19 January 2023
Edward Hallett charts how WWII changed the course of the women’s branch of the RAF.
On 31 January 1941 a nervous 30-year old WAAF called Daphne Pearson waited to be called before the King to be awarded the newly instituted George Cross, indeed she was the first woman to be awarded this gallantry medal. The incident for which Corporal Pearson was now being recognised had occurred the previous year. Trained as a medical orderly, Corporal Pearson was one of the first on the scene when Avro Anson R3389 of No 500 Squadron Royal Air Force had undershot the runway at Detling, Kent and crashed into a field. On impact one of the bombs the aircraft was carrying went off, killing the navigator. The pilot was seriously injured, and Corporal Pearson entered the badly damaged cockpit, released him from his harness and helped him away from the aircraft. Having gone just 30yd the rest of the bomb load exploded, showering the area with debris. Corporal Pearson threw the injured man to the ground and shielded him with her body. Happily, she was not seriously hurt and for this act of courage was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal, which was exchanged for the newly created George Cross shortly afterwards.
Corporal Pearson was not to be the last recipient of a bravery award amongst the ranks of the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce during World War II and at its peak in 1943 the WAAF had 182,000 women in its ranks, freeing up at least 150,000 men for other roles. In 1939, however, it was all rather different.
The WAAF was not the first experiment the RAF had made in employing women, during World War I the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) had employed 556 officers and 31,764 women in a number of roles. The roles of the WRAF were more limited than those of the WAAF, however women served in several trades as well as the traditional clerical and domestic roles and learned things as diverse as acetylene welding and balloon repairing. What surprised the RAF most, however, was how adept these women were at the flight side of the Air Force, and they were soon employed as riggers, carpenters, dopers and painters and some were even trained to be engine fitters. Sadly, this experiment in equality only lasted until 1920 and the peacetime air force went back to being an exclusively male affair.
Fast forward 20 years and war clouds were once more looming, and it was clear that the RAF would need to expand once more. Several companies of the Army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service had been detached to the RAF since 1938 and when the WAAF was created in June 1939 these units were moved across to form the nucleus of the new organisation. The ranks of the WAAF were also quickly expanded by the recruitment of new volunteer aircraftswomen, followed by conscription in 1941, although women did have the choice of where they were conscripted to. The attractive uniform and perceived glamour of the WAAF always ensured it was a popular choice. By late 1943 the WAAF made up 16% of the RAF’s total strength and 22% of the total strength of Home Command.
Right: Whilst looking glamourous here, few WAAFs looked so elegant when hard at work supporting the RAF’s operations
The position of women within the RAF was not welcomed by all at once, although opinions rapidly changed once they had been seen to be doing a solid job of work. One male RAF officer explained, “In the first place, I ought to say that I am a converted man. As an officer of some 26 years’ service, I sincerely believed that war was a job for men, that in war women could tackle the more quiet and comfortable civilian jobs and leave it to fathers, brothers and cousins to fill the fighting services. Long before the respite came in November, I had cause to thank goodness that this country could produce a race of women as the WAAFs on my station. Let me give you an example. In the daylight mass bombing in August and September of last year, in a flimsy building on the aerodrome, I saw my WAAF plotters, with their earphones pressed to their ears to keep out the inferno of noise from the torrent of bombs that were bursting all around, steady and calm at their posts plotting. Not a murmur or movement from a single one of them, though the building was literally rocking and each one knew that she and the building might be airborne at any moment. The Royal Air Force is proud of its WAAFs, each one of them does the work of one man, and does it darned well. They helped us to win the Battle of Britain in ever-increasing numbers.”
During wartime there were 22 officer roles, and 75 different trades open to the women of the WAAF. These included traditionally female roles such as cooks, cleaners, secretaries and medical personnel.
Right: Much of the WAAF’s work was unglamorous and many served in traditionally female roles such as clerical and domestic positions, here WAAF cooks can be seen baking
Other trades that had been traditionally done by men, in the services and civilian life, were now taken on by the WAAF with relish. These included the same engineering positions as in the last war, maintaining and repairing aircraft and servicing the many ground vehicles used by the RAF. It was quickly found that women, with their nimble fingers, made excellent parachute packers and many aircrews owed their lives to the diligent work of the WAAF parachute packers. Barrage balloons were another area where women came to dominate, both in the intricate task of repairing damaged balloon envelopes with sewing machines and dope, and physically on the barrage balloon sites, operating the winches that raised and lowered these silver behemoths.
WAAFs were also to be seen in every control room up and down the country, working the plotting boards and tracking the allied and enemy aircraft in the air in real time so that commanders had a picture of the unfolding battle. Today the image of them with their headsets and long poles to move wooden blocks around the map is as iconic as that of the young pilots they were tracking. Away from the hustle and bustle of the control room, in darkened spaces lit by the eerie light of their screens, other WAAFs tracked aircraft movements relayed by Britain’s secret weapon, the Chain Home radar system.
