In January 1917, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was established, offering jobs for women to serve as chauffeurs, clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks, and as instructors.
When the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged in March 1918 to form the Royal Air Force, a female branch, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), was immediately created.
'... Britain’s existence had been threatened as never before ...'
Here women worked as clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and storekeepers. Overall, with official sanction, over 100,000 women served in the uniformed services during 1914-18. Nearly half were connected with nursing, and few were permitted anywhere near the fighting.
The experience of Dorothy Lawrence highlights the prevailing attitude of officialdom to women at the front in 1914-18. In her quest to report from the front, she travelled in disguise to the town of Albert, on the Somme. Here she survived 12 nights in the trenches, before her identity was discovered, and she gained a true picture of the conditions under which the soldiers were fighting. Her bestseller about her experiences reflected a popular post-war desire for social change in Britain.
The picture of the role of women in war altered dramatically in World War Two. Arguably Britain’s existence was threatened as never before, and in December 1941, reflecting the gravity of the situation, Churchill’s wartime government passed the National Service Act (No 2) which allowed the conscription of women.
This was further than any other unoccupied country had gone at this time in mobilising a nation’s labour resources, and further than the Germans could go, as Hitler had promised to keep his females at home, nurturing the little storm troopers of the future.
In Britain, it was initially single women and widows without children, aged between 19 and 30, who were called up. Later the age limit was pushed as far as 43 (or 50 for veterans of World War One). They went into a variety of vital war industries, the Women’s Land Army and the armed forces.
All the women’s armed forces had been disbanded after World War One and had to be reformed as the war clouds gathered once again. The WRNS was re-established in April 1939.
They were attached to nearly every naval unit at home and overseas, and an élite few were employed in secret naval communications and in decyphering coded German messages. By 1945, 72,000 were in service. The WAACs likewise were reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1938, and by 1945, these numbered more than 190,000, including 2nd Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, later to become Queen Elizabeth II.
'... significantly Britain, too, became part of the front line.'
The women drove and maintained vehicles, as well as manning anti-aircraft guns. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), formed in June 1939, manned the top secret Radio Direction Finding (radar) stations in the Battle of Britain, and numbered 153,000 by the war’s end.
Women in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) ferried aircraft from factories to airfields, even across the Atlantic. Several were killed in air crashes, including the famous pre-war flyer Amy Johnson. And the FANY - never disbanded - continued, serving under the guise of the Women’s Transport Service.
The recent film Charlotte Gray portrays a particular breed of female warrior during World War Two. These women were right on the front line, often in actual combat, and Charlotte is an amalgam of several real-life heroines who worked with the French Resistance.
Of these, Violette Szabo was a FANY. She volunteered to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was parachuted into France as an intelligence radio officer. Ambushed by the Germans and wounded in the ensuing gunfight, she was captured and died at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945. (her story appears later in this work).
The same fate befell her SOE colleague Nora Khan, who originally enlisted as a WAAF and was murdered at Dachau. Both women were posthumously awarded a George Cross, as was Odette Churchill who, despite terrible torture, survived the war.
Women served in most theatres of war, but significantly Britain too, eventually became part of the front line. All of a sudden, after years of official separation from the business of battle, women found themselves not only conscripted, but de facto at the front.
During the Battle of Britain, flight officer Felicity Hanbury was a 26-year old WAAF officer in charge of the WAAF section at RAF Biggin Hill, comprising about 250 airwomen. Perhaps her memoires speak for many. In July 1940 she attended her Assistant Adjutant’s Course and wrote home:
‘Must say this course is very interesting, but I do wish it was over ... I’m longing to get back to Biggin.’