During the Second World War thousands of women from Britain and the Commonwealth served in uniform or in some direct capacity to assist with the war effort. None were fighters, but they were on the front line as WW2 saw the Home Front become as deadly as the battlefield. The images here featured in an article in Life magazine in 1939 showing the different roles British women were involved in and are presented here with more information as to what they depict than was possible under censorship at the start of the war.
1. Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)
The Auxiliary Territorial Service or ATS was the only unit of the British Army women could join during the Second World War from the outbreak of the conflict in 1939. Formed in 1938, the ATS enabled women between the ages of 17 and 43 to join, although later some women up to the age of 50 also enlisted in the ATS. By 1941 more than 65,000 had enlisted and ATS personnel had served in the Battle of France and Dunkirk in 1940, as well as in North Africa.
The bulk of personnel operated on the Home Front and with the introduction of the National Service Act in December 1941 young women between 20 and 30 were conscripted and sent to serve in the ATS or similar branches for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Many ATS personnel manned anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and sound ranging equipment on the front line of Blitzed Britain, as well as drove vehicles, worked in vital War Office roles, and it’s most famous member during WW2 was Her Majesty The Queen. By the close of the war in Europe in May 1945 the ATS numbered over 190,000 women.
2. Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS)
The Women’s Voluntary Services or WVS was a voluntary service for women enabling them to assist with war related work. There were no ranks in the WVS and thousands of women from different backgrounds served side by side whether they were a Duchess or a Dressmaker. From 1939 the WVS helped with the evacuation of children from areas that were potentially under threat from bombing, and once the Blitz began they provided food and drink to those working on the front line in Britain night and day. WVS canteens and mobile food provision did a massive amount for morale for those working under Nazi bombs and the civilians affected by them.
But working with the WVS was far from a safe job: some 241 members of the WVS died in the Blitz and are commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. By the end of the war tens of thousands of women had joined the WVS, of all ages and backgrounds.
3. Air Raid Precautions (ARP)
Few realise that thousands of women were involved in Air Raid Precautions, or ARP, across Britain from 1939. The popular image is Warden Hodges from Dad’s Army, but the reality was very different. ARP preparations began in the years before the outbreak of war and in many areas women were at the heart of it, and that role only increased as the war moved on.
4. The Night Watch: Ambulance Drivers
Women who served in ATS drove ambulances throughout WW2, but during the Blitz a large number were volunteers in the Ambulance Service which worked alongside the ARP. These images show women of the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service who worked tireless during the dark days, and nights, of the Blitz.
Peggy Crowther, an Ambulance driver during the Blitz recalled her work;
” I was never frightened. I took my ambulance out when nobody else would. So many people joined the ambulance service because they thought they could go down the cellar until the blitz was over, then go out and deal with the casualties. But you don’t. You have to go out as soon as the bombs drop, because that’s when the people need to be saved. Otherwise they die. I remember the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road being hit when it was packed with soldiers home on leave. We were stationed just behind the theatre, and I led the convoy. A lot of the dead and injured were in uniform. They’d been laid out down the side of the road with a rug over them, and you just had to find out yourself if they were alive or dead.”
Nurses are arguably the most common aspect of service that people think of when it comes to the Second World War. In 1939 military nurses serving with the British armed forces belonged to the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), otherwise knowns as QAs.
In addition there were nurses with the British Red Cross. Along with the QAs, they served in hospitals and on ambulance trains, and the QAs went on active service in every theatre of war.
6. The Land Army
Originally established in the First World War, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed in 1939 to provide additional agricultural labour when men who worked on the land were called up for service. The need for Britain to feed itself after the fall of Europe in 1940 only heightened this and the role and importantance of the WLA only increased.
Formed initially from volunteers, following the National Service Act of 1941 single women between 20 and 30 were called up for service in the WLA and by the end of the war this age range was expanded from 19 to 43. Women who served in the Land Army were soon known as ‘Land Girls’ and were paid £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours work a week. Over 80,000 were serving by 1944 and while the image of the WLA is women tending the fields, a quarter of all Land Girls worked in dairies.