Women in the Workforce During the Second World War: Taking on Men’s Roles

Before the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945) most women looked after the home.

Those that did work were often in what was then considered ‘women’s jobs’, such as nursing, working in shops or being a domestic servant.

With hundreds of thousands of men away fighting, labour shortages became acute. Women were needed to fill men’s roles. Many volunteered, but many more were needed.

Three recruiting posters for the ATS, the WAAF, and the WRNs
Recruiting posters for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Royal Navy Service, offering paid non-combat roles in the armed forces, including some overseas. Public Domain © IWM ART PST3096 / IWM ART PST8286

The National Service Act of December 1941 legalised the conscription of women for war work. At first, only single women aged 20-30 were called up.

Women could opt for work in industries such as in munitions factories, aircraft and tank factories, or in shipbuilding. Farming was also an option.
They might also choose to join one of the uniformed services, either the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, or the Women’s Royal Navy Service.

Sisters Ivy Sumter and Betty Bostock clean a tube train
Sisters Ivy Sumter and Betty Bostock clean a tube train. Ivy’s husband was a train driver on the underground © IWM D9484

By mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women, many juggling jobs with childcare, were employed in essential war work in hundreds of different roles, military and civilian.

The work of women bricklayers is inspected by foremen as they begin work on the second storey of a house
The work of women bricklayers is inspected by foremen as they begin work on the second storey of a house. Several completed houses are seen behind © IWM P153

These included working as builders, engineers, mechanics, pilots, drivers and boat crew, and as well as in communications, air defence, transport, the fire service, the fishing industry, agriculture and intelligence. The pay was generally around two-thirds that of their male counterparts.

Workers at Ruston & Hornsby’s factory, Lincoln, paint a Matilda tank prior to its dispatch to Britain’s ally Russia. The Russian script is a translation of the English words above: ‘Greetings to our allies in USSR.’
Workers at Ruston & Hornsby’s factory, Lincoln, paint a Matilda tank prior to its dispatch to Britain’s ally Russia. The Russian script is a translation of the English words above: ‘Greetings to our allies in USSR.’ © Richard Pullen

After the war ended, many women returned full-time to their domestic lives, with their working contribution (fundamental to helping win the war) largely unacknowledged. But the seeds of social change had been sown and a new role for women in post-war Britain began to emerge.

Joining the Armed Forces

Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

WAAF flight mechanics and Royal Air Force (RAF) mechanics work together on a Bristol Beaufighter Mark VI plane at the Operational Training Unit, Cranfield
WAAF flight mechanics and Royal Air Force (RAF) mechanics work together on a Bristol Beaufighter Mark VI plane at the Operational Training Unit, Cranfield, Bedfordshire. © IWM CH13693

The WAAF – the women’s branch of the Air Force – was created in 1939 to free men from the RAF for front line duties. By late 1943, 183,000 women had joined up.

WAAF trainees learning how to handle a barrage balloon at the No 1 RAF Balloon Training Unit, Cardington, Bedfordshire.
WAAF trainees learning how to handle a barrage balloon at the No 1 RAF Balloon Training Unit, Cardington, Bedfordshire. Barrage balloons were giant tethered balloons, often deployed in large groups, and designed to impede enemy air attacks. © IWM CH7346

Women undertook many key roles in the WAAF. They manoeuvred barrage balloons into position, worked in radar stations, and were meteorological officers forecasting the weather before Allied air raids on Germany.

They interpreted aerial reconnaissance photographs of enemy targets before such raids and debriefed crews when they returned.

As flight mechanics, women checked and maintained aircraft, and signed certificates of airworthiness.

WAAF plotters and duty officers at work in the Operations Room at RAF Fighter Command’s No. 10 Group Headquarters, Rudloe Manor, Wiltshire, 1943
WAAF plotters and duty officers at work in the Operations Room at RAF Fighter Command’s No. 10 Group Headquarters, Rudloe Manor, Wiltshire, 1943 © IWM CH11887

WAAF members also worked as plotters, receiving information from radar stations and the Observer Corps about the number and direction of incoming enemy aircraft. Plotters tracked these raids in real-time, pushing round wooden markers – each representing a raid – on a large table map. Based on the intelligence, RAF fighters would quickly be deployed to do battle with the enemy.

Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)

ATS crew in charge of an anti-aircraft searchlight used to spot enemy bombers, 28 February 1944.
ATS crew in charge of an anti-aircraft searchlight used to spot enemy bombers, 28 February 1944. Such women were nicknamed ‘ack-ack girls’. One regiment, the 93rd Searchlight Regiment, was unique in being entirely female © IWM H36315

The ATS, with its roots in the First World War, was re-established in 1938. It was the women’s branch of the Army and the largest of the women’s services. More than 250,000 women had served in the ATS by the end of the war.

