Women of the WAAF

If you have been following us on our blog, podcast and social media for a while now you may well have noticed that I have a special interest in the story of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Last year I looked into the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), the precursor to the WAAF and a name that would come in once again following the Second World War.

In this special feature blog post I wanted to share with you the stories that I have found over the last year.

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The Second World War was declared in September of 1939 and the British government knew from the First World War that the workforce of Britain would not be able to meet the demands of wartime if its men were needed to join the war effort in one of the military forces. Before 1939 women made up about 30% of the workforce largely due to the common belief that a woman’s place was in the home. When the First World War had broken out in 1914 women had volunteered to help where they could but at its close women were banned from claiming unemployment benefits and dismissed from the roles that they had been working in, once again expected to raise their families, some trade unions went as far as to prohibit the employment of women. So when in 1939 the British government realised they would need women to plug the gap they knew something had to be done, and in May 1940, a deal was made with the main trade unions to permit the employment of women in various roles.

Women volunteered their help where they could to the war effort, but it was becoming clear that the numbers would not meet the rising demand and Churchill concluded that in order to meet the increasing demand of civil defence and armed forces, men would need to be withdrawn from industries such as munitions and the only solution to the shortfall this would create would to conscript women. By the end of 1941 women were being called up to join the war effort for the very first time.

Daily Mirror, Friday 18th April 1941- Sagas of She Image

To start with women between the ages of 20 and 30 were called upon choosing roles from factory work and nursing to joining one of the three women’s forces – The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the Auxiliary Territorial Services or the Women’s Naval Service and by 1943 most of the nation’s women were at work.

When the WAAF was first formed, available posts included clerical work, kitchen orderlies and work as drivers but in order to release more men for active service, the roles for women needed to diversify. At the WAAF’s peak in 1943 there were over 180,000 women working in over 110 different trades. The Book of the WAAF is a brilliant example of what women could expect in this women’s service along with the requirements for roles. Here is just one example-

Balloon Operator (Grade III)

Age Limit 17-43

Average intelligence and elementary education required. Candidates must be lithe active and physically fit in all respects: fond of outdoor life cheerful and adaptable.

Employed on balloon sites, with responsibility for care and operation of a particular balloon.

Minimum height: 5ft 2in. Training given.

Statistics reported that as much as 70% of WAAF personnel replacing airmen were going into skilled trades. While the original 5 trades open to the WAAF, including clerical work, driving duties and kitchen orderly roles, these quickly expanded to over 110 different trades by 1945, and quarter of a million women had served in the WAAF alone. Roles suddenly opened up as Balloon Operators, where the women were responsible for the care and operation of the barrage balloons used to fend off attack from the air. Meteorologists worked alongside the Met Office to make meteorological reports and synoptic charts used by the armed forces. Radar Mechanics were responsible for the maintenance and installation of radar equipment on stations. Plotters worked in the filter rooms which were part of Fighter Command’s defence system, receiving information from the radar stations by telephone and displayed it on a gridded map table using various counters.

Barrage Balloon Operators

As mentioned, barrage balloons were one area where the women of the WAAF found themselves posted. During the last years of the First World War, the British employed barrage balloons in response to attack by German Gotha bombers on London, their success paved the way for their use in the Second World War. Barrage balloons were bags of lighter-than-air gas attached to a steel cable which was then attached to the ground which could be either raised or lowered to the desired altitude by using a winch. Their primary purpose was to deny low-level airspace to enemy aircraft, in practice they provided three major benefits:

1. They forced aircraft to higher altitudes, decreasing surprise and bombing accuracy;

2. They enhanced ground-based air defences and the ability of fighters to acquire targets, since intruding aircrafts were limited in both altitude and direction;

3. The cable itself presented a mental and material hazard to pilots.

RAF Balloon Command was formed on November 1st, 1938 and based at RAF Stanmore, Middlesex functioning under the control of Fighter Command from 1938 to 1945. It operated the United Kingdom’s barrage balloon defences during the Second World War. At the start of the Battle of Britain in 1940 Balloon Command consisted of around 1,500 balloons including around 450 located over London. In 1940 it was decided that members of the WAAF would be trained to relieve male balloon operators for active duty and in May 1941 the first batch of WAAF volunteers began a 10-week training course. By December 1942, 10,000 men had been replaced by 15,700 WAAF balloon operators.

