Women at War 100

On 7 July 1917 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) became the British Army’s first all-female unit. Scroll down to discover how the role of women in the Armed Forces has developed over the last 100 years and learn more about the women who pushed the boundaries.

Scroll down
  • 7 Jul, 1917
    Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) – the first all-women unit in the British Army - is officially instituted, later renamed Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC)
    10536991 - WAAC POSTER - Mary Evans.jpg
    Mary Evans Picture Library
  • Jul, 1917

    WAACs first commanders

    It was giant step for womankind: Britain’s first all-female military unit, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). More than 57,000 served from July 1917-1921, including 10,000 in France. Its historic success was secured by two women ahead of their time: Alexandra “Mona” Chalmers Watson and Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. Scientists, suffragists, pioneers; the WAAC controllers fought to convince patriarchal Edwardian society that women must have a more equal place in the world.


    They were cut from the same Scottish cloth: Mona Geddes, from a high-achieving Edinburgh family and Helen Fraser, product of an ancient line of Ayrshire and Aberdeen aristocrats. Yet their personalities could not have been more different; Mona was good-humoured and encouraging while Helen was statuesque and abrasive. They complimented each other perfectly.


    Mona was born in India in 1872, her father a civil engineer and her mother a trailblazer for women’s education. Mona was the first woman at Edinburgh University to qualify as a doctor, delaying her wedding to Dr Douglas Chalmers Watson so she could write MD on her marriage certificate. She was a suffragist but never involved in direct action, believing that women should simply show they could equal men. The war was her perfect chance.


    In December 1916, the army asked for 12,000 behind-the-lines roles to be filled by women. Mona was chosen to lead the new WAAC but, with two young sons, was unwilling to go abroad.


    Helen Fraser, by then Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, a 38-year-old widow, was made overseas controller. Helen had military in her blood. Born in London in 1879, her father was a Scots Guards captain. She studied botany at King’s College, London, and, while campaigning as a moderate suffragist, became an expert on fungi. When she met Mona in February 1917 she said it was “the realisation of a dream”. Despite opposite personalities, the two became friends.


    The WAAC was formally established on 7 July 1917. Mona said: “It is an advance of the women’s movement and a national advance. Women have a direct share in the task of our armies.”


    The 57,000 WAACs served in a variety of positions including drivers, clerks, signallers, cooks, bakers, orderlies, waitresses, codebreakers, printers, gardeners, domestics, typists and phone operators.


    Mona resigned in early 1918, citing too many commitments. That year the WAAC was re-named Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Disbanded in 1921, it paved the way for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in which 190,000 women served during the Second World War.


    Helen led the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918 before returning to academic life. Between attempts to become an MP, she served on government committees and became one of the most distinguished women of her age.


    When the Second World War came she was made head of the ATS, stepping down in 1941 amid allegations that she was out of touch. After the war she continued in public service and died aged 88 at a Sussex RAF nursing home. 


    Mona, one of the first women CBEs, continued to campaign with many organisations. In 1923, she and her husband pioneered TB-free dairy herds using methods which were adopted across Europe.


    She died in Kent in 1936 aged 54. Mona told a friend: “It’s been an honour to have lived through such great times for women and know the generation after us will not have the same fight for liberty.”


    Read more about women in WW1 and how their actions helped to change the role of women in Britain.

    Read more
    39GET562630915 - HELEN G VAUGHAN - Getty.jpg
    Photo by Gerry Cranham / Fox Photos / Getty Images
  • 1 Apr, 1918
    Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) formed
  • 29 May, 1918
    Nine QMAACs become the first British women to die on active military service when their trench is hit by a German bombing raid on Abbeville, France
  • 12 Nov, 1918

    Life as a First World War nurse

    Born in Deal, Kent, in 1877, Sister Edith Appleton served in France with the elite Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. Edith was gazetted for the Royal Red Cross in 1918 and awarded a military OBE. Her diaries leading up to the end of the war on 12 November 1918 give a profound insight into the life of a First World War nurse, starkly exposing the suffering of the wounded and dying – as well as the quirks and distractions of life at the front.


    15 April 1915

    Our men made an attack last night and we heard the heavy firing that covered their advance – it shook the houses. I missed tea and dinner because we were too busy in the theatre… with so many amputations or arms and legs and insides cut and packed in.


    19 May 1915

    Ypres is dead, a silent town of broken and burnt houses and destroyed streets. A man who was shot in the spine has been dying by inches – nay, sixteenth of inches. And is not dead yet. His brain and abdominal muscles are the only non-paralysed parts of him now.


    One of the most striking aspects of Edith’s diary is the way she writes about death. Often, understandably, she is inured to it. But sometimes, it is crushingly intimate.


    12 March 1916

    My poor little boy, Kerr, died today. He had been in 15 days, suffering from gas, pneumonia, bronchitis... but only the day before yesterday he realised that he was not going to get well. He kept whispering all sorts of messages for home and his fiancée – then he would call, ‘Sister’, and when I bent down to hear, ‘I do love you… will you kiss me?’ I did kiss the boy – first for his mother and then for myself – which pleased him.