ATS mechanics manoeuvring a turret onto a Churchill tank at a Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot
ATS mechanics manoeuvring a turret onto a Churchill tank at a Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot, 10 October 1942 © IWM H24517

Initially, women took on traditional female roles such as clerks or cooks. But as more men left to fight and women were conscripted, the roles multiplied to include mechanics, radar operators, military police and drivers.

Many were involved in air defence – helping operate anti-aircraft guns, locating enemy aircraft and controlling the guns’ targeting. Officially they never fired at the enemy during raids. That was a job reserved for their male colleagues.

Princess Elizabeth (the current queen), in 1945 aged 19, at the Mechanical Transport Training Centre
Princess Elizabeth (the current queen), in 1945 aged 19, at the Mechanical Transport Training Centre, Camberley, Surrey © IWM TR2835

Princess Elizabeth was the most famous member of the ATS during the war, along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary Churchill. Elizabeth trained as a driver and mechanic, and was a 2nd Subaltern, before reaching the rank of Junior Commander.

Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, nicknamed WRENS)

Four Wrens move a torpedo for loading onto a submarine at Portsmouth, Hampshire, 29 September 1943
Four Wrens move a torpedo for loading onto a submarine at Portsmouth, Hampshire, 29 September 1943 © IWM A19470

The WRNS, originally formed in 1918, was the women’s branch of the Navy. At its peak in 1944, there were 74,000 serving Wrens in around 200 different jobs.

Wrens maintained and repaired ships; were weather forecasters, signallers and radar operators; trained as welders and carpenters.

A Wren radio mechanic prepares for a flight to test new radio equipment
A Wren radio mechanic prepares for a flight to test new radio equipment © IWM A9115

Those with language skills were based at naval stations round the coast to intercept and translate enemy signals. Other worked at the top secret Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, where Britain broke secret German and Japanese military codes.

Wren coxswain, June Saunders, stands ready to moor her launch, Plymouth, Devon, November 1944
Wren coxswain, June Saunders, stands ready to moor her launch, Plymouth, Devon, November 1944 © IWM A26516

Wrens were not allowed on ships that were on active service. However, they did command and crew the duty boats – the small harbour launches that plied between anchored ships at sea and the shore, in all weathers, day & night. Wrens also served as coastal spotters of enemy mines.

21 year old Wren coxswain, Pat Turner, photographed Plymouth, Devon, 7 July 1944
21 year old Wren coxswain, Pat Turner, photographed Plymouth, Devon, 7 July 1944 © IWM A24604

Many Wrens were involved in the planning and organisation of naval operations, including the D-Day landings – the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Pat Turner earned the unofficial title of ‘Chief Wren Pilot’ at Plymouth where she was given the job of piloting flotillas of invasion craft up and down the River Plym as part of the invasion preparations.

Civilian roles

Women’s Land Army (WLA)

Recruiting poster for the Women's Land Army
Recruiting poster for the Women’s Land Army © IWM ART PST6078

The Women’s Land Army, originally founded in the First World War, was revived June 1939. At its peak, there were 80,000 members. The WLA was a civilian force and these ‘Land Girls’ wore a green jersey, brown breeches, a brown felt hat and khaki overcoat.

The government urgently needed to increase the amount of home-grown food. Merchant vessels carrying essential foodstuffs to Britain were at the mercy of enemy attacks and there was a danger that the country could starve. Able-bodied men had been conscripted and there was a shortage of workers in agriculture. Members of the WLA took their place.

Land Girls ploughing a field with tractors on a farm in Hertfordshire. Machinery was often in short supply and ploughing was also done the traditional way using horse-drawn hand ploughs.
Land Girls ploughing a field with tractors on a farm in Hertfordshire. Machinery was often in short supply and ploughing was also done the traditional way using horse-drawn hand ploughs. © IWM HU36275

Land Girls ploughed the fields, planted and harvested crops, looked after dairy and beef herds and poultry. It was hard dirty work, with long hours, in all weather and conditions.

WLA rat catchers, Sussex, 1942. Land Girls Audrey Prickett and Betty Long (in background) plug a rat hole after inserting poison, while Eileen Barry (foreground) lays bait
WLA rat catchers, Sussex, 1942. Land Girls Audrey Prickett and Betty Long (in background) plug a rat hole after inserting poison, while Eileen Barry (foreground) lays bait © IWM D11256

Vermin posed a serious threat to food supplies and animal fodder during wartime. Teams of Land Girls were trained as anti-vermin squads, killing not just rats, but also foxes, rabbits and moles.

WLA rat catchers, Sussex, 1942. Land Girls Audrey Prickett and Betty Long (in background) plug a rat hole after inserting poison, while Eileen Barry (foreground) lays bait
Land Girl Iris Joyce leading a bull on an unidentified farm. Iris had originally been a typist, but after 4 weeks training at the Northampton Institute of Agriculture she was capable of working on a farm © IWM D8839

20,000 women had volunteered to serve in the WLA by the autumn of 1941. One third of these came from London and other big metropolitan areas. It may be that the WLA offered the lure of a healthy outdoor life away from crowded urban living and the dangers of air raids.