The BBC website has a wealth of oral histories and here is just one that I discovered:

Joan Sharpe had requested to train as a driver when she enlisted in the WAAF on March 11th, 1942. She had turned 17 years old a few months earlier and the death of her brother Eric on his return from a bombing mission on Hamburg had spurred her into enlisting. Unfortunately for Joan there were no vacancies for drivers, and she was told that she could instead train as a balloon operator and should any vacancies for drivers come up, she would be transferred.

On April 16th, 1942 Joan began her training at Number Four Balloon Centre, Chigwell and following training she and the other WAAFs had to sit an exam, Joan passed this and did well enough to be promoted from Aircraftwoman 2nd Class (ACW2) to Aircraftwoman 1st Class (ACW1). On 2nd July 1942, following four months of kitting out and training Joan joined her first unit- 926 Squadron (East Lancashire) located in Manchester. She spent the next nine months working on the balloons until, like many other WAAFs she was reposted due to the sheer number of injuries sustained while working with the balloons.

On April 15th 1943 Joan was reposted to Number 12 Operational Training Unit at Chipping Warden where she began her training as a Flight Mechanic (engines) and after only five months she joined her second operational unit at Number 7 Flying Instructors School at RAF Upavon where she stayed for the remainder of the war servicing the engines on Avro Anson and Airspeed Oxford aircraft which were used to train pilots who had finished their tour of operation and were retraining as flying instructors.

Joan Sharpe. Image from BBC

Meteorological Forecasters

Members of the WAAF were also sent to train as assistants to Meteorological Office forecasters. During the Second World War, military commanders and civilian authorities recognised the importance of including meteorological advice in the planning stages of any operation. Royal Air Force and Army operations always relied heavily on the advice from the Met Office, RAF Bomber and Coastal Commands were particularly dependent on this advice.

For the RAF it was important to know as much as possible about cloud cover, visibility and upper air winds at home, on-route to and over target destinations, therefore staff of the Met Office were posted to RAF units in order to carry out observations and provide forecasts and advice to commanders and other military personnel. The Met Office became fully integrated with the RAF throughout the war and irrespective of rank and even as civilians, forecasters were accepted by the RAF as a crucial part of their operational organisation.


If you have been following us since the start of the blog, you may know that I was fortunate enough to work with Bawdsey Radar, where the first operational radar station was formed and where Robert Watson Watt and Arnold ‘Skip’ Wilkins developed radar to be used as an early warning system known as Chain Home, vital to the defence of Britain during the Second World War. While at Bawdsey I learned more about the role of women in Radio Detection Finding or more commonly known now as radar operators.

While this is going to be just a brief overview of the role of women as radar operators, if you want to know more let us know and I would be MORE than happy to drone on about radar for a special podcast!

In the years immediately following the First World War, protection of Britain from air attack was discussed at length by those in charge of the country’s defence. During the First World War the German army used huge Zeppelin airships to attack towns and cities in Britain and some of the first air raids were on the east coast of England. As Bawdsey was the first operational radar station it was also the location that placed women on front-line duty for the first time.

As mentioned before Robert Watson Watt played the starring role in the development of radar and in 1937 he first suggested that women could be radar operators. He had watched RAF men operate the machine and he wasn’t happy with what he saw. Not all of the men were alert, some were more concerned with football coupons than the work that they were doing, he believed that women had qualities that made them ideally suited for the job.

The good operator needs a well-developed conscience, a sense of duty, patience and freedom from any tendency to panic. Qualities in which women predominate.

