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In April 1918 it was decided to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) by amalgamating the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Also formed at this time was Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) and Sir Geoffrey Paine, the Air Ministry Master General of Personnel, appointed Gertrude Crawford as its first commandant. However, Lady Crawford soon discovered she was expected to be little more than a figurehead and that Lieutenant-Colonel Bersey, was actually running the service. Unhappy with this situation, Lady Crawford decided to resign from the post.
Sir Geoffrey Paine now asked Douglas-Pennant to become commander of the Women's Royal Air Force. It was not long before Douglas-Pennant got the impression that the Royal Air Force was not fully committed to the WRAF . She was given no secretarial help and had difficulty getting the use of a staff car for official journeys. Douglas-Pennant resigned but agreed to go back after being promised that her complaints would be dealt with.
Sir William Weir, Secretary of State for Air, asked Lady Margaret Rhondda, Director of of Women's Department of the Ministry of National Service, to report on the state of the WRAF. Rhondda's report was highly critical of Douglas-Pennant, and Weir decided to dismiss her as Commandant of the WRAF and replace her with Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, Overseas Commander of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).
Over the next nine month 9,000 women were recruited into the Women's Royal Air Force to work as clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and storekeepers. Gwynne-Vaughan was a great success as commander of the organisation. Sir Sefton Brancker argued that "the WRAF was the best disciplined and best turned-out women's organization in the country." Gwynne-Vaughan's work was recognised in June, 1919, when she was awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). However, after the war it was decided to disband the WRAF and Helen Gwynne-Vaughan left office in December, 1919.
Gwynne-Vaughan helped to form the WRAF Old Comrades Association and became its first president in March 1920. Ten years later, on the instigation of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, the association added a new objective to its rules. This stated that the organisation should "encourage preparedness to help the country in time of need."
With war with Germany looking inevitable in the summer of 1939, Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was asked to become head of the recently established Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). As she was now sixty she declined the offer and instead suggested Jane Trefusis-Forbes, the Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS). Trefusis-Forbes was appointed commander of the WAAF on 28th June, 1939.
Royal Air Force
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Royal Air Force (RAF), youngest of the three British armed services, charged with the air defense of the United Kingdom and the fulfillment of international defense commitments. It is the world’s oldest independent air force.
Photographs (copies) of Women's Royal Air Force
In April 1918 it was decided to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) by amalgamating the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Also formed at this time was Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). The main aim of the WRAF was ''to train women to take over the work of the home based mechanics and so to free them for service in the combat areas''. It was soon decided that this program of replacement needed to be carried out as swiftly as possible to free up the RAF mechanics. The numbers of recruits increased rapidly, as enthusiastic young women, eager to learn a new and previously inaccessible trade, joined up from both civilian life and a variety of other uniformed organisations, one of these being the Royal Air Force Nursing Service.
Initially civilian recruitment was to take place at local Labour Exchanges, and women were under civil contract, not enlisted. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) backed the contract but the RAF did not find this arrangement satisfactory. The term of duty each recruit signed up for was a total of one year or the term of the war which ever was the greater. A woman had to be eighteen before she could even be considered for enlistment. 'Mobile' recruits were liable for service anywhere in the UK and 'Immobile' could only serve in local units. This system divided the recruits into areas prior to them being allotted to stations or squadrons.
During the first few months of formation, the WRAF were issued with uniforms from the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps, with the words Royal Flying Corps on the sleeves. By November 1918 new uniforms were being issued, based on a tunic style uniform similar to that of the RAF. In 1919, it was decided that these uniforms should be replaced only when worn out, not on a yearly basis as with other ranks in the RAF. The WRAF aircraft fitters used to wear skirts it still had not been accepted for women to wear trousers.
In terms of sheer numbers alone, the WRAF and its fellow female service organisations were impressive. By the middle of 1918 the total number of recruits who belonged to the three voluntary organisations reached 25000. Haton Park was the principle training ground for the Royal Flying School and during 1919, 2000 women underwent training here. The WRAF employed women in some 43 different trades, these included armourers, radio operators, parachute packers, balloon operators, fabric workers, drivers, flight mechanic and instrument mechanic.
When the Armistice was signed at the end of the First World War, both the WRAF and the RAF itself were actively recruiting women into the service. After the War's end, little recruiting took place for women as it was thought that once the men were all back safely, the WRAF would be disbanded. However in March 1919, 'mobiles' were sent abroad because of the rapidly thinning number of airmen as thousands left the services at the end of hostilities. The women were sent both to France and Cologne in Germany, during April and May.
Once back in England, however it was not long before the demob procedures were started and the WRAF finally disbanded on 1st April 1920, only two years after it had been formed.
Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) 1949 – 1994
The Women’s Royal Air Force was reborn on 1 February 1949, offering women a full professional career in the air force for the first time. Although women had served alongside the Royal Air Force (RAF) before, it had always been in a temporary wartime capacity.
