The women who went to war
Although it was men who were sent to the front line, the role of women who served during WW2 should not be forgotten, says
Manpower simply wasn’t enough in the fight against Hitler. By the summer of 1940, most of Europe was under Nazi control and the United States and the Soviet Union were yet to join the war. Britain stood alone, with an Army just a third of the size of its German equivalent and a population only half the size of the enemy’s.
Women were the key to improving the odds. All three branches of the military had formed a female auxiliary service during the First World War, and now they were remustered like never before.
An intense propaganda drive saw posters plastered up and down the land, promising excitement and adventure to girls whose lives had previously seemed limited to marriage and motherhood. The new recruits signed up filled with excitement. “We thought it was great fun,” recalls Margaret Goult, who served in the women’s Army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service or ATS. “Girls in those days hadn’t been anywhere. There wasn’t television or anything. To go to the pictures once a week was a big thing.”
Stylish and streamlined
The forces also offered a chance to make new friends. “The best thing about it was the companionship,” remembers Winifred Armstrong, who worked as a driver in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF). “We were all there to do whatever we could to end the war.”
And then there was the appeal of the uniforms – particularly in the case of the Women’s Royal Naval Service ( WRNS, or ‘Wrens’), who sported an outfit designed by the famous couturier Edward Molyneux. While the Army and Air Force girls had to put up with unflattering pleated pockets and belted waists, the WRNS jacket was stylish and streamlined.
Best of all, the Navy girls were permitted to wear black silk stockings. As the First Lord of the Admiralty commented cheekily, when asked why he had agreed to such
extravagance: “The Wrens like the feel of them, and so do my sailors.”
The distinguished ATS
Although the WRNS, as the female counterpart to the Navy, was considered the ‘senior’ women’s service, and was by far the hardest of the three to get into, it was the ATS that really distinguished itself in the early days of the war. Female ambulance drivers accompanying the British Expeditionary Force to France found themselves caught up in the desperate rush to evacuate at Dunkirk – some girls endured terrifying dive-bombing by the enemy planes while others, captured and held prisoner by the Germans, managed to escape and make it back to England. Their brave example saw the ranks of the service swell as more young women rushed to volunteer.
As increasing numbers of girls signed up for all three forces, the list of jobs to which they might be assigned grew longer. Initially, the WAAF offered only six possible ‘trades’, but as the war went on women began to be employed in roles ranging from parachute packers to motor transport drivers, from admin clerks to balloon repairers, and from cinema projectionists to dental hygienists.
Gradually, more and more technical trades opened up to women, too, and in time they were repairing planes and servicing radar equipment.
Although no WAAFs were actually allowed to work as air crew, more than 100 received a transfer to the Air Transport Auxiliary – and these so-called ‘Ata Girls’ were soon piloting Spitfires and Hurricanes between Air Force bases around Britain.
In the ATS, meanwhile, a number of women were posted to mixed-sex antiaircraft batteries – a controversial experiment at the time, but one that had the backing of the Prime Minister, whose own daughter, Mary Churchill, was one of the first Army girls to volunteer. Since a Royal Proclamation specifically forbade women from employing deadly weapons, men were still required to load and fire the giant guns, but the “Ack-Ack girls” provided all the measurements and calculations required to ensure that they hit their targets.
Some Army men were suspicious about girls taking over their jobs, and questioned whether they were up to the task. When Jessie Denby and her colleagues in the 518 mixed Ack-Ack battery relieved an all-male contingent who had been defending Hull, the departing men didn’t rate their chances. “They’d never had girls there before,” Jessie recalls, “and the blokes said, ‘You wait. Give it three weeks and you’ll be howling to go home.’ But we were there for a year.” As women in the forces increasingly took on ‘male’ responsibilities, allowing men to be sent for active service abroad, the need for new recruits only grew.
In 1941, the National Service Act introduced conscription for women, and many rushed to join up for the military rather than endure more punishing conditions elsewhere. “I couldn’t bear the thought of getting up at six in the morning and digging potatoes in the Land Army,” recalls Jane Bekhor, “so I volunteered for the WAAF.” Other girls were only too happy to sign up for the ATS or WRNS if it meant avoiding being sent to a munitions factory.
But not everyone was pleased at the sight of girls in uniform. One veteran RAF officer told the BBC of his horror at the thought of “petticoats” on his Air Base.
If anything, hostility to women in uniform ran even deeper among the general public than it did within the military. “We were looked down upon sometimes,” recalls former WAAF Betty Turner. “They didn’t think much of us.”
Many civilian men were horrified at the sight of groups of girls in pubs, and felt
In time, women were repairing planes and servicing radar equipment
uncomfortable witnessing the selfconfidence that being part of the military gave them.
