Second World War: Taking on Men’s Roles
Before the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945) most women looked after the home. Those that did work were often in what was then considered women’s jobs, such as nursing, working in shops, or being a domestic servant.
With hundreds of thousands of men away fighting, labour shortages became acute. Women were needed to fill men’s roles. Many volunteered, but many more were needed.
The National Service Act of December 1941 legalised the conscription of women for war work. At first, only single women aged 20-30 were called up.
Women could opt for work in the industry, such as in munitions factories, aircraft and tank factories, or in shipbuilding. Farming was also an option. They might also choose to join one of the uniformed services, either the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, or the Women’s Royal Navy Service.
By mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women – many juggling jobs with childcare – were employed in essential war work in hundreds of different roles, military and civilian.
The work of women bricklayers is inspected by foremen as they begin work on the second storey of a house. Several completed houses are seen behind © IWM P153
These included working as builders, engineers, mechanics, pilots, drivers and boat crew, and as well as in communications, air defence, transport, the fire service, the fishing industry, agriculture and intelligence. The pay was generally around two-thirds that of their male counterparts.
After the war ended, many women returned full-time to their domestic lives, their working contribution – fundamental to helping win the war – largely unacknowledged. But the seeds of social change had been sown and a new role for women in post-war Britain began to emerge.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, Historic England looks at some of the many roles women undertook in wartime…
Joining the Armed Forces
Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)
The WAAF – the women’s branch of the Air Force – was created in 1939 to free men from the RAF for front line duties. By late 1943, 183,000 women had joined up.
They manoeuvred barrage balloons into position, worked in radar stations, and were meteorological officers forecasting the weather before Allied air raids on Germany. They interpreted aerial reconnaissance photographs of enemy targets before such raids and debriefed crews when they returned. As flight mechanics, they checked and maintained aircraft, and signed certificates of airworthiness.
WAAF members also worked as plotters, receiving information from radar stations and the Observer Corps about the number and direction of incoming enemy aircraft. Plotters tracked these raids in real-time, pushing round wooden markers – each representing a raid – on a large table map. Based on the intelligence, RAF fighters would quickly be deployed to do battle with the enemy.
Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)
ATS crew in charge of an anti-aircraft searchlight used to spot enemy bombers, 28 February 1944. Such women were nicknamed ‘ack-ack girls’. One regiment, the 93rd Searchlight Regiment, was unique in being entirely female © IWM H36315
The ATS, with its roots in the First World War, was re-established in 1938. It was the women’s branch of the Army and the largest of the women’s services. More than 250,000 women had served in the ATS by the end of the war.
Initially, the women took on traditional female roles such as clerks or cooks. But as more men left to fight and women were conscripted, the roles multiplied to include mechanics, radar operators, military police and drivers.
Many were involved in air defence – helping operate anti-aircraft guns, locating enemy aircraft and controlling the guns’ targeting. Officially they never fired at the enemy during raids. That was a job reserved for their male colleagues.
Princess Elizabeth was the most famous member of the ATS during the war, along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary Churchill. Elizabeth trained as a driver and mechanic, and was the 2nd Subaltern, before reaching the rank of Junior Commander.
Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, nicknamed WRENS)
The WRNS, originally formed in 1918, was the women’s branch of the Navy. At its peak in 1944, there were 74,000 serving Wrens in around 200 different jobs.
Wrens maintained and repaired ships; were weather forecasters, signallers and radar operators; trained as welders and carpenters.
A Wren radio mechanic prepares for a flight to test new radio equipment © IWM A9115
Those with language skills were based at naval stations around the coast to intercept and translate enemy signals. Other worked at the top-secret Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, where Britain broke secret German and Japanese military codes.
Wrens were not allowed on ships that were on active service. However, they did command and crew the duty boats – the small harbour launches that plied between anchored ships at sea and the shore, in all weathers, day & night. Wrens also served as coastal spotters of enemy mines.
Many Wrens were involved in the planning and organisation of naval operations, including the D-Day landings – the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.
Pat Turner earned the unofficial title of ‘Chief Wren Pilot’ at Plymouth where she was given the job of piloting flotillas of invasion craft up and down the River Plym as part of the invasion preparations.
Women’s Land Army (WLA)
The Women’s Land Army, originally founded in the First World War, was revived June 1939. At its peak, there were 80,000 members. The WLA was a civilian force and these ‘Land Girls’ wore a green jersey, brown breeches, a brown felt hat and khaki overcoat.
The government urgently needed to increase the amount of home-grown food. Merchant vessels carrying essential foodstuffs to Britain were at the mercy of enemy attacks and there was a danger that the country could starve. Able-bodied men had been conscripted and there was a shortage of workers in agriculture. Members of the WLA took their place.
Land Girls ploughed the fields, planted and harvested crops, looked after dairy and beef herds and poultry. It was hard dirty work, with long hours, in all weather and conditions.
Vermin posed a serious threat to food supplies and animal fodder during wartime. Teams of Land Girls were trained as anti-vermin squads, killing not just rats, but also foxes, rabbits and moles.
20,000 women had volunteered to serve in the WLA by the autumn of 1941. One-third of these came from London and other big metropolitan areas. It may be that the WLA offered the lure of a healthy outdoor life away from crowded urban living and the dangers of air raids.
The WTC was a specialist branch of the Women’s Land Army set up in 1942. The 6,000 women members, known as ‘Lumber Jills’, were forestry workers and able to operate sawmills. The arduous work involved surveying woodland and identifying suitable trees for felling, heavy haulage with tractors and horses, and sawing wood for telegraph poles and pit props for the mining industry.
Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)
The ATA, headquartered at White Waltham, Berkshire, took over all the ferrying of military aircraft from factories to RAF airfields during the war, as well as the ferrying between airfields.
It was notable that 188 of the 1,245 ATA pilots were women. Ferry pilots flew a range of aircraft, from bi-planes to Spitfires and heavy Lancaster bombers.
As ATA pilots were required to fly the unarmed aircraft within sight of land below, they were not taught how to fly with instruments. They had no navigational aids or radios, just maps and a compass. They flew blind in all weathers.
National Fire Service (NFS)
Women were not officially permitted to fight fires, but they were often very close to the action during and after bombing raids. They were given basic training to deal with emergency situations The pre-war Auxiliary Fire Service became the National Fire Service in 1941. Within two years 90,000 women across the country had enrolled. Motorcycle despatch riders would carry messages between fire control and fire stations. The bombing caused damage to water, gas, power and telephone lines, so communications about the location and strength of fires had to be given verbally.
It could be a dangerous job, often riding in the black-out, along roads with no signage, sometimes during bombing raids.
When the Blitz started September 1940, NFS driver Gillian Tanner was tasked with driving petrol lorries, which had no power steering or headlights, along dangerous bomb-cratered roads to refuel fire engines during bombing raids. She was later awarded the George Cross for bravery.
Memorial to working women
The memorial commemorates the work of women in the Second World War.
The seventeen sets of uniform and clothing arranged around the memorial represent the hundreds of jobs undertaken by women during the war, and include those of the three women’s services, along with the Women’s Land Army, police overalls, nursing cape and welder’s mask.
The plaque reads: ‘This memorial was raised to commemorate the vital work done by over seven million women during World War II.’ The lettering replicates that used on wartime ration books
Working women paid a heavy price for their war effort: 335 members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, as well as 187 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and 303 of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, were killed in the war. 25 women from the National Fire Service and 15 women pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary also lost their lives.