    One of Edith’s patients – 24-year-old Rifleman James Lennox of 12 Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles – clung to life for more than 40 days. Her description shows that, while she had nursed hundreds of dying men, she could still be deeply affected by individual cases.


    13 July 1916

    I fear one boy may not get better. He has pneumonia caused by a lump of lead in his left lung and I suppose they will not be able to operate. He is so blue and bad, poor dear.


    21 July 1916

    My ill boy is … simply being poisoned by his own system. He talked more yesterday but does not look right and has such a quick pulse. I think he will die quite soon.


    4 August 1916

    Had a letter from the mother of my ill boy. She asks that he write just two words to her and she will feel more content. So I went back, in case he is not there this morning, and helped him do it. It is a poor little five-word scrawl, but I hope it will please her poor soul.


    20 August 1916

    Poor Lennox… only his heart and eyes are alive, but the rest of him is dead, poor dear.


    23 August 1916

    Lennox died soon after 8 o'clock last night. Never have I seen such a slow, painful death. It was as if the boy was chained to Earth for punishment. I am very glad for [him] to be away.


    Edith’s diaries after November 1916 are missing. When they resume, in June 1918, she is on the Normandy coast in a hospital at Le Tréport, near Abbeville.


    19 August 1918

    The two poor spines are dying so slowly – one, an old sergeant, is quite happily rambling on to his wife, a queer old fish who looks almost reprovingly at him for dying. The other is an Australian and really a most handsome fair lad – 24 years old yesterday. He is a marvel – can't feel a single thing below his chest, but his upper part is always happy, content and cheerful.


    12 November 1918

    Peace! Thank God for that! It feels very queer too, as if your elastic had snapped. Here endeth the fighting part of the war – GOD SAVE THE KING!

    Edith continued nursing in London after the war. In 1923, she settled in the village of Brighstone, Isle of Wight and three years later, aged 49, married Lt Cmdr Jack Bonsor Ledger, a stepson of an elder sister. She died aged 80 in 1958.


    For more on Edith visit anurseatthefront.org.uk.

    Read more
  • 17 Feb, 1919
    The first Metropolitan Police Women Patrol comes into service in London. It was comprised of 110 women on a year-long experimental contract, however they had no power of arrest
  • Apr, 1920
    WRAF is disbanded just two years after its formation
  • 1 May, 1920
    QMAAC officially disbanded with one unit remaining active until 1921
  • 31 May, 1920
    Forty members of QMAAC awarded the OBE
  • 1921
    Whilst organisations such as QMAAC were disbanded at the end of the First World War, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (now the Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps) was independent and self-funded, so remained active
    FANY.83365927 - FANY - Getty.jpg (1)
    FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • 1923
    Women in the Police are attested and given the power of arrest for the first time
  • 9 Sep, 1938
    Formed in 1938, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was the women’s branch of the British Army during the Second World War and counted HRH Princess Elizabeth amongst its members. It was succeeded by the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1949
    10512514 - HRH Princess Elizabeth - Mary Evans.jpg
    © Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans
  • 1939
    Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) founded
  • Jun, 1939

    The Women's Land Army

    It was a battle with no guns and few casualties but it was one of the most vital of the Second World War. At its height the Women’s Land Army had more than 80,000 at the “front” – farm workers who took the place of men to help save Britain from starvation. They were called the Land Girls.


    Gertrude Denman summed it up: “The land army fights in the fields. It is in the fields that the most critical battle of the war may well be fought and won.”


    Baroness Denman, suffragist and public service veteran, had helped run Britain’s first Women’s Land Army as president of the Women’s Institute in 1917. In 1938 the Ministry of Agriculture asked Gertrude to do it again – this time as honorary director – and in June 1939 the army was re-formed.


    The 54-year-old set up HQ at her home, a Victorian pile in West Sussex, and by December 4,500 Land Girls were at work. They fought with hoes, spades and tractors. Around 6,000 joined the Timber Corps, chopping trees and running sawmills.


    When conscription began in December 1941, women could choose between the military and the Women’s Land Army. Earlier that year, as U-boats wreaked havoc with Atlantic supply convoys, Britain was days away from running out of food.


    The Land Girls were mainly aged between 17 and 30, from middle and working class backgrounds, and a third came from the big cities. They lived at farms or hostels and learned on the job.


    The uniform, with wheat sheaf badge, was not compulsory although many wore it – the Women’s Land Army was the only service that allowed trousers. There was also a magazine and a song:


    Back to the Land, we must all lend a hand,
    To the farms and the fields we must go,
    There's a job to be done,
    Though we can't fire a gun,
    We can still do our bit with the hoe.


    A government slogan proclaimed: “For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army.”


    The reality could be different; hours were long and pay was poor. In 1939, women got 28/- (£1.40) for a 50-hour week, 10/- (50p) less than the average farm wage. Half of that went on food and accommodation and as the women were paid by farmers, they often received even less.