When the Daily Mail ran a survey of what its readers hated most about the war, ‘women in uniform’ was top of the list.
Soon hostility towards the women’s forces found expression in sexual innuendo. Girls in the forces were dismissed as either lesbians or prostitutes, with some civilians assuming that they would sleep with any male superior who approached them.
In popular slang, the letters ‘ATS’ were said to stand for ‘Any time, sergeant’ or ‘American Tail Supply’. The Army girls were referred to as ‘officers’ groundsheets’, the WAAFs even more shockingly as ‘pilots’ cockpits’, and the WRNS were the butt of a common joke: ‘Up with the lark and to bed with a Wren’.
The government, in fact, was so concerned at the potential impact of such prejudices that it commissioned a report into the sexual health – and propriety – of the women’s services.
In August 1942, the social reformer Violet Markham reported to Parliament that the rate of illegitimate pregnancies in the forces was lower than in the civilian population, and the incidence of venereal disease for female recruits was half that among their male colleagues.
The hostility and innuendo that was directed at the women’s forces ran the risk of obscuring the very important work they were doing to help win the war. Girls from all three services worked at Bletchley Park, and Winston Churchill later singled them out for special praise – he called them “the geese that laid the golden eggs but never clucked”.
Some women’s jobs, inevitably, were more dangerous than others. Margaret Goult has never forgotten the terror she felt as a searchlight operator during her first German Air Raid.
“To this day I can remember the first German plane I got in my beam,” she says. “They killed a lot of girls that way – they used to fire down the beam. I thank God it never happened to me.”
Many girls distinguished themselves with acts of selfless heroism and were rewarded with medals for their bravery.
Among them was Daphne Pearson, who received the George Cross for dragging a pilot out of a crashed plane just before it exploded and shielding his body with her
own. Over the course of the war, around 2,000 girls in uniform lost their lives.
Servicewomen were also involved in some of the most important Allied projects of the war. Few made as critical a contribution as Constance Babington Smith, the WAAF photo interpreter who first located the launch sites of the V1 flying bombs, but many others were privy to critical state secrets.
Wren Fanny Hugill worked as personal assistant to Admiral Tennant, who was in charge of the top-secret operation to build the artificial Mulberry harbours that would be shipped over to France on D-Day, meaning that the Allies could land on the beaches of Normandy, rather than in Calais where the Germans were expecting them.
Fanny knew that secrecy was absolutely critical to the invasion, even when it came to her own family. “My mother nearly caught me out one day,” she remembers. “Everyone knew the second front was coming, and she said, ‘ The real key to a second front will be the harbours, they can’t operate without good harbours.’ I thought, gosh, I could so easily have said something.”
Exactly three months after D-Day, Fanny was on her way to France herself, landing on one of the Mulberries before undertaking a nine-month posting in Paris. “The city hadn’t been bombed, so it was in pristine condition compared to poor old London,” she says.
“We used to go over to Versailles and party there – and one evening Noel Coward came out and entertained us in a little theatre in the palace.”
By the time VE-Day came, there were women in uniform all over Europe. My own great aunt Cathleen Alexander was also in Paris, serving with the ATS at Versailles. “I remember seeing a huge crowd,” she told me, “and they were all shouting, ‘Les Anglais! Les Anglais!’ I thought for a moment they were going to attack us, but they all rushed over and embraced us instead. I’ll never forget the sight of a British Tommy carrying a teapot down the Champs-Élysées.”
With the war’s end, the women in the forces gradually began to be demobbed. The procedure was swift and efficient, but it was nonetheless emotional for girls who had given up a large chunk of their youth to serve their country.
By the time that they were discharged, with little more than a railway warrant home and a few coupons to buy civilian clothes, there were plenty of tears.
Just like their male comrades, many girls struggled to adapt to life in Civvy Street, feeling like fish out of water. One former WAAF, Margery Harley, felt so uncomfortable in civilian clothing that she continued to wear her WAAF uniform for months after she was demobbed.
But while the adjustment to post-war life was a hard one, the women were aided by the associations that sprung up all over the country – and which still exist today – enabling former servicewomen to meet up, reminisce and share stories of the important contribution they made to winning the war.
Margery Harley (third from left) marches with fellow members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF) from RAF Titchfifield in Hampshire
Two Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) women use a kinetheodolite at Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, in 1940 to record bursts of anti-aircraft shells on film
An advance party of Wrens on the quayside at Portsmouth bound for France in August 1944
Jane Trefusis- Forbes, director of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF)
Who Do You Think You Are?
Women from the ATS in full battle uniform in 1941