The Work of Women in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

History: Key Aspects
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Peggie Stead, centre, with colleagues and her lorry at RAF Marham.
Peggie Stead, centre, with colleagues and her lorry at RAF Marham.
Cathy Pugh, who researches the Centre's archives and produces material for the Website, offers here an indication of how richly the Centre's holdings document experiences in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

The Women's Royal Air Force was formed alongside the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918. Over 24,000 women members covered shortages in manpower, and with little formal training fulfilled a large range of duties including instrument mechanics and parachute packers. The WRAF was disbanded in April 1920, an unnecessary service in the post-war recession, however the need to prepare in the event of international developments over the Czechoslovak crisis leading Britain into war once again led to the formation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the Women's Royal Navy in early 1939, and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force on 2nd June, 1939. The fledgling WAAF was headed by Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbes with just over 1,700 members stationed throughout the country in 47 Companies. The Air Ministry did not see an immediate need for female assistance throughout the RAF but further defence preparations demonstrated that more staff would be required and some roles such as catering, plotting and operating a teleprinter were considered suitable for women. Telegrams were sent out in August 1939, mobilising all WAAF volunteers and when war was declared on 3rd September, another 10,000 women volunteered.

It is the purpose of this article to make clear just what it was like for women joining the service in their initial training, how wide ranging was the work of women in the WAAF and to do this by quotation from the papers of WAAF documented in the Centre.

Peggie Stead, was working as a clerk in Leeds in 1940:

We had a lot of soldiers came from Dunkirk, they'd been ferried over. They were in a poor state and we were trying to entertain them and take them out for a drink or a meal and I thought, here I am sitting doing nothing, so I volunteered then and there (for WAAF service).

As volunteers, the first WAAF members were not subject to RAF discipline and were given the opportunity to leave if the life did not agree with them, but, as more became involved in secret work, the Defence (Women's Forces) Regulations were passed in April 1941 which made WAAF members subject to RAF rules.

In 1942 the National Service Act of 1941 came into being, initially calling up girls born in 1920 and 1921. However Barbara Grierson and her twin sister decided to take matters into their own hands:

By the beginning of 1942 conscription had come in. If you were not in a reserved occupation, you were directed to either munitions, the services or the Land Army, wherever the Government decided to send you. And both Daphne and I, being very independent people, didn't want to be pushed into something we didn't want to go to so we decided when we were seventeen and a half we were old enough to volunteer ... we decided we would join the Navy, mainly because we liked the uniform really. [We went to] The Kingsway, to the Recruiting Centres. The first was The Navy and The Army in the middle and then the Air Force at the end, and we went to the Naval recruiting office and all that they offered us were a batswoman or stewards or cooks... Daphne said, 'I don't want to be a cook,' neither did I. So we went past the Army because we didn't really fancy the Army much [probably the uniform], so off we went to the Air Force and they said yes, they had vacancies in their technical branch so we signed up, and that was June 1942.

Jeanne Sowry interpreting reconnaissance photographs at RAF Benson.
Jeanne Sowry interpreting reconnaissance photographs at RAF Benson.

New recruits received basic training in a largely female environment, usually accommodated in Nissen huts with up to 23 girls sharing a room. In two to three weeks they were kitted out, given 'FF1' (Free From Infection) checks, inoculated twice, and given dental inspections. They attended lectures on Service History, current affairs, discipline, welfare, First Aid, gas, fire and hygiene and were tested for and designated to trades. Primary training introduced them to pay parades, inspections, drill and tough discipline. Margaret Sturges recalls:

We had instructions for folding and placing our clothes in a certain order in a cylindrical canvas duffel bag that could be carried on the shoulder. A small bag held mending kits and other non-uniform items such as cosmetics, shoe polish and stationery. Hair had to be worn one inch above the collar.

Everything had to be labelled and laid out in order with fines for any kit found missing. Although it was forbidden, Ethel Vine, training to be a teleprinter operator in Signals, preferred to wear her own underwear:

I didn't like the underwear, we had 'twilights' and 'blackouts' in the knickers, and the 'twilights' were grey woolly things that came down to your knee - like old ladies wore, and the 'blackouts' were like silky bloomers!

Phyllis Gasson trained in Morecambe:

A month's square bashing and lectures on hygiene, King's Regulations, aircraft recognition, fire drill and distinguishing different gases. For the latter we were herded a few at a time into an airtight small room wearing our gas masks but for the last few seconds, these had to be removed. As you can imagine this was a far from pleasant experience and we all emerged coughing and spluttering with eyes streaming and smarting. At least it did teach us how essential our gas masks would be in the event of a gas attack... Weather permitting the square bashing was done on the sea front. Tunics and skirts had to be removed so parading up and down on a chilly promenade in January was far from enjoyable.

These first days away from home could be lonely and distressing, very few girls were prepared for service life, and some training staff seemed possessed of no sensitivity. Jeanne Sowry remembers:

At the medical I was handed a paste pot by a dragon who said to me - 'and don't do it all over the floor'. I was already learning what service discipline was to be.

After a long day, Ethel Vine recalls:

The first night we got into this wooden hut and we were given these palliase things and we had to fill them with straw to lie on them... we were all dropping off to sleep and then someone started crying for their mother and then someone said, 'I've got an earwig in my ear, there's an earwig'! so, of course, it was pandemonium.

Basic training was usually followed by intensive trade training. Sgt Peggy Chenery trained to be a barrage balloon operator:

We were sent to Cardington for training, it was very hard work. We learned how to operate the winches which were used to fly the balloons and also to keep the winches in good working order ... we had to know a little about the engines, enough to do a daily and weekly inspection.

When barrage balloons were to be disbanded, Peggy trained as a radar operator:

I was sent to Cranwell on a course. Radar was very hush-hush at the time and we had to go into a special compound for lectures and could not make any notes or bring anything out with us to study in the evenings.

Article by Cathy Pugh.
First published in the Centre's Journal Issue No. 10: War in the Air.