    Some were under-fed; farmers’ wives controlling the girls’ ration books and selling their share on the black market. Many women were embraced as daughters; others were treated harshly. Living conditions too were varied; stories abounded of pest-infested rooms or no water or electricity.


    Ill feeling was rife at first; male workers resented women doing “men’s work” and local females felt threatened. But as the Land Girls proved their worth, problems fell away. Almost all looked back on their service fondly, revelling in the independence of leaving home and earning money.


    The Women’s Land Army was disbanded in October 1949. In 2000, after years of campaigning, former Land Girls were allowed to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Eight years later more than 45,000 veterans’ badges were issued.

    Read more
    10583025 - WOMENS LAND ARMY - Mary Evans.jpg
    © Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans
  • 1941

    Fighting the Nazis at 65

    Flora Sandes was the only British woman to serve as a combat soldier in the First World War. Wounded fighting as a sergeant with the Serbian army in 1916, she was awarded the country’s highest honour for bravery and became a national hero. In 1941, aged 65, Flora enlisted again – to fight the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.


    Flora Sandes did not want to be a girl. Each night as a child, the rector’s daughter would pray she would wake up a boy. Born in 1876 near York, Flora grew up with a passion for shooting and riding. She dreamed of being a soldier, inspired by Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, and was determined Edwardian convention would not stop her.


    Flora moved to Thornton Heath, South London, in 1895, becoming a secretary and joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. In London in 1908, she became one of the first women to get a driving licence and bought a fast French car. With her blonde hair short, she called herself “Jack” and was “over-fond” of alcohol and cigarettes.


    Flora was 38 when, in July 1914, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. It was everything she had been waiting for. She paid her way to Serbia to work as a nurse and by October 1915, with the Serbian army losing ground, she announced she wanted to fight. Flora was enlisted as a private – the only British woman to fight in the First World War.


    Showing impressive courage in battle, Flora was promoted to sergeant. In November 1916, in hand-to-hand fighting near Monastir, she was badly wounded by a grenade, suffering a shattered arm and 28 shrapnel wounds.


    She was awarded the Order of the Star of Karađorđe, Serbia’s highest decoration. Her exploits made the papers, turning her into a celebrity; in Thornton Heath there is still a pub named The Flora Sandes.


    Flora worked in hospitals for the rest of the war and afterwards stayed in Serbia, commissioned as a captain. “I never loved anything so much in my life,” she said. Demobilised in 1922, she was lost as a civilian. “I felt neither fish nor flesh out of the army,” she said.


    In 1927, Flora married Yuri Yudenich, a Russian army colonel 12 years her junior. She settled in Belgrade, where she was the city’s first woman taxi driver, and toured England, Australia and North America, giving lectures on her experiences.


    When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Flora, then aged 65, was recalled to military service but when the country fell in just two weeks, she was arrested and had to report to the Gestapo for the rest of the war.


    Yuri died in 1941 and when war ended Flora left for Rhodesia, where her nephew Dick was a police officer.


    Later she moved to Wickham Market, Suffolk, where in her late 70s she would buzz about in an electric wheelchair. She died aged 80 in 1956 but never lost her lust for adventure; a few weeks before her death she had renewed her passport.

    Read more
    160360391 - FLORA SANDES - Getty.jpg
    Popperfoto / Getty Images
  • Apr, 1941
    ATS pay structure brought in line with the Army – women were only allowed 2/3 of men’s basic pay
  • Jul, 1941
    ATS given full military status and members were no longer classed as volunteers
  • Dec, 1941
    National Service Act passed, calling up women aged 20-30 to join one of the three main auxiliary services, the Women’s Voluntary Service (Home Front) or the Women’s Land Army
    10220981 - ALL SERVICES - Mary Evans.jpg
    © Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans
  • 1943
    Introduction of the 'Land Girls Charter' entitled women to one week's holiday per year and raised the minimum wage
  • 1943
    WAAF membership peaks at 182,000 – the majority of women aged 18-40 with 48 nationalities represented. By 1946 187 members of WAAF had been killed on duty
    1371218 - WAAF - Topfoto.jpg
    1371218 TopFoto.co.uk
  • 1943


    Joy Lofthouse and Mary Ellis were part of a select band of women in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) who piloted planes in the Second World War. Known as ‘Attagirls’, they moved thousands of aircraft all over Britain at a time when it was thought strange for a female even to want to fly.


    The ground crew ran towards the bomber as it trundled to a halt. When Mary Ellis climbed from the cockpit, the men were shocked. “Where’s the pilot?” they asked. “I am the pilot!”, she replied. The men’s surprise was understandable; women were simply not expected to fly planes.


    “They could not believe a slim, blonde 5ft 2in female was flying such a giant aircraft,” remembered Mary.


    It was just another day in a dream job for Mary, who flew thousands of hours in 56 types of plane, including Spitfires, Hurricanes and Wellington bombers. The ATA – motto Anything to Anywhere – was a civilian unit that moved more than 300,000 aircraft between factories and airfields. Of its 650 pilots, 164 were women, 14 of whom lost their lives.


