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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Women's Auxiliary Air Force


Members of the WAAF test aerial guns after repair work
Members of the WAAF test aerial guns after repair work©
The Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) came into being with the formation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918. However, in 1920 the unit was disbanded, along with the other women's services. The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was formed in June 1939 when war seemed imminent again.

The WAAF came under the administration of the RAF and members did not serve in individual female units, as with its army equivalent the ATS, but as individual members of RAF Commands. The Director of the WAAF was Katherine Trefusis-Forbes, who had served in the Women's Volunteer Reserve in the First World War.

Initially, members of the WAAF were recruited to fill posts as clerks, kitchen orderlies and drivers, in order to release men for front-line duties. However, the occupations open to women recruits diversified as the war progressed. Women in the WAAF were involved in telephony, telegraphy and the interception of codes and ciphers, including at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. They were mechanics, engineers, electricians and fitters for aeroplanes. They undertook the interpretation of aerial photographs and provided weather reports. Many members of the WAAF worked in the radar control system as reporters and plotters. Their work was vital during the Battle of Britain and later in guiding night-fighter aeroplanes against German bombers.

One of the hardest jobs in the WAAF was the operation of balloons sites. This involved raising and lowering the barrage balloons, which were designed to deter enemy bombers. There were doubts over whether women would have the physical strength or stamina as the balloons were 66 feet long and 30 feet high when inflated. But so successful were the initial volunteers that women eventually ran more than 1,000 barrage balloon sites throughout Britain.

Some members of the WAAF with particular skills transferred into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and were trained as agents to be sent into occupied Europe. One of these was Noor Inayat Khan, originally from India, who was sent to France as a radio operator for SOE. She was arrested by the Gestapo and eventually executed in September 1944.

One job that the women of the WAAF were not allowed to do was fly. However, the necessity of training more pilots in secondary roles to release front line pilots for active service led to the formation of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). 150 women flew with the ATA in the course of the war, including the famous pilot Amy Johnson. ATA duties included delivering new planes from factories to RAF units and shuttling planes back for repairs. All ATA pilots were civilians, as the RAF thought it unacceptable to have women pilots flying military aircraft.

In December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act which allowed for the conscription of women. Women could choose to go into war work, or join the WAAF or its army or air force equivalents, the ATS and the WRNS. Women joined the WAAF from both the UK and overseas, including the Caribbean. Local recruitment for the WAAF took place in the Middle East from 1942 with recruits drawn from the Egyptian, Palestinian, Jewish, Assyrian, Greek and Cypriot communities. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all had women's sections in their air forces.

Members of the WAAF served all over the UK, in the US, in Egypt and later in Europe after the invasion of June 1944. The WAAF was re-formed into the WRAF in 1949, and fully integrated into the RAF in 1994.

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.

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