THE WOMEN WHO KEPT BRI­TAIN FLY­ING IN THE WARS

Dur­ing both world wars women played var­ied roles sup­port­ing Bri­tain’s air force, and smashed gen­der bar­ri­ers with their courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion. Jayne Shrimpton cel­e­brates these bold pi­o­neers

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

When war erupted in 1914, Bri­tain’s fly­ing forces com­prised the Royal Fly­ing Corps (RFC) and the newly formed Royal Naval Air Ser­vice (RNAS) – the air arms of the Bri­tish Army and Royal Navy re­spec­tively. The role of the aero­plane ad­vanced dur­ing the war, and on 1 April 1918 the RFC and RNAS merged to form a uni­fied body, the Royal Air Force (RAF).

In 1918 some mem­bers of the Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps (WAAC) and Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice (WRNS) were serv­ing on RFC and RNAS air sta­tions. To re­tain their ex­per­tise, a sep­a­rate women’s air ser­vice was cre­ated along­side the new RAF: the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). WAAC and WRNS air-sta­tion per­son­nel were in­vited to trans­fer to the new WRAF, as were mem­bers of the Women’s Le­gion Mo­tor Trans­port Ser­vice and civil­ian sub­or­di­nates work­ing on air sta­tions. Then, in May 1918, a gen­eral re­cruit­ment drive be­gan. By Au­gust 1918 the ser­vice re­port­edly num­bered 15,433.

The of­fi­cial min­i­mum en­try age was 18, al­though younger girls man­aged to slip through the net. Ap­pli­cants had to pro­vide ex­em­plary tes­ti­mo­ni­als and pass strin­gent health checks. Suc­cess­ful re­cruits were di­rected into one of four broad trade cat­e­gories: ‘Clerks and Store-women’; ‘House­hold’; ‘ Tech­ni­cal’; and ‘NonTech­ni­cal’. Across the ser­vice of­fi­cers were rel­a­tively few – es­sen­tially man­agers drawn from the up­per classes – while or­di­nary mem­bers were the back­bone of the WRAF. Each woman was clas­si­fied as ei­ther an ‘Im­mo­bile’, who lived at home and trav­elled to her near­est sta­tion, or as a ‘Mo­bile’, who lived in quar­ters on or near her base. All of­fi­cers were Mo­biles, and any­one in this class could be trans­ferred else­where.

Re­plac­ing men

Ap­prox­i­mately 11,000 WRAFs be­came Clerks, since men were eas­ily re­leased from of­fice work for ac­tive ser­vice. Per­form­ing book-keep­ing, record-keep­ing, fil­ing, typ­ing and pay­roll du­ties, they also han­dled pa­per­work in the Cloth­ing and Equip­ment stores, as well as gen­eral cler­i­cal work in nu­mer­ous RAF of­fices. Short­hand typ­ists were much in de­mand, be­com­ing the high­est-paid of all air­women.

Ap­prox­i­mately 9,000 WRAFs worked in House­hold, as cooks, pantry maids, wait­resses, or­der­lies, laun­dresses, house­maids and gen­eral do­mes­tics. Many laboured long hours, per­form­ing gru­elling tasks for mea­gre wages, prompt­ing Mary Dempsey to write in her friend’s au­to­graph al­bum: “We are

the lit­tle WRAFs weak – / We only get 10s a week, / The more we do the more we may, / It makes no dif­fer­ence to our pay!”

The Tech­ni­cal section em­braced di­verse ma­chine-re­lated trades, from highly skilled wire­less op­er­a­tors, me­chan­ics, elec­tri­cians, met­al­smiths and engine-fit­ters to ma­chin­ists, sign-writ­ers, painters and dop­ers (who var­nished fabric-cov­ered air­craft frames). Air­craft sal­vage and re­pairs were ma­jor tasks, but other tech­ni­cal trades in­cluded pho­tog­ra­pher and map tracer and colourist. Driv­ers of ve­hi­cles had to trans­port any­thing and every­thing “from Of­fi­cers, food, am­bu­lance cases, coffins, mes­sages and pig- swill”, wrote Peggy Ac­ton of Hal­ton Camp, in Ayles­bury, Buck­ing­hamshire.

