother

On 9 June 1941 at 15.16 departed from RAF Oulton, the Blenheim V6428 to perform an anti-shipping mission at the Dutch coast. The crew consisted of three people: Robert F. Hind, Samuel D. ' Jock ' Gallery and Ian Arthur Bullivant. The aircraft was shot down by a German night fighter and crashed down at 17.05 in the North Sea. The body of Bullivant was the only body that washed ashore. I will invited family of Janet Pieters-Hind for a memorial.

Susan Lannoy on April 14, 2018:

Hi All,

Im looking for information on Margaret Peiniger. She was a war substative secetion officer with the WAAF. about 1942. Anybody have any tips on where i can start?

Lyle R. Rolfe on July 28, 2017:

My sister has traced our Rolfe family tree back to the 1500s in England showing we are related to John Rolfe (who married Pocahantas) and took her back to England with him. I recently purchased a book "Women Wartime Spies" that lists a Lillian Rolfe who was in the SOE as a wireless operator in the Historian Network. She was flown to France on April 6, 1944, captured on July 31, 1944, and shot in Ravensbruck concentration camp on Jan. 27, 1945. Do you have any birth date and town or other family information on her that we can use to see if she fits into our family tree? I know Rolfe is a prominent name in England. Thank you, Lyle R. Rolfe at in Aurora, Il.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 24, 2015:

Roisin, yes no problems, they are all correctly sourced.

Roisin on June 23, 2015:

Hi there

I am a journalism student from City Of Liverpool College and for my latest assignment we've been asked to create 5 different news features, with one of them being about World War 2. I was just wondering if I could have your permission to use one of the photos from your article for my assignment? I would be very grateful for your permission.

Thank you,

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on January 24, 2013:

Joan, many thanks for your comment. I loved your story about the 'volunteers' who had worked on the anti-aircraft guns and that you thought they looked so ordinary but they soon changed in your eyes when you discovered their shooting skills! I think that is one of the most fascinating things about the women who worked during the war in these kind of fields- it was a grand adventure and even now I sometimes look at elderly women in my town and wonder what their past is like.

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on January 23, 2013:

Hi Jools, this was a really good read! I seem to have missed this one, so really enjoyed it now! Voted up, awesome, beautiful and interesting! I had to laugh at the small comment about Eisenhower, and the fact that there were women on the anti-aircraft guns! When I was small and newly arrived in Concepcion after the war, I met some ladies who had gone to Britain as volunteers and had just come back to our town. My mother explained to me that they had actually been on these guns during the Battle of Britain, and I just couldn't believe it! They looked so "normal" to my childish eyes! So yes, they all did a great job, and we should ever remember them! Thanks for this Hub, and have a good day!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on December 04, 2012:

Byonder5, many thanks :o)

Hillary Burton from UK on December 03, 2012:

Superb hub.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 16, 2012:

Nell, yours and mine make a good pair if read side by side, ta!

Nell Rose from England on October 15, 2012:

Great hub Jools! I will add this one to my hub, thanks so much, nell

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 03, 2012:

Jean-Anne, Many thanks for your comment. The WAAF were an inspirational bunch of girls an stepped up when they were really needed.

Jenn-Anne on October 02, 2012:

I really enjoyed this hub! I had heard of the WAAF but didn't know much about it. Their contributions were quite significant! Thanks for sharing - voted up!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 02, 2012:

Audrey, what a kind comment you have left :o), many thanks for reading #2 for me.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 02, 2012:

Martie, interesting take on this. Do you think then that 'war', in this case WW2 provided the ultimate opportunity to not compete exactly as 'contribute' ? I don't think I had really considered this before and you should write a hub about it. It would be interesting to read some war diaries from WW1 and WW2 to discern whether all this 'men working together against other men' made men feel so very different from in their normal lives - women feeling more empowered must have made men feel different.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 02, 2012:

Jool, I feel like sharing my thoughts here - since women proved their abilities to be successful in the arenas men considered to be theirs, men lost their natural urge to compete with each others. Because there are no other arenas, many men simply turned into the only thing women cannot be - men (able) to beget children... oh, this is going to become a hub... I do believe that many of today's social crises - divorce, violence against women and children, alcoholism, etc - are rooted in the fact that men don't have enough 'arenas' to compete with each other and to prove their strength to each other.... Women took the lead and men are trying to please women as far as they go instead of challenging each other as providers and protectors of women and children. Anyway, in this reasoning of mine the word 'balance' - 'in balance' should be in every sentence.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on October 02, 2012:

Excellent job of presenting the rose of women in the service before and during WWII. In the United States people are often unaware of these things or of the fact that the role of women in the services has expanded. sharing.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on October 02, 2012:

Jools. this is marvelous! You have outdone yourself with this beautiful tribute to these amazing women pioneers of WW2.

You've also provided me with a burning desire to read everything I can about these brave ladies.

Thank you/on my quest to read 7 of your hubs in 7 days, this is #2. UP and completely across and sharing.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 02, 2012:

Theresa, many thanks for your return visit - I appreciate it.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on October 02, 2012:

Jools, just read it again, and it iss till a great Hub . :)

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 02, 2012:

Martie, many thanks for your comment - when I wrote this hub I became quite obsessed with the role of women during WW2 and was amazed at some of their sacrifices. I liked your comment about men's 'deterioration' and I think things were never the same for them after WW2 because women had tasted a different life and once that seed was planted, there was no stopping it flourishing (though it took a long time to germinate!).

Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 01, 2012:

Too many tragedies happened during World War II, but one positive thing was the opportunities it offered women to prove themselves able and capable of doing work that was reserved for man. It was the beginning of the emancipation of women. But looking back, one can easily say that this was also the beginning of the deterioration of men.

Jools, this is an excellent hub about the doings of women during WWII, voted up, well-researched and well-presented.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on August 27, 2012:

Keith, thanks so much for your comment. I remain in awe of these women. I find myself now wondering why I moan so much about daft little things - I'm telling myself to shut up a lot more!

KDuBarry03 on August 27, 2012:

What an outstanding homage and dedication to the women of WW2. I never even heard of the WAAF until this hub and glad I learned how crucial they were to many aspects of the war. Great Job!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on August 18, 2012:

phdast7, Theresa, many thanks for the comment and the share. I started off with this one and then carried on with all the other women's services. I just loved learning about all of these amazing women.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on August 18, 2012:

Jools - Whata great hub commemorating and honoring the women who have served in the British armed Forces. Ver well-researched and so well written. Sharing, ~~ Theresa

Mary Hyatt from Florida on August 02, 2012:

As one who remembers WWII I really appreciated this Hub. I can still remember when I was a kid seeing these women home on leave in their uniforms and thinking what wonderful women these were. I really admired them!

Great Hub, I voted it UP, and will share.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on August 02, 2012:

Xstatic, conscription, in the end was never followed through because women were only too happy to sign up. I think the government did it as a 'catch all' in case they needed to enlist more help. It was brought into law but a bit of a dead duck in the end.

Jim Higgins from Eugene, Oregon on August 02, 2012:

Just a great series of historical hubs! Great work for sure. I did not know about the conscription either.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on August 02, 2012:

Linda many thanks!

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on August 02, 2012:

Hi Jools! You've created an amazing tribute hub! Well done!:)

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 30, 2012:

teaches12345, many thanks for your comment - is WAX the U.S. version of the WAAF?

Dianna Mendez on July 30, 2012:

Jools, you did a fantastic job covering this interesting time of history. My sister wanted to join the WAX but was discouraged to do so because it wasn't considered a good thing for women at that time. Voted up.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 27, 2012:

b.Malin, many thanks for your comment. Researching this hub really made me feel so proud of these women.

b. Malin on July 27, 2012:

What a Wonderful Hub and Tribute to these Courageous Women of World War two. It must have been hard for them to go back to Civilian life. But they must have been so proud to have done their part. Thanks Jools for sharing this Excellent Hub.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 27, 2012:

Rob, many thanks for stopping by and leaving such a kind comment, I appreciate it.

Rob from Oviedo, FL on July 27, 2012:

Hi Jools; Well done. Nicely written, well researched and a nice tribute to the contribution of the women of WW2.



Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Old Albion, I will check out your Noor Inayat hub. Many thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on July 26, 2012:

Hi Jools. A first class hub Jools. So much information and work here. Well presented and the photos and videos add so much to your text. I have written a hub on Noor Inayat.

Voted up and all.


Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Josh, thansks for stopping by and leaving suck a nice comment, you're a good 'un :o)

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Effer, thanks for your very kind comment. I started this one after visiting my library in search of a subject to write about - did the trick, I found this one. I really enjoyed writing it.

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on July 26, 2012:


Excellent job of mentioning women who have accomplished great things in our country! No matter what type of hub you produce, I always find them fascinating! Thanks Julie!

Suzie from Carson City on July 26, 2012:

Thank you for the interesting history write such extremely excellent hubs, Jools......I find myself devouring your hubs, even though I thought I may not have a particular interest in the subject. That's says a lot about your talent, my dear UP+++

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Pavlo, Hi! What a lovely comment, many thanks for stopping by to read. I appreciate it.

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on July 26, 2012:

The hub devoted to historic issues are not always interesting. Your hub is different and the information you give is just amazing! Thank you !

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Julie, thanks for your kind comment - I feel like I'm on a mission now :o) Watch this space.....

Blurter of Indiscretions from Clinton CT on July 26, 2012:

Thanks for taking the time to highlight women!! There just isn't enough out there to herald the hard work of the females in our history. Nice work.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

UnnamedHarald, Yup, they were well and truly de-skilled, back to the scullery with all of that new knowledge in their heads - how frustrated they must have been. Many thanks for your comment :o)

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 26, 2012:

Wow, what a great article. I did not know that women were actually conscripted in Britain. Keep up the good work. It's a shame that most of that talent was released after the war to go back to the kitchen. What did you do in the war, Mummy?

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Bill, I am honoured that you enjoyed it! Many thanks as always for your comment.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 26, 2012:

Fascinating Julie! You did a great job of compiling information and then delivering it with style and a great voice. Well done; this history buff salutes you!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Judi, many thanks for the comment and the share :o)

Judi Brown from UK on July 26, 2012:

Very interesting Jools!

Voted up and shared

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Jaye, many thanks for your comment, I appreciate it. I became completely taken over with this subject these last few days. So much so, that I want to read more and more about the WAAF, an amazing group if women.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 26, 2012:

Thanks for your superb homage to the women of the WAAF and their contributions to the WWII effort. They were very deserving of this tribute.

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