Women in Combat during WW2

British women during the Second World War were often involved in direct combat, and around 700 were killed.
A member of the ATS at an Anti-Aircraft battery.
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During the Second World War, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at its peak consisted of nearly 300,000 women, the majority of whom were conscripted. The author of a bestselling new book of oral history spent lockdown talking to seventeen veterans about their experience. Although restricted from front-line duty, more than 700 women were killed during the war, and here she talks to two, Daphne and Grace, as they describe life at Anti-Aircraft batteries.

Daphne is 98 years old; the war was a long time ago but there are some things you never forget. ‘My mother didn’t want me to go into the ATS, and nor did Reg. He worked with service girls, he said he knew what they were like.’ Reg was Daphne’s boyfriend and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) provided female uniformed support for the British army during World War II. By 1941 it had been rebranded the Auxiliary Tarts Service in popular discourse and was stymied with the worst reputation of the three military services for women. Daphne shakes her head, ‘it was most unfair, we all worked very hard.’ She is fiercely protective of the service she credits with changing her life but retrospectively has some sympathy for Reg’s concern and concedes that ‘perhaps he felt I might meet somebody if I signed up, that he wouldn’t have me to himself anymore. I would no longer be in Feltwell waiting for him.’ From her armchair, Daphne neatly articulates the conundrum that bedevilled military thinking in the first half of the war: what were men fighting for if girls were forced to serve alongside them? The sanctity of home and its fecund promise of plenty and peace was a tantalising prospect for thousands of men living off thin rations in mean barracks. Labour MP Agnes Hardie argued that ‘war is not a woman’s job… women share the bearing and rearing of children and should be exempt from war.

But by 1941 the bald realities of conflict on a giant scale called for a giant rethink. Additional girl power was desperately needed to plug the gaps in Britain’s over-stretched war machine: defeated in Greece, occupied in Crete, pushed back in North Africa, haemorrhaging at sea, blitzed at home and desperately short of supplies. In the face of this grim reality the British Government made an unprecedented decision. Just days before America entered the war, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons on 2nd December 1941 compulsion was needed to draw more girls into the military. It was a significant U-turn from a Prime Minister who had long doubted the wisdom of forcing women to serve, having previously argued that ‘vociferous opposition of men in the Forces’ to the idea of female conscription would cause unrest.

Indicative of the fraught implications of his volte face, Churchill reassured MPs: ‘We do not propose at the present time to extend compulsion to join the Services to any married woman, not even childless married women.’ Initially the National Service (No.2) Act, (the word ‘conscription’ was studiously avoided) was confined to the call up of single women, aged between twenty and thirty. Daphne, emboldened by the new legislation, dumped dear Reg and pushed back against her cautious mother. ‘I was keen to volunteer early to make sure I got the job I wanted.’

It was in Anti-Aircraft Command where the need for ATS girls was most acute. On 25 April 1941, eight months before female conscription was introduced, regulations had been passed permitting the employment of women on operational gun-sites. General Sir Frederick Timothy Pile, the far-seeing head of AA Command, had finally managed to convince a reluctant War Office that employing women on Britain’s vast network of gun-sites was the only way to solve the ‘manpower’ shortage in the country’s first line of defence against the Luftwaffe.

Girls had crossed a military Rubicon and Pile had skilfully negotiated a potential minefield with semantics. Crucially women were not allowed to fire the anti-aircraft guns, a ruling that allowed the War Office to pretend that no real gender threshold had been breached. The general observed ‘there was a good deal of muddled thinking which was prepared to allow women to do anything to kill the enemy except actually pull the trigger.’ But protest there was none. Just like their male counterparts, serving ATS girls were the bedrock of a deeply traditional society; the gentle sex knew their place. Former gun-site radar operator Martha, who is now 99 years old, explains ‘the guns were ridiculously big, and the shells were very heavy. You wouldn’t want to take over that role. There was no need for it.’ Sitting in her armchair one-time Lance Corporal Vera hits a similar note: ‘I think the guns were a manly thing to do, I can’t see a woman going behind big guns like them.’ Like Martha, it did not occur to her to challenge the status quo. ‘It was just a job. I didn’t question it.’