    Mary, a farmer’s daughter from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, yearned to fly from an early age: “I was four when I began to wonder why birds could reach the sky and I couldn’t.” She had her first flight aged eight in 1925, began lessons as a teenager and joined the ATA in 1941.

    Women pilots were rare. In 1940 after much lobbying, Pauline Gower, aviator, writer and MP’s daughter, was put in charge of a female section of the ATA. Soon all available women pilots were recruited and the ATA looked further afield, which is where Joy came in.


    Daughter of a pro footballer, Joy was 16 when war broke out, working at Lloyd’s bank in her home town of Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Joy joined the ATA in 1943 after spotting a magazine article about a shortage of pilots.


    The Attagirls received the same pay as the ATA men, the first time that had happened in Britain. Joy said: “The emphasis for women was on marriage and children. War gave us something we’d never had: independence. We were trailblazers for women’s emancipation.”


    Joy, who married a hero bomber pilot and worked as a teacher after the war, flew 18 different types of aircraft.


    Mary had several close calls. Once she was intercepted by a German plane whose pilot was so shocked to see a woman flying he didn’t shoot at her. She married a glider instructor and for 20 years was boss of Sandown Airport on the Isle of Wight.


    In 2015, aged 92, Joy flew a Spitfire again, taking the controls over Chichester to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day. A year later Mary flew in a Spitfire just a few months before her 100th birthday. Sadly Mary passed away in July 2018 aged 101.


    They both loved the iconic plane. Joy described it as “the nearest thing to having wings of your own” and Mary said: “People say it won the war. I say it’s a symbol of freedom.”

    Read more
    fkcdry - JOY LOFTHOUSE - Alamy.jpg
    Keith Larby / Alamy Live News
  • 1944

    Sister Spies

    Sisters Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne were among the most remarkable of the 39 women who spied for Britain during the Second World War. Jacqueline spent 15 months in France until 1944, when Eileen was flown into the country. Their story did not come to light for 66 years – then only because of its deeply poignant end.


    The old lady who loved cats had not been seen for weeks. Usually she was always around, popping out for shopping or reading in the gardens. The only thing she would speak about was her adopted ginger stray.


    When she disappeared in August 2010, worried neighbours in Torquay, Devon, called police to break into her flat. The 89-year-old was dead from a heart attack on her bedroom floor.


    Eileen was destined for a council-funded funeral until officers found her medals – including an MBE and a Croix de Guerre. Within weeks, the eccentric Cat Lady’s story made headlines around the world.


    The Nearne sisters had been born in England – Jacqueline in Brighton in 1916 and Eileen in London in 1921 – to a well-to-do family. Father Jack was a British doctor and mother Mariquita daughter of a Spanish count. In 1923 they moved to France and when war came the sisters vowed to join up.


    As First Aid Nursing Yeomanry volunteers in London, their fluent French brought them to the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).


    Eileen Nearne - © Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans


    Both had a shaky start; Jacqueline was described as “mentally slow” and Eileen was “scatterbrained”. However, they blossomed in training and in January 1943 Jacqueline, unusually code-named by her real name, was flown into France, where in 15 months posing as a saleswoman, she criss-crossed the country organising agents and supplies.


    Showing extraordinary courage, she refused to return to Britain. When a flight out was finally arranged in April 1944, someone scrawled on the RAF Lysander: “Jacqueline MUST come.”


    Eileen, codenamed Rose, had flown to France a month earlier and either side of D-Day sent messages from Paris. After five months she was arrested, beaten, near-drowned in a bath and sent to Germany’s notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp.


    In April 1945, as she was marched to another camp, Eileen slipped away into woods. She ran into an SS patrol but talked her way to freedom. Starving, she reached safety in Leipzig, where she was held for a month by the Americans as a suspected Nazi spy. Eileen was mentally broken and barely able to walk but was reunited with Jacqueline in London, who nursed her back to health.


    Jacqueline, also awarded an MBE and Croix de Guerre, spent the next 32 years working for the United Nations in New York. She retired to London in 1978 and bought a flat in Belgravia, where she lived with Eileen. Their time together was tragically short; Jacqueline died from cancer in 1982.


    Eileen suffered from poor mental health all her life, working as a nurse and care home assistant. Although intensely private, she was never a recluse, keeping in touch with friends and SOE colleagues, and in 1989 she retired to the south coast.


    Following her death she was given a civic funeral in Torquay, her coffin draped in French and British flags. Hundreds lined the streets and amid the eulogies, French consul Edouard Braine said: “I owe her the freedom of my country.”

    Read more
    3424805 - JACQUELINE NEARNE - Getty.jpg
    Jacqueline Nearne - Keystone / Getty Images
  • 1945

    Violette Szabo

    Violette Bushell was a shop girl who became one of Britain’s most famous Second World War secret agents. Asked by her mother to find a homesick French soldier to bring home for a Bastille Day dinner in London, she was just 19 when she met Étienne Szabo, a Foreign Legion officer. He became her husband and his death inspired her to become a spy. Violette’s bravery won her the George Cross – and in 1945 it cost her her life.


