ATS plotters in anti-aircraft command post, December 1942
Catalogue reference: INF2/42
During the First World War 100,000
women served in the uniformed services, with around 50% connected
with nursing and very few (officially) anywhere near combat.
In 1917 the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp (WAAC) was formed,
offering jobs as chauffeurs, clerks, telephonists, waitresses,
cooks and instructors. Also formed in 1917 was the Women’s
Royal Naval Service (WRNS), initially only allowing women to
do ‘suitable’ (i.e. domestic) work to release male
sailors to take on combat duties. On April 1st 1918
the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was created, with women
working as clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and store keepers.
World War II brought about major change for women in the services.
In December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act
(No 2), which made provision for the conscription of women. At
first only childless widows and single women 20 to 30 years old
were called up, but later the age limit was expanded to 19 to
43 (50 for WWI veterans).
The WRNS, having been disbanded at the end of WWI, were reformed
in April 1939. WRNS were posted to every home and overseas naval
unit. There were 72,000 serving WRNS in 1945. Another service
disbanded after WW1 was the WAAC, they were reformed as the Auxiliary
Territorial Service (ATS) and totalled over 190,000. Other military
organisations included Women in Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)
and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), originally formed
Times had moved on and along with, still vital, clerical and
domestic duties, women were driving and maintaining vehicles,
manning anti-aircraft guns and RADAR stations, ferrying aircraft
from factories to airfields, deciphering coded German messages
in secret naval communications units and working as spies in
the Special Operations Executive (SOE)
Women's Land Army recruitment poster.
As part of the conscription requirement women had to chose whether
to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By
December 1943 one in three factory workers was female and they
were building planes, tanks, guns and making bullets needed for
One civilian choice open to women was to join The Women's Land
Army, set up in June 1939. At its peak in 1943, there were over
80,000 'Land Girls'. The women undertook hard farm work including
ploughing, turning hay, lifting potatoes, threshing, lambing
and poultry management. Six thousand women worked in the Timber
Corps, felling trees and running sawmills.
As The Women’s
Land Army was not a military force many women did not wear the
uniform of green jersey, brown breeches, brown felt hat and khaki
The Women's Land Army was disbanded in 1950.
Detail from poster "Don't take the Squander Bug when you go shopping ". 1943.
Opens in a new window (74k)
Another organisation that women could join was the Women's Voluntary
Services For Air Raid Precaution (WVS), set up in June 1938.
Initially their main duties were evacuation and making medical
supplies, bandages (made from old sheets), nursing gowns and
pyjamas. February 1939 brought about a name change to the Women's
Voluntary Service for Civil Defence. The type of work they undertook
broadened to include, salvage and old bone collection, harvesting
of rosehips, running rest and mobile canteen services, providing
temporary accommodation for those people whose homes were destroyed
during air raids and organising talks on such issues as 'Make
do and Mend' and avoiding the ‘Squander Bug’ (catalogue
a nasty cartoon character that encouraged housewives to waste
Women played a major role during World War II and the attitudes
to the role of women in the services were changed forever. After
the war the WRNS became a permanent service and in 1993 were
assimilated into the main body of the Navy. In 1949 the ATS was
replaced by the Women's Royal Army Corps, which remained until
1992. The Women's Auxiliary Air Force was renamed to the Women's
Royal Air Force in 1949 and merged with the RAF in 1994. The
ATA were disbanded after the war and FANY, the oldest women’s
service organisation, are still in existence today.