The passing of the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act in 1948 created the opportunity for a permanent peacetime role for women in the Armed Forces, in recognition of their invaluable wartime contribution.
From the outset, the WRAF was to be integrated as fully as possible with the RAF, a source of much pride for its members. All new entrants were commissioned or enlisted in the Royal Air Force, taking the same oath as the men, and subject to the same conditions of service and disciplinary code.
The only restriction placed on their employment was that they should not undertake combatant duties. Initially, female entrants underwent basic training separately, joining their male colleagues for professional training in their chosen branch or trade. King’s Regulations were rewritten to include the WRAF and, except in issues of women’s welfare, WRAF personnel were in principle to be treated like their male counterparts.
On completion of training, WRAFs were posted to RAF stations both at home and overseas, serving as far afield as Singapore, Burma and Iraq. Despite their non-combatant status, the WRAF found themselves at the heart of Britain’s numerous post-war conflicts in places such as Malaya, Kenya, and Cyprus where they performed vital support roles, often in dangerous situations.
From 1949, about 80% of trades were open to women including driving, ground signalling, clerical work and catering. Opportunities to fly existed for members of the WRAF Volunteer Reserve but regulars were not yet accepted as aircrew.
As the Service progressed more technical trades became available such as Mechanic and Air Traffic Control. In 1959, the new trade of Air Quartermaster was opened to women. In 1962 these became the first females to be recognised as aircrew.
The WRAF and Royal Air Force (RAF) grew ever closer over the following years and in 1968, female officers adopted the rank titles of their RAF counterparts. Training was also consolidated both at recruit and officer level, and in 1970 the first female entrants were admitted into the RAF College, Cranwell.
Soon after, women began to be promoted to senior appointments and in 1975 Group Captain Joan Peck became Deputy Director of the Signals Branch, the first woman to hold such a position.
Despite such breakthroughs, the majority of women remained firmly on the ground. It would be over ten years before the concept of operational female aircrew became a reality. In September 1989, the first female navigators commenced training at RAF Finningley, graduating in 1990 to take up posts in the Hercules fleet. Just five months later, Flight Lieutenant Julie Gibson became the RAF’s first operational female pilot, flying Andovers and the multi-engined Hercules transport.
On 1 April 1994, the WRAF formally merged with the RAF, marking the full integration of women into the air force. In 45 years women had progressed from a temporary wartime support role to become full members of the world’s oldest independent air force.
Women Breaking Barriers in the Royal Air Force
Tracy Bedwell joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1986 the daughter of a Royal Navy veteran, she thought that service in the air force offered more opportunities for women in the military. When Bedwell enlisted, however, she was actually joining the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), a separate women’s branch of the RAF, in operation from 1918 to 1920 and 1949 to 1994 (with the World War II-era Women’s Auxiliary Air Force forming in-between).
Bedwell—now an information support officer and crypto custodian at the British Embassy Washington—landed in telecommunications after taking an aptitude test, which she notes had roles open to both genders.
“The barriers are broken down, the way is paved. People just need to tread it.”
The main difference between the WRAF and RAF, she said, was the pay.
“There was quite a big pay gap between men and women,” Bedwell said. “We did the same work, but were paid differently.”
When she first enlisted, some base assignments were “unavailable” to women, because of their remoteness or lack of separate accommodations for men and women. During Bedwell’s career with the RAF, things began to change. She later became the first single female on the Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay, a remote location that had previously been all male.
“I’ve never felt I wasn’t listened to as a woman in the RAF,” Bedwell said. “I did my job as well, or better, than the men.” With a laugh, she joked, “And there are so many blokes out there who can hardly lift a pen!”
A few years before Bedwell left military service in 1998, the WRAF merged with the RAF, and more opportunities for women emerged.
By the time Flt. Lt. Sarah Cole joined the RAF in 2007—straight out of school and on her way to becoming a 2 nd lieutenant pilot officer at age 19—she was training and stationed alongside men.
Royal Air Force Flt. Lt. Sarah Cole sharing a love of rugby with members of the United States Air Force in Afghanistan. Credit: Sarah Cole
“That’s where you break down perceptions, by being integrated,” she said.
For example, in her training group there were about four or five women for every 30 men. But the recruits were broken into “streams,” ranked A through D, based on the speed they could run. Men and women were mixed across the categories.
Since her early training days, Cole’s work in the RAF has brought her to Germany, serving with NATO, to three locations in the Middle East, and on two tours in Afghanistan. On some of those trips, she was one of a handful of women officers, working alongside dozens of men. By then, even things like sleeping quarters had been integrated—separate for individuals, but designated by rank not by gender.
“The best way to change perceptions is to perform,” Cole added.
