Women's Auxiliary Air Force

by Air Commandant K J Trefusis Forbes
Air Commandant K J Trefusis Forbes, CBE, Director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. served during World War I with Women's Volunteer Reserve. and subsequently maintained active interest in women's service organisations. Miss Trefusis Forbes joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1938 — at the time of the Munich crisis — and in July, 1939, was appointed to the Air Ministry as Director of the WAAF with the rank of Senior Controller (now Air Commandant). Her relative RAF rank is Air Commodore.
British women are fighting the war beside the men. The WAAF have proved so indispensable the US Army recently set up their counterpart in this country.

The waging of war is no longer an exclusively male undertaking. It is still customary to speak of "manpower," but by common acceptance the term is now more often than not taken to include women-the women who have cheerfully taken on men's jobs in factories, workshops, farms and offices so that manpower, in its strictly literal sense, may be utilized to the full.

In the Royal Air Force, the necessity for employing women to supplement man is thoroughly appreciated, and in consequence there has come into being the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. The extent to which this ancillary service has developed may be gauged from the fact that by the end of the second year of the war the total number of women enrolled into the WAAF was passing into the second hundred thousand — a figure higher than the entire strength of the RAF of a few years before. Moreover, a significant fact, every one of those women was a volunteer. Not only have they come from all corners of the British Isles to join the WAAF — there are also among them women from the Dominions and colonies. From friendly countries all over the world they came — including women from amongst those few who were able to escape from their Nazi-invaded homes. All of them — some who had seen service in the last war, others who had not long left school — left their homes, their jobs, their local ties to serve with the RAF.

From what may be termed the domestic and clerical jobs for which an active and intelligent woman is as suited as a man, more and more ground duties in the RAF have been allocated to the WAAF, sometimes to be shared with men, sometimes to be performed entirely by WAAF personnel. At the present time over 50 different "trades" are staffed with WAAF. In this way an impressive number of men have been released for the more strenuous or combatant duties, or retained in armament or other industries vital to the war effort where their special training is needed. Without that direct contribution to Britain's air effort from women of all classes the present strength of the RAF — already greater than that of the boasted Luftwaffe — might not have been achieved.

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force of today is the proud successor of the Women's Royal Air Force of the last war. Then, as now, it was found that women could work side by side with men on many jobs; although the process of absorption did not then go beyond their employment on such work as cooking, driving, orderly duties, stenography, telephony and storekeeping. But those pioneers proved their worth. And when, in 1938, serious attention was given to expanding Britain's defences, a Women's Auxiliary Service of part-time volunteers was formed under the joint auspices of the War Office and the Air Ministry. This was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It had a number of RAF companies; but as it soon became apparent that many of the duties of women serving with the Air Force would be different from those required by the Army, the RAF auxiliaries were separated from the parent body. On June 28, 1939, the WAAF was constituted by Royal Warrant an integral part of the Royal Air Force, with its own officers and NCOs and its own uniform of Air Force blue.

The badges of rank of both officers and airwomen, as well as the color and style of the uniforms, are identical with those of the officers and airmen of the RAF. This emphasizes the close connection of the WAAF with its parent fighting service. When the Germans invaded Poland in September, 1939, the WAAF mustered 48 companies all told. Although they were graded into officers, NCOs and other ranks, all those volunteers were regarded as potential officers or NCOs should the force be called upon to expand. War expansion of the RAF and the call-up of the Air Force reserves, required a great and rapid increase in the WAAF; a broadcast appeal for women volunteers brought thousands of women of all ages flocking to the recruiting centers.

The extent to which the WAAF has now become an integral part of the RAF can be seen from the single fact that the five "trades" originally open to women, mostly of a domestic and clerical kind, have grown to over 50. As the WAAF proved their worth in one job, others were opened to them. Now there are WAAF personnel in a whole group of what may be termed the signals trades — wireless and radio operators, radio mechanics and the like. These crafts, and the allied radio-location work, absorb around 50% of present-day airwomen. There are a number of technicians, trained by the RAF in skilled and semi-skilled maintenance jobs — armorers, electricians, flight mechanics, sparking-plug testers and instrument repairers; another group of trades is of a scientific nature, such as meteorologist, photographer, sine-projectionist and tracer; there are such domestic jobs as cook, tailor, hair-dresser and batwoman or orderly; a clerical group includes clerks both general and specialist, bomb plotters and equipment assistants; whilst in the medical class are found dental clerks, dispensers, masseuses, radiographers and operating room assistants.

During the first bitter winter of the war, women in the WAAF were tried out on a number of RAF stations. Their life was hard for a variety of reasons, not least of which were hastily adapted accommodation and lack of equipment. Bad weather added to the discomfort, for the coldest winter that England has known for several decades held the country ice and snow-bound for many months.

Owing to the rapid expansion, the only general issue of uniform which was possible at that time consisted of a raincoat, a navy blue beret with the RAF cap badge pinned on the front, service shoes and stockings, undergarments, and an overall to wear over the airwoman's own clothes while she was on duty. But soon the equipment was produced; shirts, collars and ties, a second pair of shoes, a warm fleece lining for the raincoat, and finally — a proud moment — the issue of the first tunic and skirt. By February, 1940, issues were complete for this quickly extending service. In full uniform, the airwomen felt that they were no longer civilians in a service — they were part of it.