The re­main­ing roles were cat­e­gorised Non-Tech­ni­cal, such as tele­phon­ists, shoe­mak­ers, tai­lors, sail-mak­ers, fab­ric­work­ers, pack­ers, and ar­ma­ment as­sis­tants at some sta­tions. Also in­cluded in this cat­e­gory were mo­tor­cy­clists, who wore mas­cu­line breeches, knee-high boots and gog­gles: their ma­chines were noisy and un­pre­dictable but since few men, never mind women, could drive, this role ap­peared dar­ing and ex­cit­ing – al­though mo­tor­cy­clist Hilda Ine­son warned, “In those days, planes fly­ing at 70mph and women in trousers were re­garded as ‘fast’.”

Over time, op­por­tu­ni­ties within the WRAF ex­panded to more than 50 trades, in­clud­ing pi­geon-keep­ing and nurs­ing du­ties in hos­tels and camps.

Con­duct within the WRAF was strictly con­trolled and uni­form reg­u­la­tions en­forced, al­though this was some­thing of a sore sub­ject: many WRAFs who were promised full kit ini­tially made do with civil­ian clothes and over­alls, or re­ceived old-style khaki uni­forms. In Septem­ber 1918 Com­man­dant Dame He­len Gwynne-Vaughan was ap­pointed to re­or­gan­ise the ser­vice and WRAF de­pots opened for the for­mal re­cep­tion, kit­ting and train­ing of air­women. With the rais­ing of stan­dards, con­fi­dence grew in the WRAF, which be­fore long was con­sid­ered to be the most pro­fes­sional and dis­ci­plined of the women’s ser­vices.

When the Armistice took place on 11 Novem­ber 1918, it was feared that the WRAF would be im­me­di­ately dis­banded. How­ever, with the for­ma­tion of the Army of Oc­cu­pa­tion, the women’s ser­vices were ex­panded to en­able men to be re­leased from the forces. The first WRAF de­tach­ment left for France on 24 March 1919, then in April came the thrilling an­nounce­ment that se­lected vol­un­teers would join the RAF on the Rhine in Cologne. Of nearly 1,100

WAAFs served in the same con­di­tions as men, al­though their wage was twothirds that of RAF mem­bers

WRAFs serv­ing abroad by Septem­ber 1919, over half worked in Ger­many, mainly as do­mes­tics, store­women, clerks, tele­phon­ists, nurses and driv­ers. Known as the ‘Ladies of the Rhine’, they cap­tured the at­ten­tion of lo­cal res­i­dents and of the Al­lied troops sta­tioned there. Pro­vid­ing im­por­tant sup­port ser­vices, they also helped to raise RAF morale by stag­ing social events.

Over­seas ser­vice was brief, how­ever. By Novem­ber the WRAF had left Ger­many, and in March 1920 the last mem­bers de­parted France. In Bri­tain post-war economies meant the de­mo­bil­i­sa­tion of Im­mo­biles in July 1919, and then Mo­biles by Novem­ber, ex­cept for a few re­tained for wind­ing-up op­er­a­tions. The last WRAFs left their posts on 1 April 1920, Alice Chauncey re­call­ing: “There was a great still­ness in the camp… The huts that night were peo­pled with ghosts of the past – the spir­its of suc­cess and fail­ure, of hon­est effort and en­deav­our, also of com­rade­ship, of loy­alty and – best of all – ser­vice.”

Pre­par­ing for a sec­ond war

The WRAF had proved an in­valu­able as­set to the RAF, and in March 1920 the WRAF Old Com­rades As­so­ci­a­tion was formed, with branches and mem­bers na­tion­wide. As the pos­si­bil­ity of war resur­faced, its rules in­cluded the ob­jec­tive “to en­cour­age pre­pared­ness to help the coun­try in time of need”. Sev­eral women’s or­gan­i­sa­tions were in­volved in the de­ci­sion to cre­ate an of­fi­cial women’s aux­il­iary de­fence ser­vice to re­lieve army and RAF per­son­nel of non-com­bat­ant du­ties, and the Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­rial Ser­vice (ATS) was es­tab­lished in Septem­ber 1938.