Mary Kennard was one of those WAAF radar operators, “In late 1942 I was called up to go into the WAAF, where after various aptitude tests, it was decided that I was suitable to be a radar operator. I then went to Gloucester for a week's initial training, then on to Morecombe for further initiation into the mysteries of being a WAAF, and finally to Yatesbury for radar training.
“I was then posted to Dunwich, just a week before my 21st birthday. Dunwich was the town that disappeared into the sea over hundreds of years, leaving only a handful of houses - a shop, an inn and a beach café. We spent many happy hours in this café, together with the Army, drinking cups of tea, eating cakes and chatting.
“Dunwich was a radar station called CHL, or ‘Chain Home Low’, where we plotted low-flying aircraft and shipping. Our plots were then passed to Stanmore for identification and caused great excitement if we had a hostile identification.”
Once she had joined, a young WAAF was sent to one of a number of basic training camps dotted across the country. The initial 14 days were taken up with basic administrative tasks like issuing of uniform and equipment, lectures of hygiene, anti-gas procedures, station defence, 12 hours of drill and six of physical training. After these two weeks were up, specialist trade training began where a WAAF learnt the intricacies of her future trade. Although they put down their preferences, the needs of the service came first and many WAAFs who had requested one trade that was oversubscribed found themselves being transferred over to another where there was a shortage of personnel. Once trade training had been completed, a WAAF could find herself posted to an operational station either in the United Kingdom or more rarely overseas. There was of course also a need for WAAF NCOs and officers and so selected candidates would be sent away for further training in the art of command.
Left: WAAF storekeepers looked after the warehouses of equipment needed to run a modern air force inventorying and issuing items out
With so many women serving in the WAAF, it is perhaps unsurprising that individual’s experiences varied considerably, depending on the role they undertook and the location they were posted to. Some lived under canvas in very rudimentary conditions in open fields servicing barrage balloons, others had the luxury of dormitories in purpose-built barrack blocks with warm running water and hot food prepared daily in a canteen. Still others were posted overseas to places as far afield as Egypt or India where they were often the first white women many of the locals had ever seen. Again, conditions were spartan, but the work completed regarded as second to none.
Kathlene Godfrey was the daughter of an Admiral, but it was the WAAF she decided to enlist in. She described the uniforms in detail: ‘All the new recruits boarded a train to Yorkshire, bound for Harrogate. We stayed at the Grand Hotel and were enrolled. I became a number, which I can easily remember to this day: 427823. Aircraftwoman 2nd Class. Godfrey. It was imprinted on a red tag hanging on a piece of cord round our necks to identify us in case we were killed. We queued up for our uniforms which made no concession to our shapes as they were modelled exactly on the mens’, even buttoning from left to right. The belted jacket in Air Force blue had four square pockets, eliminating any curves which might have been visible; then came a knee-length straight skirt and a blue cotton shirt with separate collar which, as it had to be stiffly starched, left an unattractive red mark on the neck. There were inspections every day and woe betide if a collar stud went missing - it never occurred to me to have spare one.
Right: A recreation of a WAAF officer showing the finer cloth of the officer’s uniform
The tie was black, in mourning for the men of the Royal Flying Corps who had fallen in the Great War. The rest of the outfit consisted of thick dark-grey cotton stockings, suspender belts, bras and even black knickers with elastic at the knee known as anti-passions. The black lace-up shoes rubbed horribly, and all the clothes tended to be scratchy and uncomfortable. As snow lay on the ground, we were issued with thick double-breasted great coats which had a full complement of brass buttons with embossed eagles on them. All of them had to be polished every day. Lastly came a peaked hat with RAF badge, yet another piece of brass to be cleaned.’
Collecting the WAAF
With the WAAF having so many members over the war years, it is unsurprising that there is a lot of surviving memorabilia, uniforms and equipment out there for collectors to find, and equally there are many collectors interested in the service which ensures items achieve healthy prices. Blighty Militaria is offering an original WAAF servicebook, detailing a WAAFs service career, enlistment dates, inoculations and training, for £25, great for those who enjoy a research project. Mons Militaria has a WAAF's autograph book, with accompanying photographs for £55.
If you are interested in living history and wish to portray a WAAF, you may discover that the uniforms worn during wartime are often too small for the modern figure and both fragile and expensive after 80 years. Happily, Soldier of Fortune offer a range of reproduction clothing, including a package deal for a WAAF officer comprising tunic, skirt, shoes, blouse, tie, cap, handbag and insignia for £380.
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