Women's Auxiliary Air Force

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was formed in June 1939. The main reason for this service was to release men for combat posts. Women were accepted between the ages of 17 and 44. Between December 1939 and June 1945 numbers increased from 8,800 to 153,000.

The work done by the WAAF covered virtually every activity carried out by men except flying. one of their most important tasks included control over Barrage Balloons.

Women's Auxiliary Air Force poster (1939)
Women's Auxiliary Air Force poster (1939)

Primary Sources

(1) C. G. Grey, Aeroplane Magazine (1941)

We quite agree that there are millions of women in the country who could do useful jobs in war. But the trouble is that so many insist on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and yet can't cook her husband's dinner. There are men like that too so there is no need to charge us with anti-feminism. One of the most difficult types of man with whom one has to deal is the one who has a certain amount of ability, too much self confidence, an overload of conceit, a dislike of taking orders and not enough experience to balance one against the other by his own will. This combination is perhaps more common amongst women than men.

(2) Nina Masel, letter from Preston (25th April, 1941)

Now a member of the WAAF, I find myself with an extraordinary amount of free time on my hands. My job consists for the most part of sitting at a table with ear-phones on my head - waiting. The majority of the girls are intensely bored by the job which is extremely interesting when work comes through, but in which there is very seldom any work to do. We work on shifts of 5-8 hours each and nearly all the men and women keep themselves awake by talking or reading.

The reasons girls gave for joining up - between ourselves of course - not to the officers, - had very little to do with 'doing one's bit'. General boredom with life was the keynote. Nearly everyone said that on the night before she left, she almost decided to back out and that all the way up on the train, she kept thinking 'What a mug I was. Why did I join?' Afterwards, opinion was divided according to how the girls took to the life. There were two deserters one week. But on the whole, those who hated it - small minority - wouldn't go home because of the 'I told you so's of their friends. They had all been discouraged from joining up by their friends. My friends also discouraged me from joining. In the East End it was considered a fine thing to do, almost an honour, but my friends told me I'd be bored. In Romford, on the other hand, the information was received with raised eyebrows. 'The WAAF', I was told, 'is merely the groundsheet for the Army'. There is a WAAF camp near Romford and its reputation was terrible.

(3) A sergeant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, quoted in A Roof Over Britain, The Official History of the AA Defences (1943)

One Saturday we were clearing up the billet when the crackle of machine guns and cannon guns was heard. The men grabbed their rifles and dashed out to the Balloon site. The sky was full ofAA shell bursts while machine guns were going off everywhere. Several balloons were coming down in flames, ours included. The next balloon to us was being hauled down just as fast as the winch could pull it. It was about 800 feet off the ground when one of the Messerschmitt 109s decided that he would try and get it. He swept over our heads and brought it down all right. But as he turned and banked away to sea again he seemed to be standing still in the air for a few seconds. The range was about 700 feet. The NCO yelled 'Fire!' Everyone pumped as many rounds as he could into it. The plane kept straight on with his dive out to sea, while a thin trail of smoke poured out from behind. When we last saw it, it was going down behind a breakwater out to sea. We did not stand about wondering if we had got it as we had a new balloon to inflate and fly. It was when we had finished this and had the balloon barrage up again that we leamt we had been given the credit for shooting down a Messerschmitt 109.

(4) Ada Ryder, interviewed in Women Who Went to War (1988)

The balloon could behave very dangerously, and the weather was the number-one enemy. In high winds we had to 'storm bed' it; that was, to bring it down to the concrete base and anchor it with concrete blocks, each one weighing fifty-six pounds. The nose had always to be in the wind, otherwise it would break away, dragging thousands of feet of steel cable with it. That cable was lethal. The corporal would stand on site, eight of us each by a concrete block, and at her command we'd all move together about six inches at a time. The wind would be howling, rain and hail lashing us, and it would take about two hours to get the balloon into wind. We'd just finish, all tired out, and the wind would change, so out we'd go again. It wasn't funny, I'll tell you, in tin hat, pyjamas, greatcoat over the top, and big boots on our bare feet! Sometimes we were machine-gunned trying to fly the balloon as a raid came in.

(5) Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (1948)

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.