    Violette grew up a tomboy and was proud of it. Born in Paris in 1921, her English father was a First World War veteran, taxi driver and car salesman and her French mother a dressmaker. When her parents moved to London to find work, Violette grew up in Picardy with an aunt, her four brothers and male cousins. Egged on by the boys, she loved athletics, gymnastics, cycling and, crucially, shooting.


    When Violette was 11 the family was reunited in Stockwell, South London. She left school at 14 to work for a French corsetière, a department store and Woolworths in Oxford Street. She was 5ft 5in tall and strikingly beautiful with a vivacious personality and zest for life.


    After strawberry picking with the Women’s Land Army in Hampshire, she got a job in an armaments factory. The meeting that changed Violette’s life was on 13 July 1940, at a Bastille Day parade; Étienne Szabo was a soldier 12 years her senior and they married after a 42-day romance.


    While he left to fight in Africa, Violette became a switchboard operator then joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service as an anti-aircraft gunner. In June 1942 she had a daughter, Tania, but four months later her world fell apart – Étienne was killed at the battle of El Alamein. He had never seen his daughter.


    Devastated Violette told a friend: “I’m going to get my own back.” Because of her fluent French she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive. Officers warned her desire for revenge left her vulnerable but during training she proved an expert markswoman and in April 1944 parachuted into France on a 25-day mission as a courier.


    A month later, just after D-Day, she helped set up a resistance group. On 10 June she and two comrades were in a car that ran into SS Panzer troops near Limoges. What happened is unclear; Violette’s George Cross citation says she fought the Germans with a machine gun but another account says she was simply taken prisoner after injuring her ankle. Violette was interrogated for months, refusing to give away any secrets, and in January 1945 was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp.


    Violette’s George Cross was presented to four-year-old Tania in 1946. In 1956 her story was told in a book, Carve Her Name With Pride, which two years later was made into a film starring Virginia McKenna.


    A blue plaque was placed on her home in Stockwell, in 2000 a museum was opened near Hereford and in 2009 a bust of her was unveiled at London’s Albert Embankment as a memorial to Special Operations Executive agents. In 2012 Tania sold Violette’s George Cross for £260,000 to the Ashcroft collection at the Imperial War Museum.

    Read more
    0575594 - VIOLETTE SZABO - Topfoto.jpg
    0575594 TopFoto.co.uk
  • 1948
    Women’s Service Act passed - allowing for permanent peacetime role for women in Britain’s armed services
  • 1949
    WRAF reformed as a permanent force. 80% of jobs were available to women, however, they were prohibited from combat duty
  • 1952
    Jean Lennox Bird became the first woman to be awarded RAF pilot’s badge
  • 1968
    WRAF officers adopt the rank titles of RAF counterparts
  • 1968
    Elspeth McKechnie becomes the first woman doctor to be Commanding Officer of RAF Hospital at Cosford
    e10e34 - ELSPETH MCKECHNIE - Alamy.jpg
    Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo
  • 1969
    WRAC are deployed to Northern Ireland to assist civilian police and serve until 1992
  • 1970
    The first female entrants are admitted to RAF College, Cranwell and trained alongside men
  • 1974

    Women of Bletchley Park

    Thanks to historians and Hollywood, Bletchley Park’s vital part in the Second World War is now widely known. Yet until 1974 the story of the Government Code and Cipher School was top secret. And it remains essentially a male story – of eccentric Cambridge dons who cracked the fiendishly complex Enigma ciphers. But of the 10,000 or so people who served at Bletchley, around 7,000 were women.


    Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham was an MI6 double agent – and a pretty successful one. Between the wars he cultivated prominent Nazis desperate for a foothold in the British establishment. Forty years later he surprised the world with his 1974 book The Ultra Secret, which revealed the story of Bletchley Park. Few had heard of it – and those who played even the smallest part at the Victorian mansion in Buckinghamshire were sworn not to tell. As Winston Churchill said, they were “the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled”.


    For every man at Bletchley there were three women. They worked in admin, as transcribers, typists, messengers, liaison staff, phone operators, drivers and in catering and domestic roles. Most were in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, others in the ATS and WAAF. Some operated the Bombes, machines that accelerated codebreaking. Others ran Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer. A few worked closer to the inner circle and were given distinctly male labels; a team recruited by classics don Dilly Knox was known as Dilly’s Fillies. Only a handful worked in parity with the elite male codebreakers.


    Convent-educated Mavis Batey, born in London in 1921, was recruited from the Foreign Office by her German literature professor at University College London. She helped break Enigma ciphers that led to the defeat of the Italian navy in 1941. Mavis, who died aged 92 in 2013, wrote a biography of Knox and became a horticultural historian and campaigner. She was also credited with cracking Germany’s Abwehr military intelligence cipher alongside Margaret Rock.


    Statistician Margaret was 36, unusually old for a woman codebreaker, when she arrived at Bletchley in 1940. Born in Hammersmith, West London, in 1903, she was an economic analyst for the forerunner of the Federation of British Industry. After the war she stayed at GCHQ until 1963.


