The Women’s Auxiliary Air Service was formed in June 1939 in response to the worsening European situation. For the duration of World War Two, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was commanded by Katherine Trefusis-Forbes.
A pre-war publication for the WAAF stated its function with a degree of clarity. It identified three areas of work that women in the WAAF were expected to do: 1) driving 2) clerical work and 3) cooking, waitressing and running messages. It also stated that those in the WAAF could expect to be trained for other purposes such as teleprinter operators.
Anyone who wanted to join the WAAF’s had to be between 18 and 43. Two thousand women joined from the ATS and after two weeks training they went to their postings.
The work advertised by the government pre-war was very quickly expanded by the success of Blitzkrieg and the fall of Western Europe. In the spring of 1940 Britain was very much alone and many feared an invasion. The Battle of Britain put a huge strain on the RAF and members of the WAAF found that they were now doing far more than driving, cooking etc. WAAF’s were trained in radar plotting, the maintenance of barrage balloons, photographic interpretation etc.
Many WAAF’s were based at Fighter Command airbases and this put them in great danger as these bases, such as Biggin Hill, Hawkinge, Manston etc, were all targets in the first raids by the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Many WAAF’s served as the eyes of Fighter Command as they plotted the movements of incoming Luftwaffe aircraft. Their success was such that after the Battle of Britain had been won, many WAAF’s were transferred to the Royal Observer Corps.
Many WAAF’s worked on barrage balloon sites after ten weeks of training. The object of barrage balloons was to make incoming Luftwaffe bombers fly higher than they would want to therefore making it probable that their bomb aiming would be less accurate. During the Blitz, the work done by barrage balloon operators was very important.
By December 1943, there were 182,000 women in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Service. By 1945 many sections of society accepted what they did and recognised the value of their work. However, in a military dominated by males, there were always occasions when women in the WAAF, and other areas of the military, met with derisory comments. While women in the WAAF did valuable work maintaining barrage balloon sites it was pointed out by the media that it took sixteen women to do the work of ten men. Even the most senior of Allied commanders had his doubts to start with but changed their minds:
“Until my experience in London I had been opposed to the use of women in uniform. But in Great Britain I had seen them perform so magnificently in various positions, including service with anti-aircraft batteries, that I had been converted. Towards the end of the war the more stubborn die-hards had been convinced and demanded them in increasing numbers." (Dwight Eisenhower)