The vital role of women in the second world war

Women were conscripted in December 1941. They were given a choice of working in industry or joining one of the auxiliary services – the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).



Motorcycle messenger at the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) training centre, Camberley, 1941. An ATS FANY Motorcycle Messenger sits on her motorbike as she receives her instructions from a FANY Corporal at the ATS MTC training centre, Camberley.

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The ATS was formed in 1938. Initially, the only jobs available were cooks, clerks, orderlies, store women or drivers. But eventually there were over a hundred different roles in the ATS, including serving in anti-aircraft batteries. This expansion allowed more men to be released for front line service. More than 250,000 women served in the ATS during the Second World War, making it the largest of the women’s services.

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The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was founded in June 1939 to free up RAF personnel for front line duties. By 1943, the WAAF had 182,000 members. WAAFs undertook a variety of roles, including compiling weather reports, maintaining aircraft, serving on airfields and working in intelligence.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was reformed in April 1939. Women were recruited for shore-based jobs to release men for service at sea. By 1943, there were 74,000 WRNS (or ‘Wrens’) serving in the UK and overseas. Wrens played a major part in the planning and organisation of naval operations. From 1941, Wrens served at Bletchley Park operating machines used in code-breaking.