Since the RAF’s founding, women have been doing just that. And as of 2017, the RAF is fully integrated, opening up combat roles to women for the first time.
“The barriers are broken down, the way is paved,” Cole said. “People just need to tread it.”
Hear from Flt. Lt. Sarah Cole, alongside other RAF pilots and Museum curators, at The Great British Fly-In on April 15 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), May 1918
Clothing is being issued by the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) from a Nissen hut damaged by an air raid at Abbeville, 22 May 1918.
In April 1918, the WAAC was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). Over 57,000 women served with it, at home and abroad, before it was disbanded on 27 September 1921.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was formed in November 1917, with 3,000 women. This doubled in size with 'Wrens' working in over 100 different roles.
The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was born on 1 April 1918 with the Royal Air Force. Members of both the WAAC and WRNS transferred to the new service, which grew to 32,000, serving at home and in Germany and France. They undertook mechanical and technical roles as well as cooking, driving and administration. The WRAF and WRNS were both dissolved in 1920, but all three women’s services were reformed just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Women’s Auxiliary Air Force
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)
Recruiting Begins for RAF Air Crew
By early summer, the RAF was prepared to accept volunteers from Newfoundland and Labrador into its Air Training Plan. Walwyn issued a second proclamation on June 22, this time calling for men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve as pilots, or between the ages of 18 and 32 to serve as wireless operators/air gunners. A committee of officers from the RAF and the Royal Canadian Air Force visited St. John's in August to screen applicants before the month was over, a first draft of 52 recruits &ndash four pilots, four navigators, and 44 wireless air gunners &ndash travelled to Toronto for training. Half of these men died before the war ended.
Once in Canada, recruits trained in a flight simulator, studied navigation, and received instruction in marching and other military practices. In October, the RAF assigned them to one of the many Elementary Flying Training Schools scattered across Canada, where they eventually made their first solo flights before moving on to an Intermediate Flying Training School. After some 100 hours of flying and 10 months of training, successful recruits received their wings and proceeded to the United Kingdom.
Fact File : Auxiliary Territorial Service
A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service operates a telescope©
In April 1941, the members of the ATS were given full military status, although they continued to be paid two-thirds of the wage of a man of the same rank. As well as Britain, recruits were sought from the Dominions, India and the West Indies. Six hundred West Indian women volunteered of whom half stayed in the Caribbean while 200 served in the USA and 100 in the UK.
In December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act which allowed the conscription of women into war work or the armed forces. Women could choose to join the ATS or its naval or air force equivalents, the WRNS and the WAAF.
The first women who joined the ATS had no uniform and received little training, working in traditional female roles as cooks, clerks and storekeepers. After the initial influx of volunteers a system of basic training was established lasting six weeks. New recruits were issued with their uniform and asked to carry out trade tests to establish which area they should go into. Experience in civilian life was usually crucial for example, if a woman had been a shorthand typist she would almost certainly be assigned clerical duties. During the course of the war the range of duties undertaken by the ATS expanded and women worked as telephonists, drivers, mess orderlies, butchers, bakers, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and military police.
The women of the ATS also made a significant contribution to Anti-Aircraft Command of the Royal Artillery, known as 'ack-ack'. They made up mixed batteries, taking over some of the tasks formerly performed by the male crew, including finding enemy aircraft and controlling the direction of the gun, although officially they never fired the guns. Others operated searchlights. Some ATS members were at permanent Anti-Aircraft camps and others were mobile. These mobile units were particularly busy during the V1 and V2 rocket campaigns against southern England in the summer of 1944.
As well as home defence, women from the ATS served in most theatres of war, as well as other important locations such as Washington. Following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, some mixed Anti-Aircraft batteries were sent to France but the speed of the advance meant that the batteries were soon dissolved and the ATS women moved into general clerical work.
At its peak, 210,308 women were serving with the ATS. 335 were killed.
Queen Elizabeth II served in the wartime ATS as 2nd Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, as did Mary Churchill, the youngest daughter of the Prime Minister. In 1949 the ATS was absorbed in the Women's Royal Army Corps, which was itself disbanded in 1992.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.
Royal Air Force Nominal Index of Airmen and Airwomen 1918 to 1975
This collection is a transcription of the nominal roll of other ranks – both male and female who served in the Royal Air Force in the fifty-seven years between its foundation and 1975. The records are available in the National Archives as “AIR 78” and served as an index to the full service records under “AIR 79”. These index cards are the largest source of RAF other ranks names.
The most important field on these records is the service number. There are often dozens of servicemen (and women) with the same name and so this number is the best way to distinguish them. Within the Royal Air Force these numbers were issued from blocks, from which we can deduce a range of information. Certain blocks were issued by a specific location, or to people with a specific trade and in most cases a rough idea of when they joined can be added – this information can be vital in narrowing down possible names – so many of the fields are added to the records.