In this article, Mary Miles tells us of the valuable contribution that women made to the British war effort in World War II – and there is even a poem that her father wrote about it.
Whenever the topic of the Second World War is mentioned, how many of us think of the likes of Amy Johnson, Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II), Noor Inyat Khan or the women of WASP, WRNS, and WAAF?
The answer is very few of us. Most histories, documentaries and movies about this conflict concentrate on Hitler, Churchill, FDR and Hirohito or major battles and operations. Those aspects have been analyzed in almost every possible way but very rarely do historians or the general public talk about the everyday procedures and people involved in this conflict, while the women involved are discussed even less.
Living in Britain, knowledge of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force [WAAF], Women’s Royal Naval Service [WRNS], the Auxiliary Territorial Service [ATS] and other auxiliary units are relatively easy to research. And due to recent developments, information on Women Airforce Service Pilots [WASP] is easier to research as well. The women on whom there is very little information are those who operated behind enemy lines, such as those of Britain’s Special Operations Executive [SOE]. The information available on the women who served in WWII gives us a very comprehensive view of the roles undertaken by them for the duration of hostilities. These women did a wide variety of military war work, except for fighting on the front lines. The women packed parachutes, undertook cryptography at Station X and its Y stations, operated anti-aircraft guns, and patrolled harbors - to name just a few of their roles within these organizations. This auxiliary work freed up men for the front line.
In the Air
The WASP and the ATA were similar organizations that ferried aircraft for military use. WASP had 1,074 female pilots and the ATA 166. The ATA transported aircraft to RAF bases; these flights were to and from UK factories, assembly plants, maintenance units, scrap yards, and active airfields— just about anywhere including transatlantic delivery points but excluding aircraft carriers. This was dangerous work in British skies when they had no weaponry to defend themselves if attacked by an Axis aircraft. The Avro Lancaster favored by RAF Bomber Command usually flew with a crew of seven men; the ATA delivered these planes using a solo pilot. The famous pioneer of female aviation Amy Johnson joined the ATA and became one of their casualties. On January 5, 1940 Amy Johnson was flying an Airspeed Oxford to RAF Kidlington, a training base near Oxford, when, due to adverse weather conditions, she was forced off course. She evidently ran out of fuel and then bailed out over the Thames estuary landing in the water. A British naval officer dived into to save her but unfortunately died along with Johnson; his body was recovered but hers never was. There is to this day speculation about the accident that caused the death of Amy Johnson as her flight that fateful day is still a government secret.
The WAAF and its counterparts were the female ground wing of the RAF. Known to the men of the flying services as the Ladies in Blue, the majority of the members of the WAAF did traditional female jobs within the service but quite a few ‘male’ jobs fell to them as well. My late father, a Bomber Command Veteran, wrote the following poem about them:
Ladies in Blue
You who were the ladies in blue?
May the living God bless you.
Though world-wise matron or immature kid
Accept our thanks for all you did
Our meals were served, our ‘chutes were packed
And you provided what we lacked
For, be very well aware
Your greatest service was just being there.
- Jasper Miles
Although the majority of WAAFs were in these Auxiliary Roles, a few were seconded to the SOE. An example of such a person is the ‘Spy Princess’ Noor Inyat Khan, a Russian born Indian Muslim of a princely family. She operated in Northern France and Paris until she was betrayed to the Nazi authorities who, in September 1944, executed her along with three other agents at Dachau.
They’re in the Army
The Auxiliary Territorial Service [ATS] was the British Army’s female wing. These women were charged with multiple duties. Many became drivers or mechanics, driving ambulances and trucks, and ferrying around officers. The ATS incorporated the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry [FANY], the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp [WAAC] and the Women’s Transport Service [WTS]. These women, like most of the Auxiliary Services, were paid two thirds of a man’s serving salary. And not surprisingly, the ATS had many famous members within its ranks: Mary Churchill, Odette Sansom Hallowes, Violette Szabo and the then Princess Elizabeth. As a member of the ATS, Princess Elizabeth learned to drive an ambulance and fix its engine. It is claimed Her Majesty can still strip down both an engine and a rifle and that she is a crack shot with most guns. Odette and Violette, although officially officers in FANY, were operatives for SOE so went behind enemy lines. Both of these ladies were caught, and Violette was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp. Odette at the time was using the surname Churchill; this minor fact saved her life as the Nazi High Command at Ravensbrück thought she was related to the British Prime Minister and she was therefore used as a bargaining tool.
The Royal Navy’s female section was the WRNS and its members were affectionately known as Wrens or Jennies. At their height, there were approximately 74,000 WRNS members involved in all manner of roles. Being a Wren could be a hazardous occupation; crewing harbor launches in mine infested waters was almost as dangerous as the men’s roles on the front lines. One of the least known of the roles these women played was one of the most crucial: serving at Station X, Bletchley Park. Bletchley Park was the Allied code breaking headquarters and a large proportion of its operatives were in the WRNS. These women worked alongside men such as Alan Turing in order to break the Enigma code.
This brief examination of the Women’s Auxiliary Services only touches the surface of the role of women during WWII. It has left out many other jobs undertaken by women such as working in munitions factories, nursing and medical services, and other transport services.
Next time you attend a memorial event to commemorate the front line casualities of WWII, spare a though for the ladies as well.
Now, click here to find out about the role of women in World War I.
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Minney, R. J. (1956) Carve Her Name with Pride: The Story of Violette Szabo. London: Newnes
Miles Jasper. (1996) Bomber’s Bombers. Their Story in Verse. Privately Published. (Contact M. Miles)