Two members of the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) saw timber
Two members of the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) saw timber, Culford, Suffolk © IWM D14101

The WTC was a specialist branch of the Women’s Land Army set up in 1942. The 6,000 women members, known as ‘Lumber Jills’, were forestry workers and able to operate saw mills. The arduous work involved surveying woodland and identifying suitable trees for felling, heavy haulage with tractors and horses, and sawing wood for telegraph poles and pit props for the mining industry.

Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)

Pauline Gower in the cockpit of a De Havilland Tiger Moth
Pauline Gower, Commandant of the ATA Women’s Section, in the cockpit of a De Havilland Tiger Moth at Hatfield, Hertfordshire © IWM C380

The ATA, headquartered at White Waltham, Berkshire, took over all the ferrying of military aircraft from factories to RAF airfields during the war, as well as the ferrying between airfields.

The first pilots of the ATA walking past newly completed Tiger Moths awaiting delivery © IWM C382
The first pilots of the ATA walking past newly completed Tiger Moths awaiting delivery © IWM C382

It was notable that 188 of the 1,245 ATA pilots were women. Ferry pilots flew a range of aircraft, from bi-planes to Spitfires and heavy Lancaster bombers.

As ATA pilots were required to fly the unarmed aircraft within sight of land below, they were not taught how to fly with instruments. They had no navigational aids or radios, just maps and a compass. They flew blind in all weathers.

National Fire Service (NFS)

Women were not officially permitted to fight fires, but they were often very close to the action during and after bombing raids. They were given basic training to deal with emergency situations
Women were not officially permitted to fight fires, but they were often very close to the action during and after bombing raids. They were given basic training to deal with emergency situations © London Fire Brigade

The pre-war Auxiliary Fire Service became the National Fire Service in 1941. Within two years 90,000 women across the country had enrolled.

Women NFS dispatch riders in London
Women NFS dispatch riders in London © London Fire Brigade

Motorcycle despatch riders would carry messages between fire control and fire stations. Bombing caused damage to water, gas, power and telephone lines, so communications about the location and strength of fires had to be given verbally. 

It could be a dangerous job, often riding in the black-out, along roads with no signage, sometimes during bombing raids.

NFS driver Gillian Tanner, painted by Mary Pitcairn
NFS driver Gillian Tanner, painted by Mary Pitcairn. © London Fire Brigade

When the Blitz started September 1940, NFS driver Gillian Tanner was tasked with driving petrol lorries, which had no power steering or headlights, along dangerous bomb-cratered roads to refuel fire engines during bombing raids. She was later awarded the George Cross for bravery.

Memorial to working women

The 6.7 metre high bronze Women of World War II memorial, Whitehall, London
The 6.7 metre high bronze Women of World War II memorial, Whitehall, London. Sculpted by John W. Mills and unveiled 9 July 2005 by the queen © Andrew Shiva

This memorial commemorates the work of women in the Second World War.

The seventeen sets of uniform and clothing arranged round the memorial represent the hundreds of jobs undertaken by women during the war, and include those of the three women’s services, along with the Women’s Land Army, police overalls, nursing cape and welder’s mask.

The plaque reads: ‘This memorial was raised to commemorate the vital work done by over seven million women during World War II.’ The lettering replicates that used on wartime ration books © IWM 51288

Working women paid a heavy price for their war effort: 335 members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, as well as 187 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and 303 of the Women’s Royal Naval Service were killed in the war. 25 women from the National Fire Service and 15 women pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary also lost their lives.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further Reading

5 responses to Women in the Workforce During the Second World War: Taking on Men’s Roles

  1. Moyra Bunger says:

    My 98 year old Mother was in the ATS as a plotter, she always says it was one of the best times of her life.

  2. Janet Gyford says:

    I knew a woman who said she had actually been on ships in action. she was a photographer and was required to take photos of where they were going (I think !)
    Her words are on my website and I could point you at them if you like. But maybe you have wound up your work, it’s very interesting, thank you. And great photos.

  3. Andrew More says:

    Worth noting as well that many (most? all?) women had to leave school at fourteen during the war and so entered working life without any formal qualifications like the wartime equivalent of GCSEs and A-levels etc. This certainly applied to my late mother and her younger sister (who just turned ninety a few days ago). In their case, all they ever got later in life by way of a qualification were their driving licences. An entire generation thus missed out on their education – who knows what could have been…

    • Janet Gyford says:

      Sad but very true. And even before they were 14, their ‘choice’ of elementary education was influenced by the family’s economic and social status. For a variety of reasons, only the children who were well-placed already went to High Schools etc

  4. Roger Bruton says:

    THE ATA initials was at first “Ancient Tattered Airmen- one old pilot actually only had one arm, but soon replaced by anything Anywhere”

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