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.
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 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.
An Anderson shelter stands intact amongst a scene of debris in Norwich, c.1941
(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
“Anderson shelters – named after Sir John Anderson – consisted of two curved corrugated sheets of steel, bolted together at the top and sunk three feet into the ground, then covered with eighteen inches of earth. If constructed correctly, they could withstand the effects of a hundred-pound bomb falling six feet away. However, many Anderson shelters leaked, were cold, dark and cramped and amplified the noise of falling bombs.”
A Morrison shelter in a dining room, 1941 (photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
“Morrison shelters – named after the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison – were produced from January 1941. They consisted of a rectangular steel and mesh cage which could accommodate two adults and two children. The Morrison was intended for use indoors so was suitable for those without gardens. Though more popular than Anderson shelters, they were less effective as they provided no lateral protection. They could also be used as a dining table during daytime.”
Swordfish only entered active service in 1936 and Served Royal Navy Throughout the WORLD War Two.
A Swordfish taking off from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, with another passing by astern, circa 1939. (Photo courtesy of US History and Heritage Command).
Although the Swordfish bi-plane looks like a relic from World War One, it only entered active service in 1936. The Fairey Aviation Company came up with the plans for the Swordfish. The plane was made of heavy canvas stretched over a wooden frame.
While originally built as a prototype for the Greek Navy, they turned it down in the mid-30s and Fairey Brothers Aircraft offered it the Royal Navy primarily for use on aircraft carriers. After design changes the plane went into production as the famous Royal Navy Swordfish which served multiple roles: patrol and reconnaissance, torpedo bomber, tactical bomber to support infantry and U-boat hunter/killer. The plane was oddly effective in all of these roles and was used operationally for the entire war.
(Shortly before D-Day, all Allied aircraft with the exception of heavy bombers had three black stripes painted on each wing to help Allied troops ientify them as friendly aircraft. Allied soldiers had a tendency to fire on any aircraft and this continued despite the three black stripes)
A Royal Air Force Lockheed Hudson Mk VI (AE626) of the Middle East Communications Flight flying over the Egyptian pyramids, 1942. (Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
Two soldiers of the Royal Military Police with Anna, a four-year-old Austrian girl with whose family the men were billeted, in the Klagenfurt area of occupied Austria, May 1945. (Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
comments Charles McCain: since the Third Reich had given few people any choice about anything (Austria had been annexed by 3rd Reich) Anglo-American soldiers were billeted families whether they liked it or not and sometimes troops kicked the Germans out of their home. Payback is a bitch.
Men of the Airborne Division adjust their harnesses alongside an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley ‘PX-G’ of No. 295 Squadron RAF, October 1942. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Men of the Royal Navy play cards on board the submarine HMS Tribune, 1942. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Sergeant R Gregory photographs Driver A Hardman during a tour of the Acropolis in Athens, October 1944. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
HMS Howe passes through the Suez Canal on her way to join the British Pacific Fleet, 14 July 1944. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
A signaller operates an Aldis lamp on board a British warship, 1942. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
WRNS officers are shown the sights of Quebec by a member of the Canadian Mounted Police Force after the first Quebec Conference, 23 August 1943. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade negotiate obstacles during training, October 1942. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Armourers of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) re-arm a Hawker Hurricane aircraft at the Fleet Air Arm airfield at Yeovilton, Somerset, 2 September 1943. (Courtesy Imperial War Museum)
Members of the ATS operate the height and range finder at an anti-aircraft gun site, December 1942. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
the foolish and self-centered Leopold III in 1934.
Rather than leave his country with his senior government ministers and create a Belgium government-in-exile, King Leopold III chose to stay and surrender the country and the army to the Germans.
As King, he was the official Commander-in-Chief of the army. He functioned in this position rather than have professional military officers command the army. This was foolish but Leopold III was a foolish, stubborn, and stupid man. He had also usurped powers of the civilian government
On 24 May 1940, he met with his senior ministers and announced he was going to surrender the army and the country. This provoked a strong argument with the Prime Minister who repeatedly, loudly, and in the strongest possible way told the king that surrendering to the Germans was a decision of the duly elected civilian government and not within the King’s authority.
His senior ministers ordered the King to go with them to form a government-in-exile and he refused. Three days later on 27 May 1940, without informing his ministers who had escaped to Paris, or informing Lord Gort, C-in-C of the British Expeditionary Force, he surrendered to the Germans and in doing so uncovered the flank of the British Army.
The senior ministers went to Great Britain as France was collapsing and established a government-in-exile which was recognized by the Allies as the legitimate government of Belgium. The Prime Minister publically denounced the decision of the King, said it was unconstitutional and that Leopold had basically committed treason. Churchill denounced him the British House of Commons.
