Course of History

Women in World War Two

Women in World War Two

As in World War One, women played a vital part in this country's success in World War Two. But, as with World War One, women at the end of World War Two, found that the advances they had made were greatly reduced when the soldiers returned from fighting abroad.

At the end of World War Two, those women who had found alternate employment from the normal for women, lost their jobs. The returning soldiers had to be found jobs and many wanted society to return to normal. Therefore by 1939, many young girls found employment in domestic service - 2 million of them, just as had happened in 1914. Wages were still only 25p a week.

When women found employment in the Civil Service, in teaching and in medicine they had to leave when they got married.

However, between the wars, they had got full voting equality with men when in 1928 a law was passed which stated that any person over the age of 21 could vote - male and female.

The war once again gave women the opportunity to show what they could do.

Evacuation:

Young mothers with young children were evacuated from the cities considered to be in danger. In all, 3.5 million children were evacuated though many went with a teacher. As young children were normally taught by females, many of those who went with the children were women. The fact that women were seen to be the people who taught the youngest was something that had been going on for years.

The Women's Land Army:

As in World War One, women were called on to help on the land and the Women's Land Army (WLA) was re-formed in July 1939. Their work was vital as so many men were being called up into the military.

WLA Service dress

In August 1940, only 7,000 women had joined but with the crisis caused by Hitler's U-boats, a huge drive went on from this date on to get more women working on the land. Even Churchill feared that the chaos caused by the U-boats to our supplies from America would starve out Britain.

The government tried to make out that the work of the WLA was glamorous and adverts showed it as this. In fact, the work was hard and young women usually worked in isolated communities. Many lived in years old farm workers cottages without running water, electricity or gas. Winter, in particular, could be hard especially as the women had to break up the soil by hand ready for sowing. However, many of the women ate well as there was a plentiful supply of wild animals in the countryside - rabbit, hares, pheasant and partridges. They were paid 32 shillings a week - about £1.60.

The recruiting poster for the ATS banned by Churchill

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force:

Women who joined the Royal Air Force were in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). They did the same as the ATS (cooking, clerical work etc) but the opportunities were there for slightly more exciting work. Some got to work on Spitfires. Others were used in the new radar stations used to track incoming enemy bomber formations. These radar sites were usually the first target for Stuka dive-bombers so a post in one of these radar stations could be very dangerous. However, the women in this units were to be the early warning ears and eyes of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. For all of this, women were not allowed to train to be pilots of war planes. Some were members of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) which flew RAF planes from a factory to a fighter squadron's base. There were 120 women in this unit out of 820 pilots in total. The women had fewer crashes than male pilots but they were not welcome as the editor of the magazine “Aeroplane” made clear : they (women ATA) “do not have the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly.” He , C.G. Grey, claimed that they were a “menace” when flying.

Secret Agents:

Women were also used as secret agents. They were members of SOE (Special Operations Executive) and were usually parachuted into occupied France or landed in special Lysander planes. Their work was exceptionally dangerous as just one slip could lead to capture, torture and death. Their work was to find out all that they could to support the Allies for the planned landings in Normandy in June 1944. The most famous female SOE members were Violette Szabo and Odette Churchill. Both were awarded the George Cross for the work they did - the George Cross is the highest bravery award that a civilian can get. Both were captured and tortured. Violette Szabo was murdered by the Gestapo while Odette Churchill survived the war.

Entertainment:

Women were also extremely important in entertainment. The two most famous female entertainers during the war were Vera Lynn (now Dame Vera Lynn) and Gracie Fields. Vera Lynn's singing (“There'll be blue birds over the White Cliffs of Dover” and “We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when”) brought great happiness to many in Britain. She was known as the “Forces Sweetheart”. Gracie Fields was another favourite with the forces.

1945:

The war in Europe ended in May 1945. At this time there were 460,000 women in the military and over 6.5 million in civilian war work. Without their contribution, our war effort would have been severely weakened and it is probable that we would not have been able to fight to our greatest might without the input from women. Ironically, in Nazi Germany, Hitler had forbidden German women to work in German weapons factories as he felt that a woman's place was at home. His most senior industry advisor, Albert Speer, pleaded with Hitler to let him use German female workers but right up to the end, Hitler refused. Hitler was happy for captured foreign women to work as slaves in his war factories but not German. Many of these slave workers, male and female, deliberately sabotaged the work that they did - so in their own way they helped the war effort of the Allies.

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