Saturday, July 29, 2023

British Women at War: Womens' Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

 The youngest and arguably the most dynamic and egalitarian of the womens' services was the WAAF. While the other women's services were grafted on to institutions with hundreds of years of traditions without women, the WAAF was founded at exactly the same time as the RAF itself. That proved to be a significant advantage, reflected mostly in the attitudes of the men with whom they served. As the recruiting poster suggests, WAAF didn't "free a man" to go elsewhere -- they served alongside them except in the air itself.


Despite being founded at the same time as the RAF, the original women's service associated with the fledgling air force (the Women's Royal Airforce or WRAF) was short-lived. Founded on 1 April 1918, it was already disbanded by June 1919. Yet in that short space of time, 556 officers and 31,000 other ranks not only saw service, they convinced the "powers that be" in the RAF that women could be useful -- at least in wartime. 

Thus, despite being disbanded, the WRAF was not forgotten. On the one hand, many of the women who had served stayed in touch and in the late 1930s helped form a voluntary organization known as "The Emergency Service." On the other hand, senior RAF officers declaimed that the WRAF was to the RAF like a wife, a sister and a sweetheart. Even the founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, considered the "W" in front of RAF as "an unnecessary initial" and insisted the WRAF was "part of the RAF" and -- significantly -- "would be again."  [Quoted in: Katherine Bentley Beauman, Partners in Blue: The Story of the Women's Service with the Royal Air Force, 55-56] By 1938, women were receiving lectures and drill from active service RAF on an informal basis. Among the women who availed themselves of these opportunities were the wives of some of the most senior officers in the RAF including the Chief of Air Staff. 

Officially, however, the WRAF was not resurrected as the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) until June 1939. With war obviously approaching, the RAF leadership decided that women were to be recruited for service in 1) motor transport, 2) clerical duties, 3) cooking and catering, 4) other "general duties" that might include messengers, telephone and teleprinter operators. At its inception, 2,000 women who had signed up for the ATS transferred immediately to the WAAF. The WAAF proved popular throughout the war and fully 84% of all WAAF were volunteers. Indeed, early on, there were more volunteers than could be accommodated and many women were turned away or sent home to await a letter calling them to the service. 

Contemporary expectations had been that the Germans would launch massive air raids on the United Kingdom at the outbreak of the war. Fortunately, conventional wisdom was wrong and Britain was granted nine months of grace before Britain's air war started in earnest in June 1940. During the period of this "phony war," while most people weren't looking, the RAF was recruiting selected women "special duties" clerks. These WAAF for destined for some of the most important jobs of the war.

On the one hand, more mature women deemed particularly discreet and reliable were selected and trained for work in codes and cypher. (The Royal Navy did the same, incidentally.) More exceptional was that the forward-thinking C-in-C of Fighter Command, had requested in 1936 -- three years before the WAAF was officially formed! -- that women to be trained to perform new, technologically-advanced jobs that had never existed before. Even more astonishing, the jobs he wanted them for were positions absolutely vital to the success of Britain's entire air defense. They were also high-pressure jobs that would have to be performed when under fire: wireless and radar operators, filterers and plotters. Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding not only insisted WAAF could do the work, he insisted that they receive commissions as appropriate, scuppering RAF policy about commissions only for women in administrative positions. 

When the Battle of Britain brought terror to Britain's skies, WAAF were at the front lines and rapidly demonstrated by sheer competence their worth. They worked at radar stations and plotting tables while the radar towers or their airfields were bombed. Time and again, they got up and dusted themselves off to continue working as the raid receded. Six WAAF received the Military Medal for bravery during the Battle of Britain. Unsurprisingly after this record, women not only dominated these trades, later in the war they moved from these jobs into the more senior and more responsible position of controller. 

In addition, in 1941 WAAF were tasked -- initially only experimentally -- with manning Britain's barrage balloons. This was a task requiring physical strength and skill. Balloons were filled with hydrogen and were 63 feet long and 31 feet high when inflated. They weighed 550 lbs and were controlled (as best as possible) by steal cables. The hydrogen was inflammable, of course, and handling of the winches and cables was dangerous. The balloons had to face "bow" to wind, which meant they had to be re-oriented whenever the wind direction changed. The work was 24/7. Yet the WAAF did so well handling the balloons, that women began replacing men in the balloon squadrons. Eventually 15,700 WAAF became balloon operators and made up roughly 60% of Balloon Command.


The WAAF expanded to other trades as well. In addition to taking on the maintenance of radar and wireless equipment (a natural extension in some ways of operating those systems) they were also soon serving as military police, meteorologists, intelligence officers, doing photographic interpretation, acting as interpreters, working as laboratory assistants, air traffic controllers, as draughtsmen and cartographers, stores clerks, parachute packers, and accountants. (The recruiting poster below shows a WAAF Air Traffic Controller.)

More astonishing, perhaps, was that the RAF also trained WAAF as electricians, airframe and engine mechanics (riggers and fitters), and as instrument repairers, highly technical trades traditionally done by men. Altogether, the WAAF worked in 110 different trades, and twenty-two officer branches were open to WAAF officers. The WAAF, meanwhile, had already in 1941 come under the Air Force Act making WAAF officially members of the Armed Forces. 

WAAF officers played a particularly important role in the latter years of the war as controllers and wireless operators at bomber stations, and also as intelligence officers debriefing returning bomber crews.

In addition, fifteen WAAF officers were recruited for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), fourteen of which were sent to France while one parachuted into Yugoslavia. Of these, one WAAF was executed by the Nazis and another tortured but survived, while the rest returned unharmed. 

The WAAF did not serve in the UK alone. Women code and ciphers officers were in high demand across the globe, including in the U.S., Canada and the Middle and Far East. Women photo interpreters were likewise coveted. Airwomen were also sent overseas to serve in domestic and clerical trades. Finally, WAAF followed the RAF as it advanced across continental Europe in the closing months of the war. Altogether, 7,556 WAAF served overseas in the USA, Canada, the Bahamas, India, Ceylon, Singapore, the Middle East and Mediterranean, and across Western Europe.

Of all the women's services, the WAAF was the most integrated and this was reflected in the uniform which followed RAF uniform in design and colour with only marginal or necessary modifications, such a skirts rather than trousers for dress uniforms. WAAF working in jobs such as balloon handling or aircraft and radio mechanics wore RAF overalls. WAAF were also entitled to wear "battle dress" with trousers and short tunics.  (Below a WAAF aircraft mechanic in overalls.)


At their peak, the WAAF numbered more than 181,000 including roughly 6,000 officers, which made it only marginally smaller than the ATS (190,000), but more than twice the size of the WRNS, who maximum force was 75,000.  The vast majority of the 217,000 women who served in the WAAF in the course of the war were volunteers, although  34,000 were conscripts. At the end of the war, WAAF accounted for 22% of the RAF's overall strength in the UK, and 16% of RAF strength worldwide.

WAAF are leading characters Helena P. Schrader's latest release: Cold Peace. This is the first novel  in a three-part series, Bridge to Tomorrow, which describes the causes, events and aftermath of the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949). Schrader is a multiple award-winning novelist, who has published three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about her, her books, reviews and awards at:



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