By December 1939, 43,000 women had volunteered for active duty in
the Women's Auxiliary Services of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
They were not allowed to fight but did work that supported the efforts
of the soldiers, sailors and airmen. At first this included typing,
cooking, cleaning, driving and operating telephone switchboards
but they were soon given more military work to do, such as identifying
enemy aircraft, plotting air and shipping movements on battle maps,
and acting as motorcycle messengers.
The government wanted women to join up so they could take the places
of men who could then be sent off to fight. As a result, in 1941
they introduced conscription for all single women aged between 20
and 30. Women had to choose whether they wanted to join the armed
forces or work in vital industries. Early in 1942, women aged 19
were also called up. By January 1942, over 213,000 were serving
in the Auxiliary Services. The number of women entering the services
fell slightly in 1943 as more people were needed to work in aircraft
production but by June 1944 over 450,000 women were serving in the
armed forces (the equivalent number of men was 4 ½ million).
As the war went on, women were given more dangerous work to do,
such as crewing anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. Women also
undertook top-secret work using radar or code-breaking enemy messages.
Indeed, most of the 5,000 people working at Bletchley Park using
early computers and captured enemy encoding machines to read German
and Japanese messages were women.