Wednesday, June 14, 2023

British Woman at War: The Contribution of Factory Girls to Victory in WWII

As in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and, indeed, the United States, by far the largest number of women mobilized in support of the war effort went into the civilian labor force to replace men called to arms. Yet whereas women in U.S. factories were all volunteers and the Germans relied heavily on slave labor from the Concentration Camps, POWs and occupied Europe, Britain conscripted women into the munitions and aircraft factories from 1942 onwards.

Already by 1941, it was obvious to the British government that there was a serious shortage of manpower both to fight the war and to produce the instruments of war, particularly munitions, ships and aircraft. The British government recognized that the only solution was to bring women into the work-force both by enabling them to fulfill a wider range of support roles in the armed forces, thereby reducing the number of men that would have to be conscripted, and on an even larger scale employing them in factories producing essential war materiel. 

In the spring of 1941, all women between the ages of 18 and 60 were required to register. By December, a shortage of 1.5 million factory workers in essential war industries was identified and the decision was taken to conscript women to fill this gap. Although women were given the option of joining one of the women's auxiliary services, doing civil defense work or working in industry, fully half of the 1.5 million women called to national service, 750,000, would be directed into the munitions factories. The legal basis for female conscription was included in the National Service Act passed 18 December 1941, which made all widows without children and single women between the ages of twenty and thirty subject to conscription.

By the end of the war, women up to the age of fifty were liable for national service and already in 1943, 90% of single women and 80% of married women were in one way or another contributing to the war effort. The bulk of these women worked in factory jobs, and three-quarters of them full-time. Yet even though many of these women were called up to fill the place of men going into the armed services, most were paid a lower wage then the men they had replaced. The exceptions such as the Air Transport Auxiliary and the railways were the rare exceptions that granted women equal pay for equal work, the later due to a national union agreement.

Furthermore, wartime demands meant that working conditions deteriorated dramatically. In 1940, after Lord Beaverbrook took charge of the specially created Ministry of Aircraft Production, factories assembling aircraft or producing the component parts for them started to work around the clock. The shifts were extended to twelve-hours and weekends and holidays were cancelled. In the crisis atmosphere created by the Battle of Britain and Blitz, workers began sleeping in the factories and soon accidents went up and productivity declined. Such a pace was not sustainable, and inevitably things settled into a wartime "normal." This was on average a 58 - 60 hour workweek for men and a 45 to 55 hour workweek for women. (Below, women workers assembling an aircraft fuselage)

In addition to the shorter workweek, other concessions were made to the female workforce. Where men had stood, women were often provided with stools to sit. Tea breaks became regularized, and canteen food improved. Yet the work still had to get done and while women were shielded from combat, there was no comparative effort to protect them from dangerous jobs. 

Most notably, nearly a million (950,000) British women worked in munitions factories, then known as the Royal Ordnance Factories or ROF. These jobs were better paid and required fewer hours than in other sectors such as transport, but the risks were enormous. The women worked filling fuses, detonators, bullets, shells, mines and bombs with explosive materials, particularly TNT. Health and safety practices were minimal. The women often suffered from side effects such as skin discoloration and stomach illnesses from handling toxic chemicals, often with their naked hands. The risk of explosion was always present, and in addition to 134 fatalities, many more workers lost limbs in accidents. (Below women working in a munitions factory.)

Other vital industries that relied heavily on women were the railways where 105,000 women were employed doing all tasks necessary to keep the trains running. Women also built tanks and other vehicles and produced and packed parachutes. The latter job had the perk of being able to keep the scraps of silk for personal use. Substantial numbers of women were employed by the Post Office as "engineers" laying and repairing telephone lines. Women served in the merchant navy as stewardesses aboard troop transports, and worked as conductors or ticket collectors on public transport buses and trams. 

Their contribution to the war effort is all to often ignored, forgotten or simply dismissed.

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at:


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