He proposed to the Air Ministry a 5-day trial involving three of the secretaries working at RAF Bawdsey, this was conducted at the Chain Home Station in Dover and was deemed successful. The women involved with the experiment were: Miss H. Brooker (her first name seems to , Miss Nellie Boyce and Miss Mary-Agnes “Ginger” Girdlestone and after 5 days the women had proven that they could learn how to operate and do so at a high standard. The WAAFs that were trained in RDF (radio detection finding and later called radar) were told to keep their work a great secret and keep it they did. But as time has gone on some of the stories have begun to be uncovered. Here are just two:

Jean “Sally” Semple was one of the first servicewomen in radar, joining the WAAF on March 20th, 1940. She trained on the RF5 at Bawdsey Research Station at Bawdsey Manor. She was given her first lectures on Course 6 by “Poppa” Jennings, while courses 1 to 5 were given before the war.

When her training was completed, she was stationed first at Pevensie and secondly at Rye, further postings after Rye included a return to Bawdsey as an observer. Her initial job title was WAAF Special Duties and it became Radar Operator following the Americans joining the war effort in 1941. Her account of her work in depth and clear as the day that she was operating the Gonio which allows us to learn more about this secretive work.

On the screen there’d be a whole lot of blips, looking a real mess. The left side of the think, green line showed blips like planes beating but which were usually permanent echoes including those of church steeples and of our actual radar station. The first five miles of signals received were therefore usually ignored.

Furthermore, using the machine wasn’t the only aspect of the job.

There was also a lot of working out on paper and there was what eventually proved to be a hit or miss formula for determining the height of a plane that you were plotting. You established its range, multiplied that by 100 and then added two-thirds of the actual range squared. This calculation was meant to take into account the curvature of the Earth.

The work of the radar operator was done under the veil of secrecy. According to Jean in case of invasion, operators were given revolvers. Should the station be endangered by the enemy, they were to fire the revolver into the screens, rendering them useless. At the beginning of the war each radar station also had an acid bath- a lead tank, filled with acid and kept close to operations. In the event of invasion all maps and other sensitive material was to be thrown into it. On one occasion Jean decided to try the system out by throwing some obsolete documents into the tank. This system was found wanting and removed from stations as the paper went in white with black lines on and came out dark-greyish with clear white lines on. By the end of the war Jean had been made a Sargent.

In 1936, although Gwen Arnold may have liked to continue her education, she left school in August because her mother, who was not academically minded, wanted her two children working to help pay for their living costs. Gwen left school with a good reference which made special remarks about her abilities with both figures and logic and went into her first job as a shoe saleswoman, working between 52 and 54 hours a week for 10 shillings a week. A year later her school friend joined the workforce and helped Gwen get a role as a filing clerk at Bowmaker Ltd. where she now earned 12 shillings and 6 pence a week. She enjoyed her work but by 1940 the amount of work available at the company was dwindling and her sister’s boyfriend convinced her to apply for a temporary position at Bournemouth Gas and Water Company as a cost clerk where she found that her enthusiasm for figures and calculations was realised.

In 1942, at age 20 she received the letter calling her for service and it wasn’t until Tuesday 26th January 1943 that she had to report to Innsworth to begin her training in the WAAF. From here she spent 3 weeks in Morecombe for training then she was sent onto RAF Ashburton where she stayed for only a day two in a Nissan Hut, and from there she was sent to RAF Branscombe, a Chain Home Radio Direction Finding Station as a temporary pre training posting, designed to introduce the trainees to the atmosphere of an operational station. Her final move before she would find herself at Bawdsey was to RAF Cranwell where she became part of Course 84, where she and 17 other girls were to undergo intensive training in the theory and practice of Radio Detection Finding.

Following her training and a week’s leave, Gwen was posted to Bawdsey in April 1943. At Bawdsey she stayed in room number 54 in the White Tower of the Manor, in this room, although not as cramped as some Nissan Huts she found a single bed and 5 double bunk beds within their room. After 5 months at Bawdsey Gwen had to take more exams and her high score in these led to her promotion from Aircraft Woman 2nd class (ACW2) to Leading Aircraft Woman (LACW). In 1944 the girls in room 54 were moved into the Red Tower, it was here that Gwen would meet Peggy Butler.

