RAF bosses initially feared women were too gossipy and hysterical for vital military work in World War II, a new book reveals.
Women also had a perceived inability to keep secrets, which meant they were considered unsuitable by the male-dominated intelligence service, according to historian Sarah-Louise Miller.
The misconceptions were so great that the Air Ministry even suggested they should “stock up on handkerchiefs” because they thought women were “just going to burst into tears all the time,” he added.
But in her recently published book The Women Behind The Few, Dr. Miller tells how members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) overcame prejudice and ‘shattered stereotypes’.
The WAAF was formed in June 1939 as war seemed imminent. Its members did not serve in individual female units but as members of the RAF Commandos.
RAF bosses initially feared women were too gossipy and hysterical for vital military work in World War II, a new book reveals (pictured, The Women Behind The Few by Sarah-Louise Miller)
Women also had a perceived inability to keep secrets, which meant they were considered unsuitable by the male-dominated intelligence service, according to historian Sarah-Louise Miller (pictured last year’s Royal Mail stamps paying tribute to men Unsung Heroes of World War II)
Initially the WAAFs filled positions as clerks, kitchen helpers and drivers, in order to free up men for front line duties.
But many later took on roles intercepting codes and ciphers, including at Bletchley Park. Others worked as radar operators and plotters, helping to give the RAF the early warning it needed to deploy fighters to intercept enemy aircraft.
The data collected by the operators was transmitted from radar stations on the coast to Fighter Command to produce easily readable information on approaching enemy aircraft.
This was then sent to the operating room where plotters recorded it on a large gridded map on a table using colored tokens and wooden blocks.
Dr Miller, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford, writes that the British military and intelligence services’ initial distrust of women stemmed from the assumption that they would reveal national secrets by accident, due to their perceived general penchant for gossip. and the “chat”. .
But she says they should never have worried as “WAAF intelligence personnel actually conducted themselves with an impressive level of discretion and secrecy.”
While it was feared that women would reveal secrets through distracted gossip, “it was actually much more common for men to reveal sensitive information through arrogance or conceit.”
Dr. Miller writes that some WAAFS even refused anesthesia when undergoing dental procedures in case they leaked information under its effect.
Many were silent about their work long after the war ended, and their stories remained secret for decades.
The RAF and the Air Ministry believed that women could be “ruled by their emotions”. But Dr. Miller tells how there are numerous accounts of the WAAF “behaving coolly and calmly under pressure”, for example, while serving as radar operators during the Battle of Britain.
It had also been claimed that the women did not have the mental prowess to be conspirators, but in fact they proved to be “much more dexterous and quicker than the men” on paper, he adds.
Dr. Miller said that other key roles the women played included examining the gruesome images of the devastation caused by Allied bombing.
The misconceptions were so great that the Air Ministry even suggested they should ‘stock up on tissues’ because they thought women were ‘just going to burst into tears all the time’, he added (pictured is a recruitment poster for the WAAF in 1940)
They also debriefed the often traumatized bomber crews as they returned from raids, which they were very good at because they were so sensitive.
More than 180,000 women volunteered for the WAAF, the majority between the ages of 18 and 40. They did not serve as aircrew. The use of female pilots was limited to the Air Transport Auxiliary, who was civilian.
WAAF medics, nicknamed the ‘flying nightingales’, flew in RAF transport planes to evacuate the wounded from the Normandy battlefields.
The Women Behind the Few by Sarah-Louise Miller is published by Biteback, priced at £25.