Women played a significant supportive role towards the successful outcome of World War 2. By the end of 1942, 10 million women aged between 19 and 50 were registered for war work. It was a total mobilisation on a scale never dreamed of by the Third Reich and it played a vital part in Britain winning through to eventual victory.
In December 1941, Britain became the first nation in history to conscript women. This signifies a total war situation. Total war being the absence of any restraint in warfare. Initially, women were directed into land armies, factories and the military in March 1941. However, by July the manpower shortfall was such that it became clear drastic steps had to be taken. In December, all people aged between 18 and 60 regardless of sex were now obliged to undertake some form of part time national service. Most revolutionary of all, women were now to be conscripted for the first time in any modern civilised nation. The intensification of U-boat attacks on ships bound for Britain was ordered by Hitler in February 1941. In May, 142 merchant ships were sunk by German U-boats and air attacks accounted for a further 179.
In addition to arms, shipments of bacon, beans and tinned meat as well as other vitals began that summer and were crucial to the battle to keep the nation fed. As the prospect of war became increasingly likely, the government wanted to increase the amount of food grown within Britain. In order to grow more food, more help was needed on farms and so the government started the Women’s Land Army. Initially started in June 1939, the Women’s Land Army conscripted women to look after animals, plough fields and harvest crops. The woman dug and hoed a total of 48 hours a week during winter and this increased to 50 hours a week in summer. The government also introduced a Dig for Victory campaign by using 4.5 million acres of land in an attempt to make Britain self-sufficient as it had been importing 55 million tonnes of produce per year from other countries. As a result of this campaign, agricultural production increased and when combined with rationing, it produced the healthiest and most self-sufficient nation in the world post war. The shortage of women in factories and on land led to the government stopping women joining the armed forces and giving them a choice of joining either the land armies or the factories.
Despite a promising reaction from some, dubbed “Bevin Beauties,” simply not enough women came forward to meet the ever increasing demands of the armaments machine. They worked in all manner of production ranging from making ammunition and uniforms to aeroplanes. The hours they worked were long and some women were required to move to where the factories were. Those who moved away were paid more. Woman soon made their mark in every type of factory. Initially women were paid less than unskilled male workers and this resulted in a strike at the Rolls Royce factory in Glasgow in 1943. The women had a part-victory as they returned to work on the pay of a male semi-skilled worker – not the level of a male skilled worker but better than before the strike. However, those that didn’t join the factories or land armies joined the military where they could enlist in any of the three services – the navy, air force and army.
Although women were not given combat roles, they were allowed on airfields and at sector stations as secretaries and filing clerks. Women flew in air transport missions, but were forbidden to fire anti-aircraft guns because Winston Churchill thought that they would not be able to cope with the knowledge that they had killed a young German man. However, this was odd because women were allowed to track a plane, fuse the shells and be there when the firing cord was pulled. In contrast to the Auxiliary Territorial Service, women who joined the air force had more opportunities for more exciting jobs such as working on Spitfires. Others worked at sector stations where radar was 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 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. Despite women having fewer crashes than men, they were not welcome and were described as not having enough intelligence to scrub hospital floors properly by the editor of the magazine entitled “Aeroplane” as well as being called a “menace” when flying. As well as being part of the army and air force, they could also join intelligence.
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. This was a great contrast to their roles before the war.
Before the war, women were very family orientated. They were not supposed to be independent, work in factories or have combat roles. This all changed during the war. After the war, despite their new found independence, most women were happy to return to their roles before the war.
In conclusion, I think that women played a major role in the war despite not being exploited to their full potential.