Two Ordnance Wren Ratings of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) operate a twin mounted Lewis automatic machine gun during anti aircraft training aboard a harbour defence motor launch on 26th May 1943 at an undisclosed south coast RN Naval Base location in England

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When women modernised the military

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The courage and sacrifice of the women drafted into the armed forces during the Second World War changed the military forever. Their wartime heroism opened the door to a vocation that was historically a no-woman's land.

During the Second World War, some 600,000 women were absorbed into the three British women’s auxiliary services – the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

These servicewomen performed important military functions for the RAF, army and Royal Navy – often alongside men. Their tasks ranged from cooking, typing and telephony to stripping down torpedoes, overhauling aircraft engines, and operating the radar for anti-aircraft gun batteries.

It was an indication of how indispensable female personnel had become to the wartime armed forces that when, in 1945, Churchill called for servicewomen to be demobilised as and when they wished, the manpower authorities resisted. It was argued that such a step would ‘seriously impair the efficiency of the Services, and in some branches even lead to a complete breakdown’.

Pride of the nation

The story of Corporal Daphne Pearson illustrates both the heroism shown by servicewomen as well as some of the challenges they faced in entering the male military sphere.

At 1.00am on 31 May 1940, 29-year-old Daphne, a WAAF medical orderly, was asleep in her bunk at RAF Detling in Kent when she was woken by the noise of an Avro Anson aircraft returning from operations. The tone of the engines indicated something was wrong. Instinctively, Daphne pulled a jersey and pair of trousers over her pyjamas and rushed outside to see the Anson crash land in flames in a nearby field.

Section Officer Daphne Pearson with her George Cross after her investiture by King George VI at Buckingham Palace, 25th November 1941.
Section Officer Daphne Pearson with her George Cross after her investiture by King George VI at Buckingham Palace, 25th November 1941.

Ignoring calls for her to keep away, she ran towards the red glow of the crash site. Two of the injured aircrew had extracted themselves, but Pilot Officer David Bond was more seriously hurt. Although the Anson was ablaze, and there were fuel and bombs on board ready to detonate, Daphne stood on the burning wreckage, roused the stunned pilot, and assisted in getting him clear. When Bond had been moved some 30 yards away, a 120lb bomb went off and she threw herself on top of the pilot to protect him from the explosion. The blast was so strong that others arriving to assist were blown over like tents in a gale.

After helping Bond onto a stretcher, and despite risk of further detonations, Daphne returned to the Anson to search for the missing wireless operator but found him dead. Having snatched a few hours sleep, she calmly reported to the camp sick bay at 8:00am to resume her normal duties. In recognition of bravery, Daphne was presented with the George Cross, prompting one commentator to write: ‘The bravery of Corporal Pearson has become a matter of national pride.’

She is believed to be the first woman presented with the George Cross.

A woman’s place

Her medal is now in the Imperial War Museum, as is the evocative 1940 portrait of her by the renowned war artist, Dame Laura Knight. Knight had originally depicted her holding a rifle and Daphne approved of this portrayal: ‘if Germans kill women and children deliberately in their homes and in the streets… then the women must be prepared to kill to protect their children’. But such an image was controversial since airwomen were not permitted to carry arms and, in the end, a respirator was inserted in place of the rifle.

The replacement of a rifle with a respirator – the apparatus of life over that of death – tells us something about the gender tensions surrounding the employment of women with the armed forces. These tensions were to be found across many aspects of service life as women took on a greater range of military roles and gender identities were renegotiated.

Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) using a model to study the construction of barrage balloons in 1941.
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) using a model to study the construction of barrage balloons in 1941.

Looking back, the wartime women’s auxiliary services represented a considerable gender advance for women. Shortly before the war, there were no such official women’s forces; by the end of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of women were undertaking duties few anticipated five years earlier.

Meanwhile, most servicewomen who placed their experiences on record appear to have enjoyed and benefitted from their time in the forces. There were strong bonds of friendship forged. There was a broadening of outlook. There was a sense of empowerment. There were feelings of pride. And there was mischief and laughter to be had.

Won the battle, still fighting the war

But it’s also important to recognise that the women’s auxiliary services did not achieve equality with their male ‘parent’ services. They remained essentially auxiliary forces.

A Wren Torpedoman of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) carries out maintenance on a torpedo in 1943
A Wren Torpedoman of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) carries out maintenance on a torpedo in 1943

Women continued to be mostly utilised in customarily ‘feminine’ jobs such as catering, clerical and communications work. They did not receive equal pay; they were not subject to the same disciplinary sanctions; they faced restrictions on their overseas service; they received priority for demobilisation if they were married; and they were generally held to higher standards of off-duty behaviour. Above all, they were not to be used in direct combat roles.

The intractability of the male service establishment played a role in restricting greater wartime equality. So too did public resistance to the creation of a female warrior corps. But it was further hampered by the attitude of senior servicewomen who believed their forces should maintain their own distinctive ways of doing things.

Alongside this, the strongly masculine workplace culture could be a difficult environment for servicewomen. The high proportion of men to women serving in the forces, combined with circumstances in which they worked and lived closely together in confined conditions, and a rank structure that could lead to abuses of power, were fertile grounds for sexual harassment by servicemen.

Bravery at sea

So while by the end of the war the presence of female personnel at military camps and bases was largely taken for granted, they continued to face many challenges. And as we began with the heroics of Daphne Pearson, let us end by recounting those of Audrey Coningham which illustrate that even perceptions of bravery could be gendered.

In 1942 Audrey Coningham was a 23-year-old WRNS officer who was evacuated by a Royal Navy ship, HMS Medway, from Alexandria as the Germans advanced into Egypt. However, her ship was sunk by a German U-boat in the Mediterranean and Audrey was forced into the sea.

Whilst swimming to safety she came across Leading Seaman Leslie Crossman who was injured, had no lifebelt, and was in imminent danger of drowning. Even though she did not know how long she would be in the water, she unthinkingly gave the man her lifebelt and told him ‘Lie still. You’ll be all right. Trust me’. Her selfless act enabled Crossman to stay afloat until rescued by a boat.

For her role in saving Crossman, Audrey was recommended for an Albert Medal (now superseded by the George Cross). However, the honours and awards committee ruled that since a nearby officer had helped her put the lifebelt on Crossman, and Audrey was a strong swimmer, she had not put herself in undue danger and should thus be merely mentioned in despatches.

Despite the parsimony of the authorities, Audrey wore her Oak Leaf decoration with pride and she is thought to be the only woman to have been decorated for bravery at sea during the war. But it was an indication of some of the challenges that she and others like her posed to the male warrior culture that the reaction of one naval officer to seeing her display the decoration was ‘outrage’ since he simply could not believe that she was entitled to it.

Picture credits: machine gun – George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Daphne Pearson – PNA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; barrage balloon – M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; torpedo – Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images