British Women at War

By 1943, almost half the workforce in great Britain was comprised of women. ^

While often deployed on what was known as “women’s work,” the behind the scenes work of the women of Great Britain underpinned the massive war effort of the nation. As Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt in late 1940, “Mr. President, we are fighting for our lives.” As indeed they were.

In fact, they fought to save Western civilization, which they did.

In World War Two, the demand for industrial workers and personnel for auxiliary service in the military became so great that women were subjected to conscription into industry and the forces for the first time in modern Western history.

WOMEN ON THE HOME FRONT 1939 – 1945 (H 26470) The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS): At an ATS School of Cookery auxiliaries are seen undergoing training on outdoor stoves. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193274

 

THE WOMEN’S AUXILIARY AIR FORCE, 1939-1945. (CH 6748) WAAF cooks show the morning’s batch of cakes, scones and pies for personnel at an RAF station. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210232

 

THE WOMEN’S AUXILIARY AIR FORCE, 1939-1945. (CH 200) A member of the WAAF peeling potatoes in the kitchens at RAF Debden, Essex. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208435

 

THE WOMEN’S AUXILIARY AIR FORCE, 1939-1945. (CH 214) WAAF teleprinter-operators at work in the Communications Centre at RAF Debden, Essex. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208437

 

While women had been drawn into the workforce in World War One, the numbers and percentages were smaller. * In World War Two, the demand for industrial workers and women in auxiliary service for the military became such that women were subjected to conscription into industry and the forces. While not supposed to be in combat situations, many WAAF communications operatives often worked in fighter control stations at different airfields and were subjected to regular bombing and strafing by German planes.

As might be expected, although surprising to many men, women carried on amidst the raids and if several were killed, they helped dig them out of the rubble and went back to their posts.

THE WOMEN’S AUXILIARY AIR FORCE, 1939-1945. (CH 215) WAAF telephone-operators at work in the manual branch exchange at RAF Debden, Essex. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208438

The work was not glamorous. Women had to go to a shortened version of basic training and spent hours in “square bashing” or learning to march in formation and perform parade ground drills. Pay was low. Hours were long. Barracks were often uncomfortable and usually very cold due to the shortage of coal.

 

^”Wartime: Britain 1939–1945″ by Juliet Gardiner

*While women had worked in World War One, the percentage of the female population who worked because of the war itself was not nearly what it became in WW Two. Overall, the number of women who went to work in some capacity because of World War One was less than 1.5 million. Higher figures are often quoted but these are the total numbers of women in the workforce. Usually ignored or forgotten, millions of working class women worked because they had to and were working long before the war.

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/