Grace, a private with a Mixed Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery from 1941, sighs. Aged 97 she’s been asked this before.

Look, we never thought about it. I was on the height finder and later in the plotting room underground, with earphones and a mouth piece and we tracked the plane as it moved. We knew we were necessary and that the boys needed us. The girls could not have lifted the shells, we couldn’t have run around with them. The girls wouldn’t have done that.

Granted it may have required two girls to lift a shell, but elsewhere higher female replacement ratios had been promoted as reassuring proof that women were less physically able than men (at the end of 1941 AA Command expected to see the jobs of 15,000 men taken by 18,500 women and acknowledged that ‘in heavier types of work a ratio of even 3:2 was found necessary’). It wasn’t the weight of the shells, but rather the preservation of British girls’ femininity, (and men’s masculinity) that was at the heart of the non-combat rule. Vera is right; as long as women weren’t involved, guns were ‘the manly thing to do’.

The caveat that saw women retain their non-combat status gave Britain’s verbally dexterous Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre when he pushed for female conscription in December 1941. Addressing Parliament Churchill framed women’s new role on gun-sites in the context of ‘great quantities of anti-aircraft equipment coming out of the factories.’ He argued that height finders, predictors and ‘a host of elaborate appliances of a highly delicate and highly secret character’ would do the fighting, not the girls. The press marvelled that ‘modern warfare has not only created a new specialised job for the man behind the gun but has brought the girl behind the gunner’, a ‘mixed regiment being a unit consisting of both sexes.’ Britain recruited girls into anti-aircraft defence two years before Germany, aided and abetted by a Prime Minister who nipped and tucked the realities of operational service. After the 1940-1941 Blitz, gun-sites were less dangerous than they had been, but they weren’t risk free.

Daphne leans in. ‘We were desk mates, good friends.’ She’s talking about her school friend Dorothy Lemmon. ‘I was very impressed that she managed to persuade her parents to let her go into the ATS as quickly as she did. She was only 17 and a half.’ Frederick and Annie Lemmon’s oldest daughter Dorothy was an athletic child, a runner, a jumper, an all-round achiever, perfect material for Britain’s new-look female army. She badgered and bothered until her parents relented and three days after Christmas in 1941 Dorothy started her new military life training at Talavera camp, on the race course at Northampton, to hone her skills as a ‘gunner girl.’

Daphne was awestruck. ‘It wasn’t just that Dorothy got her way with her parents, but also she wanted to work on a gun-site and that is exactly what happened.’ She breezed through Pile’s aptitude tests and was moved onto Anglesey where the great guns roared out to sea and Dorothy simulated action on a height finder with her newly formed unit: 511 MHAA Battery. Soon Private Dorothy was in action defending the underbelly of Manchester against enemy fire and then on to Preston just south of Hull, to shore up the city’s docks against air attack.

‘It was a terrible shock, terrible.’ Daphne stops and puts down her cup and saucer. Dorothy is dead. She died 79 years ago. It was a beautiful summer day when a telegram delivered its fatal blow back in Norfolk. ‘We regret to inform you that your daughter, W/109181 Pte Dorothy Lemmon was killed in action in the early hours of this morning.’ Decades later her younger sister Verna would underscore what that action meant. ‘When the air raid warning went, the girls alongside the men had to be on duty and were exposed to exactly the same dangers as the men, their only protection a few sandbags and a tin hat.’ Dorothy was caught by falling shrapnel and died instantly. Only just 18, in 1942 she wasn’t old enough to vote, but she was old enough to take a hit for King and Country.

Daphne fingers a photograph of her gravestone. ‘She’s been made quite a lot of and her name is the last name to be read out on the Roll of Honour in our local village, Feltwell. She was a girl you see, and it was different for girls.’ Daphne’s right, it was different for girls, as a non-combatant Dorothy couldn’t be awarded a combat medal. But school friend Daphne was undeterred. ‘Oh no, her death didn’t put me off serving. I became a tele-plotter for a searchlight company so I was inside on the switchboard.’


Tessa Dunlop is a historian and broadcaster, and the author of Bletchley Girls and Century Girls. Her latest book is Army Girls: The secrets and stories of military service from the final few women who fought in World War II.