Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

Photo:WAAF Helen Le Duc

WAAF Helen Le Duc

Helen Le Duc

Nine months after the formation of the ATS, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was also reformed, as an auxiliary branch of the Royal Air Force, and allotted a new name, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), but unlike ATS members, WAAFs did not form all-women units, they served as individual members of an RAF Command.  In the early days of the war, members of the WAAF were allocated duties as clerks, kitchen orderlies and drivers; releasing men for active front line service. As in other services the women were to be paid a third less than a man. However, as both the war and technology progressed, the nature of the work available to women became both more diverse and more challenging. As well as coping with the technical challenges of working as mechanics, engineers, electricians and fitters for aeroplanes, and the physical challenge of operating barrage balloon sites, WAAF members served as radar controllers and worked in Operations Rooms as plotters; tracking incoming enemy aircraft and helping fighter pilots intercept the waves of German bombers who came at night, using the cover of darkness to bomb British towns and cities.

WAAFs would be numbered among the one and a half thousand fatalities ground crews suffered during the war.

Members of the WAAF may not have been allowed to participate in active combat; they did not serve as air crew, but those who worked as ground crew on airbases throughout the country faced very real dangers when those bases were attacked. Three WAAFs were awarded the Military Medal for their courage under fire, when RAF Biggin Hill suffered a period of sustained bombing, in 1940, during the Battle of Britain.  WAAFs would be numbered among the one and a half thousand fatalities ground crews suffered during the war.

Elizabeth Pearce was one of many women who chose a line of work in order to remain close to her family and fiancé.  When her fiancé was turned down by the Air Force and directed to the Aeronautical General Instruments factory in Croydon, she quickly followed suit. Working as a progress chaser in the factory which made transmitters and receivers her hours were longer than those of her fiancé who was in the drawing office and the conditions noisier. Elizabeth recalls:

It was frightening when I first went in. I’d never been in a factory. To see enormous machines and sparks flying. Tiredness was the worst thing. I used to get terribly tired. I felt under surveillance all the time.

'We did work equally as hard – we were in bomb alley - life was hard – didn’t get a thank you'

Like many of her contemporaries, she now reflects on the way some groups of women were treated at the end of the war.

We did work equally as hard – we were in bomb alley - life was hard – didn’t get a thank you. I’ve often thought about this – we were plodding on...for someone to say you didn’t do so badly!

When WAAF numbers were at their highest level, in 1943, over 180,000 women were already members and new recruits were enlisting every week. A year later, having served throughout Britain, WAAF members began to serve overseas, first in Egypt and then, in the wake of the D-Day Landings, in Europe.  At the end of the Second World War, although demobilisation saw the numbers of WAAF members drop dramatically, the association was judged too valuable to be disbanded and in 1949 it reclaimed its First World War title:  the Women’s Royal Air Force; becoming a fully integrated part of the RAF in 1994.

This page was added by Malin Lundin on 19/11/2011.

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