in Society and at War 1914 - 1916)
The movement that would eventually lead to women’s
suffrage had already become well established before the outbreak
of war in 1914. Even so this movement had a long way to go
and many hurdles to overcome before the role, position, freedom
and standards of living of women in society and in the work-place
would be significantly improved. The necessities and experiences
of world War I removed many of these hurdles.
Some women worked before World War One, but generally only
in jobs traditionally associated with their gender. This for
the lower classes included working on farms and in industries
associated with the clothing trade. Women in the middle and
upper classes seldom had any requirement or outlet to work
at all other than in respectable positions as nurses, or teachers.
Virtually no women worked in skilled posts that required technical
expertise, payment was significantly lower than it was for
men and there was little prospect of establishing a career.
Marriage and the subsequent necessity to bring up their children
usually ended a woman’s working life.
By late 1915 Britain had undergone a massed mobilisation
with conscription channelling most of the able bodied men
into the armed forces to meet the demands of a modern technological
war and to make up for the appalling casualties that were
being suffered. This drain on men of working age from the
land and industries that fed the war effort with raw materials
and military hardware could not be sustained without replacing
them. Without a workforce to staff farms, factories and crucial
services such as transport and clerical posts, the British
war effort would have collapsed.
By 1916 it had become apparent that (however reluctant that
Government and Society in general was to accept it) Women
would have to work in Britain’s crucial war industries
and that they would have to be trained to perform, and be
paid for, skilled and often dangerous roles to do it. Women
were therefore employed in unprecedented numbers in Britain’s
munitions industries and also became a common sight driving
buses and trams. In the same year The British Legion began
to recruit women to serve in voluntary roles in the armed
forces, initially as clerks and drivers for the Women’s
Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Legion Auxiliary.
The Womens’s Legion Auxiliary and Women’s Royal
Air Force (1917 - 1920)
In 1917 groups from the Women’s Legion Auxiliary were
also being employed to help fulfil the needs of the Royal
Flying Corps (RFC) for drivers, and clerks and so release
men performing these roles in England for service in Flanders.
In September 1917, one such group of women was posted to serve
at RFC Suttons Farm as drivers, despatch riders, clerks and
telephonists. In addition to acting as drivers and despatch
riders these women were also responsible for the day to day
care and maintenance of their vehicles.
Initially the women of the Women’s Auxilliary Legion
at Suttons Farm were billeted on a local farmhouse some distance
from the aerodrome but were soon moved to a specially built
women’s accommodation just outside the aerodrome gates.
The footings of this range of now demolished buildings are
still partly visible in the scrub land to the north of the
car park in the north of the park area.
On April 1st 1918 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal
Naval Air Service (RNAS) were amalgamated to form the Royal
Air Force (RAF). At the same time the Womens Royal Air Force
(WRAF) was formed out of the existing voluntary forces. In
addition to their roles as drivers and clerks women in the
WRAF were now also given the chance to learn the highly skilled
trades of becoming aircraft riggers and mechanics. Many women
from all roles of life immediately seized this chance to learn
a profession that had been previously barred to them. By the
end of the war there were almost 25,000 women in the WRAF.
These women performed a number of roles including mechanics,
fitters, armourers, electricians, radio and telegraph operators,
balloon operators clerks and drivers as well as more traditional
roles such as cooks. Twenty Four of these served at RFC Suttons
After the armistice the armed forces haemorrhaged men eager
to return to civilian life. This led to a shortage of trained
personnel overseas in France and occupied Germany which was
for a short time filled ably by members of the WRAF. Even
so the rapid run down of the e armed forces led to the WRAF
being disbanded on April 1st 1920.
The Inter War Years (1920 - 1939)
World War I changed many things. Amongst these was the regard
with which women were viewed in society and the roles that
society was willing for them to take. Women had finally been
given the vote in Britain in 1918 and it was no longer seen
as completely alien for a woman to have a job or a career
in a skilled profession. During the 1920’s this first
taste of liberation was reflected at least for the middle
and upper classes in new fashions including the wearing of
trousers and skirts with steadily rising hemlines. The aviation
and exploration bug was also caught by some privileged women
and there were a number of famous female aviators who made
a name for themselves in the inter war years. One of these,
Jean Batten a round the world flyer, was a prime attraction
at the RAF Hornchurch Empire Air Day in 1938.
By 1939, as another World war loomed, women were already
volunteering to serve in support services including the Auxiliary
Fire and Ambulance Services. Unlike during World War I, there
was virtually no opposition to this and just before the outbreak
of World War II the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)
The WAAF at War. 1939-1945.
On the outbreak of war in September 1939 the WAAF numbered
approximately 2,000 staff no where near the number that would
be required. A recruiting drive delivered spectacular results
and by 1943 the WAAF numbered nearly 200,000. Britain was
very quick to try and integrate women into its war effort,
especially compared to Germany which resisted any such measures
until defeat was looming in 1944.
Even more so than in World War I these women were called
upon to perform an exceedingly varied and often very skilled
suite of roles. as in World War Women were, therefore trained
as mechanics, armourers, fitters, riggers, electricains, drivers
and clerks as well as cooks and supporting administrative
roles. New and strategically vital roles were, also however
opened to the women of the WAAF. Amongst these were the demanding
roles of acting as radar operators and plotters as well as
serving in other intelligence roles such as aerial photographic
interpretation, meteorological recording and prediction and
code breaking. One area in which women serving in the WAAF
were still barred from, however was flying although a civilian
formation, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was formed to
provide female ferry pilots to move aircraft from factories
to air bases.
The role that the WAAF is probably best remembered for during
World War II is in providing the staff for Britains radar
and control system. Their work in quickly interpreting radar
plots and directing fighters onto in coming raids was to be
a crucial element in giving the RAF victory over the Luftwaffe
during the battle of Britain. Later these radar operators
and plotters would also co-ordinate Britain’s night
fighter defences and even spoof the German air defences during
the allied bombing offensives over Europe. RAF Hornchurch
as a sector control station had one of the most important
air battle control centres in the country during the Battle
of Britain. At first this was actually located at RAF Hornchurch
but the bombings of August 1940 resulted in it being moved
to a safer location at Romford. The RAF Hornchurch Sector
Control remained operational until 1944.
The role that women played in both World Wars established
beyond doubt to many that women were equally capable as men
in performing the majority of tasks and in some roles such
as radar plotting and air photo interpretation actually excelled.
To many it was now self evident that women could achieve success
in almost any profession that they chose and that their place
was not necessarily just as home makers.