Women's War Work

On 9th September, 1938, the government decided to establish the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service. During the Second World War women served as office, mess and telephone orderlies, drivers, postal workers, butchers, bakers, and ammunition inspectors.

The British government also introduced conscription in 1938. All men aged between 18 and 41 had to register with the government. Government officials then decided whether they should go into the army or do other war work. Most young men were recruited into the armed forces. This created a severe labour shortage and on 18th December 1941, the National Service Act was passed by Parliament. This legislation called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. Later this was extended to married women, although pregnant women and mothers with young children were exempt from this work.

One vital need was for women to work in munitions factories. Other women were conscripted to work in tank and aircraft factories, civil defence, nursing, transport and other key occupations. This involved jobs such as driving trains and operating anti-aircraft guns, that had been traditionally seen as 'men's work'.

"I'm not here all day - I have to go and do part-time housework"Cartoon in a British magazine in June 1943.
"I'm not here all day - I have to go and do part-time housework"
Cartoon in a British magazine in June 1943.

Women could choose to join one of the auxiliary services - Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women's Transport Service (FANY). Women in the ATS served as volunteers with the British Army until given full military status in July 1941.

Women also joined the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) to help in supplying a wide variety of emergency services at home. Another option was to become a member of the Women's Land Army and help on British farms. By 1943 around 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were involved in war work.

Provision was made for women to object to the National Service Act on moral grounds. Of the 6000 people to go on the conscientious objectors register, around 2000 were women. About 500 women were prosecuted for a range of offences, and more than 200 of them were imprisoned.

Primary Sources

(1) Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, attempted to persuade women to volunteer for war work. A report of his speech was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 10th March, 1941.

Making an urgent appeal to women to come forward for war work mainly in shell-filling factories, Mr. Bevin said he did not want them to wait for registration to take effect. He wanted a big response now, especially by those who might not have been in employment before. There was a tendency to hang back and wait for instructions. If he could get the first 100,000 women to come forward in the next fortnight it would be priceless.

"I have to tell the women that I cannot offer them a delightful life, " said Mr. Bevin. "They will have to suffer some inconveniences. But I want them to come forward in the spirit of determination to help us through."

In districts where married women had been in the habit of doing the work the Government had decided to assist them so far as the minding of children was concerned. They had arranged for the rapid expansion through local authorities of day nurseries and they were asking local authorities to prepare immediately a register of "minders".

The married woman would pay only what she paid in pre-war days - about sixpence a day - and the Government would pay an additional sixpence a day for looking after the children.

(2) 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.

(3) Winston Churchill, letter to Secretary of State for War (9th December, 1941)

I have considered carefully your minute to me about the A.T.S., and I am willing that the principles you propose should have a trial. It is up to you to make these batteries attractive to the best elements in the A.T.S. And those who are now being compelled to join the A.T.S. I fear there is a complex against women being connected with lethal work. We must get rid of this. Also there is an idea prevalent among the ladies managing the A.T.S. that nothing must conflict with loyalty to the A.T.S. And that battery esprit de corps is counter to their interest or theme. No tolerance can be shown to this. The prime sphere of the women commanders is welfare, and this should occupy their main endeavours.

The conditions are very bad and rough, and I expect will get worse now that large numbers are being brought into the War Office grip by compulsion or the shadow of compulsion. A great responsibility rests upon you as Secretary of State to see that all these young women are not treated roughly. Mrs. Knox and her assistants should be admirable in all this, but do not let them get in the way of the happy active life of the batteries or deprive women of their incentives to join the batteries and to care as much about the batteries as they do about the A.T.S.

(4) Eric Taylor, Women Who Went to War (1988)

Anti-Aircraft Command was already being denuded of men to reinforce the field units; it was patently clear that there were simply not enough men to go round - demand was outstripping supply. Consequently, to make up for this deficiency in manpower, there was only one course of action open to the Ministry of Labour and National Service: more use would have to be made of womanpower.

From this realization came a new policy: the total manpower resources of the country from then on were to be assessed by counting men and women together. The Secretary of State for War explained this new policy to the House of Commons, prefacing his exposition with the words: "The Auxiliary Territorial Service has proved so valuable to the Army in the replacement of men that the Government has decided to enlarge the range of duties which it performs."

