Women Conscripted First Time Ever

Women Conscripted in Great Britain

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
WOMEN AT WAR 1939 – 1945 (TR 2835) Auxiliary Territorial Service: Princess Elizabeth, a 2nd Subaltern in the ATS, wearing overalls and standing in front of an L-plated truck. In the background is a medical lorry. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194945

 

WOMEN OF THE AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE VISIT A FACTORY, UK, 1942 (P 1092) Two women of the ATS watch a woman war worker welding during a visit to a factory, somewhere in Britain. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202761

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.

bbc.co.uk Women Conscripted

‘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 AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE AT AN ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN SITE IN BRITAIN, DECEMBER 1942 (TR 474) ATS girls operating the height and range finder. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188353

 

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).

THE AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE AT AN ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN SITE IN BRITAIN, DECEMBER 1942 (TR 478) A battery of 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns firing at night. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188356

 

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.

THE AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE AT AN ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN SITE IN BRITAIN, DECEMBER 1942 (TR 480) ATS girls using an identification telescope. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188358

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”

HRH PRINCESS ELIZABETH IN THE AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE, APRIL 1945 (TR 2832) Princess Elizabeth, a 2nd Subaltern in the ATS standing in front of an ambulance. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205124047

Now Queen Elizabeth II, she trained as a mechanic and was supposedly quite good at it.

 

THE AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE AT AN ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN SITE IN BRITAIN, DECEMBER 1942 (TR 452) An ATS spotter with binoculars at the anti-aircraft command post. A 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun can be seen in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205123845

 

THE AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE AT AN ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN SITE IN BRITAIN, DECEMBER 1942 (TR 465) ATS girls working the Kine-Theodolite, which photographs the shell bursts, thereby checking the results of the Predictor crews. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188347

A Beautiful Englishwoman Prepares to Blast Nazis Out of the Sky

Englishwoman with the 1st Anti-Aircraft Division, which controlled the searchlight and gun batteries defending London.

An ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) ‘spotter’ at a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun site in Britain, December 1942. On her shoulder can be seen the badge of the 1st Anti-Aircraft Division, which controlled the searchlight and gun batteries defending London. The ATS was established in September 1938, to provide for women volunteers to serve in non-combatant roles alongside the military. In 1941 it was fully incorporated into the British armed forces. As the war progressed conscription was introduced, and duties expanded from cooks, clerks and drivers to more varied and technical roles. The ATS reached a peak strength of 210,208 officers and other ranks in June 1943.

(Caption and photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Winston Churchill’s daughter, Mary, served on a Anti-Aircraft battery during parts of the war.

 

 

Nazi Flak Towers

Many an Allied bomber was shot down in flames by anti-aircraft fire from one of the handful of Nazi Germany’s Flak Towers

(If you have forgotten: the technique of firebombing used so successfully against many German cities was developed by the German Luftwaffe for their long campaign or aerial firebombing of London in the early years of the war)

 

Reichsgebiet, Alarm auf Flakturm

Fliegeralarm! Running to their action posts on the Zoo Tower 1944.

Most of these young gunners were fifteen or sixteen and were known as the kinderflak

 

augarten_flakturm_wien2008a

This is one of the surviving towers in Vienna. You can clearly see how massive these buildings were.

The main function of the towers was less shooting down individual Allied bombers, although that was important, but more to put up such a mass of anti-aircraft fire as to hinder bombing attacks on the area immediately around them. Flak, a word used by both sides, is the abbreviation of the German word “Fliegerabwehrkanone,” which translates as “air defense cannon”.

The batteries fired pre-set “box barrages” to create a curtain of flak which British Royal Air Force or US Army Air Force bombers would have to fly through on their bomb run. Shells were set to explode at different heights usually above 20,000 feet. The strategy was to force the bombers higher since the higher they were when they dropped their bombs the less accurate the bombing. (Although under the best conditions bombing was rarely accurate).

Additionally, while these photographs were all taken in daylight, the British Royal Air Force bombed at night. So the other reason to force the bombers above 20,000 or so feet was to put them in the path of German night fighters. When a spotlight caught a bomber, the point was to illuminate the bomber for the night fighters. Nonetheless, various anti-aircraft batteries in Berlin, for example, would open up. This often led to German flak batteries shooting down their own night-fighters.

German Fighter Command made regular complaints to the anti-aircraft command to stop doing this and toward the end of the war demanded that the gun captain of any battery which fired above its mandated ceiling be tried and shot.

exterior-of-a-flak-tower-in-vienna-used-as-a-climbing-wall
Exterior of flak tower in Vienna now used as a climbing wall.

Three such towers were built in Berlin, three in Vienna, and two in Hamburg. Each tower actually consisted of two towers: the very large gun tower known as the ‘G-Tower’ and a smaller fire-control tower located nearby known as the ‘L Tower’. The fire control tower transmitted the targeting values to the gun tower by wire – that is telephone/telegraph wire – that was buried deep below ground in a concrete tunnel to protect the wires from being severed.

vienna_flak_tower_dsc01594
Another of the surviving towers in Vienna.

In addition to serving as platforms for anti-aircraft guns, each G Tower had a large bomb shelter for civilians. These shelters were designed to accommodate thousands of civilians, a hospital, workshops of various sorts, and Wehrmacht command posts. Each tower had an independent supply of electricity and water as well as barracks and offices for the Luftwaffe personnel who operated the tower and the guns. In the Third Reich, all anti-aircraft defense was the responsibility of the Luftwaffe.

ADN-Zentralbild/Archiv II. Weltkrieg 1939-1945 Schwere Flak in Feurebereitschaft auf dem Flakturm des Berliner Zoo-Bunkers, eine der wenigen großen Schutzanlagen aus Eisenbeton. Aufnahme: Pilz April 1942

April 1942. One of the main gun platforms of the Zoo Tower, most famous of all the flak towers. Shells were kept in the heavy steel ready-use ammunition locker at right and carried to guns by a squad of men as seen above and right. Because the gunners were out in the open on the platforms without protection from bomb splinters or the shrapnel from their own anti-aircraft shells casualties were often heavy.

The Zoo Tower was the first one to be built and was located by the Berlin Zoo in the center of city and was meant to protect the key government buildings. The tower was destroyed by the British in 1946. It was located in what is now the aviary section of the Berlin Zoo.

Although the zoo was destroyed during the war with most of the animals being shipped to other cities or shot by the army, it was rebuilt in its original location which is very close to where the Kurfürstendamm ends at the Tiergarten.

(Photo from: German National Archive.  Schwere Flak in Feurebereitschaft auf dem Flakturm des Berliner Zoo-Bunkers, eine der wenigen großen Schutzanlagen aus Eisenbeton. Aufnahme: Pilz April 1942)

 

The towers were almost indestructible with the walls on each tower being 2.5 meters thick or 8 1/2 feet of solid concrete. The towers could – and often did – survive direct hits by Allied bombs. Because these were such massive structures, many of them remain since no one can figure out how to dismantle them without wrecking an entire neighborhood. I think the surviving towers are an important part of the history of WW Two and should be preserved.

flakbunker-heiligengeistfeld-hamburg

Flak tower in Hamburg

The best, and to my knowledge, the only book devoted to the towers is The Flak Towers: In Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna 1940-1950 by Michael Foedrowitz. The book was translated from the original German. The research is impeccable. The author worked almost exclusively from primary sources as well as interviewing the leading expert on the towers. Four stars.