Following the end of the war she was sent to Fighter Command HQ in Uxbridge where she served the rest of her time before being released from the Air Force as an orderly room clerk, compared to the excitement of being a radar operator her new role was somewhat boring. In 1946 she was “demobbed” and she went back to her job at Bournemouth Gas and Water Company. In 1947 she married a man called John, his mother had asked her to write to him when he volunteered for the war effort and following a couple of failed engagements and a long history the couple were married for 47 and a half years before John’s death.

While some had worried that women might struggle in front-line duties, records show that WAAFs were awarded medals for individual bravery.

Corporal (later Flight Officer) Joan Pearson was the first woman in the services to be awarded the George Cross, she was a flight administrative officer and in May 1940 an aircraft crashed near to the WAAF quarters, one officer was killed outright, the pilot was seriously injured and to other airmen were also injured in the crash. Joan rushed out to the wreckage even though the aircraft was burning with bombs on board. She stood close to the wreckage giving first aid to the pilot and assisted him in getting clear. When she had got him about 30 yards away a 120-lb bomb exploded, without a second though Joan threw herself on top of the pilot to protect him from the blast. 

Corporal (later Flight Officer) Joan Pearson- image from wikipedia

Sergeant Joan Mortimer was awarded the Military Medal for her bravery. Towards the end of August 1940, enemy bombers attacked an RAF Fighter Command station, RAF Biggin Hill. Joan was in the station armoury and although a large amount of ammunition was stored near to her office she manned the telephone, passing instructions to the various defence posts. When the raid was over she calmly went outside and began to peg out with red flags all the places on the aerodrome where unexploded bombs were buried so that the returning 601 Squadron Hurricane pilots could see where to land safely. As she did this, an unexploded bomb with a delay fuse blew up – sending her flying. She was winded and her uniform was torn but she continued to mark the bombs, the last right in the centre of the landing strip. Due to the explosions, she lost 60% of her hearing and was eventually discharged from the WAAF in 1941, suffering from her hearing loss and pneumonia.

Joan had lived much of her life in Stowmarket, Suffolk and following her death the town honoured her by naming a road after her.

Sergeant Joan Mortimer, Flight Officer Elspeth Henderson, Sergeant Helen Turner, all 3 were awarded the Military Medal for gallantry on 1 September 1940 – bentleypriorymuseum.org.uk

By the end of the war, airwomen were employed in 19 purely WAAF trades and in 74 trades that were open to men and women without counting the 23 Officer branches open to them. There were in fact very few trades that women had not been able to be a part of by the end of the war. The sheer variety can be seen in the different stories portrayed within this short work. In 1941 Jane Trefusis-Forbes, Air Chief Commandant of the WAAF sought to impress upon the parents of Britain ‘that the duties that their daughters are doing towards the war effort are as important as their sons are doing.’ She was right. Following the war, the passing of the Army and Air Force Act in 1948 created the opportunity for a permanent peacetime role for women in the Armed Forces. On February 1st, 1949, women who had extended their service were given the option to continue into the new Regular Force- the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), reviving the name of the service of the First World War, (for more info on the WRAF in the First World War see our blog post here). This offered women a full professional career in the air force for the first time. From the outset the WRAF was to be integrated as fully as possible with the RAF, they took the same oaths and were subject to the same conditions of service and disciplinary code with the only restriction on their employment being combatant duties.

In 2017, the RAF became the first branch of the British Military to open every role to men and women, the hard work and determination of the women that came before has opened these equal opportunities and paved the way for future generations.



W.A.A.F. Barrage Balloon Operator to Flight Mechanic by John Sharp

National Meteorological Library and Archive. ‘Remember the Met Office in WW1 and WW2’


RAF Museum. ‘Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) 1949-1994

Gwen Arnold Radar Days: Our Wartime Days: The WAAF in World War II (Aviation)""” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Our Wartime Days. The WAAF in World War Two

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