    Brilliant maths graduate Joan Clarke and Catherine Pope, deputy head of the section decrypting Abwehr ciphers, were the only women known to be in charge of men at Bletchley.


    Translator Pamela Rose had lived in Germany before the war. She turned down a part in a West End play for Bletchley after she was told: “The play can wait, the war can’t”. She returned to the West End in 1999 at the age of 83. Her best friend Rozanne Colchester was 19 when she arrived as a linguist in the Italian section. Living in Rome, where her father was a diplomat in 1938, she had met Hitler and Mussolini. After the war she worked for MI6 and has been friends with Pamela for 77 years.


    Joanna Chorley, from Brighton, joined the Wrens aged 17 and in 1944 chose a posting working on “light electrical machinery in the country”. It turned out to be Colossus, which helped crack ciphers for the Lorenz machines used by Hitler and his generals. Joanna said: “I fell in love with Colossus. At the end it was working so smoothly that we knew what the Germans were going to do before they did.” In 2014, Joanna came across a rare picture of her and her Bletchley colleagues, which led to a reunion.


    Ruth Bourne, from Birmingham, who ran a Bombe, was part of a 200-strong Jewish community at Bletchley. Ruth, who owned a launderette after the war, said: “It was quite funny – as a Bombe operator you would put these drums on and watch them go round and round, and there I was as a laundrette manager, watching the machines go round and round. All we were ever told was that we were breaking codes. I never heard the word Enigma.”

    Read more
    P.0014766 - BLETCHLEY - Topfoto.jpg
    0014766 ©2000 Topham / PA
  • 1974

    Joan Clarke

    Joan Clarke was one of a handful of elite women codebreakers at Bletchley Park whose role in the war only came to light after 1974. Her work with computing pioneer Alan Turing helped crack ciphers used on Germany’s Enigma machines, allowing access to military communications and shortening the war by years.


    It was an impossible job on the face of it. The odds of deciphering an enemy message without codes were 159,000,000,000,000,000,000-1; a hundred and fifty-nine million trillion to one. And the settings on the Enigma machines were changed daily. The only chance the codebreakers had was to reduce the number of possibilities – and Joan Clarke was to play a vital part.


    The vicar’s daughter, born in 1917 at West Norwood, South London, had won a double first in maths at Newnham College, Cambridge. Recruited by her geometry professor, she arrived at Bletchley in 1940, a week before her 23rd birthday. She began working in the “Big Room” before graduating to her own desk near Turing in Hut 8. Turing had invented the Bombe, a machine which discovered Enigma machine settings, and his calculations led to the creation of Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer.


    The machines vastly reduced workload but the vital codebreaking took brainpower. Joan was expert at Banburismus, which calculated probabilities of Enigma settings. The process was named after sheets of thick paper made in Banbury, Oxfordshire, in which holes were punched next to coded messages so patterns could be identified. Joan found the work “so enthralling” she was often “unwilling to hand over the workings” at the end of her shifts.


    Hut 8’s first breakthrough came in 1941, when Joan helped cracked the German navy’s Dolphin code. U-boats had been crippling Britain’s supply convoys but once the ciphers were known, losses fell by three-quarters. Helped by Colossus, Hut 8 then turned to ciphers for the Lorenz machine used by Hitler and his generals.


    A shy and kind 23-year-old, Joan became close to Turing:


    “We did some things together, went to the cinema and so on, but certainly it surprised me when he said… would you consider marrying me? I really didn't hesitate in saying yes,” she said.


    “The next day we went for a walk and he told me he had this homosexual tendency. Naturally that worried me a bit because that was something that was almost certainly permanent. But we carried on.”


    Turing gave Joan a ring and they met each other’s parents but after a holiday in Wales in summer 1941, the relationship ended. Joan – portrayed by Keira Knightley in the 2014 film The Imitation Game – remained close friends with Turing until his suicide in 1954, four years after he was convicted of “gross indecency” for a relationship with a man.


    Joan continued to codebreak, in 1944 becoming deputy head of Hut 8, an unheard-of position for a woman. After the war, awarded the MBE, she worked at GCHQ and married a colleague, former army officer Lt Col Jock Murray.


    She shared his passion for numismatics, the study of coins and banknotes, and became an expert on 15th century Scottish groats. Joan retired in 1977 to Headington, Oxford, where she died from cancer aged 79 in 1996.

    Read more
  • 1983
    First draft of 20 WRAC servicewomen stationed in Port Stanley after the Falklands War of 1982
  • 1985
    By the mid-80s girls are formally enrolled into the Army, Air and Sea Cadet Forces
  • 1989
    First female navigators commence training at RAF Finningley
  • 1990
    Over 200 members of WRAC serve in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operation Granby
  • 1991

    The RAF's first female operational pilot

    Women have been in the RAF for nearly a century – but it took more than 70 years before they were allowed to fly. Julie Gibson made history in 1991 when she became the first female operational pilot, paving the way for the women who fly combat jets today.