Similar expansion policies were pursued by all the women's Services and, as the manpower situation became increasingly acute, women took over more and more duties and trades to release men for active service. In the ATS, for example, from the five categories of trades open at the outbreak of war there quickly grew over a hundred. For the first time in history women were overcoming doubts about their ability to replace men much needed for other duties. Women became armourers, carpenters, coach-trimmers, draughtsmen, electricians, plotters, radiographers, sheet metal workers, vulcanizers and welders, to quote but a few of the new trades taken over.

(5) Muriel Simkin worked in a munitions factory in Dagenham during the Second World War. She was interviewed about her experiences for the book, Voices from the Past: The Blitz (1987).

We had to wait until the second alarm before we were allowed to go to the shelter. The first bell was a warning they were coming. The second was when they were overhead. They did not want any time wasted. The planes might have gone straight past and the factory would have stopped for nothing.

Sometimes the Germans would drop their bombs before the second bell went. On one occasion a bomb hit the factory before we were given permission to go to the shelter. The paint department went up. I saw several people flying through the air and I just ran home. I was suffering from shock. I was suspended for six weeks without pay.

They would have been saved if they had been allowed to go after the first alarm. It was a terrible job but we had no option. We all had to do war work. We were risking our lives in the same way as the soldiers were.

(6) Kay Ekevall lived in Edinburgh during the Second World War. As a result of the National Service Act she became a welder.

Redpath's had never employed women before the war, as it was considered heavy industry. Women took part in most of the jobs, such as crane-driving, burning, buffing, painting, welding and such-like. I became a welder when there were both men and women trainees, but the men were paid more than the women. We had several battles over equal pay after we were used on the same jobs as the men, many of whom were as new to the skills as we were. By the end of my time we had managed to get close to the men's wage, but we only got equality in the case of the crane-drivers. On the whole the men didn't seem to resent the women, and the skilled men were friendly and helpful to the trainees. As it was an essential work industry, like the railways, I suppose they weren't afraid for their jobs. I believe there was some resentment in other factories at the dilution by cheap labour, and the unions campaigned for equal pay. But in heavy industry like Redpath's, no one thought women would be kept on after the war, so we were in a less vulnerable position. Spot welding in the electrical factories was the only kind of welding work that had been done by women up to then.

(7) Joyce Storey, Joyce's War (1992)

I went to work at the Magna Products at Warmley, a big engineering firm with huge wartime contracts. My first impression of this great all male domain was not a good one, and the dust, grit and grime mingled with a strong smell of oil, along with all the lathes and machinery, awed and scared me. Because of the shortage of men, women were coming into the foundries and into the Works. There were women conductors on the buses taking over until the men came home again, though, at the end of the war, they were not so keen to let go of their new independence. The end of this war brought many unheard and undreamt of changes.

When the sirens sounded, it was works policy to leave the factory and file quickly into the shelters. One day, a bomb made a direct hit on one of the shelters at the Filton Aerodrome works, killing all the people inside. Later that day, all the other employees at Filton had been sent home because of the tragedy. They had arrived home white and shaken, none of them being able coherently to tell the story, and wondering how their friends and workmates could ever be properly buried. The shelters at Filton were never re-opened, but were sealed over and became a tomb.

After that, we were not so inclined to use the shelters at our works but would get right away from the place and run into the fields instead. Some of the men would make a bee-line for the pubs if they were open, but I enjoyed fresh air and the break from the dusty atmosphere of the machine shop. It cleared my head so that I was more alert when I returned.

(8) Stella Hughes, interviewed in June, 2001.

I joined the Voluntary Nursing Service working from the Chingford post most evenings and at weekends in order to do my bit, so to speak, in the war. Five days a week I made soldiers uniforms working for Rego in Edmonton North London and then nursed at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London travelling there by bus. Along with my "indoor and outdoor" uniforms, which I was given I was issued a tin hat (which I had to pay for) but all this made me feel great.

