Women in World War 2, The WAAF

Katherine Trefusis-Forbes
Katherine Trefusis-Forbes

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.

Second World War barrage balloon
Second World War barrage balloon
Physical strength was an absolute must when working with barrage balloons
Physical strength was an absolute must when working with barrage balloons

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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Women of World War Two, The WAAF Comments 52 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 17 months ago from North-East UK Author

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

Roisin 17 months ago

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,

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

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.

joanveronica profile image

joanveronica 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

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!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Byonder5, many thanks :o)

Byonder5 profile image

Byonder5 4 years ago

Superb hub.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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 profile image

Jenn-Anne 4 years ago

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!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 4 years ago from South Africa

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.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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.

vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 4 years ago from Nashville Tn.

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.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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!).

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 4 years ago from South Africa

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.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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 4 years ago

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!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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.

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

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

mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

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.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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.

xstatic profile image

xstatic 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Linda many thanks!

Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

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.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 4 years ago

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.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 4 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

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



Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

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.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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.

josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania


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!

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

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+++

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

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

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Julie DeNeen profile image

Julie DeNeen 4 years ago from Clinton CT

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.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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)

UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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?

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

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!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

Very interesting Jools!

Voted up and shared

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

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.

JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 4 years ago from Deep South, USA

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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