    It was a tough start for Julie Gibson. As a 19-year-old aeronautical engineering student, her bid to join London’s City University air squadron had been turned down. The CO’s reply stuffily mentioned women’s “exclusion from combat roles” and “the improbability of amortizing training costs before marriage or motherhood.”


    Julie appealed through her MP but was again rebuffed. Undeterred, she joined the RAF in the role of engineering officer, in which she served for six years. In 1989 it was decided that women could be pilots, allowing Julie to make her breakthrough by entering basic flying training in January 1990. “I had a dream that I wanted to fly”, she said.


    Julie’s achievement was the end of a long road. The Women's Royal Air Force, set up in 1918, had been intended to find female mechanics to free RAF men for active service but as thousands applied, other duties were found such as drivers, admin and ground crew.


    When the WRAF disbanded in 1920 more than 32,000 women had served. Among them was Florence Green, a 17-year-old officers’ mess steward at RAF Marham, Norfolk. When she died in 2012, two weeks before her 111th birthday, she was the world’s last veteran of the First World War.


    In 1939 the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was set up, with 250,000 eventually serving. Women worked at RAF bases, packing parachutes, on barrage balloons, catering, weather forecasting, in radar and intelligence, maintenance, transport, communications and as operation room plotters.


    But equality was a long way off: WAAFs earned just two-thirds of their RAF counterparts’ pay. A small number of women known as Attagirls flew with the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary [link to story], moving planes between factories and airfields. In 1949 the WRAF was re-formed and women served in support roles across the world. In the 1960s females were accepted in technical trades and in the 1970s a few held senior positions.


    Julie was 29 when she got her wings in June 1991. She flew the Andover with 32 Squadron at RAF Northolt, then went on to fly the Hercules at RAF Lyneham with LXX Squadron, and then 24 Squadron, rising to the rank of captain. Julie stayed in the RAF until 2001, before going on to work for a commercial airline and as a charity fundraiser. She is now a tutor at the Defence Academy.


    Three years later Flt Lt Jo Salter became the first operational fast jet pilot, flying Tornados with 617 Squadron. Women have since flown combat jets over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.


    In 2007, Lt Michelle Goodman became the first woman to win the Distinguished Flying Cross after she rescued a casualty in Basra. Two years later Flt Lt Kirsty Moore became the first woman Red Arrows pilot.

    Read more
    7. Flt Lt Julie Gibson, LXX Sqn, RAF Lyneham. C130K Hercules. Crown Copyright.(7).jpg
    Crown Copyright
  • 1994
    WRAF disbanded and 6,547 members are integrated into mainstream RAF roles. At this time only two jobs - fireman and aerial erector - are still unavailable to women on the basis that they require a high degree of physical strength
  • 1997
    The number of jobs available to women in the Army increases from 47% to 70% with only Tank and Infantry regiments remaining men-only
  • 2002
    The Ministry of Defence upholds the ban on women serving on the front-line with the Army, however by this point women could already serve on fighting ships in the Navy and pilot fighter aircraft
  • 2006

    The first woman to receive the Military Cross

    Michelle Norris was the first woman to receive the Military Cross. The 5ft-tall Royal Army Medical Corps private was just 19 when she saved her commander’s life in a firefight with more than 200 insurgents in Al-Amarah, southern Iraq, in 2006.


    Michelle Norris had always wanted to be a soldier. Her passion began as she watched war films with her father.


    “I remember sitting on his knee watching movies and documentaries,” she said. “Next morning I’d wake up thinking: I want to be a soldier.”


    However, her childhood dream had suffered an early setback – she was devastated after failing on her fitness test. She said: “I took two seconds too long on the run and I could only do two pull-ups and you had to do four.” After a year at college she tried again, cutting two minutes off her run and doing nine pull-ups. 


    Michelle, from Stourbridge, was just 19 when she was deployed to the badlands of Al-Amarah, southern Iraq, with the Royal Army Medical Corps in 2005. It was there, in a ferocious gun battle with 200 insurgents, that another “dad” played a huge part in her life.


    Michelle, the only woman among 300 men in the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales Regiment, met Colour Sgt Ian Page, whose birthday was soon after she arrived. Michelle said: “He told me how old he was and I said he was old enough to be my father. After that I called him dad and he called me daughter.”


    On 11 June 2006, Sgt Page was Michelle’s commander when their Warrior armoured vehicle came under fire on a night mission. He was hit in the face and Michelle leapt out of the Warrior to save him. It was the first time she had dealt with a casualty in action.


    She said: “When I heard ‘dings’ off the Warrior I thought it was stones. Someone shouted that my commander had been hit so I jumped out and climbed on top of the turret. I didn’t think about my own safety. I just knew I had to get him.


    “A bullet had gone through his rifle and into his face. At first I didn't realise I was under fire. I was more worried about whether I’d remember my training. I remember the gunner yelling at me to get down. I then heard the crack and thump of a round going past my head and I thought, ‘Yes, I probably do need to get down now.’


    Michelle talked to Sgt Page as she treated him: “I just kept saying: Dad, are you with me? Dad, stay with me.” The NCO was helicoptered out and made a full recovery.