When the Allies reached Brussels, Leopold, who had been taken to Germany by the SS was officially removed from the throne and his brother, Prince Charles, was appointed Regent by the reconstituted civil government. After years in exile while his brother served as Regent, he returned to violent protests and abdicated.
Untrimmed beards were the mark of U-Boatmen who had been long at sea.
Freshwater was rationed and while possible to shave in salt-water few men wanted to take the time to do that. U-Boats such as the Type VII depicted in DasBoot, were not designed for the long range operations they were compelled to undertake so there were few comforts for the men.
crew watching fellow sailor dancing in scene fromdirector’s cut 1997 of Das Boot
Water for drinking was rationed. While the men were given one cup of fresh water every day for personal use such as brushing teeth or washing, most drank the water instead of using it for anything else since they barely received enough water as it was.
Men Wore Black Underwear: Whore’s Undies
Because storage space on a U-Boat was extremely limited, U-Boat crewmen could only bring aboard one change of clothes and two pairs of underwear for an entire war patrol which could last as long as two and occasionally three months. In order to make the dirt less obvious, the men wore black underwear which they referred to as “whore’s undies.”
US Navy fleet submarine USS Gato 1944. Fleet submarines were designed for the long range patrols required in the Pacific and had far more comforts for the men and necessities such as bathing facilities. Not washing for a long period of time is unhealthy for the skin. These boats could make 21 knots on the surface vs the German surface speed of 15/16 knots.
Unlike US Navy fleet submarines, German U-boats were not air conditioned nor did they have heat except for a handful of electric heaters. The boat took on the temperature of the water so if you were in very cold water the interior was very cold and if you were in the warm even the hot water of the tropics, the inside of the boat was hot and steamy.
It would have been like working in a steam room. Crewman often wore nothing but their underwear in conditions like this when the temperature in the boat could go above 100 degrees. (The warmth of the water combined with the heat generated by the diesel engines and other equipment in the boat).
The equipment and torpedoes were the priorities. Crewmen had to squeeze in wherever room could be found for a bunk. Except for the officers and senior petty officers, the crew “hot bunked” that is once a man woke up and went on duty an off-duty man climbed into that bunk and slept.
No washing facilities
U-boats did not have facilities for the men to wash themselves or their clothing. The best that could be done was to wash yourself and/or your clothing in a bucket of seawater using special salt water soap issued by the UBoatwaffe.
In memoirs, veterans of the UBoatwaffe often mention that one thing they could never get used to was how badly the boat smelled. In fact, when boats came in from war patrols and docked, flotilla engineers who went aboard often threw up. That’s how bad the smell was.
These U-Boat crewmen are probably rendering honors to another ship as they come into port. Beginning in 1942, however, the crew were mustered on deck coming into port because more and more U-Boats were being sunk by striking magnetic mines. Therefore, most of the crewmen would be saved if the boat sank. These magnetic mines were constantly being dropped into the approaches to German U-Boat ports on the French Channel coast such as Lorient by RAF Coastal Command.
Armourers “bombing up” an RAF Coastal Command Liberator with 250-lb Mark VIII depth charges. 50% of German U-boats were actually sunk by aircraft, not by Allied escort ships.
U-boat kommandant (identified by his white cap cover) looking down through the main hatchway from the bridge into the conning tower where the helmsman sat, controlling the rudder with push buttons. In the conning tower, there was another watertight hatch.
Ventilating the Boat
Ventilating the boat to replace the foul air was difficult. On occasion, the kommandant would allow the two hatches in the conning tower to be opened and all the interior hatches–which were watertight as well— to be opened and the outboard air intakes in the diesel compartment closed. This would cause the diesel engines to start drawing air from through the open hatches and ventilate the boat. This wasn’t highly effective but it did change the air within the boat.
When proceeding on the surface in an area where they could be attacked, most of the interior hatchways would be closed or a sailor stationed close by would have the duty of immediately closing the hatch. Normally, the hatch to the engine room and beyond that the hatch E-motor compartment would be closed and dogged shut, that is they would be sealed and waterproof.
Theoretically, everyone who served in the UBootwaffe was a volunteer but we know from memoirs, post-war interviews, and wartime interrogation reports that this was not the case.
The first country in the Western world to conscript women
An Auxiliary Territorial Service spotter with binoculars at an anti-aircraft command post, December 1942. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
BBC: “In December 1941, the National Service Act (no 2) made the conscription of women legal. At first, only single women aged 20-30 were called up, but by mid-1943, almost 90 percent of single women and 80 percent of married women were employed in essential work for the war effort.”