Slowly, but with increasing confidence in the ability of the airwomen to take over work which had hitherto been regarded as only suitable for men, more trades were opened up for women. Training facilities became available and enlistment into a trade was no longer dependent on a woman's occupation or capabilities in civil life.

Then came the Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe, made every effort, but without success, to undermine the morale of civilian population and Service personnel alike. During the daylight mass bombing attacks on some of the Fighter aerodromes in August and September, 1940, the WAAF plotters were to be seen in the operations rooms with their earphones pressed to their ears to keep out the inferno of noise from the torrents of bombs that were bursting all around. Steady and calm at their posts, these airwomen never faltered in their duties. There is the story of the operations room that received a direct hit and of the WAAF telephone operator who stuck to her post, vainly endeavoring to keep communications going until at last the heat and suffocating smoke of the fire forced her to give up; of the airwomen's trench that was bombed and of the cheerful courage of the wounded as they were dug out and placed on stretchers; of the WAAF sergeant who calmly went out into the aerodrome and began to peg out with red flags all the places where unexploded bombs were buried as a warning to the returning fighters. And there is the story of the WAAF cooks who managed, to their eternal credit, to turn out good meals at all times of the day and night in the face of such difficulties as lack of water, light and sufficient sleep.

Hundreds of other stories could be told of these airwomen, their undaunted courage, their calm devotion to duty. And here is the story of a WAAF corporal, now commissioned. She rescued a pilot from the flaming wreckage of a crashed aircraft with its bomb load still aboard. As she dragged him from the danger zone the bombs started exploding and she shielded his body with her own. Her bravery earned her the Empire Gallantry Medal — now called the George Cross — "for meritorious acts of gallantry." Other awards to members of the WAAF include the Military Medal, the CBE, the NBN and the BEM, for as the WAAF share the dangers with the RAF, so they share the honours. Although they do not fly as aircrews, the Defence (Women's Forces) Regulations, 1941, declared the WAAF to be members of the Armed Forces of the Crown. This is a tribute to the proven value of the WAAF in this fight for freedom which has involved the whole of civilization and brought women to their ranks from all over the world.

When in 1940, thanks to the fighter pilots of the RAF, the Luftwaffe had been driven from Britain's daylight skies, life largely resumed the normal working routine of a nation at war. Now the WAAF had won their spurs they were wholeheartedly accepted as part and parcel of Britain's flying service. The RAF were proud of the WAAF. Still more trades were opened up for the airwomen. Substitution of WAAF for RAF personnel continued to take place on an ever-growing scale.

For certain work complete substitution of WAAF personnel for RAF, instead of a percentage substitution, is now visualized. Some of the barrage balloon sites, for instance, already are manned entirely by women.

A large proportion of the WAAF is occupied in cooking and catering for the RAF, cleaning its quarters, manning its telephones and teleprinters, staffing its multifarious offices, and dealing rapidly, patiently and accurately with the myriad humbler routine tasks which together ensure the successful administration of a great Service. The WAAF had now become a highly organized service fulfilling its main object of replacing officers and men of the RAF employed on ground staff duties. A number of WAAF code and cypher officers have been serving for some time in the Middle East.

Although so far airwomen have not served in the capacity of aircrews, WAAF officers have for a long time flown on duty. Now airwomen too are permitted to fly on duty. No longer will women flight mechanics be earthbound on the tarmac watching with obviously eager eyes the aircraft they have been working on soar into the skies. They, too, will be airborne with the craft on testing flights, seeing tangible results of their work in operation. Another type of flying duty is that of the nursing orderlies, who are specially trained for duties in air ambulances.

Just as the WAAF has a trade for almost every type of woman, ranging from tasks of a purely domestic nature to office, secretarial and scientific work so the recreational and social side of service life is generously provided for. Energetic sport is available for the "outdoor girl." Recreational facilities are many and varied and airwomen can work off surplus energy in games, swimming and dancing; or they can relax in pleasant rest rooms and canteens when off duty. Opportunities are afforded for pursuing educational studies interrupted by the war. Foreign languages can be learned, or typing and shorthand be speeded up by attending "night schools" after duty. Health is carefully guarded, and besides having the benefit of the ordinary medical services provided for the RAF generally, the larger WAAF centers have qualified women doctors of the RAF medical branch.

After nearly three years of action, the WAAF has found its "place in the sun" working in co-operation with the RAF for victory. Their reward for taking on more and still more work is in seeing an increase in the numbers of trained flying crews, many of whom would otherwise have to be retained on ground duties. They have the additional satisfaction of knowing that they have played an important part in servicing the aircraft in which these crews are flying.

In this great substitution of women for men, the RAF has demanded as much of the WAAF as they have of themselves. But the WAAF are determined that, come what may, whatever the duty or wherever the battle, they will face it successfully, together with the RAF.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 127-129, 254.
The original article includes 14 captioned photos.
Photos are not specifically credited bus seem to be from the British Air Ministry.

Photo captions:

Note: ASO is Assistant Section Officer. —JLM