    Michelle received her Military Cross from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in March 2007.


    She said: “Some people doubt whether women can work on the front line. I hope I've proved we can.” Michelle, now a Lance Corporal, is still serving with the army in Germany.

    Read more
    2.4499368 - MICHELLE NORRIS - PA.jpg
    Fiona Hanson / PA Archive / PA Images
  • 2008
    British Armed Forces total 187,000 of which 17,620 (9.4%) are women. 96% of jobs in the RAF are open to women, followed by 71% in the Royal Navy and 67% in the Army
  • Jul, 2008
    Medic Chantelle Taylor (RAMC) becomes the first woman in the British Army to kill an enemy in combat after coming under fire and taking action to defend herself in Helmand Province, Afghanistan
  • 2012

    Noor Inayat Khan

    In a corner of a garden in a London square, a simple bust commemorates one of the bravest women of the Second World War. The memorial, unveiled by the Princess Royal in 2012, is to Noor Inayat Khan – a British-Indian writer, musician and spy who was the last British radio operator in Paris in 1943 before she was captured and executed.


    Noor Inayat Khan was in terrible trouble. Her network of spies was blown – but she didn’t know it. Treachery, incompetence and bad luck had led to the arrests of hundreds of operatives. Virtually alone and vulnerable in Paris in summer 1943, Noor was living on borrowed time.


    The 29-year-old, a descendant of Indian royalty, was an unlikely member of the Special Operations Executive. Quiet and gentle, she could also be highly strung and rash. Somehow, for three months, she survived, communicating with London as her network collapsed.


    Noor was born in 1914 in Moscow. Her father, a musician, Indian nationalist and teacher of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, had met her mother, an American of British descent, in San Francisco while on a concert tour.


    Noor spent her early years in London before the family moved to Paris. A sensitive and dreamy child, she learned the harp and developed a deep belief in pacifism. After studying child psychology, in 1939 she published a collection of Indian children’s stories and the next year she escaped to London where she decided that despite her pacifism, Nazism needed to be fought.


    Noor’s bilingual skills were picked up by the SOE after she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Her assessors wrote her off as “not over-burdened with brains”. But in June 1943 she was given the codename Madeleine and flown into France carrying only a false passport, French francs and a handgun.


    She was the first female radio operator in the country. Months earlier, the vast Prosper spy network had been penetrated by the Nazis and in constant danger, Noor’s personality changed.


    “This gentle writer was a tigress in the field,” says biographer Shrabani Basu. Courage was in Noor’s DNA; her great-great-great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, Muslim ruler of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799.


    Noor’s handlers urged her to return to London but she refused and in October 1943 was arrested. Interrogated for 10 months, she told her Gestapo tormentors nothing. Noor had ignored her training by writing down codes and the Germans used them to continue to send messages to make London think she was still free.


    After two escape attempts in Paris, she was moved to Dachau concentration camp, where she was shot in the head. The last thing she said was “Liberté”.


    Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, an MBE and France’s Croix de Guerre. After a campaign by her admirers, the memorial was unveiled in November 2012 in Gordon Square, central London, where she had lived and played as a small child.

    Read more
    1358316 - NOOR INAYAT-KHAN - Topfoto.jpg
    1358316 TopFoto.co.uk
  • 2013
    Elaine West becomes the first woman to be promoted to Air Vice-Marshal within the RAF having joined the WRAF in 1978. It also makes West the first female military two-star
  • 2014
    Intake of female personnel into the Armed Forces continues to rise with females accounting for 12.7% of officers and 9.4% of other ranks
  • Sep, 2015
    Brigadier Susan Ridge becomes the British Army’s first female general and the highest-ranking woman to date when she is promoted to Major General
    Courtesy of the Law Society
  • 2016
    The ban on women in ground close combat roles is lifted with combat roles to be opened to women in phases. This begins with women being permitted to serve in certain roles within the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) from November 2016
    Anna Crossley - approved by Anna.JPG
    Alison Baskerville
  • 2017
    As of 2017 approximately 30% of Army Cadets are girls
  • 1 Sep, 2017
    The RAF begins accepting applications from women to join the RAF Regiment - its ground-fighting force, making it the first branch of the British Military to open up every role to men and women.
    The White Picture exhibition photos1 - Alison Baskerville - Free.jpg (1)
    Alison Baskerville

Women at War 100

The Royal British Legion has supported women in Service since its creation in 1921.

Find out more about women in conflict and how the Legion supports them, as well as female veterans, partners/spouses of serving personnel and their children.

Decade Introduction Image Credits:
2010: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Background Image Credits:
1910: Mary Evans / Robert Hunt Collection / Imperial War Museum
1920: 0845817 John Topham / TopFoto.co.uk
1930: © Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans
1940: Everett Collection / Mary Evans
1950: © Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans
1960: 1412650 PA Photos / TopFoto.co.uk
1970: Mary Evans / picture-alliance / Chris Hoffman
1980: Crown Copyright
1990: Crown Copyright 2013
2000 & 2010: Alison Baskerville