Out of the Kitchen
They did this by joining the armed forces, the voluntary services, and the armaments and agricultural industries. As they proved successfully that they were able to replace men in a variety of occupations, their social status and their self-confidence was boosted. After the war there was no turning the clock back…
The women’s sections of the armed forces, which had been discontinued at the end of the First World War, were re-established as the Second World War drew closer. From March 1941 onwards, young single women between ages 19 and 30 were conscripted. The terminal age was later extended to 43 years of age.
The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was re-formed in 1938. By 1945 there were over 190,000 members. Their duties consisted of driving large vehicles and operating anti-aircraft guns. Some of them were chosen to work as secret intelligence radio operators for the SOE (Special Operations Executive). This was extremely dangerous work, and some were caught, tortured and killed by the Gestapo.
The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was attached to almost every navy unit in Britain and overseas. The Wrens, as they were popularly called, were re-formed in April 1939 and by 1945 had 72,000 members. Only men manned the ships, therefore the WRNS’ carried out shore support duties in their place. A select few went on to specialise in decoding secret German signals .
From its formation in June 1939, up to the end of the war, some 153,000 women joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Their main duties were as radar operators and military air traffic controllers based in secret radar stations. There was also a special section named the "Women in the Air Transport Auxiliary” (ATA), which was responsible for delivering aircraft from the factories to the airfields, and even across the Atlantic Ocean. Many lost their lives while engaged in these dangerous tasks.
A variety of duties were given to them, such as driving ambulances, caring for sick children and evacuees and generally assisting in air raid shelters. In some areas such as Llanfyllin, near Oswestry, auctions were organised by the local branches to raise money for the war effort. After the end of the war some members went out to the Far East to care for former British prisoners of war.
Women also worked in the war industries. Large numbers of the male workforce, who were called up into the armed forces, had to be replaced in order to fulfil the need for weapons, food and fuels. At the beginning, young single women were encouraged to work, but from 1942 they were conscripted. In 1939 there were 94,000 women in employed work in Wales. The figure had doubled to 204,000 by 1945.
However, the work in heavy industries, such as coal mining, was not considered appropriate for women; yet thousands of them were employed to work in chemical and explosives factories, and in engineering and metal works. Most of the 40,000 workers in the enormous Bridgend munitions factory were women. During the war, women made bombs, electrical cables and wires, tents and parachutes.
There were many disadvantages to this work: long hours, late shifts and the danger that the factories would be prime targets during bombing raids. The work itself was also dangerous, with accidents commonplace, especially in armaments factories. Added to this, women had to contend with negative attitudes and discrimination from male workers and employers. Many men were unhappy at having to work alongside women, and the women only received half a man’s wage for doing the same job.
In Wales, there was concern about the implications of the work programmes. Many Welsh women were sent to armaments factories in the English Midlands. This caused discontent among Welsh nationalists who worried about the effect of their loss on small rural communities.
It was, most probably, in agriculture that women’s contribution to the war effort was most fully evident. Britain needed to be self-sufficient in food production, and farmers were expected to produce more food than ever before. The workforce had to be increased in order to cope with the extra work and also to replace those agricultural workers who had joined the armed forces. Therefore, the Women's Land Army (WLA), was re-formed, and a strategy that had proved successful during the First World War proved equally so in the Second.
Women aged between 18 and 40 years and from occupations outside agriculture were encouraged to join. They had to be able to work full-time on farms anywhere in Britain. A minimum wage of 32 shillings for a 48 hour week was set, with 8 pence for each hour of overtime. Before starting work they were armed with the appropriate training, knowledge of the rules and a distinctive uniform. The number of members increased dramatically during the war years. In 1939, there were 29,000 members in Britain; by 1943 there were 75,000, with 4,300 working in Wales.
Members had to make considerable efforts to adapt themselves to their new lives in the Land Army. Many came from their urban homes in England to the rural areas of Wales, where the landscape was quite different and life much more solitary. Life there was simpler and often without the usual urban pleasures. In addition, the Welsh language provided an unexpected challenge to the majority from England on their arrival; but most learnt enough Welsh after a while to ease them into their new lives.
The nature of the work proved to be a surprise to those members who had been attracted by the recruitment posters of ‘fashionable’ women having a good time. In reality it was hard physical work. At times, it could be demeaning and disheartening; but there was also cause for members to be happy and content in their work. They were given an excellent opportunity to experience the world of work outside the home, in a period when, traditionally, women would stay at home to keep house and raise a family; while the husband would earn their livelihood.
There were various tasks available, the majority of them traditionally done by men: growing crops and tilling the land, caring for animals and general farm maintenance work. Some members went to work on farms specialising in growing fruit, others to work in market gardens, while others, such as the ‘Timber Jills’ went to work in forests, pruning, felling and planting trees.
The Women’s Land Army initiative met with a lot of opposition. The majority of male agricultural workers thought that the women could not cope with the work. That unfavourable point of view was echoed in the agricultural press. Added to that, the members were heavily criticised for their personal conduct, especially as they socialised with British and American soldiers from nearby camps. Rural religious leaders frowned upon their attendance at social evenings and dances. Some local Agricultural Committees responded by imposing 9 pm curfews on the women.
Despite all the opposition however, the success of the scheme had become all too apparent by the end of the war. In 1950, farmers’ groups, especially the National Farmers’ Union which had been very negative at the beginning, expressed their disappointment when the Women’s Land Army was disbanded.
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