(9) East Grinstead Courier (11th May, 1945)

The women in East Grinstead played a very important part in the life of the community. The Women's Voluntary Service was created at the beginning of the war and gave invaluable help in first-aid and nursing. Despite the fact that East Grinstead was not an industrial district it took an important part in the war by the manufacture of munitions and many women were engaged in the monotonous job for many years. They also replaced men who had joined the Forces, as skilled technicians, took part in the sale and delivery of food, postal work, railway work and service on the buses and other occupations connected with the war effort.

(10) Mary Wollford worked as a railway inspector in Cirencester during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

I think at the end of the war the important issues for women were social equality, questions of education and the health service. These were what brought the Labour government into power in 1945. I think for certain wooden heads the result was a great surprise, but for ordinary people it was not. Prewar life was a different life. People can't really imagine what the class distinctions were like, the misery for instance of being ill and not being able to afford a doctor, or having a child and not being able to afford it. These were great problems. Also of course there was tremendous unemployment, people didn't have money, they couldn't buy food. So, even with war-time restrictions, people were better fed than they had been before. But after the war I think there were a lot of women who were not particularly what you might call women's libbers, they'd been without their menfolk for years, and they were quite glad to get back to producing children.

(11) John Steinbeck, Once There Was A War (1958)

8th July, 1943: The countryside is quiet. The guns are silent. Suddenly the siren howls. Buildings that are hidden in camouflage belch people, young men and women. They pour out, running like mad. The siren has not been going for thirty seconds when the run is over, the gun is manned, the target spotted. In the control room under ground the instruments have found their target. A girl has fixed it. The numbers have been transmitted and the ugly barrels whirled. Above ground, in a concrete box, a girl speaks into a telephone. "Fire," she says quietly. The hillside rocks with the explosion of the battery. The field grass shakes, and the red poppies shudder in the blast. New orders come up from below and the girl says, "Fire."

The process is machine-like, exact. There is no waste movement and no nonsense. These girls seem to be natural soldiers. They are soldiers, too. They resent above anything being treated like women when they are near the guns. Their work is hard and constant. Sometimes they are alerted to the guns thirty times in a day and a night. They may fire on a marauder ten times in that period. They have been bombed and strafed, and there is no record of any girl flinching.

The commander is very proud of them. He is fiercely affectionate toward his battery. He says a little bitterly, "All right, why don't you ask about the problem of morals? Everyone wants to know about that. I'll tell you - there is no problem."

He tells about the customs that have come into being in this battery, a set of customs which grew automatically. The men and the women sing together, dance together, and, let any one of the women be insulted, and he has the whole battery on his neck. But when a girl walks out in the evening, it is not with one of the battery men, nor do the men take the girls to the movies. There have been no engagements and no marriages between members of the battery. Some instinct among the people themselves has told them trouble would result. These things are not a matter of orders but of custom.

The girls like this work and are proud of it. It is difficult to see how the housemaids will be able to go back to dusting furniture under querulous mistresses, how the farm girls will be able to go back to the tiny farms of Scotland and the Midlands. This is the great exciting time of their lives. They are very important, these girls. The defense of the country in their area is in their hands.

(12) Diana Brinton Lee, Mass Observation report (1944)

The demobilisation of the special industrial effort after the war will have to be of a positive as well as a negative nature, maintaining a balance in favour of what we want over what we no longer need. The shifting of women out of war industries as these become no longer necessary, and the drafting of both men and women into the industries of peace, will require nice judgment as well as immense organisation.

Mass-Observation, in a recent survey, has tried to examine the wants and expectations of the women themselves. Do they wish to stay in industry, to what extent, and why?

That women's place is the home, is a slogan that has been used dishonestly in many contexts and circumstances. It is true, nevertheless, that the average human being's idea of a life centres round having a home and children. It is more or less true also that the average human considers the bearing and rearing of a family, combined with looking after a house and husband, a full-time job for a woman, leaving her little time to go out to earn an independent living. In general, therefore, the ranks of female labour have always been recruited on a short-term basis from young unmarried women who wished to keep themselves for a few years with marriage in view, and from a minority of women who for one reason or another had been left without a provider.

The war has changed all this, and has forced women of all classes, and all ages from 18 to 50, to break or neglect home ties, and embark on an independent wage-earning existence.