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
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.
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.
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 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