World War II and The Great War
The Great War, also known as the First World War, which took place predominantly in Europe between 1914 and 1918, was the first war in which entire populations were mobilized. It was a war in which huge numbers of women were conscripted to work in industries which had previously been the sole domain of men.
When the Second World War began, with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it arrived to a far less eager British public. The celebrations seen at the outbreak of The Great War were gone and replaced by a somber reality that this would be a long and hard struggle, without any guarantees of victory against an enemy which was far better motivated and prepared.
It became clear at an early stage, that women would form a central strand to the overall war production and the variety of jobs they performed was to increase to meet the demands faced by increased technological advances and new methods of waging war.
From munitions to farm work, searchlight operators and gunners, women would be thrust into the very front lines of the conflict and would be asked to do some things which would have previously been deemed most unladylike.
For a total war, a nation must utilize every member of its society. World War Two became, perhaps, the only true ‘total war’ as the conflict spread to almost every continent and civilians were as much on the front lines as soldiers.
In fact, more civilians died in countries like the Soviet Union, Poland, and China, than combatants and in Great Britain, the civilian populations of London, Coventry, Manchester, Glasgow and dozens of other towns and cities, were bombed mercilessly by the Luftwaffe as they tried to break the will of the country.
But this targeting of civilian populations in terror bombing was perhaps counter-productive. Instead of breaking their resolve to carry on fighting, it hardened them to hardship and fear.
Instead of creating a population which was cowed by the might of the German armed forces, it served to instill a sense of pride and determination which was carried on into the factories and shipyards. By the time the United States had entered the war and the first US troops arrived in Britain, British women were already a dogged and battle-hardened resource who were both skilled and productive.
The Need for Women
The desperate need for women to do the jobs that men had traditionally done, came about because of conscription to the armed forces. While conscription to the army did not begin until 1916 in the Great War, a limited form was introduced to counter the growing threat from Nazi Germany in 1939.
When war broke out later that year, conscription of men aged between 18 and 41 began in earnest and by 1942 the age limit was raised to 51 for men, while all women between the ages of 18 and 30 were also liable for service, although not in a combat role.
There were exceptions to this call-up, with certain jobs being protected, but even pregnant women were eligible for national service, although in practice this was never enforced.
One of the most important jobs on the so-called ‘Home Front’ was the building of weapons and the manufacture of munitions. As the war progressed, so too did the number of factories, shipyards, and other vital premises. And as more and more men left to fight, the onus fell to women to fill their positions.
With the need for ships came the need for those to build them and as always it fell to women to take part. As Nazi Germany tried to exert a stranglehold on Britain, by cutting off the supply lines from across the Atlantic with their U-boat fleet, it meant that more and more ships were needed.
With women drafted into the shipyards in huge numbers, it meant that the shipyards of Britain could produce almost 1.2 million tons of warships (634 ships of all classes) and around 4.5 million tons of merchant vessels up to the end of 1943.
Indeed, Churchill had mentioned that his greatest fear during all the war years had been the U-boat threat. Following the Luftwaffe’s failure to win the Battle of Britain in 1940, it was Hitler’s best, and only realistic, opportunity to defeat Britain militarily. The conscription of women to this vital industry was undoubtedly crucial.
In munitions factories, too, women worked long hours, often as much as 7 days a week, manufacturing the ammunition, mines, and bombs which were much needed, especially in the early years. This dangerous job meant that accidents were commonplace and many women were killed or seriously injured thus.
Almost a million women worked in the munitions sector alone, often around the clock, in poor and dangerous working conditions and under the threat of air attack for much of the time.
In aircraft, tank and armored vehicle construction, thousands more made the components, rolled the steel, fitted the guns and even designed them in some instances. The result was an enormous increase in the production of these weapons, year on year as the war progressed.
These production lines, mainly occupied by women, were another example of the Home Front mentality and total war production which went a long way to ensuring victory.
The Women’s Land Army was formed in 1939 as a direct need for the country to grow more of its own food. The idea was simply to produce more at home so that the country did not need to import as much.
Known as Land Girls, many of the original volunteers were young women who lived in rural locations and were already used to farm work. But as the war progressed and food shortage became acute, the decision was made to conscript more women to the land Army and eventually, by 1944, there were some 80,000 women serving in it.
The work was extremely hard and living conditions on some of the remote farms were poor, often with no running water or electricity.
