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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Women serving in the Royal Flying Corps and Women's Royal Air Forc


Sepoy

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I have just been asked by a friend to help research her Grandmother who served in the Women's Royal Flying Corps during WW1. I merrily stated that this would have been incorrect as Women did not formally serve in the Flying Services until the formation of the Women's Royal Air Force in 1918. I explained how my friend could download her Grandmother's service papers on the National Archives Website and ended the phone call.

During the phone call, she explained that she had been left a number of photographs of her Grandmother in uniform, which I will no doubt see in due course, but the conversation left me puzzled.

I have now looked at the few photographs of members of the WRAF in my collection and I am even more puzzled. I was aware that members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps worked at Airfields etc prior to the formation of the WRAF but were they normally badged to the RFC like the woman in the attached photo???

Equally, I know that the second woman is wearing the typical WRAF uniform but did WAAC personnel, wearing RAF insignia, continued to work along side them? The third photo seems to show a mixture of the standard WRAF uniform and the typical WAAC uniform with large collars being worn? Or are these WAACs who have joined the WRAF?

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During the First World War, members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) worked on air stations belonging to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). When the decision was taken to merge the RFC and RNAS to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), concerns were raised about the loss of their specialised female workforce and led to the formation of the WRAF on 1 April 1918.

Personnel of the WAAC and WRNS were given the choice of transferring to the new service and over 9,000 decided to join. Civilian enrolment swelled WRAF numbers. They were dispatched to RAF bases, initially in Britain and then later in 1919 to France and Germany.

The mixture of uniforms in your photos reflects two overriding factors, first the fact that not all chose to transfer and so wore their own service uniforms until the completion of their posting with a squadron, and second that initially not all the items of WRAF uniform were ready and so there was inevitably a degree of 'mixed dress' until sufficient stocks were available.

In April 1920 the WRAF was disbanded, but in only two years, 32,000 WRAFs had proved a major asset to the RAF. Their work was divided into four basic trades: Clerks and Storewomen, Household, Technical and Non-Technical. Initially little training was given with wages based on existing experience and skills.

The majority of women were employed as clerks, with shorthand typists the most highly paid of all airwomen. Women allocated to the Household section worked the longest hours, doing back breaking work for the lowest pay. The Technical section covered a wide range of trades, most highly skilled, including tinsmiths, fitters and welders.

You might also find this parliamentary debate of interest: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1918/jul/25/women-workers-in-camps

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Frogsmile

Thank you for your explanation.

Was it common place for members of the WAAC, employed with the RFC, to wear RFC shoulder titles rather than WAAC insignia? If this was common, did WAACs attached to other units wear other insignia? I am aware that during WWII ATS wore the badges of Regiments they were attached to - did this practice have its origins in WW1.

I have attached a photograph from my collection showing of a member of the Auxiliary Training Corps wearing a Middlesex Regiment collar badge on her tunic by way of an example

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Frogsmile

Thank you for your explanation.

Was it common place for members of the WAAC, employed with the RFC, to wear RFC shoulder titles rather than WAAC insignia? If this was common, did WAACs attached to other units wear other insignia? I am aware that during WWII ATS wore the badges of Regiments they were attached to - did this practice have its origins in WW1.

I have attached a photograph from my collection showing of a member of the Auxiliary Training Corps wearing a Middlesex Regiment collar badge on her tunic by way of an example

Yes, women from the WAAC (and other organisations) attached to the RFC did wear the RFC cloth shoulder title, which in that context was a unifying insignia as there were a handful of different organisations all providing personnel.

Yes, similarly some WAAC attached to other units also wore that unit's insignia as it gave them a sense of belonging and had long been Army practice for e.g. mess servants in India and even Sepoy platoons, attached to each unit to carry out mundane tasks.

And finally yes, I believe it was the origin of the same practice carried out in WW2 and also after. It was especially common for women attached to the Royal Artillery in anti-aircraft, searchlight and experimental firing (gunnery) units until as late as the 1970s and remained the practice for WRAC personnel 'attached' to various units until the disbandment of that Corps in 1992.

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Frogsmile

Once again, thank you for your replies and for adding the above photographs. I particularly like the Motorcyclist - what a cracking photo!

Cheers

Sepoy

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Perhaps it would be helpful if the sources of the photos were given - there are so many images being used on the Forum these days which are uncredited and it would aid further research.

Sue

The second one is from the Imperial War Museum, reference: Q33817, the bottom one Q114862, Duxford Airfield.

Edited by Sue Light
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Perhaps it would be helpful if the sources of the photos were given - there are so many images being used on the Forum these days which are uncredited and it would aid further research.