Motor Mechanic Princess Elizabeth
The government avoided conscription of women as long as possible relying on what Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin called “voluntaryism.” Eventually that didn’t produce the large numbers of people required to keep the country at war. When conscription of women came about, it didn’t cause much comment. There was simply no other way to keep factories working. What surprised the men in charge, was how competent women were.
‘ATS girls’ operate a mobile power plant on an anti-aircraft gun site at night. (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Until the advent of radar controlled AA fire, which did not come until much later in the war, and radar equipped RAF night fighters, which took years, the ack-ack barrages during German bombing attacks didn’t shoot down many German planes but were a major boost to morale.
ANTI-Aircraft command faced critical shortage of personnel
Anti-Aircraft Command and its subordinate commands such as Balloon Command (barrage balloons) were a key component of the combined arms formation known as “Air Defence of Great Britain” which came under the operational control of RAF Fighter Command.
The British armed forces had been compelled to abandon an enormous number of their anti-aircraft guns in France after they fell back on Dunkirk and were lifted off by the famous “little ships.” (Actually, the Royal Navy lifted off 80% of British soldiers rescued at Dunkirk but the myth is more interesting and inspiring).
As more and more anti-aircraft guns were manufactured and put in place to protect British cities from German bombers, a critical shortage of personnel developed in Anti-Aircraft Command. By the end of 1940, Sir Frederick Pile, Commander-in-Chief of AA informed the government he was short of more than 100 officers and almost 18,000 enlisted personnel or ‘other ranks’ as known in the UK. (Wartime: Britain 1939 to 1945 by Juliet Gardiner)
“Something drastic had to be done. I suggested… that women should be employed in large numbers in an operational role…” Sir Frederick Pile, Commander-in-Chief, Anti-Aircraft Command, 1939 to 1945.
A member of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) serving with a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun battery, December 1942.
Military and labour requirements of World War Two could not be met by solely by males or by women volunteers. Great Britain thus became the first nation in the Western world to conscript women into both industry and support functions in the Forces.
Great Britain mobilized a larger percentage of its population, 55%, for war-related work either in the Forces or in supporting roles than any of the Western powers including Nazi Germany. We assume that a totalitarian state such as Nazi Germany would be able to compel its citizens to work in a larger percentage than a democracy but that wasn’t the case. The National Service (#2) Act became law on 18 December 1941 thus marking the UK as the first nation in the world to conscript women.
Because of their ideology that women belonged in the home raising the next generation of National Socialists, the Nazis hesitated to compel German women to work. Eventually they were forced to but nonetheless, they never reached the 55% civilian mobilization of the British.
Of course, the Nazis used slave labor conscripted at gunpoint from nations they had conquered and the British did not. The National Service (#2) Act became law on 18 December 1941 thus marking the UK as the first nation in the world to conscript women.
Women producing bullets and cannon shells in an underground munitions factory on the Wirral, Merseyside, 1945 Photograph: Ted Dearberg/IWM/PA
Land Army members sawing larch poles for use as pit props at the Women’s Timber Corps training camp at Culford, Suffolk, 1943. Photograph: IWM/PA
There 5,000 women in the Timber Corps at it largest. They referred to themselves as “polecats.” Timber was an urgent wartime need of the British. Prior to the war, the Great Britain had imported a much of their wood including telegraph poles and pit props for use in coal mines. Pit props were especially critical because an adequate supply of coal was crucial since the country ran on coal.
Railroad engines, electric generating plants required immense amounts of coal. Further, combustible coal gas similar to natural gas was produced from coal and used for cooking and heating and for various uses by industry. Many householders and building owners used coal either in boilers or directly into coal burning fireplaces.
Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) plotters at work at Coastal Artillery Headquarters in Dover, December 1942 Photograph: Ted Dearberg/IWM/PA
While not well known, Great Britain had a number of heavy artillery pieces mounted in fixed positions along the coast of the English Channel. Some of these were meant to help repel a German invasion and others were used to fire on German ships using the English Channel. (Germans had coastal artillery on the French side of the Channel). Coastal artillery was never very effective.
Men and women at a war workers’ canteen watch lunchtime entertainment. Millions of women were conscripted into factory work.
Comments Charles McCain: The British version of the USO was known as ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) and had the responsibility of supplying entertainment of all types to the forces and the civilian workforce. Programs were of mixed quality and there were many who said ENSA was an acronym meaning “Every Night Something Awful”
Now Queen Elizabeth II, she trained as a mechanic and was supposedly quite good at it.