Ev­ery county raised sev­eral com­pa­nies at­tached to lo­cal (male) army Ter­ri­to­rial units, one in each the­o­ret­i­cally RAF ATS com­pany, later af­fil­i­ated with Royal Aux­il­iary Air Force squadrons. How­ever, these sep­a­rated when a des­ig­nated women’s air ser­vice was formed in June 1939: the Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force (WAAF). Closely con­nected to the RAF, mem­bers of the WAAF were in­tended to re­place male RAF per­son­nel where pos­si­ble and it was mo­bilised in Au­gust 1939.

The dec­la­ra­tion of war in Septem­ber prompted a re­cruit­ment drive, and within months tens of thou­sands had ap­plied. Re­cruits, from all social back­grounds and from as far afield as the do­min­ions and colonies, were typ­i­cally young, ad­ven­tur­ous

and pa­tri­otic. WAAFs signed on for four years, or the du­ra­tion of the war; the age re­quire­ment of 18–43 was later ex­tended to 17½–44. Many RAF sta­tions were ini­tially un­pre­pared for the in­flux of novice air­women, some hav­ing no suit­able WAAF quar­ters, uni­forms or jobs. “When I first joined in Septem­ber 1939 I had no uni­form,” re­mem­bered Daisy Hills. “Af­ter two or three weeks I was is­sued with an RAF blue-belted rain­coat and beret with a me­tal RAF badge to pin on it… A few lucky ones had grey lisle stock­ings and flat, black-laced shoes – not al­ways fit­ting.” Many re­cruits were still wear­ing sum­mer frocks and san­dals when the weather turned cold; uni­form tu­nics and skirts were still not ready, so women were given cardi­gans and fleecy rain­coat lin­ings.

The win­ter of 1939/40 was one of the cold­est on record, and on some sta­tions, like ice-bound Thor­ney Is­land in West Sus­sex, WAAFs re­ceived air­men’s great­coats. Dorothy Kelly re­called how, work­ing on wet, gale-swept air­fields, “Our great­coats were great.” WAAF liv­ing quar­ters were ini­tially in­ad­e­quate, of­ten over­crowded, cold and damp, lack­ing recre­ational rooms or space for dry­ing and iron­ing clothes, and with un­sat­is­fac­tory san­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties. By May 1940, 27 per cent of re­cruits over­all had re­quested dis­charge. It was a mat­ter of great con­cern, but un­in­ten­tion­ally per­formed a se­lec­tion process: those who re­mained were re­silient and had been forged to­gether through ad­ver­sity.

Bet­ter con­di­tions

From spring 1940 im­prove­ments be­gan in all ar­eas. Ba­sic train­ing was usu­ally fol­lowed by spe­cialised trade train­ing, in mixed classes and un­der high pres­sure. Rank badges were mod­elled on those of air­men and WAAFs served in the same con­di­tions as men, with the same equip­ment, fully sub­sti­tut­ing for the RAF, al­though their wage was two-thirds that of RAF mem­bers.

WAAFs’ daily rou­tine was in­ter­spersed with reg­u­lar pa­rades, weekly ‘do­mes­tic nights’ when huts were cleaned and clothes brought up to stan­dard, and monthly kit in­spec­tions. Dis­ci­pline was strict and sports were en­cour­aged, al­though many pre­ferred re­lax­ing in the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force In­sti­tute), vis­it­ing lo­cal pubs or tour­ing the sur­round­ing coun­try­side on bi­cy­cles. Most sta­tions had a cin­ema, and va­ri­ety shows and drama groups

flour­ished. The high point of the year was Christ­mas, with dec­o­ra­tions, par­ties and Christ­mas din­ner.

Among the trades, the Do­mes­tic Group was the largest, in­clud­ing cater­ing staff, or­der­lies and bat­women. Nu­mer­ous cooks worked day and night shifts, of­ten hav­ing to pre­pare ba­con and eggs for ex­hausted air­crew re­turn­ing at dawn, or sup­ply co­coa and meals to watch-keep­ers in busy op­er­a­tions rooms through­out the night.