Sue

The second one is from the Imperial War Museum, reference: Q33817

Sue

I agree with you absolutely, also out of courtesy it should identify the source.

Tony

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Frogsmile

Once again, thank you for your replies and for adding the above photographs. I particularly like the Motorcyclist - what a cracking photo!

Cheers

Sepoy

I am always glad to help Sepoy. I thought the photos that you posted were very good too.

I enclose a few more via google. Notice how the motorcycle is marked RAF, but the female driver is still wearing her 'Army style' RFC cloth shoulder title. These were later replaced by the title W.R.A.F. and 'Naval style' cloth emblems, which in the case of the RAF was an eagle.

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Sue and Tony

Thank you for your comments regarding sources, which I thought I had covered in my original post, but possibly not very clearly. All four photographs posted by myself are from my personal collection of military photographic postcards and photo albums. I started collecting whilst a school boy in the early 1970s and although a Career, Mortgage and a Marriage has slowed the expansion of my collection to a trickle, I get great pleasure in researching it. Unfortunately, I cannot name any of the women shown - I wish I could.....

Sepoy

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Sepoy

Thanks, but it wasn't your images that I was referring to - they all have the mark of coming from a personal collection. Most (if not all) of the others posted by Frogsmile seem to come from the Imperial War Museum, and while most (if not all) are available for non-commercial use if credited, it does seem odd to be so coy about naming sources, even when a direct question is asked. Knowing sources is one of the best ways for people to seek further information for themselves. Of the last set above, the middle one is IWM Q12260Q, and the bottom one Q12260P.

Sue

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  • 9 years later...

I've just come across this topic and found it very interesting. I'm researching a relative's Aunt Daisy (surname Jones I think) and thanks to your posts have narrowed down the uniform to Women's Royal Air Force. I have a couple of questions - does the fact that she's holding gloves mean that she was a driver or was it standard issue; also are there any specific archives or resources for the WRAF that you know of that I can research? Thanks

Daisy (Jones) WRAF uniform.jpg

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23 hours ago, TimQ said:

I've just come across this topic and found it very interesting. I'm researching a relative's Aunt Daisy (surname Jones I think) and thanks to your posts have narrowed down the uniform to Women's Royal Air Force. I have a couple of questions - does the fact that she's holding gloves mean that she was a driver or was it standard issue; also are there any specific archives or resources for the WRAF that you know of that I can research? Thanks

Daisy (Jones) WRAF uniform.jpg

Knitted woollen gloves were a standard issue, but those made from leather and slightly longer with a gauntlet cuff were specially issued to drivers.

As regards research, have you tried the RAF Museum:  https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/contact-us/default/

The embroidered “I” on the arm meant ‘Immobile’ and thus persons locally employed who could not be posted away from home (indeed they lived at there homes - which was less cost for the War Office and also seen to answer concerns raised about morality and women’s safety if they lived among men).

Photos marked from Imperial War Museum.

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Edited by FROGSMILE
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Thanks for that Frogsmile, they don't look woollen to me.

Daisy has only got a wings badge on her arm, nothing on her shoulder - does that signify anything? Maybe she hadn't been allocated a unit?

I'll have to get back to my cousin and see if he has any more info, perhaps where the photo was taken.

Cheers, Tim

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22 hours ago, TimQ said:

Thanks for that Frogsmile, they don't look woollen to me.

Daisy has only got a wings badge on her arm, nothing on her shoulder - does that signify anything? Maybe she hadn't been allocated a unit?

I'll have to get back to my cousin and see if he has any more info, perhaps where the photo was taken.

Cheers, Tim

Yes she has a drivers leather gloves Tim (you can see the gauntlet extension).  The eagle on its own eventually replaced the WRAF titles** late in 1918. Notice how it’s positioned slightly higher as a result.  It perhaps suggests a photo from just after the war had ended.

**shoulder titles had been an Army thing (RFC) and so to emphasise the RAF’s move into an entirely separated sphere from the Army (and RN) they were discarded. 

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Edited by FROGSMILE
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Thanks again. I've passed on your very useful information and I'll get back to you if I get any more details.

Tim

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21 hours ago, TimQ said:

Thanks again. I've passed on your very useful information and I'll get back to you if I get any more details.

Tim

I’m glad to help Tim.  Here’s another 1918+ photo to compare.  Notice eagle, gauntlets and special hat (a style retained from the RFC).  In 1918 the badges were in off-white as you can see.  They much later changed to pale blue.  As with all the womens services the WRAF were disbanded after the war and had to be reformed for WW2 as the WAAF (the change in title largely because of gender politics).

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Edited by FROGSMILE
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