Another offshoot to this was the Women’s Timber Corps. With a peak strength of about 6000, the WTC was much smaller than the WLA, but the work was no less arduous and difficult. WTC members were affectionately referred to as Lumber Jills.
Air Raid Wardens
As part of the Civil Defense, Air Raid Wardens were responsible for enforcing the blackout, making sure that no light could be seen by enemy bombers. They also managed air raid sirens and directed people to shelters during bombing raids.
The role was open to both men and women, although typical of the era some of the more dangerous jobs, such as dealing with gas contamination and rescuing those trapped in buildings, were viewed as being unsuitable for women and could only be done by men. This, of course, did not prevent some women from assisting with rescues and taking the same risks as their male counterparts.
During the Blitz and in the following years, women operated searchlights to pick out the German bombers, offering a target for the gunners to try to bring them down.
As with many of the jobs that women were allowed to do, it was met at first with skepticism and doubt. This would often mean that many of the women were posted to rural and quieter areas with poor facilities.
Of course, the fact that they were women did not stop them from being attacked. German fighters were acutely aware of the problems searchlights caused to their bombers and would target installations whenever they could. And while each unit was equipped with a light machine gun to defend itself, women were prohibited from firing them.
So many women performed this role during WWII that a whole Regiment, the 93rd Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery, was made up entirely of women. At its height, the regiment had 1500 women serving in it and was only disbanded in 1945 at the conclusion of the war in Europe.
While women could not be directly conscripted into a traditional combat role, they were allowed to volunteer to fight in other ways. Anti-aircraft units were a common feature in the country, especially during the early years when they were used to defend against German planes.
Many women chose to volunteer for this dangerous job and would occupy positions, firing at aircraft as they passed overhead towards their targets. Later in the war, these same women fired at the German V-weapons as they sped past.
Although women were barred from front-line combat roles in practice, unlike nations such as the Soviet Union, they could join their own branches of the armed forces, such as the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service.
Many women joined these forces and it was not uncommon for them to serve overseas, as well as at home, where they could occasionally find themselves being bombed from the air or to come under attack by other means.
Perhaps the most famous woman to have served with one of these units was Queen Elizabeth II, who, as an 18-year-old, trained as a driver and mechanic in early 1945.
Special Operations Executive
In July 1940, shortly after the fall of France, the British government decided to form what was to be called the Special Operations Executive. This clandestine organization, made up of men and women, was to carry out sabotage, spying and reconnaissance missions in Europe and to assist the resistance movements in occupied countries.
Eileen Nearne, who joined the SOE as a radio operator, was parachuted into occupied France at the age of just 23. She organized weapons drops and liaised with the French resistance but was eventually captured and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She managed to escape near the end of the war and remained in hiding until she was liberated by the Americans. Nearne was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her bravery, the highest military award that France can issue, and was made an MBE by King George VI.
Many women who served in the SOE were not so lucky. Some were captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis. Elaine Plewman, Yolande Beekman, Noor Inayat Khan and Madeleine Damement were all brutally murdered at Dachau, having been captured while on active service.
With the need for men to fight, other opportunities began to open up for women in things like the Women’s Auxiliary Fire Service, Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, and Civil Defense.
These were dangerous jobs, which carried the very real risk of death or serious injury and many at first thought that the jobs were not only unsuitable for women but that they did not possess the physical strength needed to carry out the tasks which were being asked of them. This was to be proven wrong time and again.
Women worked in radar stations, targeting incoming German planes, and as radio operators. They performed vital roles in communications, and as code breakers at the now famous Bletchley Park, where they helped to break the German Enigma Code. The breaking of the code possibly shortened the war by as much as two years.
The employment of British women during World War Two appreciably raised their self-esteem by allowing them to become an integral part of the overall victory. Gone were the housewives of the 1920’s and 30’s and in their place were an army of skilled and resilient workers, farmers, builders, and defenders.
This change in attitudes was the catalyst for other changes in workplace culture and organization and has led directly to the society we see today.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, British society had very clearly defined ideas for the type of work that women should participate in. But with their entry into the munitions industry and other dangerous jobs, the segregation that women had once experienced began to diminish and they became a sought-after commodity.
Without their contribution to the war effort, it would have been impossible for Britain to have survived and gone on, eventually, to what had once seemed like an improbable victory.