Tech­ni­cal train­ing

Tech­ni­cal trades were ini­tially un­fa­mil­iar to women who had re­ceived a tra­di­tional fem­i­nine ed­u­ca­tion, but they quickly learned new pro­cesses and tasks ex­panded to in­clude more ad­vanced me­chan­i­cal roles like me­chan­i­cal trans­port (MT) and radar and flight me­chanic. WAAF med­i­cal or­der­lies joined the sis­ters of the Princess Mary’s RAF Nurs­ing Ser­vices in Septem­ber 1939, fol­lowed by WAAF den­tal-surgery at­ten­dants, a sep­a­rate med­i­cal trade group emerg­ing in 1940. By June 1943 more than 200 WAAF air-am­bu­lance or­der­lies were trained; ini­tially used in Bri­tain, they later flew to the Con­ti­nent, re­triev­ing the wounded from the­atres of war and sav­ing count­less lives.

Al­though WAAFs did not gen­er­ally fly, Air Trans­port Aux­il­iary short­ages prompted the RAF to al­low a lim­ited number to join as ATA pi­lots, de­liv­er­ing new planes and re­turn­ing air­craft for re­pairs. An­other notable trade be­tween 1941 and 1944 was that of bar­rage­bal­loon girl, con­trol­ling the huge gas-filled kite bal­loons. Dubbed ‘Young Ama­zons’ due to the ex­cep­tion­ally heavy out­door work, the fe­male crews were given men’s meal ra­tions and spe­cial cloth­ing, de­scribed by Eileen Dean

as “bat­tle­dress top and trousers in rough serge, sea­men’s pullovers, stock­ings and sou’west­ers, plus grey woollen pants to the knees and men’s hob-nailed, real clog boots. It so turned out that I never felt so warm and com­fort­able.”

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and in­tel­li­gence work was an­other cat­e­gory, and by Septem­ber 1944 the Sig­nals Branch em­ployed nearly 32,000 WAAFs. It han­dled the rapid com­mu­ni­ca­tion of mes­sages by tele­phone or teleprinter in ‘clear’ – plain, un­coded English – and in Morse, plus se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tions in code. Bri­tish em­bassies over­seas were al­lo­cated mainly WAAF code and cipher of­fi­cers, Churchill’s own War Cabi­net Cipher Of­fice be­ing staffed pri­mar­ily by WAAFs. They also played an im­por­tant role as op­er­a­tors in coastal radar sta­tions, as well as help­ing with the cru­cial code-break­ing work per­formed at Bletch­ley Park. Some tasks were es­pe­cially sen­si­tive and in­volved sign­ing the Of­fi­cial Se­crets Act, so that WAAFs could not dis­cuss their ser­vice for many years.

De­mo­bil­i­sa­tion fol­lowed Vic­tory in Eu­rope Day on 8 May 1945. The WAAF had kept the RAF fly­ing and re­leased men for ac­tive du­ties, ul­ti­mately work­ing in 22 of­fi­cer branches and more than 110 trades. At its peak in July 1943 the WAAF had num­bered al­most 182,000 women, with about 250,000 serv­ing al­to­gether dur­ing the war. Over­com­ing some ini­tial op­po­si­tion, even hos­til­ity, from men, WAAFs had proved their worth as an in­te­gral el­e­ment of the RAF. Their con­tri­bu­tion was ac­knowl­edged when in Fe­bru­ary 1949 they be­came a per­ma­nent peace­time ser­vice, which was known once again as the WRAF.

WAAFs are taught the con­struc­tion of a de Hav­il­land Tiger Moth

Above: WRAFs board ten­ders to go to their bil­lets in Cologne in May 1919; right: a mem­ber of the WAAF re­pairs a plane at RAF Hon­ing­ton, Bury Saint Edmunds, c1940; below: a WAAF flight me­chanic welds with an acety­lene torch

By Au­gust 2018 more than 15,000 women had joined the WRAF

WAAF flight me­chan­ics work on an Ox­ford train­ing plane, De­cem­ber 1942 This pho­to­graph of driv­ers in the Tech­ni­cal section of the WRAF was taken c1918

Who Do You Think You Are?

Above: WAAFs re­pair and pack para­chutes for use by troops in the in­va­sion of Nor­mandy, 1944; right: WAAFs carry cam­era guns and an aerial cam­era due for an over­haul, c1943; below: WAAFs line up for in­spec­tion in 1939

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