Women of the WRAF 1918-1920

I have been lucky enough to be an intern at Bawdsey Radar Museum in Suffolk for the past 6 months where the first operational radar station was built during the Second World War, in this small Suffolk village, history was made. Women were accepted to be better at the job of operators than men and their skills were put to the test around the coast of Britain helping to defend the country from the threat of the Luftwaffe as officers of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The story of women is an important one to both the museum and myself and I think that during the month of November, when we remember those who fought and died for us that the story of the women that were integral to the First World War’s Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) should be explored.

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During the First World War, members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) worked at air stations that belonged to both the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). When the decision was made to combine both the RFC and the RNAS to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) concerns were raised about the possible loss of the specialised female workforce associated with the two organisations, and on April 1st 1918 the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was formed. In order to fill the ranks of the new women’s service, personnel of the WAAC and WRNS were given the opportunity to transfer to the new service and over 9000 women did so. By April 1920, when the service was disbanded 32,000 WRAF members had proved to be a major asset to the RAF and paved the way for future service women.

In the two years of operation the service three women took charge of the organisation, this high turnover was a cause for gossip in the papers and one of the women was the cause of the formation of a select committee related to her dismissal.

The first of these women was Lady Gertrude Crawford who was approved by the Air Council as Chief Superintendent and upon accepting her new position she resigned from her post as the sole Inspecting Officer of Women’s Work in the Shipyard Labour Department of the Admiralty, a post that she had held from May 1917. However, Lady Crawford soon discovered that she was intended to be little more than a figurehead of the organisation and soon received a letter from General Livingstone, informing her that it had been decided that she didn’t have the necessary experience or qualifications for the type of work that the role of Chief Superintendent of the WRAF. She was given the opportunity to resign and warned that if she didn’t resign then she would be given her notice. Upon the receipt of a letter from Godfrey Paine which went along a similar line to that of General Livingstone she let it be known that she had no real role to play as her colleague, Colonel Bersy  had carried out all meaningful work himself. Even though she had been placed in the same office as Bersey, he not only interviewed all prospective WRAF officer candidates but answered their letters too. Furthermore, had he given her any meaningful work to do, Lady Crawford was confident of her own ability to carry it through. Her complaints were in vain as the Air Council decided that she could not maintain her post.

Following the dismissal of Lady Crawford, the Air Council needed a new head of the WRAF and Violet Douglas-Pennant was put forward as a possible candidate for the role due to her experience in reform and management. She had previously done work for Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps as well as the WRNS. She did not take on the role immediately and agreed to spend a month “looking around” but she was unhappy with what she found and repeatedly tried to resign from the post.

Douglas-Pennant was involved in philanthropic work with girls youth clubs, which then led her to work with the poor, unemployed, uneducated and disabled in London. As a result of this work, she worked on the board of governors for various schools eventually becoming a member of the Borough of Finsbury Unemployment Committee. Furthermore, her involvement with the Workers Educational Association led her to work on other local government committees and eventually the London County Council Education Committee. To add yet more to her impressive resume, she was also a governor of the University College of South Wales and a member of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, although not a Suffragette herself.

In 1911, she was made National Health Insurance Commissioner for South Wales as well as Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. As National Health Insurance Commissioner, she was paid £1000 a year which was a huge amount for women, in fact it was the highest salary for any woman in Britain at the time. In 1914, Violet helped to fund a 500-bed hospital in Belgium and as Lady-in-Waiting she accompanied Princess Louise to Red Cross facilities during the First World War.

Godfrey Pain wrote to Violet and they met for the first time on April 25th 1918 and on the 29th April she told him that she would spend a month looking around before she gave her final decision. She took up her duties on May 13th 1918 at Hotel Cecil and later complained that she found the office in chaos; no proper organisation was established, no register or system for filing letters and most crucially she wasn’t able to access the information that she needed. Furthermore, her dark office was located next to the mens toilets and she wasn’t given an Air Ministry pass forcing her to fill out a form and be escorted to her office each time she entered the building. On June 11th 1918, she officially declined the position due to these factors but Paine convinced her that things would change and she agreed to stay on from the 18th June.

Unfortunately for Douglas-Pennant, things did not improve and the situation came to a head when three of the most senior female officers working for her handed in their resignations. Katherine Andrew, Assistant Commandant, one of the three women to resign believed that some forty Air Stations around the country had no action taken on them and could no longer accept the responsibility of knowing about the unsatisfactory state of affairs when she was given no power to remedy the situation. Sir William Weir, Secretary of State for Air asked for a full report on the state of the WRAF and the report was extremely critical  of Douglas-Pennant’s performance which led to her dismissal on 28th August 1918. This dismissal was looked at unfavourably by politicians as well as trade unions and a select committee was formed to look into her claims that she was unfairly dismissed.

The next, and final woman recommended for the role of Commandant was Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. When the government had announced the establishment of a new volunteer service the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1917, Helen had been selected for the important job as the WAAC’s Chief Controller (abroad). As Chief Controller in France, she was instrumental in creating a respected and disciplined force. In September 1918 she was asked by Sir William Weir to take charge of the WRAF. She was successful in this role and she revised many things about the WRAF. She overhauled the administration system, opened and equipped Berridge House in Hampstead for the training of officers as well as authorising the new blue uniform and introducing military protocol. Moreover, her professionalism helped to change male attitudes towards women in the air service and in June 1919, in recognition of her achievements she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

In 1939, with the threat of the Second World War on the horizon Gwynne-Vaughan was asked to be the head of the new Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), by this time she was 60 years old and so she refused and instead suggested that Jane Trefusis-Forbes, the Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) should take the post instead. Trefusis-Forbes would go on to form a service still celebrated today, but one that still had to deal with male officers using her as a figurehead.

Author- Emily Casson





Jennifer MArgarette Hould (1988) ‘The Woman’s Corps: The Establishment of Women’s Military Services in Britain’ PhD thesis

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